What’s Worse For Atheism: Being Confused For Being Too Much Like Bad Religion, Or Too Little Like Good Religion?

As part of an ongoing dialogue with Greg about the legitimacy of the term “evangelical atheism”, I wrote two posts in which I argued that despite some serious principled differences in methods that we should always stress distinguish us from faith-based proselytizers, some activist atheists should not bother defensively, or with offense, trying to deny charges that they are being broadly “evangelical” in some broad senses of the word, if in fact they actually are.

My argument was that we should instead focus the debate on good vs. bad ways to enthusiastically and confrontationally press the question of people’s religious beliefs in the public square, rather than deny whatever obvious formal similarities exist between us and our faith-based opponents.

Then, exhibiting the Nietzschean, perspectivalist dimension of my views on effective inquiry, I went on to defend zealousness in advancing our atheist, rationalist, tentativeness-championing side of the debate, arguing that such emotional and personally invested engagement had rational benefits that detachment does not always have.  I also explored other ways in which provisional willingness to hold propositions passionately could be part of an effective pursuit of the truth.  Along the way, I also pushed back against Greg’s assertion that by saying atheists had some “evangelical” traits I was somehow implying our philosophical positions or methods of inquiry were as flimsy and faith-based as our fideistic opponents’ (something I’ve never said anywhere).

Essentially replying to both of these posts at once, Greg offered the following rejoinder (occasionally quoting me, as will be indicated by the blockquotes within blockquotes).  Starting just a couple lines into his reply:

Dan then proceeds to offer examples of religious words being applied to non-religious examples. Fair enough. He has some examples. I have some examples to the contrary. What this would seem to suggest is that the word’s meaning is in the process of being negotiated. Dan embraces religious words and applies them to himself. I do not. I suspect there is content to these words that influences the discussion (against us) and I suspect the use of these words is an attempt to confuse careful distinctions we need to make.

Nowhere have I ever said anywhere on this blog that this is a matter of just “equal and competing ideologies”.

Perhaps – I have not read every entry (of course, you haven’t read all I’ve written either. Otherwise, your straw man from earlier would not have happened), However, I think Dan, myself, and the reader will be aware that this claim is used, even if without the word ideology by the religious on a regular basis.

The attempt is to suggest that, given an environment of epistemic nihilism (or thoroughgoing skepticism, if you like) that all options are equally substantiated and thus equally valid. with nothing to choose between them. The religious person will then imply that they are then justified in affirming/choosing their dogma by means of a contrived mental/emotional function they call faith. Now, what faith really represents, it seems to me, is the distinction between an affirmation and a positing, a justification (albeit a poor one) for affirming truths instead of tentatively positing. I suspect this is the ultimate source of the, “well you can’t prove me wrong” conceit. Essentially, this attempts to turn all discussions about epistemology into “it’s my word against yours” disputes, with the faithful having a trump card (faith) that those not afflicted wth faith, and actually taking the matter seriously, are too honest to play. This puts the faithless at a seeming, albeit only illusory, disadvantage. Nevertheless, it is an illusory disadvantage that is persuasive.

I bring this up because it is an argument I am attempting to answer, and because whether Dan does or does not claim that “this is just ‘equal and competing ideologies,’” the religious often do in argument, with the intent of confusing matters by dropping the convesration into a epistemically nihilistic hole and then offering faith as a means of escape. This argument, despite its errors, is nevertheless persuasive/influential because most are terrified of the abyss (a colloquial way of saying people are unwilling to confront much less embrace uncertainty/not knowing/fallibility). Even the much-discussed Nietzsche blinked…

And this is where the use of the word “evangelizing” comes into play. When we speak of evangelicals we think of religious persons and with respect to religious content. Now, by “religious content” I do not (just) mean the symbolic cannibalism of christianity or the Mecca-centricity of islam or the “we are the chosen” mentality of judaism. I mean the approach to matters epistemological. To call the atheist or skeptic “evangelical” is to imply that the atheist/skeptic is playing the same epistemic game of affirming without substantiation that the thiest/dogmatist is – making unsubstantiated, indeed unsubstantiatable, truth claims. I put it to you that we are not (at least not in better thought out cases) doing this. I put it to you that the use of the word “evangelical” is an attempt to frame the conversation within a realm that we then have to go to great pains to fight our way out of to get to the real point. When an atheist adopts the weaker version of “evangelical,” applying it as if mere passion of advocacy is all that is being referred to, we are allowing the theist/dogmatist to frame and control the context of the discussion in a way that is stacked against us. We then find ourselves attempting to assert truth claims, and we lose by default.

Rather than just getting roped into their quagmire of “yours is an expression of faith, too” drivel, I offer another way. That other way is the recognition that we are tentatively positing, rather than affirming. I recommend that we adopt tentative positing as our engine of exploration, I recommend that we adopt a mentality of tentative positing in order to allow room for growth and change, and I recommend that we talk the talk (as well as walk the walk) of tentative positing as well. That means stepping outside the context designed so that we lose the rhetorical fray. Now, this is not a trivial or semantic distinction – it is a distinction of basic mindset with respect to knowledge, certainty and how we approach our inquiries, be they empirical or metaphysical. The religious make wild claims about Truth and knowledge and certainty and they do so with a persona of absolute confidence. We have been trained to think this is a rhetorical strength and people are actually moved by it, so we try to do the same thing – decimating our own position in the process and playing a game stacked against us.

In a way Dan and I are disagreeing to agree. He seems, at times (correct me if I’m wrong) to be sharing similar epistemic views to mine (or vice versa) on a sub-rhetorical level. We seem to be parting company when it comes to rhetoric. Now, that doesn’t mean we are merely disagreeing on semantics. While it is true that we humans stipulate stiulations at will, the stipulations are also how we understand things. Now, the language is under constant negotiation and that includes our stipulations.

Dan approaches the word “evangelize” entirely from the perspective of enthusiasm. I approach it from a content basis. We have both presented natural language examples in support of our differing approaches. Which is right? Well, neither, of course. They are stipulations. However, we can ask which is useful for a given purpose and get a coherent answer. Just as distinctions between terms leads to precision in other inquiries, so too it can here. To treat evangelism as mere passion allows faith-promoters to control the rhetorical battlefield and obfuscates the critical difference between affirming as true and positing tentatively. To treat the content as interesting, as I do, is to promote further inquiry (what about the content is different?) and defence against the theistic claim that atheism is just another faith, which most of us recongize as the mere rhetorical ploy it is. I put it to you that Dan is playing the faith-purveyor’s rhetorical game and is destined to lose becasue of that. Worse, he is, perhaps unknowingly, presenting passionate presentation as valid argument (or at least legitimate rhetoric).

So, when looking at this discussion between Dan and I, I think we have to ask ourselves a question and ask it seriously. Is there a difference between an athiest and a theist? Is there a difference between someone who argues from faith and someone who doesn’t? Or is it just a matter of louder and louder talking heads? If there is a difference, what is it? I offer a difference – the difference between a mindset of tentative positings and the mindset of faithful affirmation. I answer the claim that skepticism and science is just another faith.

For some folks, recognizing the potential for fallibility is something you do only when driven into a corner and pressured. For me, it is up front and open. My language reflects that.

I just think conversations about the word “evangelical” are easier if we do not pointlessly try to restrict an understandable analogy or deny that at least part of our goal mirrors our enemies’ (we, like they, do want to confront people about their fundamental beliefs—an endeavor which many people automatically assume must be impolite). I think the conversations would be better spent articulating how our approach and our views vindicate our adoption of the goal and how our methods of pursuing it and their approaches and their views do not.

I hope the reader will see from what I wrote above that I do not see the distinction as pointless. And I would hope, given something Dan writes in another post about (to paraphrase) “adopting a position to test it out” that he would be willing to hold (tentatively) the possibility that it might not be pointless. The difficulty with Dan’s paragraph here is that he is assuming a context of inquiry and honest consideration of alternative views. Interestingly enough, it is my view (of tentative positings rather that faithful affirmations) that promotes the context that Dan seeks to exploit, while Dan’s view results in endles arrays of screaming heads, all trying to be more fervent than the other. Before we can learn we must have a context in which we can learn, don’tcha think?

If you can find ANYWHERE on this blog that I have said that we atheists “just have faith” too, I’ll have to hunt down whoever stole my password and started posting under my name!

My point is NOT, a thousand times NOT, that in terms of how we form beliefs it is the same thing as our opponents. I have qualified over and over and over again that what I want to distinguish is that the only way an “evangelical” atheist is like an evangelical religious believer is in terms of matters like enthusiasm, in terms of willingness to make matters most of America considers too private for public consumption a matter of public confrontation, a willingness to organize people into productive ethical communities around their common views about religious matters.

And from the first post on this topic and in seemingly everything I write I always always always am at great pains to distinguish that what separates the rationalist from the irrationalist is the stance on faith. I have never equivocated for a second on this point and so it is just a distortion for you to tar me as saying anything remotely like that.

Did I say that passion was itself a valid argument? No, I did not. What I said was that passion is not the enemy of reason insofar as it focuses the mind and gives it access to various aspects of the things otherwise inaccessible. But, entirely contrary to faith-based reasoning, I explained numerous ways in which properly passionate thinking and arguing corrects against prejudice, and that is by deliberately alternating one’s perspectives to try to see and feel what things are like from outside of any given passion.

This is not a point about valid argumentation. Ultimately, propositions are true or false, regardless of how we feel about them and propositions have both logical relationships to each other and have grounding in the real world (or not) and these are the ultimately decisive things with respect to validity and soundness of arguments.

What I am talking about is how real live human beings can themselves investigate things most sensitively and how arguments can sometimes advance through paying sensitive attention to all parts of reality. I gave examples of how this imaginative kind of reasoning works and how it enhances our goal of avoiding prejudice, not by feeling things from no side whatsoever, but by being able to feel things from all sides and assess what comes to light from all those various perspectives having seen through them all thoroughly, understood them in their best and worst, most and least illuminating vantage points on the world.

In light of that, we can have a stronger sense of how propositions relate to the world, whether they are true or false, having investigated them from as many possibly insightful angles as possible, so that we may then logically assess them with a surer sense of their truth as premises.

Most of the rest of what you have to say is debate over strategy, which is fine. I am not an evangelist and I have not owned that word, even though I have said that if people want to call me evangelical about my atheism, I am not going to waste the effort fighting that. That statement is not formally identical to saying I am a faith-based thinker. And, seriously, read the dozens of installments of my “Disambiguating Faith” series (all available on the left hand side of the website) or just search the site for the word Faith and you will see I do not give a quarter to faith (except for one special sense of the word that has nothing to do with religion at all).

I DO think that there are other things people call “religious” or “spiritual” that could possibly be salvaged from faith-based/authoritarian/traditionalistic/regressive/superstitious belief-structures and practices and my goal is to separate out those things and admit their genuine value and try to constructively think about how to meet people’s cravings for these things in ways that have nothing to do with all the abusive, irrationalistic stuff that goes with faith, authoritarian beliefs and morals, traditionalism, regressivism, and superstition.

Your primary worry is that if we adopt or are tarred with any connotations associated with the religious we’ll be dragged down to being thought of as no different than they are in the most important senses in which we absolutely need to distinguish ourselves.

But my primary worry is that if we do not stop trying to disassociate ourselves with whatever might ever possibly confused with the religious or spiritual, we will be misconstrued as abandoning many things that are good and which have been exploited by faith and superstition rather than put to the service of truthful, rationalistic, empirical approaches to life and knowledge.  We will reinforce the impression in the public mind that we cannot offer those things because they are incompatible with our cold rationalism and so we can only address part of life and human psychology and not all this other stuff that people find really, really valuable.

I see the charge that we “have faith too” as a last ditch projection on their part that they few people genuinely believe in any enduring way.  It’s an “I know you are but what am I” attack.  I don’t think it sticks when we are simultaneously getting accused of being too cold-bloodedly rational.  That’s what people really understand and that’s why their more persistent and fundamental objection to us is that we are elitists trying to rob the poor masses of their precious, life-sustaining superstitions.

And I think the charge that really does stick to us (whether or not it has any basis in fact) is that we are insufficiently attuned to questions of value or meaning or that we offer nothing positive and constructive to meet human needs for these things, for rituals, for community, etc.  (Amazingly, the rotten, counter-productive job authoritarian religions do at meeting these needs is not held against them since they at least publicize so well their intentions to do them!)

So, my concern is this: to make clear that what I am against is faith (defined clearly as belief against preponderance of counter-evidence or on insufficient evidence), superstition, emotional manipulation, closed-mindedness, traditionalism, regressiveness, and authoritarianism of thought, practice, and institution.

Those are my targets. Insofar as the existing religions are steeped in these awful things, I vituperatively attack them. But when it comes to any other things associated with religion, if they can be disentangled from their associations with those things then I am interested in proving we can have secular forms of them that can retain what people find genuine value in. There are many good things improperly thought to be the proper provenance of the existing institutional religions and I think we should fight against that just as much as we should distinguish that we are not faith-based believers.

I have no problem with your adamant desire not to be tarred as “just as faith-based” as the religious are. But I don’t want to be tarred as inherently less spiritually deep than the religious are because that redounds to our disadvantage just as much (and it is, or should be, false).

So, to me, the issue is saying, “here is a truth-conducive way to utilize your passions most effectively in reasoning (since you are not a robot) and here is the way not to utilize your passions in reasoning (in a faith-based way)”. And “here is the way best to engage in public debate about fundamental identity-forming beliefs and values and here is the wrong way to do it”. The words “tentative” and “zealous” and “evangelical” are not the point. It is how properly to be tentative, how properly to be zealous, how properly to be “evangelical” that interests me.

You may be right that I will be misunderstood. My hope instead is to take away from our enemies the ability to put us on a needlessly defensive back foot by calling us something others will think makes sense. I don’t want to fight over the words, but the methods. Now, in other areas, I agree with you. I cringe when Dawkins or other prominent atheists admit to having a kind of “faith” but try and define it as not the bad kind. I want to carefully distinguish faith beliefs from rationally proportioned beliefs and hold the line on the language there. That’s the real fight to me, not whether or not I am temperamentally “evangelical” in some flexible sense of the word.

Finally, Greg ended his post by quoting without permission from a private message I sent to him and drawing implications I certainly did not intend:

However, I must say that I found something Dan wrote in a PM to me distressing, and it actually accounts for my delay in responding:

I am reiterating a point I already made but which you don’t seem to be grasping so I may not reply again if you do not acknowledge the distinctions but send us down the same rabbit hole.

I must admit, this took me aback. Did a philosopher just say that? So, if I don’t accept his point (whatever it may be) Dan will end the discussion. That’s an … unfortunate … stance. I may have just written a lot of words to no effect, but at least I didn’t threaten to end the conversation because Dan disagrees with me…

I am not sure what “rabbit hole” he is referring to, but I guess I don’t really need to. What matters is the threat.

Because, you know, screaming from soapboxes *is* ending conversation…

This whole notion that my position on zealousness amounts to advocating “screaming from soapboxes” is such an absurd strawman of my position that just ignores numerous careful distinctions in my previous post and disregards all the nearly equal platform I have given Greg on my own blog, in the body of blog posts. As a representation of either my theory or my practice it is flat out unfair and false.

But as to the other charge of behavior unbecoming a philosopher, I do feel pressed to defend myself. Professional philosophers pick battles that they either think has value for their own thinking or for some educative purposes. While if you and I were merely discussing as friends, I might have an easy openness to an interminable, redundant discussion, I was talking to you about the prospects of continuing our debate on my blog. I carry out unusually long running dialectics with particular commentators on my blog.

I am as open to prominently highlighting and seriously engaging my commentators’ thoughts as any blogger I know of outside of Andrew Sullivan.  Doing things this way risks me losing readers who feel like they’re coming in on the middle of a conversation and get disoriented, but I love doing this because I think best in conversation, not in monologue. And I am sharpened by the endless challenges of my many provocative interlocutors who I am daily grateful give their time and energy to offering their thoughts on my blog.

But in this context, I have some limits. I cannot adequately address everybody who comments on the blog and who writes me in private–not while also fulfilling my three jobs teaching six sections of philosophy across three schools in three states. I am engaged in philosophical debate day and night. I do not stifle any conversation from fear of challenge or refusal to come to deeper understanding.

But, I have to choose what to post about and when comments do not advance discussions by adequately addressing distinctions I have made (either by acknowledging or refuting them or properly accounting for them in the next challenge), then it becomes less worth the precious little available time I have to make a substantive post or two per day.

I have given plenty of vent to your thoughts and as long as you continue to provide worthy stimulation, I will continue to do so. I apologize for badly wording a warning that I might move on from our particular discussion if I was not finding it fruitful anymore such that it was misconstrued as a sign of refusal to continue to talk to you simply for disagreeing with me. Seriously, I am not so petty.

Again, the record should make that clear. But I do move on from disputes where I feel like we are both just spinning our wheels. I move on when distinctions I make are not being accounted for (whether in refutations or modifications of positions, etc.) and that is becoming a stumbling block to any further ability to persuade me. And on my blog, I move on when to reply to someone again may just mean repeating myself and boring my readers.

I expect that we have probably explored the major sides of this topic of “evangelical atheists” enough for now that for the sake of avoiding redundancy for readers, I will confine future replies to you on this topic to the comments section of this or the earlier posts unless a distinct point that deserves its own post becomes central.

Your Thoughts?

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  • P.A.H

    sometimes I wonder, if some people think that atheism is an -ism of arguing with insane religious people. to me there is no point in trying to talk sense to senseless people. they just defend their insanity. they can not be reasoned out of it, cause it’s not a matter of reason. if(and when) they could be reasoned with, they would discard religion independently. you seem to think there is us(atheist) and them(religious). I think this is partly false. there is no us. atheism is not an religion, nationality or an ideology. I dont think it’s even a philosophy. it is just how brains normally work by default. it’s free to experience and explore this existence without restraints. it means you can not be satisfied to just believe in some religion, god(or any belief system). you want to find out the truth and understand it, so the uncertainty and dissonance of religion would gnaw off your sanity. atheist are just free thinking people. it’s stupid that you have to call people atheist. I think “we” should not get our identity from an external collective source, like religious people do. ’cause groups cause pretence and stupidity. because I already am me and the atheism was built-in. I can not define my self as an atheist. it is just a minuscule part of my normal behaviour. it’s not my identity. there is a lot more to myself.