Six Temptations Atheists Must Avoid

One of my mantras is that it is more important to me that we atheists live, think, and debate as rationalists and truly model rationalism (rather than tribalism), in our attacks on religion rather than that we deconvert people by any means necessary. If we make everyone atheists but those atheists are comparably irrationalistic and thuggish as the worst religious people are, then we have not gained a whole lot.

There at least five general temptations that atheists need to conscientiously avoid. They are the following:

1. We atheists need to remind ourselves that figuring out that the interventionist gods of the major religions are false is a fairly easy intellectual discovery. We are not geniuses or especially smarter than the average religious believer simply on account of our ability to figure this out. We have just, for whatever combination of reasons, either assiduously avoided or managed to escape the emotional, social, and identity entanglements that cloud the minds of otherwise smart religious people. We need to recognize it is just stupid to call religious people stupid just because their ideas are ridiculous. We need to remember all we know about psychology and take it into account when thinking about religious people’s errors.

2. We atheists need to remind ourselves deliberately that even as we may be extremely frustrated with both the serious intellectual vices and poor moral judgments that religions actively inculcate and celebrate in believers, nonetheless religious people can have a number of moral virtues and life-enriching practices that are no less estimable for taking religious forms of expression. It is for this reason that I encourage us to take the effort to see and love the good virtues that are in religious people, even as they wear off-putting religious disguises. We need to take deliberate steps to humanize rather than demonize religious people in our hearts, by frequently reminding ourselves that often the hurtful things they do are done without mean-spirited hearts. In general, we should go so far as to train ourselves to actually love religious people in order to most ethically, fairly, and constructively be the vocally unabashed and intellectually uncompromising critics and challengers they sorely need.

3. We atheists need to hold ourselves to high ethical standards, independently of whether they are effective. Monday Natalie Reed wrote a great post denouncing the ways that religious proselytizers seek out vulnerable people like sharks going after blood in water. In reply, a closed minded Christian friend of one of my openminded Christian friends on Facebook dismissed Natalie’s honest and tempered critiques by saying “It seems like the person who wrote the article is going to find fault in Christians no matter what they do.” To which I sarcastically responded, “Phew, so I guess that means you can just ignore her feelings and get on with trying to manipulate her.” It would not matter even if Natalie were impossible to please by religious people, her complaints about emotionally exploitative attitudes should be taken seriously on their own merits since direct emotional targeting of the vulnerable for their vulnerability is despicable.

Similarly in the case of atheists receiving criticism from theists: it does not matter if we think our opponents are over-sensitive, we need to be properly sensitive. Saying, as many atheists do, “they’ll be offended no matter what we say” is not an excuse to say things they have a genuine moral right to be offended by. We should challenge their erroneous conceptions of what they have a moral right to be offended by rather than just take license to be indiscriminately obnoxious to them since they won’t give us credit even when we are being civil or take our rational objections seriously even when they are meticulously politely worded.

There are times and ways, constructively and without personal bullying or manipulative pressure, to use irreverence to break the spell of religious reverence, to blaspheme, and to ridicule patently illogical beliefs in ways that effectively make religious absurdities, fallacious reasoning, and cognitive dissonances unavoidable for believers to face. We can do all of this without being assholes if we remain conscientiously concerned about others’ actual good.

4. We atheists should hold ourselves to higher intellectual standards and avoid closed minded partisanship and anti-philosophical scientistic backlash to religious abuses of free speculation. Unfortunately many atheists’ primary exposure to a good number of philosophical questions and categories comes through religious apologists who use them in dubious ways. I can understand this leading to a suspicion that philosophy is just the lipstick on the pig of theology. But it’s not.

Atheists should rightly wave away with intellectual contempt completely superstitious beliefs in invisible super-persons who meddle unseen in human affairs and all other comparable magic. But it is hasty over-confidence to then go wave away all philosophical questions that are not solvable (either yet or ever) with scientific methods as though they were transparent nonsense. Sometimes religious believers raise important epistemological, metaphysical, and metaethical concerns.

However contorted their reasoning for their positions on such issues may be, the questions themselves that they raise sometimes need to be respected as serious and not just laughed off as beneath refutation or consideration. Philosophical questions notoriously, in many cases, admit of no answers that have universal consensus but that does not mean ignoring them makes them go away or makes our thinking any clearer. Our answers to philosophical questions, imprecise and endlessly debatable as they may be, quite often do have serious implications for the rest of our thinking and so require that we think as carefully as possible, rather than as dismissively as possible, about them.

Even where philosophical questions are remote enough from life to not be immediately relevant, lovers of truth should be open to speculation. The vice of religious people is not that they engage in theoretical speculation. It’s that they believe highly unlikely things with willful prejudice and with intense life commitment. We can do better. We can speculate and hold our speculative beliefs proportionally to the philosophical and scientific evidence they have. When atheists intellectually intemperately eschew all philosophy, I often hear a troubling absolutist’s obsession with certainty and fear of uncertainty.

True commitment to reason embraces rational uncertainty without frustratedly storming off. Atheists confronted with an actually difficult metaphysical, epistemological, or metaethical question posed by a believer may be tempted to try to invalidate the entire question as a means of avoiding having to admit the slightest incompleteness to the case for their atheism. That’s intellectual and moral cowardice. We should be above it.

Our goal should not be beating religious believers at all costs. This means not denying the validity of questions just because they do not have conclusive enough answers for us to have unambiguous enough victory over believers. This even means trying to make and defeat better cases for theistic or pro-religion positions than religious people do.

5. When we atheists think our fellow atheists are failing in any or all of the above respects, we should not draw a false equivalence and lazily accuse them of being “as bad as the religious” when they really usually are not. Atheists are grouping together. That’s a good thing. Inevitably, all groups have temptations to tribalism. But if we are to give emotional and intellectual support to people who reject all the social and emotional lures of religious delusions and promises of community, then we need to band together and it’s a good thing that atheists band together. The good does not mean we should not vigilantly protect against tribalism, but it also means we should not destroy the potential for constructive community out of an obsession with the reputation purity that is only possible when one never commits to other people or to causes larger than oneself.

Atheists are people too and the movement towards creating an atheist identity and resources for atheists—especially for the closeted ones in oppressively religious families, communities and workplaces and for the traumatized new apostates painfully alienated from their prior worldviews and communities—is a vitally good thing.

Atheists who turn their back on other atheists lest they be associated with the perceived vulgarities of the mob are as smug and counter-productive to making an intellectually and morally strong atheism as they accuse the New Atheists of being.

You don’t like some aspects of the New Atheists or the community of movement atheists? Okay, then you speak out against religion in better ways and you provide constructive support for your fellow atheists in better ways. And then we can dialogue believing you criticize atheists in good faith and not as a concern troll. Embrace the “A” word and your fellow atheists. Demonstrate your palpable interest in rationalism and in secular alternatives to religion flourishing rather than attack atheists while blithely excusing (or failing to equally criticize) religious privileges, falsehoods, and moral harms.

6. Finally, atheists should not go so far in trying to distinguish atheism from faith-based, authoritarian, patriarchal, supernaturalistic religion that we fail to take seriously the value of numerous psychological and social mechanisms for providing people with communities that help them integrate their values, their desire for philosophical coherence, their “spiritual” sides, and their psycho-social emotional needs. I have in the past done a lot of work to explore the potential pros and cons of conscientiously reclaiming and adapting traditionally religious mechanisms for meeting these needs. (However this ought to be done, it’s not by following too closely the sloppy and regressive recommendations and attitudes of Alain de Botton.)

I felt it necessary to reiterate all these thoughts as a background for my next post(s). My next post will answer some of the more prima facie salient objections to my recent defense of Dawkins (which received favorable feedback and a further formulation of his position from Dawkins himself). Having reiterated above my explicit stances against atheistic bullying of believers and overestimation of ourselves, I will explain why Dawkins’s admonitions to atheists do not constitute calls to bullying or anything else that is antithetical to the ideals I’ve laid out above.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.