Among the charges often leveled at atheism is that it is an arrogant position – not just that some atheists are arrogant, but that atheism itself is inherently arrogant, either in that it necessarily inspires in its adherents a sense of contemptuous, haughty pride, or vice versa, that only excessively proud people become atheists.
Of course, even if this was correct, it would not in any way affect the likelihood that atheism is true. Those who make this ad hominem argument apparently seek to drive people away from atheism by inspiring in their minds a visceral dislike of those who practice it, regardless of what position the facts support. However, it is unsatisfying simply to point out that this is a fallacy. As an atheist, I would like to go further and argue that this charge is false – that atheism is not arrogant. To defend this position is the purpose of this essay. Listed below are some of the reasons I believe a theist might give for why they feel that atheism is arrogant, along with my response to each of them.
- Atheism is arrogant because it puts the self at the center of the universe.
- Atheism is arrogant because it will not accept the possibility of a higher power.
These first two claims are, in my experience, the most commonly cited reasons for why atheism is arrogant. Since they are very similar, I will address them together. Proponents of these claims say that atheism recognizes nothing higher than the self, staunchly denying even the possibility of God in order that its adherents may continue in their unfettered pride without having to submit to a higher authority, which is a thought intolerable for them. Here is my reply to these charges:
As an atheist, I know that I am but one person, one voice, one vote in a democratic society of millions, one citizen in a rapidly growing global community – one inhabitant of one city of one nation out of many, one minuscule part of a worldwide civilization that is barely a few thousand years old, which is but one species out of millions in an intricate and interconnected biosphere, living like a thin film on the surface of a planet that is billions of years old. And that planet is itself just one small blue globe, one world among many in its solar system, orbiting a small yellow sun that is but one star in a galaxy of a hundred billion stars, itself only one galaxy in an inconceivably vast and ancient universe of a hundred billion galaxies or more, dominated by forces and events on a scale beyond anything the human mind can envision; and this entire immense, imagination-defeatingly enormous cosmos may itself be only a blip in the infinite, an island within a higher-dimensional reality, like a bubble arising in foam or a raindrop coalescing from mist, and on the time scale of this supercosmos, just as fleeting.
Does atheism put the self at the center of the universe? Does atheism teach that there is nothing higher or greater than us? On the contrary, in conjunction with the facts of science, atheism shows clearly that we have ample reason to be humble – that we are all part of, and subject to, something far enormously greater than ourselves. And this conclusion holds both at the human scale and at the cosmic scale.
- Atheism is arrogant because it claims to know what no one can possibly know, namely that there is no god.
Proponents of this next argument often claim that it would be necessary to search every inch of the universe to know for certain that God, or any other entity, did not exist. But consider: It is not necessary to search the entire universe to know that impossible objects – that is, those that are defined with self-contradictory properties, such as round squares or married bachelors – do not exist. The non-existence of these objects can be deduced through reason alone. Some atheists claim that God falls into this category as well, advancing what are known as incompatible-properties arguments, and I agree that there is considerable merit in these, at least as applied to the omnipotent, omniscient, maximally benevolent god of traditional monotheism. The logical argument from evil, to name the best-known example, would seem to rule out the existence of any such being.
This conclusion can be supplemented with additional facts. If a claim is such that we would expect certain evidence to exist if it is true, and that evidence is not observed despite a search that should turn it up if it exists, then it is likely that that claim is false. For example, if someone claims that there is an escaped circus elephant charging down the street outside my house, I do not need to search the entire universe to know for certain that there is no such elephant. All I need to do is glance out my window and notice that I do not observe any such thing. Similarly, if someone claims that there is an entity that has the power to end all human suffering instantaneously and desires to do so above all else, it is not necessary to search the distant galaxies to disprove their claim; the continued existence of human suffering alone demonstrates that no such being exists. And likewise, many atheists would claim, if a god as described by one or more major religions existed, we would expect there to be convincing evidence of that; but since no such evidence is observed, it is more likely that there is no such being.
Of course, neither of these categories of argument rule out the existence of anything that might conceivably be called a god. But the only reason one would need to search the entire universe would be to rule out the existence of a god that had no interest in humans – one that was not aware of us, or one that does not desire to communicate with us and has never revealed itself to us. But this is probably not the god believed in by those who call atheists arrogant, and no atheist I know has ever claimed to have conclusive disproof of such a being. A personal god, a god that has had a noticeable effect on human history, is also a god that would have left evidence of its existence, and it is such a god that atheists see no convincing reason to believe in. It is not arrogant to withhold belief in a proposition, to declare it provisionally false, in the absence of convincing evidence that that proposition is true.
- Atheism is arrogant because it shows ingratitude in denying everything that God has done for human beings.
This argument is circular because it assumes the very point that is in question: it is only ungrateful to deny God the credit if God actually exists, and atheists genuinely do not believe this. Our actions are not motivated by some perverse sense of deliberate ingratitude, but by sincere conviction that there is no good evidence to demonstrate the existence of any being that needs to be thanked.
Imagine if you were walking with a friend and found a twenty-dollar bill lying in the street, and when you picked it up and put it in your wallet, your friend started berating you for your ingratitude, not thanking the person who put it there for you to find. Would it be arrogant to doubt that there was anyone who needed to be thanked? On the contrary – before any charge of ingratitude could reasonably be sustained, your friend would first have to explain how he knew the money was deliberately left there for you. If he could not explain how he knew this, it would be at least as reasonable to conclude that your finding was the result of good fortune and did not obligate you to express gratitude to anyone.
- Atheism is arrogant because it assumes it knows better than God what is good for human beings.
This argument might have a point if God, in the present day, was regularly manifesting himself to people and explaining to them what he wanted them to do. However, God is not doing this. In fact, no such entity is revealing its will to us at all, at least not in any objectively verifiable fashion. Instead, the only ones who go around telling others what the divine will is are human beings. There is no shortage of people ready to proclaim that they know what God expects from us, but God himself, if there is such a being, has remained noticeably silent on the matter.
Worse, the people who claim to know God’s will do not all agree (see “The Cosmic Shell Game“). The world is a morass of conflicting religions, each making incompatible claims regarding how its deity does or does not want us to live our lives, but an authoritative pronouncement on the matter from the one being that would have any right to issue one does not exist. Without clear guidance (after all, what evidence could possibly confirm that a book was a divine revelation, other than another revelation?), there is no compelling reason to choose any one of these religions over any other, or even to believe that any of them have it right. And in that case, it is perfectly rational to disbelieve God’s self-appointed spokesmen when they tell us how we should live. It is not arrogant to assume that we, as human beings, have just as much insight into the human condition as any other human beings.
- Atheism is arrogant because it wants to live apart from God.
Similar to the last two points, this argument holds that atheism springs from an arrogant desire for human independence, a desire to live without controlling authority or guidance. However, such a description could not be farther from the truth. Though I have known many atheists, I have never once met one who wanted to live free of all moral restraint or “do his own thing” without any input from others. Just like everyone else, atheists recognize that there will always be those who are more intelligent than they, and are grateful to the wisdom of the teachers and mentors who guided them through life in the past and continue to do so. Just like everyone else, atheists recognize that rules of social conduct are necessary to create and sustain an orderly and harmonious society. We are fully aware of the necessity of accepting guidance and submitting to authority; we merely see no evidence for the existence of a being called God that has any part to play in this process. Again, atheists are not motivated by perverse or selfish desire to reject the authority of a god whose existence they are fully aware of – rather, atheists are motivated by honestly held conviction that there is no good evidence for the existence of such an authority, and so it is up to us to figure out how to live together.
Now, some atheists (especially those who identify themselves as humanists) do feel that the human species as a whole has achieved some marvelous things of which it rightly deserves to be proud. Of course, there are many more things which we do not know or have not yet achieved, so we should always keep in mind that this pride should be mixed with an equal measure of humility. However, that does not detract from the accomplishments we have successfully brought about, in most cases only after enormous difficulty. It is not arrogant to take pride in a job well done, and if it seems so, it is only in comparison with certain traditions of theism that demand we abase ourselves and insist the best we can do is worthless and as filthy rags in God’s sight. Humanists believe that the human species, while far from perfect, is not nearly as bad as that.
- Atheism is arrogant because it is disrespectful to the enormous number of people throughout history who have been theists.
Under this proposal, anyone who believes in any religion is being arrogant and disrespectful to all those who believe differently. Different religions, by definition, are incompatible; to believe in any one is to negate many of the key beliefs of all other faiths. The only proposition which all religious believers have in common is the extremely vague and general one, “A god or gods, in some form, exist.” Atheism merely goes one step further in rejecting this proposition as well. If one believer’s rejection of all the other tenets of another believer’s faith is not arrogant, how can this one additional proposition make all the difference?
- Atheism is arrogant because its adherents claim to be smarter, more rational, or more open-minded than believers.
To start with, one fact must be acknowledged. It may certainly be the case that some individual atheists are arrogant, but I am not defending them, and it is not the purpose of this article to address that. However, showing that some atheists are arrogant does not establish that atheism itself is an inherently arrogant position, just as the fact that some theists are arrogant does not make theism itself arrogant.
Atheism and theism are mutually exclusive options; either atheism is correct and theism is incorrect, or theism is correct and atheism is incorrect. They cannot both be true, and I do believe theists are in error, honestly so but in error nonetheless. I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to warrant belief in any god, and for each of the gods postulated by current religions, I consider it more probable that that god does not exist than that it does. I do not view this position as arrogant, for the simple reason that it is not arrogant to argue that you are correct and someone else is incorrect. If it was, then theists would be just as arrogant as atheists, and for the very same reason. It is not disrespectful to someone else to differ with them; that line is only crossed when a person asserts that his perceived correctness renders him a superior person in general. And again, while there may be some atheists who feel this way, I do not condone their behavior. Rudeness and uncivil behavior serve no purpose in this debate.
- Atheism is arrogant because it denies the necessity of faith, which is a universal and indispensable part of being human.
Before this charge can be sustained, those who advance it must first define their terms. What exactly is meant by “faith” here? There are many possible definitions of that term that no reasonable atheist would dispute.
For example, if faith is defined as trust in fellow human beings and facts of the natural world that have shown themselves to be true and reliable many times in the past, then atheists do not deny the necessity of faith. If faith is defined as accepting some propositions as probably true even though they cannot be proven absolutely, then atheists do not deny the necessity of faith. If faith is defined as using past experience to guide future decisions even though we cannot know that it will be a reliable guide, then atheists do not deny the necessity of faith.
On the other hand, if faith is defined as belief in the truth of a proposition about the external world in the absence of sound evidence supporting that proposition, then atheists deny the necessity of faith. If faith is defined as trusting that some human beings know what they are talking about when they speak on matters that no human being can possibly know about, then atheists deny the necessity of faith. If faith is defined as accepting assertions merely because they are old, because most other people accept them, or because prominent authority figures make them, then atheists deny the necessity of faith. If faith is defined as keeping quiet, going along with the majority, and not causing a disturbance by voicing opinions that others find objectionable, then atheists most definitely deny the necessity of faith. I see no need to apologize for this. Faith in the three senses listed above is an inherent and indispensable part of being human; faith in these four senses is not. Furthermore, history has taught us the destructive and terrible effects that faith in these four senses can have and has had. Atheists do not deny, but affirm, the vital and important aspects of being human; we simply do not believe religious faith is one of them.
In summary, the charge that atheism is arrogant turns out to be unsustainable. However, as happens so frequently in these matters, this attack can with greater justification be turned back on the ones who make it. Ironically, one could make a considerably stronger case that theism is actually the more arrogant and prideful position.
Before developing this claim any further, I must stress that I am fully aware that humility is among the virtues taught by the sacred texts of most of today’s major religions. I know, both personally and in general, many religious believers who are not at all arrogant or prideful people. I am not claiming that all theists are arrogant or that theism in general is inherently arrogant, as some have said about atheism. However, some theists definitely are arrogant, and for those, I offer what I see as reasons why they may feel this way.
For example, central to many varieties of theism active in the world today is what I call the “universe made just for me” theology – the anthropocentric belief that human beings stand at the apex of creation, and are not only the most important thing in the universe, but the very reason it was created at all. Theists who hold this belief believe the Earth to be “God’s footstool” (as Matthew 5:34-35 in the Christian Bible says), the only place in the entire cosmos in which God takes a direct and personal interest. Meanwhile, the entire rest of the inconceivable vastness of the cosmos – the planet-sized storm systems that swirl in the atmospheres of gas giants, the intricately sculpted nebular pillars light-years in length where new suns are being born, the great walls of galaxies that span the entire visible universe – is believed to be nothing but a stage, a backdrop, important only as scenery on which the drama of human salvation is played out. It is easy to see how a belief system that teaches a person that the entire universe was created only as background for the events of their daily life could lead to arrogance on the part of the holder of that belief system.
The arrogance of this theology manifests itself in other ways as well. For example, many theists believe they are so important that the infinite, omnipotent creator of the universe takes a personal, individual interest in them, speaks to them, watches over them, cares about them, wants their praise, and is willing to intervene on their behalf. Many theists believe they are so important that the natural laws that span the universe and govern everything from the vibrations of atoms to the celestial swirls of galaxies will be temporarily suspended just for their benefit, if they ask. Many theists believe they are so important that they see themselves as the epicenter of a cosmic struggle in which gods and angels and demons are engaged in a supernatural battle to influence their eternal fate. Many theists believe they are so important that they have been appointed by God as his agents and representatives, tasked with carrying out the divine plan and ensuring that the Almighty’s will is done on Earth. Many theists believe they are so important that one day will come when they, along with the rest of the saints, will reign over the universe. (The Christian Bible, for example, reinforces such fantasies with verses that teach its believers that they will sit on thrones judging men and angels [Luke 22:30, 1 Corinthians 6:2-3]). All these things promote an egocentric view of one’s place in the grand scheme of things.
Another reason theism might lead to arrogance is the belief it tends to inspire in its adherents that they possess absolute truth. Those who acknowledge their fallibility and always keep in mind the possibility of being wrong very rarely take a superior view of others. By contrast, those who believe they know the truth and cannot possibly be wrong often begin to view all those who hold different beliefs as inferior. When one party to a debate believes there is no room whatsoever for honest disagreement, it is only a small step to conclude that those who do disagree must be ignorant, irrational, or perverse. This principle applies with even more force when the belief in question is thought to be the revealed will of God. In such a case, those who disagree are not just wrong or ignorant: they are God’s enemies, and therefore evil. The arrogance and zealous dogmatism of such a belief has led to tragic results uncountably many times throughout human history.
The purpose of theism can largely be summed up with the following analogy: It is as if there is a balance scale, on one side of which people place the terrifyingly vast, enormously complex, often frightening and apparently impersonal universe in which we live, and on the other side of which they place themselves. This does not balance out. Most people throughout history, therefore, have sought to tip the scales in their favor by adding an omnipotent deity, even vaster and more powerful than the cosmos and completely in control of it, who is on their side and will personally ensure that everything turns out all right for them. If this is not prideful, at the very least it speaks of a powerful need for comfort and reassurance.
By contrast, atheism does not teach that the existence of humankind is the purpose for the creation of the universe, nor does it teach that we are the chosen people of an infinite, almighty god, nor does it confirm any of the other anthropocentric superstitions the human species has invented during our long climb up from the darkness. Instead, it teaches that we are but one infinitesimal part of an inconceivably enormous universe, that no one will care for us if we do not care for each other, and that when we die, we will return peacefully to the earth rather than living on in an idealized afterlife. It takes courage and, yes, humility to accept these facts. Atheists as a whole are no more or less arrogant than any other group – rather, we are human beings like everyone else, trying to make our way in this world, and to be treated like human beings is all we ask.