Herb Silverman on Atheists and Arrogance

Herb Silverman of the Secular Coalition for America writes an always-entertaining weekly column for the On Faith section of the Washington Post. Today’s piece focuses on whether atheists, as a group, are as arrogant as many believers like to say we are. His argument isn’t new, but it’s very effectively stated:

Which of the following sounds more arrogant?

Worldview 1. I know God created the entire universe just for the benefit of humans. He watches me constantly and cares about everything I say and do. I know how He wants me and everyone else to behave and believe. He is perfect and just, which is why we face an eternity of either bliss or torture, depending on whether or not we believe in Him.

Worldview 2. We’re the product of millions of years of evolution. Most species are extinct, as humans will eventually be. I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishments in an afterlife. When I don’t know something, which is often, I say, “I don’t know.”

To be fair, the “I don’t know” faction is better described as agnostic rather than atheist, but that’s a minor quibble.

Anyway, the next time somebody goes on about the arrogance of atheists, give ‘em Silverman’s little test, and enjoy watching them trying to stutter their way out of it.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Jennifer Bourne

    Sometimes I think accusing someone for being “arrogant” for having a different belief than your own is the modern version of monkeys squabbling over who gets to sit in the top of the tree. Or as a monkey would say, (if he could speak) “Who does that Alpha male think HE is?!”

    • named

      I’m half-tempted to make an Obama joke, but I’m afraid I’ll be labeled as a racist.

      Personally, I don’t get all the stigma behind our common ancestry. I, for one, like the idea that I’m a glorified chimpanzee! Chimps are awesome, and we can still learn a thing or two from them.

      • The Other Weirdo

        Like what?

        • named

          Well, like tolerance for one.

          I may be wrong on this one, but I don’t think there has ever been a recorded case of a chimp kidnapping, torturing, and eventually decapitating another chimp for worshiping the wrong Almighty Banana, creator of the universe.

          • The Other Weirdo

            That sounds like something I saw on Family Guy once:

            Girl: Animals don’t have war you know. War is a human invention.
            Death: What the hell are you talking about? Animals fight all the time.
            Girl: Not with nuclear arms! You can’t hug your children with nuclear arms!

            It sounds as stupid in real life as it does in a cartoon. Difference is, I never thought I’d actually hear a version of it in meat life.

            • named

              I’m convinced that everyone who watches Family Guy is an idiot…

              Where, in that statement, did it ever get mentioned that animals aren’t violent? Where does it mention war or nuclear weapons? Where does it mention Family Guy outside of your citing a satirical comedy show the way Christians cite the Bible as an authority they think they believe in but can’t put into words of their own?

              I can’t believe I have to explain this, but yes, animals are violent. Violence is a big part of nature. Where human violence breaks off from other animal violence is where humans cite personal beliefs as excuses for it. Animals rip each other to pieces every day, but that’s for things like food and territory. Humans, on the other hand, slaughter each other by the millions based on some stupid book written by idiots thousands of years ago.

              Here’s a project for you: Do a Google search for 9/11, and try to find an equivelent in the animal kingdom. It doesn’t have to involve planes or buildings, but just find some animal that decided it needed to travel to the opposite side of the world to kill millions (which was the long-term plan for 9/11) of simlar animals over there simply because it doesn’t like them. Any animal guilty of global genocide based off of stereotypes besides humans… I’ll be waiting.

              • The Other Weirdo

                And the “Point Most Humoursly Missed” award goes to… drum roll, please named. Congratulations, named. I never thought I’d ever get to give that award out.

                • named

                  I’d ask you what the hell your criticism, to what ever “point” it may have led to, of my stating that I believe society could benefit from more documentaries about chimpanzees had to do with *insert Family Guy clip here*, but I don’t see it possible that any such thing exists.

                  I believe you are intellectually dishonest for having lied about having a point to your random Peter Griffin shout-out.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  No. Seriously? You don’t see the similarity between your point about learning from chimpanzees things they can’t possibly teach us and the non-sequitur of animals and nuclear arms? And also, Peter Griffin was not in that scene.

              • Green_Sapphire

                “Animals rip each other to pieces every day, but that’s for things like food and territory.”

                It would be nice if this trope could get put to bed.

                Actually, most individuals in most social animal species (including humans) are mostly non-violent most of the time. And hierarchy emerged as a way to reduce violence — the group in power acts to limit violence by the vast majority. Animal documentaries that showed the 23:55 hours per day of peace and cooperation and social nurturing among social species wouldn’t have very high ratings.

                In addition, the ‘alpha’ female and male are not just the strongest — they also have to be socially adept. The ones who are strong but antisocial get killed or exiled. OTOH, the extremely timid and weak aren’t likely to live long either.

  • Eliot Parulidae

    The religious view is more arrogant in the abstract sense. Yet in my experience, arrogance is a personality trait that can manifest independently of religious beliefs. There are humble atheists and arrogant atheists, humble religious people and arrogant religious people.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Indeed, but in practice, what we see are arrogant theists dominating their “side” and pushing it on others, and then atheists who may or may not be arrogant pushing back and then being labeled as being “arrogant”* simply for having defended themselves or others.

      *Actually translated as “Uppity.”

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

        AKA “Why don’t you know your place, blasphemer?”

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      More empirically, the particularly precise sort of “arrogant” of the psycho-social personality measure “Social Dominance Orientation” (SDO) does not appear to have significant strong correlation (positive or negative) to religiosity. The fraction should be about the same among the irreligious and the religious.

      Contrariwise, anecdata suggests that atheists who affiliate into atheist groups (go to events like the Reason Rally, conventions like Skepticon, regularly posting to atheist blog comment sections, etc.) may tend to be higher-SDO than the fraction of atheists you’d turn up within a statistically random sample of the US population overall.

      • Green_Sapphire

        Technically, this might currently appear to be true. But your two groups are not in any way an equivalent comparison.

        Since religion is so dominant and so highly regarded in the US, most religious folks, even timid ones, usually have no problem with publicly identifying themselves as religious.

        So a random sample of US religious folks would likely reflect the percent of folks present in the US general population meeting the criteria for ‘social dominance orientation’ (SDO) (which is another way of saying that there is no significant correlation between religiosity and SDO).

        OTOH, since atheism, in the US, is so widely reviled and misunderstood and carries such a stigma, most folks that objectively (i.e., if science could peer into their brains) match the definition of ‘atheist’ would not publicly identify or perhaps even self-identify as atheists, particularly the more timid range of the spectrum. So sampling from a population of publicly-identified atheists in the US is likely to have a higher percentage of the less-timid range of the spectrum. But it would not be a valid sample of the true population of all people who don’t believe in a deity.

        In addition, folks that are active in a movement, such as activist vegetarians or activist environmentalists or activist LGBTIQ/allies or activist anything would tend to have a higher population of the more outgoing and highly motivated range of the spectrum. This would include your movement/activist/convention-and-rally-attending atheists.

        Further, being religious — that is, self-identifying as a Protestant, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, etc. — is not exclusionary of being an atheist. In Canada, for example, about a quarter of those who self-identify as Catholic do not believe in a deity. And the percent is a bit higher for Protestants. Should these be considered ‘religious’ in your religious segment?

        Finally, of the 14% of the US population that are “Nones” (‘no religious affiliation’) [separate from the 6% atheists and agnostics], according to the recent Pew survey, two-thirds of them state that they believe in some type of deity. Should these be considered ‘religious’ in your religious segment?

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          Urg. This looks to verge on not even wrong, and largely irrelevant attitude bolstering to resist a potentially unpleasant notion. But, that source derogation aside….

          Since religion is so dominant and so highly regarded in the US, most religious folks, even timid ones, usually have no problem with publicly identifying themselves as religious.

          So a random sample of US religious folks would likely reflect the percent of folks present in the US general population meeting the criteria for ‘social dominance orientation’ (SDO) (which is another way of saying that there is no significant correlation between religiosity and SDO).

          I don’t see how the conclusion of the second of these paragraphs follows from the first. In particular, I don’t see why this given reasoning would not also lead to expecting that a sample of the religious would also have no significant correlation for any other scale. This, however, is not the case. In particular, the RWA scale associated with the authoritarian follower personality is highly correlated. While the random sample of non-Atheists looks very reflective of the sample of the overall population, the slight difference is exactly opposite in direction to the high-magnitude difference in samples of atheists, yielding a high correlation on RWA. SDO does not have such correlation.

          I’ll also note SDO and RWA are not binary yes-no criteria, but relative scales.

          In addition, folks that are active in a movement, such as activist vegetarians or activist environmentalists or activist LGBTIQ/allies or activist anything would tend to have a higher population of the more outgoing and highly motivated range of the spectrum. This would include your movement/activist/convention-and-rally-attending atheists.

          This appears in no way to contradict my thesis, but more saying “well of course activists tend high-SDO”. While I don’t have data explicitly supporting it, I would indeed expect the “activist _______s” would likely tend higher SDO than a sample of “_______s” in general, although likely some types of “_______s” exist that tend higher or lower than the population of “_______s” and non-”_______s” combined. Contrariwise, there have been consistent with the conjecture SF and irreligious activists may tend in some sense more so than other sorts of activist.

          Further, being religious — that is, self-identifying as a Protestant, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, etc. — is not exclusionary of being an atheist. In Canada, for example, about a quarter of those who self-identify as Catholic do not believe in a deity. And the percent is a bit higher for Protestants. Should these be considered ‘religious’ in your religious segment?

          Yes, such outliers exist. I’m basing my analysis in large part from on the Altemeyer/Hunsberger “Atheists” study. In their work, the initial classification was based on a question about belief in the traditional God into atheist/agnostic/theist (see chapter 1 in their book for the exact wording), with further degrees of religiosity defined among theists based mainly on attendance rates. As such, those would be all the way to the irreligious end of that spectrum — though you could add a further subdivision.

          Again, however, religiosity is not a binary division, but something akin to a spectrum; for example, progressing from cultural groups of atheists, agnostics, inactive believers, irregular churchgoers, regular churchgoers, to fundamentalists. Several measures of religiosity that have been used in assorted studies alongside SDO; feel free to dredge the technical literature for the inner workings. However, as measures of religiosity tend to correlate strongly with one another (particularly, measures used for sociological studies), and as none have turned up strong and significant correlations, I don’t consider the details important to my thesis.

          Finally, of the 14% of the US population that are “Nones” (‘no religious affiliation’) [separate from the 6% atheists and agnostics], according to the recent Pew survey, two-thirds of them state that they believe in some type of deity. Should these be considered ‘religious’ in your religious segment?

          As I noted, it’s not a binary test, more a “fuzzy” continuum. (You might look into the math of posets and ordering relationships generally; even linear orders are a relatively specific case.) The Nones who believe in a deity would be in the “inactive believers” part of the spectrum for the Altemeyer/Hunsberger study, but other measures (EG: self-identified strength of religiosity) might consider them less religious than the atheist churchgoers from above.

  • Art_Vandelay

    “Pardon my humility, but I’m on a divine mission for the creator of a 950 trillion light-year sized universe (and growing) which was created specifically with me in mind.”

    (Hitchens, maybe?)

    • the moother

      I can almost hear him say it but but I can’t fund the soundbite :(

      Also, what’s with that downvote?

      • Art_Vandelay

        I think I read it in God is not Great.

        Seriously…that’s kind of an innocuous comment to down-vote, isn’t it?

        • The Other Weirdo

          But it’s not innocuous, not to a True Believer™. It strikes a blow directly at the heart of their beliefs, and they aren’t able to process it without lashing out.

        • the moother

          “Religion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited. It assures them that god cares for them individually, and it claims that the cosmos was created with them specifically in mind. This explains the supercilious expression on the faces of those who practice religion ostentatiously: pray excuse my modesty and humility but I happen to be busy on an errand for god.” Hitchens.

  • Jonas

    I don’t mind those of non-proselytizing faiths, which to be fair includes many branches of Christianity. — I do however mind the attitude of those who think this is a Christian Nation, or think they should have Christian Privilege. — which I find arrogant.

    It occurs not just in Christian circles, but as the last article indicates – The Jewish Ultra-Orthodox influence of the science textbooks. — or Religiously influenced morals. –
    — ex: Hobby Lobby wanting to restrict health care rights of it’s workers.

  • Hi Father!

    I know I pick on him a bit, but Fr. Alfonse has a piece on arrogance and humility. Requirement for being humble? Believe in God! Disagree with him? Let him know!

    http://fralfonse.blogspot.com/2013/09/luke-141-7-14-how-to-be-loved-lot-more.html

  • Celtlen

    Silverman is quite correct. If asked any question to which you don’t know the answer, reply that you do not know. This principle extends to the question of God’s existence, a question about which atheists should be, and mostly are, agnostic. The question to which atheists should respond definitively in the negative is, “Do you believe in the existence of God?” This is not a question of knowledge, however, but of belief, so your quibble with Silverman, minor as it is, is unwarranted.

  • Skeptico

    To be fair, the “I don’t know” faction is better described as agnostic rather than atheist..

    It’s hard to believe I’m reading nonsense like that on an atheist blog. Agnostic means it is unknowable, not ‘I don’t know.’

    • Celtlen

      What you have said is inaccurate, and you really should check the accuracy of your claims before proclaiming those of others to be “nonsense.” Huxley, who coined the term, defined it thusly: “Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” As such, the term covers both that which is not demonstrated by evidence but may be in principle, and that which is not in principle demonstrable.

      • Skeptico

        Huxley, who coined the term, defined it thusly: …

        Argument from authority now?

        If you’d read further down that Wikipedia page you would have learned that you can be an atheist agnostic, or a theistic agnostic. So the “agnostic rather than atheist” phrase is a false choice, and so yes the statement was nonsense.

        Most atheist writers have had to explain to believers, (numerous times probably), that we atheists (most of us) don’t claim to know that god doesn’t exist. We usually say something like “I don’t know for sure, but the lack of evidence means that I have no reason to believe.” It’s annoying to have to explain that again and again to people who would misrepresent our position, but it’s especially galling to have to explain it to someone writing an atheist blog. If atheist bloggers can’t get this simple thing right what chance do we have getting believers to understand it?

  • Foxhole Atheist

    It’s a minor quibble, but the religious individual doesn’t really believe that god created the universe for him/her. He/she believes it (and everything in it) was created to glorify god. That’s how they will reply so that they can maintain the appearance of a humble servant in faith. Even though their actions generally lack any appearance of humility–they’ll never embrace that worldview as its stated above.

    • Cafeeine

      You’re right (for a given version of ‘Christian’), but even those Christians will often describe humanity as the apex of the creative genius of their omnipotent deity. Sure, the world is here to glorify God, but the way this happens is through humanity. Everything else is here as support.

      • Foxhole Atheist

        Yes, they will say that humanity’s role is one of dominion over all of creation, like a divinely mandated caretaker.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade
  • LesterBallard

    Yep, I’m so arrogant that I insist that my god is the only god and that all those who do not believe in my god will be punished for all eternity, while those who do believe what I believe will be rewarded.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    “Atheism is the arrogant belief that the entire universe was not created for our benefit.”

    A comical and yet very true answer to this question, from Atheist Ireland:
    http://youtu.be/GthoewG0dY4

  • Spongman

    If you’re a gnostic atheist then you ARE arrogant. You can be both agnostic and atheist at the same time (contrary to common misconception).

    • Anna

      But why do gods get special treatment? No one claims to be agnostic about fairies or leprechauns. Deities get put into a different category than every other supernatural creature. Otherwise, it would be considered arrogant to say you “know” those things are imaginary, and that’s certainly not the case.

      • Spongman

        There’s no special category for deities. Can you prove fairies don’t exist?

        • decathelite

          I am almost certain that fairies, in the form described in fairy tales, do not exist, but I cannot prove they do not exist. Just as I am almost certain that the God, as described in the Bible, does not exist.

          What if Christians were consistent in their levels of belief for supernatural phenomena?

          • Spongman

            excatly. faries and God fall into the same category – things that people believe (theists) or do not believe (atheists) exist that are impossible to disprove. people that acknowledge the inability to disprove are called agnostics. those that think that the lack of disproof constitutes a proof are called {‘gnostics’ (small-g), ‘arrogant’, ‘idiots’}

          • Guest

            Precisely! If you start to make (positive or negative) claims about the supernatural you are on no better footing than a gnostic theist. Statements of belief are fair game on either side and require no justification.

        • Anna

          Are you serious? No one would ever claim that it’s arrogant to say that fairies don’t exist. I’m not agnostic about fairies. It’s crystal clear to me that they are imaginary, and I find it bizarre to pussyfoot around the topic.

          • Spongman

            can you prove to me that they don’t exist?

            • Anna

              What kind of proof do you want? The burden of proof is on those who claim they exist. The default is afairyism. I am comfortable saying they are imaginary. It would be ridiculous to label me arrogant because I say that I know fairies do not exist. No one in his or her right mind believes that they do.

              • Spongman

                you’re confusing statements of belief with statements of knowledge.

                if you claim that fairies do not exist then you are claiming that a universe exist that has at least two properties: we live in it, and fairies do not exist in it. that’s a positive claim. it comes with a burden of proof (as does any negative claim – there’s no difference).

                you may well believe they don’t exist, but you cannot prove they don’t (unless you’re omniscient)

                • Anna

                  Fairies don’t exist. You know it, and I know it. Should I call myself a fairy agnostic to avoid being labeled as arrogant? If so, then the very concept of agnosticism strikes me as ridiculous and meaningless.

                • Spongman

                  no. you don’t know it. you believe it (so do i) so strongly that you think you know it. but you don’t. you can’t prove it, and you know that, yet still you claim to know it.

                  that’s arrogance.

                • Anna

                  Good grief. If it’s arrogant to say fairies don’t exist, then call me arrogant. This conversation has strayed so far into ridiculous territory that I can’t think of anything more to say.

                • ShoeUnited

                  The preponderance of lack of evidence to support the existence of fairies is so staggering as to make one reasonably certain to conclude they do not exist.

                  It is not impossible to purport that fish fly hovercraft to the moon to fill the ocean with cheese. But the evidence against such a notion is so staggering as to render any argument for it without evidence mute. So we can safely say that we know that fish do not fly hovercraft to the moon in order to fill the oceans with cheese. The sheer absurdity and lack of evidence to support such a thing is vast. Therefore while we may truly technically agnostic about fish flying hovercrafts to the Moon to fill the oceans with cheese, we can safely assert that we know that such a thing does not occur. And that anyone to suggest otherwise may either be young, wishful, have a mental instability, on drugs, or any combination thereof (non-exhaustive list).

                  And so while I may technically be agnostic about gods, fairies, and the afterlife; I can safely say I know these things have never proven themselves to exist, I have no reason to believe they exist, they have no evidence they ever existed. By extension that all of these nonsensical things have such a void of evidence means I can safely say that they do not exist and that I’m reasonably sure that none of them do or have ever existed.

      • Bitter Lizard

        My point, put more succinctly. A little consistency towards fictional abstractions would go a long way.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Being gnostic about any specific god described to date isn’t arrogant. Those are all easily disproven. One should be theoretically agnostic about the possibility of some deitylike thing, but such are basically irrelevant anyway.

      • Spongman

        Easily disproven? I think not. You cannot use inconsistencies in scripture to disprove a thing. Even if the scripture says it requires consistency. It could be wrong. That doesn’t mean something does not exist.

        If you’re making blanket statements of knowledge based on no evidence then you’re by definition arrogant – or ignorant.

        • Bitter Lizard

          An omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent god is logically inconsistent, for lots of reasons, and thus is rationally safe to dismiss. The Easter Bunny, on the other hand, is not an internally inconsistent concept, just inconsistent with what we know about the world and unsubstantiated. The Easter Bunny is more plausible than the conventional monotheistic god. This does not mean that we should take an “agnostic” view towards the Easter Bunny–one that states that both belief and disbelief in said bunny are equally rational propositions. For all the “arrogance” attributed to an atheist for not believing in God, we can make the same claim towards abunnyists twicefold.

          Not to mention all the crimes in the world that have been committed by abunnyists.

          • Spongman

            arrogance is not attributed to atheists for not believing in God. arrogance is attributed (rightly) to those atheists that claim they know he does not exist.

            don’t do that. it’s unnecessary. you can still be an atheist and not claim to know. in fact, you’ll be a better atheist for it.

            • Bitter Lizard

              When it comes to “knowing there is no god” versus simply not believing in a god, it should depend on the god. There are many different god conceptions. Some are logically inconsistent, and therefore impossible, and it’s perfectly fine to say with a large degree of certainty that something doesn’t exist if it is impossible for it to exist. Other god conceptions are merely unsubstantiated but not logically inconsistent, and I technically have a softer position on those.

              And for the record, absence of evidence can be evidence of absence. Victor J. Stenger argues this pretty conclusively:

              http://www.huffingtonpost.com/victor-stenger/the-evidence-against-god_b_682169.html

        • Pattrsn

          I think you just defined theism.

          • Spongman

            no, theism is the _belief_ in a ‘theistic’ god (please excuse the shortcut definition). it’s a statement of belief. i’m talking about statements of knowledge – a completely different thing.

            • Pattrsn

              Wow, could you define pedantism for me?

              • Spongman

                you’re on a philosophy forum and you’re complaining that someone wants to use the correct definitions for philosophical terms?
                go troll somewhere else…

                • Pattrsn

                  Sorry Spong, The Freindly Atheist ain’t a philosophy forum. Even if you do grace it with your presence.

                  Here people often resort to using things like nuance and humour to make a point. If you stick around you might try and get used to that.

                • Spongman

                  An ad hominem. I figured as much.

                  Btw. Theism (or lack of it) is a branch of philosophy. If you’re discussing it, you’re discussing philosophy.

                • Pattrsn

                  Let me see if I have this straight, Spong the philosopher doesn’t know what an ad hominem is?
                  Or are you a theist and you tokok my joke about theism as a personal attack?

                • Spongman

                  “Even if you do grace it with your presence.”

                  Sarcastic ad hominem.

                • Pattrsn

                  Hmm guess that was a bit personal, but you know glass houses and all that.

                  Anyway, perfectly acceptable on a semantics forum.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          The Bible is supposed to accurately describe the Christian god, but contradicts itself and creates logical impossibilities regarding the description of said god. It is therefore falsified. That deity can’t exist as described and understood. Possibly a similar deity could exist, but they fucked up the details and proved themselves wrong on that one. Should have left themselves more elbow room, but if you get anyone talking long enough, eventually they’ll contradict themselves.

          Plus what Bitter Lizard said.

          • Spongman

            yes, but the bible could be wrong and God could still exist. i don’t believe he does, but i don’t know for sure.

    • eric

      Baloney. I KNOW my local high school football team will not win the next Superbowl. Does that statement make me arrogant? No, it means (1) I have a realisitic estimate of the probability of that happening, and (2) I’m using the word ‘know’ in the common, vernacular sense of ‘am very certain,’ rather than the white tower academic sense of ‘have absolute, provable, philosophical certainty.’
      Saying we know there is no theistic (i.e., intervening, caring) God in the regular sense of knowing is no more arrogant than the football statement above. To make that claim arrogant, you have to shift your meaning of ‘know’ to the academic white tower version of the word. I see no reason for that double standard – I see absolutely no reason why we should treat uncaveated, regular language “I know” statements about God any differently than we treat uncaveated, regular language “I know” statements about other things.
      What to know what arrogance is? Arrogance is when someone implies that “I know” statements about God should always be treated as a claim of absolute philosophical certainty, differently from the way we treat “I know” statements about othre things. That’s religious exceptionalism; demanding people treat your religious belief differently than they treat other beliefs.

      • Spongman

        you can’t discuss the definition of philosophical terms and then complain that the conversation is getting too philosophical.

        there is no regular sense of those words. there’s the correct meaning, and the wrong ones. correctness is not democratic. haven’t we learned this by now as atheists?

        also, your football analogy is irrelevant – there’s measurable evidence available to sway the argument.

        my point is simple – if you start saying you know things for certain about the existence of god then you’re really no better than the theists – they will argue this, and be right. however, if you just say ‘i don’t know, i don’t believe’ then you’re on significantly stronger ground – you cannot possibly be wrong. you can still let your beliefs guide your ethics, but you cannot be said to be arrogant because you’re not making any claim.

        • ShoeUnited

          If nothing else, English language use is directly democratic. I have to stop the bus right there because I’m still pissed that the plural of Virus became Viruses in 2000 and Virii didn’t even fall out of use, it was replaced. Because some uneducated people didn’t know irregular plurals and said viruses instead of virii.

          When twit goes from meaning someone who is prissy and stupid to meaning someone who uses twitter, it’s rather obvious that English is a democratic language. *

          English is determined by common agreement of definitions. When not dealing in white paper, you use the dictionary to find common definitions for clarity.

          *I still giggle when people call them twits on the news.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

    Huh. I’m a Christian, and #2 strikes me as being closer to my worldview than #1. Does that make me doubly arrogant?

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Hi Dan, You’re probably a very fine fellow. I don’t think we should ascribe any character trait, such as arrogant, or humble, or gentle, or brutal or any other to anybody based on what they think. We are what we do, not what we think. The kind of person we are is indicated by how we interact with the world, especially with other people. So if a person were to frequently do and say arrogant things then he could be correctly characterized as arrogant. But the two “worldviews” described above are just thoughts. If they happen only between our ears, they weigh nothing; they don’t define us. The overall pattern of our actions defines us.

      • eric

        Very good point, Richard. However, when someone makes a gross generalization about a group (I.e., “athests are arrogant”), a perfectly fair way to respond is by comparing a concise, top-level description of the views of that group and the speaker’s group. The key is accuracy – you don’t want to answer the speaker’s original fallacy by answering with a fallacious, equally bad gross generalization. But it is difficult to see Silverman’s response as all that innaccurate. It states the theistic position pretty starkly, but each of those elements is pretty standard, mainstream doctrine. So I think there is nothing wrong with Silverman responding to a generalization (that doesn’t fit many atheists) by summarizing the mainstream beliefs of Christianity (which won’t fit all Christians), as long as he does so reasonably accuratly.
        I do have one quibble, which is that his syntax is a bit tilted towards atheism (even if the content is fair). Two of the theist statements start off “I know…” while the atheist statments don’t, and that gives the theist statments a more arrogant tone. Take the “I know” and “I know how” out of paragraph #1, and it will make the paragraphs more even in tone, thus helping the reader compare the content for arrogance rather than maybe getting distracted by tone.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          It does not matter whether or not the description of a person’s thoughts are accurate. If all they are are neurons firing inside a person’s brain, they should not be used to justify an evaluation of their character. If such an evaluation has to be done at all, it should be based on long and careful observation of their behavior, especially interactions with other people.

          Herb Silverman’s response is just reproducing the Christians’ same prejudice, based on the fallacy that a person’s thoughts, specifically their beliefs are what give a person their value, their worthiness, their goodness or badness as a person. If people think nasty thoughts but never act on them, that does not make them nasty people. If they think nice thoughts but never act on them, that does not make them nice people. Although it’s a quick and snappy repartee, he’s inadvertently adding credibility to the underlying notion that thoughts alone are a sufficient criteria for passing harsh judgment on people.

          To properly respond to the accusation that atheists are arrogant, Silverman would have to ask the specific persons why they say so, and if it’s just about beliefs, then he could build arguments against their condemnation of a whole category of people based solely on what is assumed to be their thoughts. If the accusers’ complaint is about behaviors and actions that they have seen atheists do, that could be the start of a much more worthwhile and possibly productive conversation.

          • Thom Mills

            It appears to me Silverman’s response was to “…reproduce the Christian’s same prejudice…” to show how ridiculous the Christian statement that atheists are arrogant sounds. If not intended this way, I agree with the rest of your post.

            • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

              I agree with you that ridiculing by imitating was apparently Silverman’s intention, but I think that meaning may be lost on many Christians who see it only as a petulant tit-for-tat, or tu quoque. Their underlying and unexamined precept, that people’s virtue or vice is measured by their thoughts and beliefs, is unintentionally reinforced by this method of imitation.

              • Collin237

                That’s the way I saw it too, and I’m not a Christian.

                I realize some bloggers are bad at humor, but Silverman is supposed to be a philosopher, and also a political candidate. If he meant his argument to be humorous, I’d expect him to have communicated it more effectively.

  • Keulan
  • Dave K

    “To be fair, the “I don’t know” faction is better described as agnostic rather than atheist, but that’s a minor quibble.”

    It sounds like he is referring to not knowing things in general. Your comment implies it is only about the existence of a god.

  • David Croteau

    ['When I don’t know something, which is often, I say, “I don’t know.”]

    “To be fair, the “I don’t know” faction is better described as agnostic rather than atheist, but that’s a minor quibble.”

    I assume he is talking about things such the god of the gaps panacea, for example:

    We don’t say ” I know exactly how the universe came into it’s present state of existence,” where they would say “I know God Did It!”

  • named

    “To be fair, the “I don’t know” faction is better described as agnostic rather than atheist, but that’s a minor quibble.”

    Wrong…
    Theism and Atheism address whether or not someone is convinced that there is a god or gods.
    Gnosticism and Agnosticism address whether or not someone knows, and, by definition, has proof that a god or gods do or don’t exist.
    If someone does not believe in any gods, they are an atheist. If they have no evidence that there aren’t any gods, they are an agnostic atheist. If they have proof that gods don’t exist, then they are a gnostic atheist.

    Please invest in a basic philosophy class so that you can better understand the linguistics of such speech.

  • joey_in_NC

    “I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do…”

    But what exactly does this mean? What is meant by “right”?

    If “right” is meant as an objective and/or absolute good after which to be sought, then could an atheist really believe in such a transcendental claim? If not, then what is left other than what I personally think is right, which is precisely where the arrogance creeps in.

    I’m sure even Stalin thought he was making a “positive difference” in the world by doing what he thought were the “right things”, without eternal bliss as a reward.

    • The Other Weirdo

      What the hell are you on about? Stalin didn’t do what he did(and what is it, exactly, that he did do?) because he thought it was making a positive difference. He did it to consolidate his own power.

      • joey_in_NC

        What makes you think that Stalin didn’t think that he was making a positive difference? In his perspective consolidating his own power was making a positive difference in this world. I’m sure he thought that eradicating religion from his nation was a positive.

        • The Other Weirdo

          But he didn’t eradicate religion. In my day, as late as 1979, there were plenty of churches operating that had full attendance. Stalin shattered the Church’s control over the population because he was seeking to install another power base–himself–and competition would have made it difficult. Of course, communism was–and is–as much a religion as Christianity, only without all that supernatural stuff.

  • Matt Dillahunty

    “To be fair, the “I don’t know” faction is better described as agnostic rather than atheist, but that’s a minor quibble.”

    Please define “atheist” for me…because I think you’re suffering from a gross conceptual error. One that I wouldn’t think we’d need to be correcting here, of all places.

    Knowledge is a subset of belief. Why people insist on repeatedly buying into this nonsense that agnostic and atheist are mutually exclusive is baffling.

    http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Atheist_vs._agnostic

  • mattcable33

    To be fair, the “arrogant atheist” perception seems to be less about the substance of the beliefs themselves than about the way that the atheist viewpoint is expressed and advocated for in the public discourse by many of its prominent proponents.

  • Livin

    Worldview 2 should be
    We’re the product of millions of years of evolution. Most species are extinct, as humans will eventually be. It dose not really matter if I make a positive difference because everything is pointless and will not last, the opposite of future rewards or punishments in an afterlife. When I don’t know something, which is often, I say, “I don’t know.

  • coach r

    Silverman’s absurd misconceptions and misrepresentations of faith and his sweeping generalizations about those who have it are laughable. He clearly has no regard for Aquinas or Aquinas’ co-mentor, by proxy- Aristotle. I wonder if Silverman has even heard of, much less read, Aquinas or Aristotle.

  • Collin237

    This is the same Herb Silverman who achieved the great victory for free
    thought in South Carolina? Reducing theists and atheists to a Penthouse
    Form Letter?

    It is we the mainstream theist bloc that is leading the fight against Creationism. We are the ones with the maturity to ignore the Bible and admit that evolution is a historical fact, and call out the Creationists for the liars they are, while atheists are messing around with post-modernism and Biblical mockery.

    And what about fine tuning? Why is it that the only logical explanation — that the
    physical constants were originally variables that evolved to their current values — is never spoken of? I have been censored by atheists for suggesting this, even though their only alternative is the Anthropic Principle.

    P.S. Terry, we are superior to you because we don’t Make Mischief, and we don’t poke fun at people. Neither does Hemant Mehta, the atheist who runs this blog.


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