Faith-based nonbelief

In conservative America—the real America, as some would have it—nonbelief is a liability. Everyone is supposed to be a Protestant, though this might include Catholic Protestants or Muslim Protestants. You are free to go to the church of your choice, but it is very important that you do go to a church of your choice. Protestant individualism still requires public order and personal moral discipline. And this is best provided by a strong religious foundation.

In liberal America, nonbelief is more acceptable. But liberals allow this because they assimilate nonbelief, as well as just about any religion, into a Protestant conception of faith. That is, even the most uncompromising atheism might be well and good, as long as it is held as a form of personal faith. Matters of the gods, liberals think, are decisions of personal worldview and metaphysics. As such, they are private matters, to be sharply distinguished from public matters. When nonbelievers argue that the gods are fictions, basing such arguments on publicly available reasons and evidence, they step out of bounds.

I run into this liberal Protestant framing especially when observing debates over science and religion. Consider the controversy over evolution. The mainstream view is that evolution is good science, and hence public. Good citizens should come to accept such public, verified facts as presented by science. But to suggest that evolution is anything but fully compatible with proper religion (as understood by liberal Protestants) is unacceptable. That would violate the boundary between what is public and private, faith-based worldviews. Those atheists who argue that evolution counts against the gods are out of bounds, while those nonbelievers who think the reality of gods should be decided entirely on metaphysical grounds are models of rationality. If you suggest science has a vital contribution to the debate over supernatural realities, you’ll get accused of “scientism” or “reductionism” or any number of terms that seem vaguely abusive but otherwise hard to pin down. But if you propose to leave matters entirely in the court of armchair philosophizing, with the implication that nonbelief is a faith-based position on all fours with any other, you’ll be seen as the soul of reasonability.

Catholics, Muslims, and others who belong to religions with a strong communal sensibility, often chafe at the requirement that they fit into a Protestant conception of being religious. Nonbelievers might also consider a bit of rebellion. Fitting a Protestant pattern of personal faith allows us a good deal of social breathing space. But skepticism toward the very idea of faith is an important part of most nonbelievers’ intellectual orientation. Being granted grudging acceptance as long as we treat nonbelief as a form of personal faith becomes grating after a while.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
Jerry Coyne Blocking: Episode II
Please Support the Ultimate Counter-Creationism Resource, Troubles in Paradise (TIP)!
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Philip

    Taner Edis says derisively, “if you propose to leave matters entirely in the court of armchair philosophizing, with the implication that nonbelief is a faith-based position on all fours with any other, you’ll be seen as the soul of reasonability.”

    The assumption here is that there’s a dichotomy between reason and faith, with science falling on the side of reason, and philosophy falling on the side of faith along with religion. Metaphysicians and other armchair philosophers don’t use reason in support of their philosophical statements; instead, they simply trust that what they say is true, or they want it to be true, or they appeal to magic to try to make it true.

    I think some philosophers can be compared to theologians in these ways. But the idea that all so-called “armchair” philosophizing is faith-based is dubious. Surely, there’s more to reason than the set of scientific methods. Moreover, assuming science doesn’t show that armchair philosophizing is faith-based, the anti-philosophical generalization would itself have to be philosophical or theological, and thus faith-based.

    I suppose the extent to which philosophy is faith-based could be scientifically tested. Of course, scientists may also have faith in their hypotheses, but scientific methods are used to support hypotheses with more than just the conviction of the scientists who push the hypotheses.

    So do armchair philosophers have their own methods to support their philosophical theories with more than just faith? How about philosophical dialogue, as old as Socrates and Plato? How about simply the use of argument? Notice how theologians and religious folk who really do have nothing more than faith supporting their religious beliefs don’t even engage in argument or in open-minded dialogue, loving knowledge more than opinion to such an extent that they’d be happy to improve their opponent’s theory were they to see such room for improvement. Armchair philosophers have been doing this for a long time, and it shows that even armchair, a priori, unscientific philosophizing isn’t simply faith-based.

    And who says armchair philosophizing is private? I’m reminded of Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, in which he talks about the public consequences of beliefs. Philosophical dialogue is public in that when held in public, as in the case of public debates or published writings (which, granted, practically no one reads), the public can make up their own mind as to who makes the better argument. People are free to be uninformed, whether about scientific or about philosophical matters. That freedom ends, though, when an irrational belief harms the public. Many scientific theories are just as socially irrelevant as philosophical ones, and so people are free privately to believe whatever they want about these matters. When a scientific or a philosophical belief makes a difference to someone’s behaviour and affects other people, the belief becomes public.

  • Tor Hershman

    Just a wee YouTube vid I did.

  • Explicit Atheist

    Taner, you got this just about exactly correct, except for at least one, arguably minor, generalization. What you refer to as “this liberal Protestant framing” is shared by non-Protestants, even some atheists. Its just the religion is a private, not to be introduced into public, topic framing. It is mistaken and something we should reject and rebel against. Here is another recent blog, titled Does ‘no religion test’ for office mean religion is off limits?, making a similar argument: Does