In a recent blog post, Randal Rauser wonders about the prospects that atheists (or anyone, really) are “simply after the truth”. He begins by noting that many Christians (such as the popular Christian apologist Lee Strobel), assume that atheists reject God in order to give license to their poor behavior. He’s not sold on this view, but he’s also skeptical of the alternative position that atheists are on a dispassionate quest for truth.
He points to academia (well, a subset – philosphers and scientists) in order to illustrate his point. To quote: “As an academic, you stake a claim that a certain set of propositions is true, or more likely true, than another set (even if that set is the skeptic’s set which advocates withholding belief in other sets).”
He continues to say that the more time you spend defending these claims, the more attached you become to them. Your intellectual commitments seem to bleed into your personal commitments, and an attack on those ideas might seem vaguely personal. As he says, “Just as we identify emotionally with nations and persons, so we identify with truth claims, theories and ideologies.” This all seems right to me so far.
He concludes by arguing that “we all begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know”. While I agree with Rauser about academics being far from impersonal automatons after the pursuit of truth, it is foolish to think that all commitments to beliefs (or all persons professing commitments to beliefs) are on equal ground. As a quick example, here are two beliefs that I think are true and I defend: (1) Eating animals as a source of food is morally wrong if you have an alternative means of having a healthy diet and (2) Philosophical intuitions are not reliable sources of evidence.
Either of these beliefs are susceptible to revision given further evidence. It seems that (1) clearly has higher social costs, higher practical costs, and higher levels of emotional commitment than (2). I’ve invested significant personal resources in maintaining a vegetarian diet (so has my wife, for that matter!), part of my social identity is wrapped up in being a vegetarian, and I have a strong emotional attachment to this dietary decision. The same sorts of things cannot be said for (2), even though I do believe it’s true and do advocate for it.
Being a Christian seems to pack even more of a “sociological punch” than being a vegetarian. In fact, it packs even more of a punch in Rauser’s particular case. Rauser is employed by a Baptist-leaning seminary college, who endorses a very long Statement of Faith which provides the basis for doctrinal teaching. The major body of his (impressive) list of publications is either defending Christian theism, or discussing a particular theological view. If Rauser were to discover that he is wrong about Christianity, I imagine that admitting this in his professional life would require a not insignificant amount of courage (not to mention the courage he would need to tell John Loftus, his recent co-author, that he is right). Many professors at Christian universities have been fired after failing to properly instruct according to the university’s theological beliefs.
However, for most other philosophical and scientific positions, there are no such repercussions. Frank Jackson was not fired from his academic post after his rejection of epiphenomenalism, a position which he advocated based on the strength of the Knowledge Argument. If anything, philosophers were impressed at the intellectual humility it took to reverse positions on a view that he had previously championed. If Flew had had academic employment at the time of his alleged conversion to deism, it would not have impacted his appointment.
Further than just professional prospects, there are many sociological and psychological impacts from leaving the faith. An excellent book on this topic is Marlene Winell’s “Leaving the Fold”, which discusses the difficulties that accompany leaving the faith. She notes that many people will inevitably lose the support of friends and family upon leaving the faith. There is no shortage of tragic stories online in which people are all but abandoned because of their religious deconversion.
There are not only sociological difficulties, but psychological ones as well. People wrestle with guilt, fear, and alienation after losing their faith. They might begin to seriously grapple with their mortality for the first time, as I did. Without the Bible to help guide their path, they might struggle with indecision – failing to intuit a pre-ordained, supernatural plan for their lives. The list goes on and on.
The conversation about the earnest search for truth is an important one, and the psychological and sociological underpinnings of belief often go unnoticed. We should welcome a discussion on these issues, but we shouldn’t pretend that all beliefs will be equally emotionally valenced, and that all parties engaged in debate have the same amount to lose by renouncing their position. It is unreasonable to compare the endorsement of (relatively) impersonal philosophical positions to the utterly personal nature of religious beliefs.