Edward Feser, a professor at Pasadena City College has set out to create a typology of ways atheists feel about religion or particular religious traditions. It’s a two-dimensional description of attitudes, categorizing atheists by how they respond to religious metaphysics and religious practice. I’ll take a look at the metaphysics spectrum he proposes today and take a crack at the religion-in-practice one tomorrow.
I found Feser’s system helpful in clarifying my own stand on Christianity generally and Catholicism in particular. I could imagine this typology could also help smooth discussion between atheists and believers (or possibly get you to the fight more efficiently). I think the default assumption when someone meets an atheist is that s/he belongs to category 1 below, but if you want a productive conversation, you need to be able to explain your position on the spectrum and get to your true rejection.
- Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.
- Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.
- Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible
No matter how confident you are that there is no god(s), I don’t think you should feel comfortable slotting yourself into category 1 for all religions. As I wrote in my Atheist’s Guide to Catholics, there have been plenty of smart people playing for the other team, and, when they ran into problems of consistency, they tended to come up with solutions, not stick their fingers in their ears and chant “I can’t hear you.” The religions that deserve a type 1 explanation tend to be straight-up cults or prevalent in intellectually isolated communities. Anyone who’s not facing critics is more likely to end up devoid of intellectual content.
The easiest example of a blind-to-outside-objections apologist is someone who declares, “You’re only an atheist because you’re angry at God!” No, I’m an atheist just because I don’t believe in any gods, so I can’t hold a grudge against a non-existent being. And now I’m pretty confident in the non-existence of your grasp of my position. You only get points for apologetics if they’re directed at non-strawmen.
Patheos blogger Mark Shea is good on other topics, but he fell into an issue-specific version of this trap in his recent National Catholic Register article on homosexuality. Hint: if you ask me why I’m bisexual and why I fight for LGBT rights, my answer will not begin “Well, I am deeply narcissistic.”
Avoiding these traps gets you to a category 2 objection. You hit level 3 if I think your religious metaphysics are the theological equivalent of non-Euclidean geometry. You only need one thing granted, and then the whole thing hangs together and your replies to my objections turn out to be correct. Your religion offers predictions and explanations that are mostly consistent with lived experience, and where they differ, you’ve got an alternate framework that, with your major premise granted, would compel me to reject my experience or metaphysics where they clash with yours.
I would place Catholicism on the edge between categories 2 and 3, but, on a number of ethical issues, it has level 1 blindness problems.