Atheists in America – Part 4

Atheists in America – Part 4 May 19, 2013

                This is the last blog of my series on atheists which is based on a book, co-written with David Williamson, titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). You can see the first three entries of this series here and here and here. In the past blogs there has been a debate with my use of the term “belief” in describing atheism. I have discussed my use of that word in my previous blogs and read nothing that discourages my use of “belief.”  Since I have already spent considerable space debating this term in my previous blogs, I will not debate it in this entry. Others wishing to register their disagreement in the comment section are free to do so, but I will not respond. New visitors to this blog series are free to go back to the previous blogs to see my comments on this matter.  

                In this last entry, I would like to discuss atheist morality. Several Christians have argued that atheists do not have morality. I know what they mean in that atheism as a philosophy cannot lead to moral conclusions. I will leave that debate to philosophers. When I think of morality as a sociologist, I am thinking about claims of right and wrong.  Since some have criticized me for “making up my own definitions,” I will provide the online Webster definition of morality which is “a doctrine or system of moral conduct”. To understand moral conduct Webster defines moral as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” My notion that morality deals with encouraging what is considered right actions and discouraging what is considered wrong actions is consistent with Webster’s definitions.

            Beyond the philosophical arguments about atheism as a source of morality, there is another reason why Christians do not believe that atheists endorse moral conduct. Traditional Christianity has created a set of moral rules that atheists do not accept. Because they do not accept the particular moral rules Christians endorse, some Christians believe that atheists do not use moral rules to order their lives. These Christians would be wrong.

            Traditional Christians, as well as traditionalists in other Western religions, legitimate their moral beliefs with appeals to a supernatural deity. Obviously this is not a source for those who do not accept the existence of such a deity. My previous blogs help us to understand an atheist social identity which can illuminate how atheists legitimate their moral expectations. An atheist social identity emphasizes rationality as a key principle. It is the concept of rationality that atheists tend to use to justify what we should do or not do in society.

            For example, several of our interviewed atheists, and atheists from our online questionnaire, freely talked about how individuals should use rationality to order their lives. Atheists tend to see themselves as rational and able to run their lives without religion. In fact they see themselves in control of their own happiness instead of reliance upon deities.

If I was not a person who sees my life as being in my control and my happiness a result of my own effort, I would be terrified of the Christian Right because they are attempting to create a theocratic state where sacrifice is the standard of good and where selfish living is considered evil.

As an atheist, you just know that, number one, there’s no expectations that you need to follow any rule that is not something that you can just rationally understand. So there’s more responsibility.  You can’t just read a book and be told what to do.  You have to actually think, so there is a pressure to be responsible for yourself more so than a Christian.  You can’t take solace in the idea that God will forgive me if I make a mistake.  If I make a mistake, then it was just me being stupid; I should have known better.

These quotes represent an ideology whereby religion leads to irrational actions based on foolish beliefs whereby atheism leads to self-control. Atheists trust humans to use their own intelligence to make their lives better. What is moral is doing what is rational. Religion is not merely irrational but it is also immoral.

This perspective is not limited to the actions of individuals but also reflects the direction we should take as a collective group. In other words, not only should we seek to use rationality to justify our personal actions, but we should also attempt to be rational in our social and political policies. Religion is seen as the antithesis of rationality and thus it becomes our enemy in the creation of a rational society. We can see representations of this philosophy in these quotes from the interviews and online surveys:

The perfect world for me would be you wouldn’t have religion.  Everything would be based on evidence and science and people would treat each other well regardless of it.

In general I want the government to be neutral in regards to religion, and that is what I fight for.  I would hope that conversation and being an example of non-Christian but a good citizen and promoting education and rational thinking will help elevate the country.

As you can see rationality and scientific thinking are core principles that many atheists use to justify individual action and their notion of how society should be organized.

            As I pointed out in a previous blog, atheists envision science as the opposite of religion. Science is also connected to the idea of a rational way of approaching the world. Thus science, and the educational systems that support science, are seen as morally beneficial. Religion, being seen as the opposite of science and rationality is seen as morally dysfunctional. This is not to say that all atheists believe that nothing good can come from religion. When we asked them about the benefits of religion, some atheists talked about how religion helps some people to feel better about themselves and for those individuals to do good deeds. But many atheists see nothing good coming from religion, which is to be expected from individuals who value rationality and conceptualize religion as irrational. So as it concerns moral expectations it is not surprising that atheists tend to see religion as bad while institutions they conceptualize as rational such as science and education are good.

            Beyond the obvious distaste atheists have for religion, there are specific values and norms that atheists tend to endorse. For example, all 51 atheists we interviewed discussed, to some degree, progressive political ideas in a positive manner and/or discussed conservative political ideas in a negative manner. Furthermore, while we did not directly ask them about their political ideology, the atheists from our online survey overwhelmingly showed support for progressive political philosophy and/or opposition to conservative political philosophy. Neither sample is a probability one; however, research based on probability samples have also confirmed that atheists are more likely to endorse a progressive political agenda than non-atheists. This endorsement does not seem to be limited to particular political issues as the atheists in both samples discussed support for progressive political positions as it concerned cultural issues, economic issues, governmental issues, foreign policy issues and any other political issues one can conceive. Perhaps future research can identify which particular progressive issues appeal to an atheist’s sense of rationality, but for now it is reasonable to say that atheists tend to endorse all parts of a politically progressive agenda.

            I find this endorsement fascinating given the atheists’ emphasis on rationality. Whether one agrees with a conservative position on abortion, aggressive foreign policy, capital punishment, a smaller federal government, restrictions against undocumented workers, cutting taxes or other issues, there are sound rational arguments supporting these positions. It seems unlikely that the highly progressive disproportional support from atheists on these issues comes from simple rational deductions. I contend that this support can be understood given a point made in the last blog whereby the ideals of atheists often come from a reaction to the religion of the day. This is understandable given that atheists tend to see themselves as the opposite of emotional, irrational religion. If religion is bad then what people who are highly religious endorse must also be bad. Today the general image is that religion endorses conservative political philosophy. Thus, the opposite of conservative political philosophy, or political progressive philosophy, could be seen as a moral good by atheists.

            Let me elaborate on this point. There are religious and secular justifications for both good and bad ideas. The social gospel compels us to take care of the poor and is supported by religious justification. One could also use the ideas in a rationally based document such as the Humanist Manifesto I and II to justify the worth of the poor in society and enunciate a need to take care of them. On the other hand, white supremacy had religious support among Christians in the early part of our country’s history. Scientific ideas found within evolution have also been used to legitimate white supremacy (Check out the writings of Jean Philippe Rushton). Both religion and rationality can be used to argue  both sides of social and political issues. There is a social constructiveness to both religion and rationality which often makes it difficult to argue that religious belief or rational discourse automatically leads to a certain social or political outcome. So in looking at why atheists use rationality to support political progressiveness, it is not sufficient to enunciate that progressive policies are innately more rational than conservative policies. Rational arguments can be used to legitimate a variety of contradictory positions. We generally have sociological and philosophical reasons why we see some ideas as rational and other ideas as not rational. Their belief in the dysfunction of religion and opposition of all aspects of religion provides a powerful potential explanation for why atheists support political progressiveness.

           This leads to a final topic which is the sort of social world atheists state they want. We asked our respondents about the type of social world they would like to see. Generally they wanted a world where individuals were free to be religious but they want religion to be dying in that world. A few enunciated a desire to forbid religious individuals to hold public office, but for the most part, atheists espoused the ideas of religious neutrality and freedom. They saw religious neutrality as a two edge sword that not only kept the government out of religion but religion out of government. The value of church/state separation was also a powerful mechanism in the construction of atheist morality. Thus atheists did not talk of outlawing or removing religion by political or legal force, but they hoped that it will die out as people voluntarily choose to ignore religion in a rational society.

         Of course it is one thing to be asked when one does not have the power to create the social world and it may be another thing if one gains that power. Whether atheists would truly allow for religious freedom or they would incorporate some of the government mechanisms used in communist, and officially atheist, countries to oppress religion remains to be seen. For what it is worth I believe that the individuals I interviewed were sincere in their desire that people of faith were not oppressed for their faith, even if those respondents did not have respect for what religious individuals believe. Furthermore, some of the newer secular countries such as Sweden illustrate a society whereby religious individuals retain their social and political freedoms. Indeed several respondents referred to Europe as their vision of an ideal society as it concerned the presence of religion.  I suspect that there is a strong desire among many atheists in the United States to reproduce a European society over here in the New World, at least as it concerns issues of religion. When understanding the moral desires of atheists, it is reasonable to argue that whatever brings us closer to that European style society is good and whatever moves us farther away from it is bad.

          I hope you have enjoyed this blog series even if you have disagreed with parts of it. I am a believer in debate as an important way to understand the issues of the day. Nevertheless, I am limited by this sort of format to fully enunciate the points made in these four blog entries. So if you are interested in looking deeper into the issues raised in this series then please look up the book.

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  • Sven2547

    This is a pretty good post, and your treatment of atheism is both fair and informative. A couple of points I want to bring up:

    There is indeed a very strong correlation between atheism and rationalism and the rejection of superstition, but it’s not always causal. In other words, atheism does not always lead to those other things. For example I have a close family member who does not believe in gods, which makes her an atheist by any practical definition. But she does believe in ghosts.

    There is an ongoing discussion within atheist circles about whether it’s reasonable to assume certain philosophical consequences of being an atheist. You’ve noted the same thing that other atheists are noticing: atheists are overwhelmingly politically progressive. You contend that this may be a knee-jerk opposition to the religion-driven right-wing in the United States. As someone who is happy to consider myself a friend of the “Christian Left”, I disagree with the proposition that my progressive positions are the fruit of a reactionary anti-religion bent. Others propose that it’s just a natural consequence of rationalist, humanist thinking (a notion you addressed quite well. I notice that you did not bring up marriage equality as one of those rational issues. No surprise here: there’s no rational non-religious reason to oppose it). Who knows, maybe we’re getting cause-and-effect backwards here. Maybe it’s not that atheism makes people more progressive, but rather that progressive thought makes people more secular?

    There has been a push in certain circles for a political movement they call “Atheism Plus”. Basically it’s atheism, plus all the progressive philosophy that usually comes with that. I personally subscribe to what PZ Myers would dismissively call “mere atheism”. It is my opinion that atheism is the lack of belief in god(s), and that’s it. Atheism, by itself, does not carry any moral consequences or imperatives (other than the idea that religion-based morality is invalid). This is not to say that atheists are amoral people, only that they must seek morals from a different place than the concept of atheism itself. Philosophy and rationality fill that space quite nicely, but not everyone goes that route. Again: some turn to psychics, gurus, seances, and other woo.

    As someone who took a lot of Poli Sci in college, I was fortunate enough to do lots of study on the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and yes, even Marx (I’m not a fan). But that’s not necessary. The blunt, honest truth is that people can usually go with their gut on the subject on right and wrong, and they’ll generally be fine. I don’t need a lengthy treatise on the Hobbesian State of Nature to know that murder and theft are wrong, no more than you need a carved slab brought down from a mountaintop to come to the same conclusion.

    A final thought: It’s easy to look at a country like the Soviet Union and fear for what happens when atheists come to power. I’m glad that you had the good sense to bring up Sweden. That’s the difference: when a dictator comes in and abolishes religion by fiat, they are no better than the worst theocracy that abolishes non-state religions (and atheism too). Sweden is, and has been, a free and democratic society where the freedom of religion is absolute. And yes: that’s the ideal. When you support an environment of true religious equality (in stark contrast to the staggering amount of Judeo-Christian privilege seen in the United States), you cultivate a population of people who tend to see that there’s no religion better than any other. Once you get there, it’s easy to take the next step: why be religious at all?

    • georgeyancey

      Thank you for your comments. I would quibble with a couple of them but overall I agree that atheism does not in and of itself produce a set of moral values. Perhaps there is a chicken and egg thing here and progressives tend to become atheists. One of the things I regret after the research is that we did not recognize the political/atheist link soon enough to investigate possible directionality of that link. Oh well. I have to leave something for the next researcher to write about 😉

  • ahermit

    “Scientific ideas found within evolution have also been used to
    legitimate white supremacy (Check out the writings of Jean Philippe Rushton). Both religion and rationality can be used to argue both sides of social and political issues.”

    I think you are making a false equivalence here. The difference of course being that ideas like Rushton’s can be shown to be inconsistent with reason and science; he fudged his data, his methodology was flawed and his conclusions were not the product of reason and science, however he might have tried to disguise them as such.

    Science and reason have clear methods for filtering out such nonsense. On the other hand if the basis of such bigotry is some sort of Divine Revelation how does one counter that?

    • georgeyancey

      Contemporary Christians argue that previous interpretations of the bible that supports white supremacy are based on bad interpretations just like you argue that Rushton’s conclusions are based on bad science. They argue that earlier racist Christians were practicing bad faith just as you argue that Rushton practices bad science. Epistemological work such as Kuhn’s idea of scientific paradigm illustrates that scientific agreement on reasonable interpretation of data is vulnerable to social and political forces just as scriptural interpretation has been. Thus the patterns of how religion and rationality can be used are quite similar.

      • ahermit

        Nope; not the same thing at all. The rejection of Rushton’s work doesn’t rely on any subjective “interpretation”. His work just doesn’t stand up to rational examination; his statistics are full of holes, he draws conclusions which are not supported by the data, he ignores contrary evidence…there’s really not much in his body of work that can really be described as rational or scientific.

        Yes, science can be misused, and yes past understandings may have to be revised or even abandoned in the face of new evidence, but there is a reliable, replicable process for doing that which simply doesn’t exist for revelatory claims of knowledge. We can’t objectively test which interpretation of a particular passage of scripture is valid in the same way that we can test plate tectonics, for example.

        And Rushton’s sloppy, lazy, dishonest work doesn’t qualify as science to begin with, so he’s not a useful example for illustrating the point you’re trying to make here.

        • georgeyancey

          Ironically those attacking scriptural support for white supremacy also state that it is bad theology. Both scientists and theologians use the same arguments to refute bad ideas. I am certain you feel that science is objective and religion is not but both are subject to social and psychological forces that distort their findings. The fact that they do not use the same methodology to assert truth does not eliminate those forces.

          • ahermit

            The problem with attacking scriptural support for white supremacism as “bad theology” is that the reply of the supremacists is that their critics are the ones with the bad theology. There is no standard, objectively verifiable theological method. You have your theology, the Sufi’s have theirs and the Christina Identity Movement have theirs. Which one is the good one? How do we know?

            But the more important point I was trying to make (and I probably should have been clearer) is that even if we accept that both science and theology are equally subjective using a fraud like Philipe Rushton as an exemplar of the science side of the argument is not a fair representation since by any scientific definition or paradigm his work doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

            It’s not that his work doesn’t stand up to MY idea of science, in the same way that a white supremacist doesn’t stand up to YOUR chosen theology. His work doesn’t stand up to the scientific method HE claims to be relying on.

          • georgeyancey

            Just as there are scientific principles for interpreting data there are theological principles for interpreting scripture. Difference schools of science consistently argue over which principles should apply in a given situation and the same happens as it concerns theological questions. I am NOT saying that science and theology are identical. Clearly they are not since they deal with different questions about reality. But they are similar in that the answers they express are not free of social forces. Thus both can offer helpful ideas and both can offer harmful ideas. Even if you wish to say that using Rushton to show how science promotes bad ideas is inappropriate, there is no doubt that Darwin’s findings were used to justify white supremacy and social Darwinism was utilized to justify letting the poor die. Science is subject to social, psychological and political forces which can predispose it to awful outcomes.

          • ahermit

            Yes, people have used Darwin to justify their bigotry. But they aren’t using science when they do so since Darwin’s theory does not in any way support such conclusions.

          • You say “Just as there are scientific principles for interpreting data there are theological principles for interpreting scripture.” The problem here is that theological principles are mostly arbitrary, they are mostly about what goes on inside the heads of the theologians themselves. Scientific principles are anchored in external reality via empirical evidences and universally applicable measures of success (we go to medical doctors trained in science, not priests trained in theology, when we seek remedy for physical ailments). They are very different and your analysis is badly skewed by your false relativism.

          • georgeyancey

            Science is an attempt to be objective but it also depends on interpretation and assumptions. A lot of those assumptions are shaped by the social atmosphere the scientists dwells in. Read Kuhn’s book on paradigms and you will see that science is not always the objective search for truth that scientists claim that it is. Furthermore, science is not equipped to answer certain questions. it can really only deal with questions that are observable and repeatable. Many questions of meaning can not be examined by scientific methods. But theology is the attempt to examine many of those questions. Like scientists, theologians have assumptions and interpretation even as the attempt to be objective in finding answers. No theologians are not scientists nor can they be given the type of questions they deal with. So I do not make an exact equivalency to scientists but as to an intelligence approach, shaped by the social atmosphere the scholar dwells in, to the particular question at hand there is a great deal of similarity between theologians and scientists and both are doing their best to address the questions in their field.

          • Mostly disagree, and insofar as you bring into your analysis of survey results this sort of judgement then it is biased. Science studies what is real, it practices ontological realism, and its primary guide is success. Beyond that it is minimalist, it assumes very little, arguably nothing. Science abandoned supernaturalism about 200 years ago for one reason, and one reason only: It fails. Our universe has no purpose, meaning is what we give to our lives on a day to day basis and has no dependency on theology. Most of theology is garbage in and garbage out. Some philosophy is empirically well grounded, and that philosophy is sometimes very good. There are not different catagories of knowledge about how the world works requiring different methods to discover. All knowledge about how the world works is obtained empirically. The track record of theology that is rooted in metaphysical supernaturalism for understanding how our universe works is one of complete failure, which strongly evidences that our universe is naturalistic.

          • georgeyancey

            I respect your belief that our universe has no purpose but cannot see how you can use science to make such a statement. You can use your beliefs about ultimate reality and theological assumptions but not science. You disagreement with current theologians does not mean that they have not deeply and rationally considered these questions and offered insight to those who want to deal with questions of meaning.

          • lf our universe were supernatural then we expect to see a mental property or power that is not reducible to a nonmental mechanism. If, however, all of their powers and properties can be reduced to nonmental mechanisms, then our universe is natural. Nonmental mechanisms are indifferent to life, so it logically follows that a natural universe is indifferent to life.

            I look at the available evidences and I conclude that mind is a natural emergent property of particular physical configurations of matter-energy, matter-energy is not a supernatural product of a non-physical mind. The process of reaching this conclusion is similar to the process I utilize to conclude that the sun will rise tommorrow and that i should not walk beyond the edge where a cliff begins. It is best fit with the available evidences. When people have to decide how to obtain food, they do not decide to pray, instead they go to the refrigator or a store. And when they buy a refrigerator, they buy a refrigerator designed by engineers, not a refrigerator designed by clerics. This is the way our universe works. For the supernatural versus natural question I turn to the experts for their evaluations about how our universe works and listen to what they say about the laws of physics and biology and the like. The evidences do speak on this question, the evidences have a direction, just like they do on the smaller, day to day questions.

          • georgeyancey

            I have chosen not to get into a theological argument on this topic as I know it will get us nowhere but what you are essentially saying is that natural laws can rule out the presence of the supernatural. That is illogical. If there is a supernatural then it is in a dimension beyond natural laws. You need different types of evidence than what you are citing. For example citing the fact that a particular prayer is not answers is a totally inadequate way of addressing whether the supernatural exists without first a discussion of what that supernatural may look like. Just as I do not go to a priest to find out how electricity works I will not go to a scientist to find out how the supernatural can work. I prefer to deal with someone who has concentrated on thinking about those issues and most scientists have not done that.

          • We do not need a law that “rules out” the feasibility of walking into walls or that “rules out” that the sun will not rise tomorrow to conclude that we should not walk into walls and that the sun will rise tomorrow. All we need to properly justify these conclusions is empirical evidence and inference. You are wrong when you say this method is inadequate to reach a conclusion about whether our universe operates naturally or not. Not only is this method adequate, it is THE ONLY method that we are properly justified to think is reliable in enabling us to accurately model reality. It is the only method with a track record of success. Evidence is how our universe communicates its operation to us. Evidence first, evidence dictates, we should follow the evidences wherever they take us. Intuition, imagination, theological principles, they are good only at producing fiction.

          • georgeyancey

            Your reply actually makes my point. You are endorsing scientism which is the notion that science can find out anything. Well philosophers and theologians have killed that idea. Science cannot prove or disprove whether my wife loves me, it cannot prove or disprove why I exist and it cannot prove or disprove if God made me. It just cannot do it. Science can assess that which is measurable and observable. Those questions have to be dealt with philosophically. How can you say that our universe “communicates” with us? Do you hear it talking? No you have to assess meaning by something other than scientific observation since scientific observation cannot rule out the supernatural. It is like a two-dimension being using two dimension techniques to comprehend a three dimension object. The supranational is a dimension that is beyond our natural senses so tool based on natural senses are inadequate to assess it. This Dawkin’s argument of scientism has been disrespected by any worthwhile philosopher and I accept their arguments more than a scientific perspective trying to answer supernatural questions with natural means.

          • Surely you can notice the difference between my saying that best fit with the available empirical evidence is the only reliable method for reaching conclusions about how universe operates and your “scientism” assertion that “science can find out anything.”? Clearly, there are many things we do not find out, and things we will never find out, as we are limited in time and space to evidences available to us. Yet we can, and we do, infer and generalize on the available evidences, particularly when the evidences are consistent, pervasive, relevant. We do not need to have complete and direct evidences from all times and all places or to be scientists to reliably reach conclusions this way.

            Of course the universe communicates to all of us via evidences. We do not walk past the edge of cliffs because the evidence tells us that our condition would be injured or dead if we do that. Of course the universe isn’t talking with a voice and a vocabulary, it does not have vocal chords, it speaks via evidences, which we can sense via hearing, seeing, smelling, touching.

            We do not rule out anything since evidences continue to be produced and collected as time continues to advance. As we accumulate more evidences we change our conclusion if needed to ensure our conclusions are best fit.

            Leprechauns, invisible dragons, and an infinite number of other such fictions, can all be arbitrarily declared to exist “beyond our senses”. It does not follow that they exist or that we are justified in thinking they exist. Supernaturalism could be evidenced because a supernatural agent could interact with our universe in ways that we can sense. Indeed, in the bible, such evidence of the supernatural is depicted as repeatedly occurring.

          • georgeyancey

            The supernatural by its very nature is not subject to natural scientific laws and thus to expect to use a systematic scientific approach to discover them is simply not realistic. (By the way the bible does not teach that the supernatural occurs on a regular basis and in a way where scientific methodology can capture its occurrence. So to scientifically prove it to be false you have to falsify any claims of miracles throughout human history, something science is not capable of doing.). I will attempt one last time to illustrate the inadequacy of using science to prove or disprove the supernatural before accepting that you will be trapped in the discredited idea of scientism.
            You do realize that there are others who look at scientific information and come to a different conclusion than you do. There are arguments of how the universe is refined to allow life and how the big bang requires a first cause that others have made. I assume you disagree with those arguments but not because the science is wrong but because you have different philosophical assumptions about what science means. Now you are free to state that those who disagree with you are ignorant, wrong, or misguided. However they will probably say the same of you. You are not engaging in a philosophical, and even theological debate. Science does not naturally lead to a conclusion of atheism. To get to that conclusion you have to engage in a philosophical argument against competing arguments that also use scientific information.
            My point is not, at this time, that they are right and you are wrong. My point is that it is not the case that you are using science and they are not. You are both making a philosophical argument. The problem with Dawkins and scientism is the denial that a philosophical argument is being made. It is delusional and to some degree dishonest. It is more honest to argue that one believes that his/he interpretation of scientific findings lead to a certain conclusion. This is the realm of philosophers and theologians. We obviously do not have to accept their arguments but I believe it wise to listen to them and understand that they spend their time thinking about this stuff just as biologist spend time thinking about biological live and sociologists spend time thinking about societies.
            That is all for me to say at this point. If you want to hold on to your scientism, well that is your choice. I think I have demonstrated that scientism is inadequate for answering questions of meaning. For scientific questions I look to science and for other questions I look to other ways of knowing. But at this point I probably will not reply again as I think we are going around in circles. But feel free to leave another reply and have a good day.

          • You say “The supernatural by its very nature is not subject to natural scientific laws and thus to expect to use a systematic scientific approach to discover them is simply not realistic. “.

            First of all, I do not claim that we must use a “systematic scientific approach” to justify our beliefs. We do the best we can with the available evidences, and often we do not have sufficient evidences of sufficient quality and relevance to be able to take “systematic scientific approach”, nor do we each have the time I claim we should reach conclusions, which I am calling our properly justified beliefs, about how our universe works by best fit with the available evidences. We depend on scientists to do that rigorous, time consuming work, while we non-scientists do other work. We share evidences, we continuously build our collection of evidences over time. So we reach new conclusions over time as we collect new evidences and sometimes we revise our conclusions if the overall direction of the evidences pertaining to a particular conclusion changes. The overall direction of the evidences is not always clear, the currently available evidences are incomplete, there is room here for valid disagreements regarding what the evidences communicate. You seem to be insisting on some sort of impossible to achieve standard of absolute perfection and then you claim because we don’t achieve such a perfection it is foolish to take an evidence first approach. But the correct standard is success, and by the measure of success this the only approach that works. There is no such thing as an approach that never fails. It makes no sense to reject an evidence first approach for justifying beliefs about how our universe works on the grounds that it means we cannot always, instantly, perfectly know everything correctly this way.

            In any universe where there are scientific laws, they could be natural or supernatural in orientation. Even without laws, evidences can be supernatural or natural in orientation. You appear to placing excess restrictions on both the capabilities of science and the detectability of the supernatural for what I think is the purpose of excusing the lack of evidence for the supernatural. We disagree in a second way. You appear to think that beliefs about how our universe work are properly justified without relying primarily on empirical evidences. I insist that empirical evidences should always come first and beliefs should follow with the goal being to believe those conclusions that logically are best fit with the available evidences. To believe in conclusions about the universe works without this constraint is promiscuous and counterproductive.

  • Patrick Ramsey

    Hi George. I was pointed to your series on atheists by an old friend who is now a pastor at Stanford. I hope you find the following remarks useful and would be interested in your thoughts in reply.

    You refrained from polemics, but implied that atheists have a higher-than-rationally-warranted degree of confidence in their thesis. Ironically, that makes them guilty of the very failing they ascribe to the religious. Certainly there are some people like that, and if you use the term ‘atheist’ to mean ‘someone who asserts that no god exists’, then you’re talking about them. But that is a fringe group; the irreligious people that I know do not claim to possess cosmic knowledge or join ‘we hate religion’ groups. So your methodology skews your sample far to the extremists.

    We need a word for people who assert: ‘no one should believe in a god’ (or in a particular god) — plus maybe a modifier for those whose rejection is on moral rather than/in addition to epistemic grounds. Those are both ‘atheist’ for practical purposes, and they probably share a lot of sociological features with the people you are talking about, but without the hoist-on-one’s-own-petard irrationality. Unfortunately ‘normative agnostic’ is clumsy and ‘aggressive agnostic’ suggests they’re over-caffeinated.

    Religious people like to believe that the irreligious are also, and unwittingly, religious. But no careful and reflective person is going to be in that position. And by confining attention (as you and a recent Atlantic article did) to militant extremists with a logically incoherent position, an uninformative straw man is set up. To understand ‘secular drift’, the religious really need to look at people who are reasonably and defeasibly opposed to the idea of gods, or to the Christian god(s) in particular.

    Looking at people who identify as ‘agnostic’ might be one way to try to start, although in my opinion discussing the justification (or not) of beliefs gets more to the point than looking at what people happen to actually believe. Most people (I conjecture) are not explicitly focused on being scrupulously rational and their epistemic health might be quite bad at any one time; but (again conjecture) people and perhaps also cultures do tend to drift toward more-rational positions over time, so working on justification is ultimately the way to win them.

    If you must take an empirical rather than a normative approach, I would suggest looking at all the irreligious, i.e. everyone who answers “Do you subscribe to a religion?” in the negative. The dual pigeon-holes of ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ come nowhere close to representing the logical space of positions available; therefore probably do not well represent actual people-populations either.

    Best wishes and will check back for any reply.

    • georgeyancey

      Hello Patrick. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. This new system does not inform me when others respond as well as the old one. I agree with you that there are atheists who are quite intrusive and rude while others who simply do not believe in a deity but treat others well. I think our research captured both types of atheists. But what they both had in common was the belief that atheist was the most rational course of action and those who did not reject the existence of deities were foolish. The “nicer” atheists do not go around bashing others but they seem to think that atheism is rational and others beliefs are not. I know that because some of the people we interviewed did not have a desire to intrude on others but they still articulated that atheism is rational while other philosophies are less rational. Now we never implied that we are studying all non-theists. Our conclusions are based on only atheists. I recognize that other types of non-theists do not necessary use this type of rationality legitimation. However as researchers we had clearly identified our research population and for this research it was atheists. I agree with you that there is need for work to investigate the thinking of other types of non-theists such as agnostics and “spiritual not religious” but that was beyond the scope of where we could go for now. Thanks for your insightful comments.

  • DataguyII

    Mr. Yancey, I would like to thank you personally for these blog posts. My wife and I have been pouring over these four posts and comments for over a week now, and we’ve found them very informative. This is the most fair assessment I’ve seen from a Christian regarding Atheism.

    My wife and I have been Christians for decades, trying everything we could to figure out how to find a Christianity that ‘works.’ We’re not as smart as you, but I can say from my experience, i have not found a Christianity that works. The bottom line for me is that I don’t see a version of Christianity that results in people becoming more like Christ. Indeed, it is our experience that the longer one is a Christian, the less they become like Christ. I understand our experience is very limited, but because of this experience, if we are to remain true to ourselves, we have to conclude that Christianity is a farce.

    Fact is that Atheism makes sense to us. As Atheists, we are more free to follow the Golden Rule as Christ taught far more freely than we ever had been as Christians.

    My wife and I have found peace and happiness as Atheists. I hope you can find peace and happiness as well.