Atheists Have Affirmative Positions On The Status Of Evidence And On The Standards Of Belief

Atheists Have Affirmative Positions On The Status Of Evidence And On The Standards Of Belief February 21, 2011

In reply to my defense of what is sometimes called “Evangelical Atheism” on my personal Facebook page, Greg Teed thinks my account comes “so close” to correct but argues that I missed something crucial:

All good points, but there is a radical difference *in kind* between what atheists/skeptics promote and what the religious evangelical proselytizes. Sometimes the content matters. Given that atheism is skepticism with regards to a particular claim, what is the content of skepticism…?

There is a difference between teaching what to think and how to think. Analogously, and on a philosophical level, there is a radical difference between teaching affirmations and teaching critical skills, and that difference is not only in the teaching itself – it is in the content.

Evangelism implies (possibly even entails) an “affirmation” to teach. Skepticism is the only philosophy that is critique-based rather than affirmation-based. It is the only philosophy that advocate thinking critically about everything, even itself. No other philosophy does that.

Evangelizing doubt (a critique-based way of thinking) is self-contrary, if not downright self-contradictory.

What do we teach children? To courageously question everything. What exactly are we evangelizing there?

There are a few issues raised by this thought-provoking remark.

For me, my activist “evangelical” atheism is indeed personally an extension of my life’s work as a philosophy teacher and academic philosopher.  I do feel a strong urgency to attack not so much wrong opinions but fallacious and authoritative forms of reasoning themselves which have tremendous, unwarranted, and potentially deleterious cultural, political, psychological, moral, and epistemic power over people’s lives.  And I do feel like it is a philosopher’s duty to get involved on the side of reason itself in the broader culture.  I see it as an extension of my responsibilities as an educator, and, more specifically, as an extension of my responsibilities as a philosophy teacher.

But, advocating atheism itself is not the same thing as simply teaching critical thinking.  And, in fact, in my actual philosophy classroom, which is devoted to teaching people critical thinking rather than advancing positions, I do not advocate atheism.  I focus on guiding my students through major arguments so that they understand them and I help my students dialectically sort out their own views on issues.  On some issues on which my students’ thinking is particularly complacent, I push them harder than others.  Sometimes I help them develop one of their ideas’ implications and sometimes I help them find an idea’s flaws.  But I am rarely interested in my students’ ultimate conclusions themselves.

Now, they are often more resistant to atheistic ideas, so those conversations definitely are more lively and consequently I sometimes play a harder devil’s advocate to them in those debates than when I am giving them arguments in favor of belief in God. But I still give equal time to both sides of the question in total and keep my gloves on in a way that I do not here at Camels With Hammers or in debates with friends and colleagues.

Now it is true that to an extent atheists are often in the unbelievable position of simply advocating critical thinking itself against those who insist that it is not necessary in all matters of beliefs and ethics.  To this extent, we atheists may find ourselves not just defending atheism but skepticism, scientific rigor, statistical reasoning, etc., themselves.  Can one be “evangelical” about these things?


A position like “people should be skeptical of all propositions and only accept them when they are supported by sufficient evidence and are consistent with with scientific knowledge” is itself a hotly contested epistemological, ethical, and philosophy of religion position—at least as far as the broader world is concerned, if not necessarily among philosophers or other academics.  If this point were not controversial, there would be hardly any theists (let alone an overwhelming preponderance of them, as we find).

We atheists are not merely teaching trying to teach people how to think critically, we are actually more fundamentally and more usually in the position of trying to convince them that they should think critically.  This is an ethical position and one that we often get really zealous about advancing.  Sometimes we get so excited and adamant about it that we are plausibly called “evangelical” with respect to our views on it.

And we are not only advancing the affirmative epistmological and ethical position that everyone should proportion his or her beliefs to evidence in general, but all stripes of outspoken activist atheists—from the agnostic atheists who merely lack belief in all deities to the gnostic atheists (like me!) who think they know (though without absolute certainty of course) that there are no personal deities—have an affirmative position on whether one should believe in God or not.

So, not only do we have specific beliefs about the rectitude or illicitness of believing on faith (belief without or against sufficient evidence), we have specific beliefs about the status of the evidence for God.  Some of us believe there is not enough evidence either for or against God and combined with the belief that it is immoral or illogical to believe anything without sufficient evidence, they advance the position that neither they nor anyone else should have a belief in God.  Even if they do not want to go so far as to affirmatively say there is no God, since they think there is not enough evidence for that position either, they at least think they can say that people should not believe in God based on the present state of evidence and the ethics and/or epistemology of proper beliefs.

So, they have affirmative positions, both about the status of belief on both sides of the God question (that it is insufficient) and on the epistemological and/or ethical requirements that all should abstain from beliefs on issues where evidence is insufficient on all sides.

And gnostic atheists who think that all (or at least some) God propositions are knowably false (even though without absolute certainty) have a pretty clear, well-known, and oft-heard proposition to affirm and advance:  “There is no God.”

And beyond just these bare rudiment positions that all reflective, advocative atheists have, there are also numerous other beliefs grounded in scientific, philosophical, ethical or political reasoning which matter enough to different atheists that they advance them alongside (and sometimes inextricably intermixed with) with their own particular atheism.  Not even all atheists agree with the myriad possible positions that any given atheist may “evangelically” raise as legitimate topics for confrontational debate, whether in public or in private.

And what do we teach our kids?  I do not have them, but were I to I would teach them how to think for themselves.  I would teach them about all sorts of philosophical complexities and plausible possibilities with respect to metaphysics and ethics.

But I would not pretend neutrality on the question of whether or not the myths of the Bible are myths.  I would not police their thought, force them to assent to my own views, or shield them from all exposure to religion.  But whereas I find the many atheists who want to treat the issue of religion neutrally with their kids admirable, I would have no compunction about telling my kids that obvious, demonstrable falsehoods are false.  And I would not hesitate to instill important values in my kids–in a way that teaches and encourages them to reason carefully.

In short: I would not just teach my kids critical thinking skills, I would teach them at least a few critical thoughts.

Your Thoughts?

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