Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers
7. Take Philosophy Seriously.
When religious believers accuse atheists of having no rational basis for ethics, no metaphysical answers, or no account of the meaning in life, etc., they are raising serious and legitimate philosophical questions for us to address. While atheists should push back against demonizing attempts to “Other” which imply that we are in practice especially amoral or immoral, nonetheless we should not at the same time evade the serious questions about the intellectual foundations of our philosophical and practical views by claiming these are only ever raised to villainize us.
It is one thing to rightly assert our social and political rights to be treated equally and not marginalized as second class citizens or slandered as an untrustworthy segment of society. Yet, it is another thing to wrongly ask exemption from answering difficult philosophical questions about our positions. And if we had historically done a better and more vigorous job of making the range of positive godless philosophical approaches to the world known, the false accusation that atheism offers nothing of philosophical, moral, or emotional sustenance would be false on its face to people, instead of sounding so plausible to so many of them.
Atheists (and, really, all reflective people) need well-developed understandings of what (if anything) makes moral norms objectively binding, of what (if anything) makes good things objectively good, of what the best decision procedures for moral actions are, of how best to inculcate good values in the future generations, etc. These are deeply serious questions of enormous potential importance to the future of humanity. Detailed, deeply insightful answers have been developed, can be developed, and are being developed by truly cutting edge philosophers past and present, and their work should be studied vigorously by atheists.
Atheists should not be impatient with the questions’ difficulties and just declare the issues simple matters of common sense, defaulting unreflectively to some dogmatic assertion of either the obviousness of contemporary secular Western morality or of the obviousness that all morality is relative. What is especially embarrassing is when the same atheist does both—makes morally indignant arguments against religious beliefs and in the next breath dogmatically assumes moral relativism and blithely dismisses the prospect of moral truths altogether. Not having a mastery of all the complexities of a difficult subject can be frustrating, but that is not an excuse for just dismissing the topic as serious or as difficult and giving superficial answers instead. That’s what creationists do with biology and philosophy. Atheists need to be as literate in philosophy (and especially in ethics) as they are in biology.
Atheists should never allow themselves to be complacent and wave away serious questions just because they are not scientifically resolvable or because they require difficult and sometimes ambiguous philosophical choices. And it is not philosophers’ fault that philosophical questions frequently admit of indeterminate solutions which often raise as many questions as they answer. It’s not like we’re just assholes who just don’t know when to leave well enough alone. The natures of the concepts and the limits of the tools for understanding make these issues difficult. But it is irresponsible to deal with this sometimes maddening complexity by evading the hard, technical work of developing the best and most nuanced answers possible. The questions do not vanish if we simply avoid them. All that happens in that case is that our thinking is sloppier and less scrupulous, and false ideas out of sync with reality are more likely to propagate and have harmful consequences.
Where they are uncertain, atheists should be honest, rather than pretend they have firmer intellectual justifications and consistencies than they actually do. Neither should they try to downplay the questions as illegitimate or merely offensive when they are really just philosophically challenging. And I, for one, encourage strongly against atheists just defaulting to relativism and nihilism out of a specious assumption, promoted by the religious to their own benefit, that without religious belief there can be no basis for objective values or morality. If you really do want to thoughtfully defend such relativism or nihilism, then others have every right to ask you about the tenability of your ethical views for the future. What would a self-consciously relativistic or nihilistic atheistic culture look like? What would it tell its kids? How would it satisfy people’s desires for wise guidance in the difficult tasks of character formation and articulating the best notions of justice, etc.?
And atheists should accept that at least some metaphysical questions are legitimate.
Metaphysical questions arise from rigorous investigations into the implications of concepts that we are most committed to, both logically and scientifically. And tentative metaphysical speculation is valuable, even if must be tempered and qualified. There is nothing inherently illegitimate about the religious believers’ insistence we address some of the questions they think are important. Their own answers to metaphysical and moral questions may be, in many ways, very unpalatable, childish, implausible, anti-scientific, outdated, superstitious, immoral, stagnant, regressive, closed-minded, fallacious, authoritarian, and dogmatic. But pointing that out is not enough if we cannot produce anything better.
Atheists also need to take questions of meaning seriously and respond to important questions about how we would pass on narratives of meaning and values to future generations in the necessary systematic ways if we have no recourse to the mechanisms long provided by religious institutions.
And, finally, it is worth stressing that a great deal of attack on faith beliefs is essentially philosophy. It involves arguments from epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, logic, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. Philosophy is integral to developing not only a coherent picture of the world and not only an effective reply to religious demands, but also a massive arsenal of means for critiquing and exposing false ideas—including and especially faith-based ones.
My own views on metaethics are sketched in posts such as the following:
The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)