February 5, 2007

"You Atheists Are Just in Denial"

Pedro's recent post at Way of the Mind got me thinking about a criticism I periodically encounter around the blogosphere and in the comments here. According to many Christians, we atheists are simply in denial. Our vast arrogance leads us to refuse to acknowledge the supreme being we know exists. Pedro did a good job of setting this criticism aside, but I'd like to add my thoughts in this post.

The implicit core of the claim that atheists are being arrogant in the rejection of the Christian god has two components. First, many Christians assume that the existence of their god is self-evident. That is, no evidence is needed beyond the observation that one is alive. Think of this as a perversion of Descartes' cogito where "I think, therefore I am" becomes "I am, therefore the Christian god exists." The second component is the conviction, deeply held by many Christians, that atheism involves the elevation of humankind to the status of gods. Some Christians simply cannot fathom an existence in which one does not believe in gods. This leads them to misconstrue atheism as an elevation of humanity to godlike status.

The existence of god or gods is not self-evident.

I think the truth of this statement is fairly obvious to anyone who has spend time studying theology or philosophy. The volumes of philosophical and theological material produced throughout the ages serve as clear evidence that the existence of the Christian god is far from self-evident. Generations of people do not base their entire careers, or branches of entire fields of study, on offering evidence for or against something which is self-evident.

Pedro is correct to point out that disagreement or even dislike of someone or something does not lead us to deny that the object of our disagreement or dislike exists. And yet, this is often what we atheists are accused of when it comes to god. Because we supposedly know in our hearts that the Christian god exists, our denial of its existence must reflect our hatred, etc.

Atheism refers to the absence or lack of theistic belief. specifically, atheists do not accept the theistic claim that any sort of god or gods exist. Thus, the claim that we somehow now that gods exist involves a clear contradiction in meaning. The Christian who wants to commit to this position must argue that atheists and atheism do not exist. This would seem to involve a significant departure from their own bible to say the least.

Atheism does not entail arrogance.

Once again, the Christian who makes this claim is demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism. Not accepting the theistic claim is a far cry from making oneself into a god.

Perhaps a clearer demonstration of arrogance is the Christian who cannot understand how someone could not share his/her worldview. That seems to be exactly what is involved here. The Christian is convinced that everyone must believe in gods. Since the atheist claims not to believe in the Christian's particular god, the Christian insists that the atheist is making humans into gods. But the atheist doesn't agree that there must be gods at all! The Christian's inability to consider this and to assume that everyone must perceive the world exactly as he/she does starts to sound like arrogance.

As an atheist, I recognize that some people share my worldview involving religion and that many do not. I recognize that there are people who call themselves Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. who believe very different things about the world than I do and than each other does. While I may question the degree to which some members of these groups really hold the beliefs they claim, I am content to say that the majority of them probably do believe what they say they believe. This poses no problem. On the other hand, I think Pedro makes a good case that acknowledging the very existence of atheist poses a considerable problem for Christians.

Conclusion

I do not accept the theistic claim that god or gods exist. As there is not one shred of evidence to suggest that this extraordinary claim is true, I see no reason to accept it. When I encounter a great deal of evidence supporting various scientific claims, I am comfortable tentatively deciding that these claims are more likely to be true than to be false. And yet, I hold open the possibility that they may be shown to be false, requiring me to change my previously held positions. I fail to see how this makes me arrogant or how it involves any sort of denial.

The Christian who wants to accuse atheists of being arrogant or of denying truth needs to look in the mirror. It is hard to conceive of anything which better captures arrogance and denial than the sort of faith in which believers take pride.

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