Sunday, January 01, 2006

Getting Atheists to Take Atheism Seriously

In a recent post to his own blog, philosopher William Vallicella states, "It is exceedingly difficult to get atheists to take theism seriously." I agree, but I would take the point a step further and argue that it is exceedingly difficult to get atheists to take their own atheism seriously. An interesting case in point is atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, author of the excellent book, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press). Despite the fact that he has written a book on atheism, he wrote the following statement in a review of Michael Martin's and Ricki Monnier's book, The Impossibility of God:

... Over the course of 33 tightly argued articles, leading atheologians and atheist philosophers such as Anthony Kenny, Hugh LaFollette, J. L. Mackie, Michael Martin and James Rachels take it in turns to show that God, as defined by many theists, simply cannot exist, on pain of contradiction. Targets are invariably hit, if not always right on the bull's-eye. To have these articles together in one volume for the first time is an invaluable service to anyone interested in understanding why the very concept of God is a nonsense.

That said, I still found the book faintly dispiriting, futile even. Rather than finding myself standing on the metaphorical touchline cheering my team as it chalked up point after point, it seemed to me that everyone on the pitch was engaged in a useless game that no-one was ever going to win. ...
I just don't believe that detailed and sophisticated arguments make any significant difference to the beliefs of the religious or atheists.
For few people of faith would claim that, at the end of the day, the arguments they offer form the basis of their convictions anyway. They would happily admit that they are engaged in apologetics. They know, through faith, that their God exists. ....
(As an aside, I would be interested in understanding Baggini's thoughts about the futility of arguing for atheism as it relates to his own book on atheism, but that's another topic.)
There is obviously a difference between taking seriously the task of providing sophisticated arguments for atheism and taking seriously one's atheism. Those are not identical issues. At the same time, however, it seems to me they are related issues. Probably for many people, the same sort of issue mentioned by Baggini--the perception that theists will never change their mind--is one of the motivations that causes many atheists to be apathetic about their atheism.
For links to a variety of articles on this topic written from an atheist perspective, see the Atheistic Outreach page on the Secular Web.

1 comment:

Jim said...

What exactly does it mean to take one's atheism seriously, and why is it necessary?

Is is a matter of depth of investigation? Political activism? Proselytizing for atheism?

I don't know exactly what Baggini means, but I might say something similar in the sense that as interesting as arguments over propositional assertions regarding God are, I don't believe such propositions are primary to the religious practice or effective beliefs of most theists, most of whom would be at a loss to express what they believe about God in propositional terms. Such things are taken on faith and accepted as "mysteries" where they seem not to make sense (or, in the more liberal end of the spectrum, accepted as myth, symbol, metaphor, etc.)

I haven't read The Impossibility of God, but I remember feelings that could be described as "dispiriting" or "futile" upon reading The Case Against Christianity, for instance. It seemed to me to just miss the point of what the Christians I knew considered important, focussing instead on overly literal interpretation of propositions.

If atheism is taken broadly to include not "being religious", it seems to me that taking it seriously is attempting to understand what being religious is to those who are, rather than projecting our views onto them (I certainly confess that my own atheism has its roots in examining propositions).