Why do religious believers and non-believers see one another as irrational?

Why do religious believers and non-believers see one another as irrational?
Stephen Law

How reasonable is it for the religious to believe the central tenets of their respective religions? According to many atheists: not very. Atheists usually suppose it is in each case unreasonable for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahá'ís, Quakers, Mormons, Scientologists, and so on to believe what they do.

The religious person usually takes a different view of at least their own religious belief. They suppose science and reason do not significantly undermine, and may indeed support, the core tenets of their own faith. The same is true of non-religious theists. They consider their brand of theism is reasonably, or at least not unreasonably, held even if no particular religion is. Indeed, many consider atheism unreasonable.

Even when participants in discussions between atheists on the one hand and defenders of some variety of religious or theistic belief on the other include intelligent, philosophically sophisticated and well-informed people striving to think carefully and objectively, they still often arrive at strikingly different conclusions regarding the reasonableness of their respective beliefs. Consider this hypothetical discussion between Peter and Ada, which I take to represent fairly standard views on either side.

Peter is an intelligent, educated, contemporary Christian. Central to Peter’s faith is his belief that the Judeo-Christian God exists and that Jesus was resurrected. Ada is an intelligent, educated contemporary atheist. Ada believes there is no God, and that there was no resurrection. Peter and Ada engage in lengthy and detailed discussion of my central question: how reasonable is it for Peter to hold the Christian beliefs he does? Together they carefully consider Peter’s Christian beliefs, the various arguments he offers in their support and Ada’s arguments against them. Peter and Ada do their level best to come to a fair and impartial assessment of the reasonableness of Peter’s Christian belief. Nevertheless, they arrive at very different conclusions. Peter concludes, on the basis of the considerations he explores with Ada, that his Christian belief is reasonable, or at least not unreasonable. Ada, on the basis of the same considerations, concludes that Peter believes unreasonably, notwithstanding both the arguments at Peter’s command and his claimed religious experiences. Ada’s assessment is shared by many atheists, including myself.

Let’s also suppose what is quite likely to be true: that Peter and Ada disagree about how reasonable it is for Ada to believe atheism is true. Ada maintains it is reasonable for her to embrace atheism. Peter concludes that Ada’s atheism is unreasonable.

I begin by focusing on some of the explanations Peter might offer for (as Peter sees it) Ada’s error in judging that Peter believes unreasonably.

Though I focus here specifically on Christian belief, the points made below in many cases carry over to many other varieties of religious belief

I'll now sketch three answers to the question: If atheists like Ada are mistaken in supposing Christians like Peter believe unreasonably, what explains their error?

(1) Wishful thinking. Atheists like Ada reject Christianity and condemn it as unreasonable not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true.

Those who attempt to explain mistaken assessments of the reasonableness of Christianity as a product of wishful thinking sometimes quote atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who in his book The Last Word, says:

It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.[1]

This may be the view of some atheists, but is it the view of many? Surely the Christian message is one of hope. It provides numerous attractive reassurances, especially about death and justice. In particular, it promises we can be reunited with our loved ones beyond the grave, that people will ultimately get their just deserts, and so on. These are appealing beliefs for most of us.

Indeed, that Christianity is not, as a rule, the sort of thing people want to be true is fairly obviously contradicted by the manner in which Christians tend to promote it. They often place at least as much emphasis on how wonderful it would be if Christianity were true as on any intellectual case in its support.

But perhaps we've overlooked some of the less attractive aspects of Christian belief, aspects that might yet motivate someone like Ada to condemn it as unreasonable when it's not? Consider the following variant of the wishful-thinking explanation.

(1.1) Atheists don’t want to believe in eternal damnation

In his book The Last Superstition, the philosopher Edward Feser quotes Nagel in support of the view that many secular intellectuals reject religion because they don’t want it to be true. Feser then adds:

Atheism, like religion, can often rest more on a will to believe than on dispassionate rational arguments. Indeed, as the philosopher C.F.J. Martin has pointed out, the element of divine punishment – traditionally understood in the monotheistic religions as a sentence of eternal damnation in Hell – shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is.  For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting hellfire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this.[2]

On Feser’s view, the presence of this unappealing thought in Christianity - that divine punishment awaits unbelievers - shows that people are just as likely to disbelieve Christianity as a result of wishful thinking as they are to believe.

Feser is fairly obviously mistaken, I think. It may be true, as a general rule, that the unappealing character of a thought makes it less likely to be believed. However, there's an obvious exception. An exception is when the unappealing thought takes the form of a threat: believe or else.

I once received an email chain message claiming that if I forwarded the message to two friends I would receive good fortune, but if I failed to forward the message I would be cursed with bad luck. The appealing thought that I would receive good luck if I did as I was instructed was obviously intended to incentivize me to pass the message on. But then so too was the unappealing threat of bad luck if I didn’t. The email waved both a carrot and a stick at me, the stick providing me with at least as much incentive to act as the carrot.

A recipient of Feser’s traditional Christian message is presented with a vastly more impressive carrot and stick combination. The carrot includes the promise of everlasting life for those who truly believe; the stick includes the threat of eternal damnation for those who don’t.

Feser is correct that an atheist like Nagel won’t want it to be true that hell awaits those who fail to believe. But then neither do I want it to be true that, as a result of my failing to forward that email message, I will receive bad luck. It does not follow, in either case, that the unpleasant character of the threat functions, on balance, as a disincentive making it less likely that recipients of the message will do as they are instructed. On the contrary, the inclusion of such a threat typically makes it more likely the recipient will do as they're told, not less. I discarded that email message not because of the unappealing threat it contained, but despite the threat.

There is a further limitation to this particular diagnosis of why it is that atheists fail to recognize the reasonableness of theism or Christianity. Many Christians, including theologically sophisticated Christians, reject the doctrine of eternal damnation. So, even if the thought of eternal damnation were off-putting, it would only put people off those varieties of theistic belief that involve the doctrine.

Here’s another variant of the wishful-thinking explanation.

(I.2) Atheists don’t want to submit themselves to God’s moral authority.

Some Christians suggest that those who reject Christian belief as unreasonable do so because they do not want to submit themselves to any external, objective moral authority. They want to be able to pursue their own selfish agendas unfettered by the thought that what they are doing is against God’s will.

This explanation is also implausible. Most atheists believe that they have objective moral duties. They believe it's an objective fact that they ought not to steal, lie, and so on. So it's untrue that atheists, as a rule, have a problem with acknowledging the existence of objective moral constraints on their behavior. That can’t be the explanation for their assessment that Christian belief is unreasonable.

Indeed atheists do not, as a rule, have any particular difficulty holding beliefs requiring them to act in ways that are not in their own self-interest. They usually strive to behave in accordance with what they take to be their moral duties, even when such behavior is disadvantageous to them personally. This fact significantly reduces the plausibility of the suggestion that atheists are moved to reject Christianity/theism because Christian belief prohibits them acting in their own self-interest.

No doubt there are aspects of mainstream Christian teaching that are particularly off-putting to some. Take traditional Christian sexual teaching for example. It's not implausible that gay people will be more likely than others to reject the widespread Christian belief that gay sexual relationships are sinful. However, most atheists aren’t gay, so a desire to engage in such relations can’t explain their failure to believe. Further, most actively gay atheists are aware that they are welcomed by – and can even be married within – at least some religions (including even some Christian denominations). This still further reduces the plausibility of the suggestion that even their atheism is largely motivated by wishful thinking.

Wishful-thinking-based explanations for the failure of individuals to appreciate the reasonableness of Christian belief also run into obvious trouble with those tortured individuals who struggle valiantly to keep their faith but lose it nonetheless. Their rejection of Christianity does not appear to be motivated by wishful thinking. Quite the opposite.

To summarize: wishful thinking may play some role in producing atheists like Ada, but what evidence we possess regarding the beliefs and desires of atheists provides little reason to suppose it plays any significant role. Indeed, we might plausibly suppose that Ada would, on balance, actually much prefer it if Christianity was true, not false. As a matter of fact, so would I.

(2) Atheists fail to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief because they are ignorant of the Christian message and/or the strength of the intellectual case in its favour

Is this true? One recent U.S. study found that those self-identifying as atheists and agnostics scored better on average on a general religious knowledge quiz than did the religious. They also had a better knowledge of Christianity, on average, than did those self-identifying as Christian.[3] It does not appear to be ignorance of the Christian message that accounts for widespread lack of belief, at least not in the U.S.

Might non-belief or disbelief be better explained by a failure to appreciate of the power of the arguments both for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity? Most professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students possess at least a passing knowledge of those arguments. They also have considerable training and expertise in assessing the cogency of arguments. Yet a recent PhilPapers survey indicated that, globally, only 14.6% of professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students favour or lean even towards theism, let alone Christianity.[4]

The above statistic might prompt some Christians to claim that the proportion of theists is at least higher among those specializing in the philosophy of religion (perhaps about 70%, most of whom are Christian[5]), and that this in turn supports the view that a greater familiarity with the arguments for theism, and indeed Christianity, does indeed lead to an increased likelihood of belief. However, even if it were true that a higher percentage of philosophers of religion are theists and Christians, that would not, as it stands, support the conclusion that this is a result of them having acquired a better appreciation of the strength of the case for theism and Christianity. Philosophy of religion is more likely to attract committed theists and Christians in the first place. Indeed, a recent survey of philosophers of religion revealed that while philosophical training and engagement did indeed lead to belief revision among the 151 respondents, 'the direction of this revision was most frequently in the direction of theism to atheism.'[6] This suggests greater familiarity with the arguments for theism and Christianity doesn't increase belief, but, if anything, tends to decrease it.

Setting aside these more general worries with the above explanation of atheist belief, there remains the obvious problem that the explanation does not apply in Ada’s case. We stipulated that Ada is philosophically sophisticated individual familiar with Peter’s Christian beliefs and the arguments at his disposal.

(3) A faulty God-sense/IIHS?

A third explanation for the failure of atheists like Ada to recognise the reasonableness of Christian belief begins with the thought that some people can know directly that God exists by virtue of their possessing a reliable sensus divinitatis or God-sense. Such individuals need not infer that God exists. God just directly makes himself known to them via this additional, reliable, God-given faculty. According to Alvin Plantinga, it may be ‘perfectly sensible’ for such an individual to believe in God. Plantinga says:

[suppose] I have a rich interior spiritual life… it seems to me that I am in communion with God, and that I see something of his marvelous glory and beauty, that I feel his love and his presence with me. Then (unless I’ve got some powerful defeater, and we need not hypothesize that I do) a response that involves believing that there is such a person is clearly perfectly sensible.[7]

So why do atheists like Ada fail to have direct awareness of God’s existence and consequent reasonable belief? According to Plantinga, because their sensus divinitatis is malfunctioning as a result of sin:

Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has been damaged.7

According to Plantinga, the failure of atheists reasonably to believe in God is, at least in part, a result of their possessing a faulty, sin-corrupted God-sense.

Plantinga might offer a similar explanation for the failure of atheists reasonably to believe the great truths of the Christian Gospels. On Plantinga’s extended A/C model of how such beliefs might be warranted, knowledge of and reasonable belief in such truths, including the truth of the resurrection, might be had through the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit (IIHS). On reading the Gospels, the Holy Spirit illuminates what is read and causes the Christian to recognise that it is true. But why, then, on reading the same Biblical passages, does the atheist not benefit from a similar revelation? Presumably, because sin somehow smothers or blocks their epistemic access.[8]

How plausible is the sin-blocked-sensus/IIHS explanation for the failure of atheists to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief? Most religious people concede that many atheists are virtuous, moral people – sometimes at least as moral as many of their Christian counterparts who nevertheless appear to enjoy such revelatory experiences. So why, assuming these atheistic individuals are not significantly more sin-ravaged than their Christian counterparts, do they not similarly enjoy the benefits of a reliably functioning sensus divinitatis and the revelatory activity of the Holy Spirit when reading the Gospels?

Suppose Peter claims to enjoy just the sort of revelatory experiences that Plantinga supposes a reliably functioning sensus divinitatis and the IIHS might deliver. Ada lacks these experiences. Yet, like many atheists, Ada doesn’t appear particularly sinful. We might plausibly suppose she appears at least as virtuous as Peter. Perhaps more so. But then the sin-based explanation for the failure of Ada reasonably to believe what Peter reasonably believes seems to fail in this case.

What if the sin-blocked nature of the mechanisms that might otherwise provide an atheist with reasonable belief in both God and the great truths of the Gospels is accounted for not by that atheist’s own personal sin, but by the sin of others? Perhaps, as a result of the general damp environment in which it’s currently located, Ada’s car won’t start. Similarly, because of the sin-filled environment in which she is currently located, Ada’s sensus divinitatis won’t work. It’s not her own personal sin that’s caused the malfunction, but her sin-filled environment.

We've rescued the sin-based explanation for Ada’s failure reasonably to believe in God and Christianity, but only by introducing more puzzles. Given that Ada and Peter occupy much the same environment, why does its sin-filled character cause Ada’s sensus divinitatis to malfunction, but not Peter’s?

We might similarly wonder why it is that the virtuous members of other religions who have heard the Gospel message also fail to recognise its truth. Presumably it’s not their own personal sin that is blocking the IIHS. But if it’s our more general sin-filled environment that’s responsible for the blockage, why is it that Peter receives full epistemic access via the IIHS while neither Ada nor, say, Peter’s virtuous Muslim colleague sitting next to Peter in the same library and reading the same Gospel passages does not?

Of course, if the only sin that really matters – the only sin that blocks an individual’s epistemic access – is that of not believing in the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, then atheists like Ada as well as those of other religious faiths are indeed all sinners in the requisite sense. Peter, by contrast, though he might in other respects be less virtuous than Ada, would be, in this vital respect, sin-free. That, we might suppose, is why Peter enjoys these revelatory experiences while both Ada and Peter’s otherwise-equally-virtuous Muslim colleague do not.

But notice that if that is how we understand Ada’s sensus divinitatis and IIHS blocking sin, we can’t now explain Ada’s failure to believe as a consequence of her sin. For our explanation would then be circular. Our explanation for Ada’s failure to believe would be that she fails to believe.

In summary, what evidence there is concerning the way in which immorality, belief, and such revelatory experiences are distributed tends not to support such sin-based explanations for the failure of atheists to recognise the reasonableness of theistic and Christian belief but, if anything, to undermine them.

I'll digress here briefly to examine a variant of the sin-blocking explanation offered by philosopher William Lane Craig. According to Craig, when the Holy Spirit works in atheists to reveal the truth of Christianity, they deliberately block this activity:

… when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.[9]

Notice Craig’s diagnosis of how sin can block or smothers the internal activity of the Holy Spirit brings us back to the first of our four popular explanations: wishful thinking. On Craig’s view, the atheist in whom the Holy Spirit has been at work does, at some level, know that God exists and Christianity is true. However the atheist deliberately suppresses or rationalizes away this knowledge because they don't want to have to face it overtly.

Craig’s variant of the wishful-thinking explanation runs into much the same difficulties that plague other wishful-thinking-based accounts. Most obviously, it's clear many atheists and agnostics really do desperately want Christianity to be true, and struggle valiantly, if ultimately without success, to retain their faith.

Explanations and ‘just so’ stories

The explanations outlined above aren't supposed to be exhaustive, but they're intended to illustrate something of the range of explanations available to Peter. Peter might suppose Ada’s failure to recognise the reasonableness of Peter’s Christian belief is due to (i) some intellectual weakness of hers (e.g. Ada is ignorant of, or lacks the intellectual ability to appreciate the strength of, the case for considering Peter’s Christian belief not unreasonable), (ii) her own emotional or spiritual resistance to that case, or (iii) something else blocking or interfering with mechanisms that might otherwise deliver that recognition. These explanations might be employed individually or in combination.

However, the explanations examined have various drawbacks. The first two explanations don't apply to someone like Ada whom, we are supposing, is as intelligent and aware as Peter of the claims and the case for Christianity and who does not find Christianity unattractive.

Of course, Peter might suggest Ada and other atheists who say they don't find Christianity unattractive are deluding themselves. They say they don’t find it unattractive, but deep down they do. That may be a possibility. Still, this suggestion faces an obvious drawback: it's a ‘just so’ story. There is little in the way of independent evidence to suggest that it is actually true.

The sin-blocked sensus divinitatis/IIHS explanation suffers the same flaw. Perhaps we can know that, if God exists and Christianity is true, it is likely God would both furnish us with a sensus divinitatis and also make the truth of Christianity known by some similar mechanism. However, even if we can know that, if God exists and Christianity is true, then such mechanisms probably do exist, what independent evidence is there not only that such mechanisms exist, but that the failure of atheists like Ada to recognise that belief in God and Christianity is not unreasonable is due, even in part, to their sin-blocked nature? Little, if indeed any.

Notice that the kind of explanations offered by Peter tend to be offered not just to account for the failure of sceptics to recognise the reasonableness of other religions, but also to account for the failure of sceptics to recognise the reasonableness of belief in various other new Age and fringe belief systems. Suppose Sally believes, on the basis of testimony of others and her own subjective sense that such things exist and communicate with her, in the existence of disembodied spirit guides. She finds that many are sceptical and think she believes unreasonably. To explain this, she might appeal to a combination of wishful thinking (people don’t want to be distracted by other-worldly considerations from their selfish pursuit of material wealth and power; also, they often find unattractive the thought that they inhabit a world in which invisible beings monitor their every move, stripping them of all privacy), ignorance (people are unaware of the good evidence that exists for such beings), a blocked spirit sense (it has been corrupted by worldly concerns, or perhaps the spirits can see some individuals are not yet ready to receive their spiritual wisdom), or the activities of other, less benevolent disembodied beings who have an interest in blocking our spiritual development and who consequently work to blind people to the reality of spirit guides. Notice these explanations suffer much the same drawbacks as Peter's. Wishful thinking? But many sceptics would like to believe in spirit guides. Ignorance? But many sceptics are by no means ignorant of the evidence Sally finds compelling. And of course, Sally's last two explanations are also 'just so' stories: they might be true, but there's little if any independent reason to suppose they are true.


I turn now to explanations atheists like Ada might offer for the failure of a Christian like Peter to recognise the unreasonableness of his religious belief. In fact, I'll stick to just one explanation, which I call the X-claim explanation.

Humans have a remarkable capacity for generating false but nevertheless impressively rich and seductive systems of belief. One variety of false belief to which we are particularly prone is belief in hidden agency. We’re quick to appeal to hidden, extraordinarily or supernaturally gifted agents when presented with a mystery. When we couldn't understand why the planets moved in the way they do, we concluded they must be agents – gods. When we couldn't otherwise explain natural diseases and disasters, we supposed they must be the work of malevolent agents, such as witches and demons. When we couldn’t explain why the seasons rolled by, or why plants sprang back to life in the spring, we supposed that these events must be the responsibility of sprites, or nature spirits, or other agents. As a result of this natural tendency to reach for hidden agents when presented with a mystery, humanity has hypothesized countless hidden beings and developed remarkably rich and complex narratives about them.

Often associated with belief in hidden agents is a belief in super-powers and super-faculties. The hidden agents themselves often possess such powers and faculties. Super-faculties - spirit-senses, god-senses, psychic powers, and so on - are often also invoked to explain how our knowledge of and communication with the hidden agents is possible. So, for example, mediums claim the uncanny ability to psychically communicate with the dead, and some religious claim to have a sensus divinitatis or god-sense.

Our susceptibility to these kinds of belief system is well-documented. Many intelligent, educated people have proven vulnerable to some of the most outlandish examples (indeed, the sophisticated often prove more adept at providing rationalizations for holding beliefs to which they have already been powerfully drawn – research suggests the sophisticated are more prone than is the average person to confirmation bias in such circumstances[10]). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that quintessentially rational fictional character Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies, and was successfully hoaxed by two little girls armed with nothing more than paper cut outs and a film camera. Millions of people, many smart and well-educated, believe the absurdities of Mormonism and Scientology, and some 130 Million US citizens believe in a God that miraculously created the entire universe some time within the last ten thousand years.

Very often, these beliefs systems are rooted in a combination of (i) testimony – anecdotes supposedly originating with eyewitness to miracles, precognition - and (ii) subjective experience - people claim to 'just know' their dead Auntie is in the room with them, that they have a guardian angel, or that God speaks to them, for example.

Let's call X-claims such claims concerning the existence of such mysterious hidden agents and associated magical and/or extraordinary powers, faculties, objects and events. X-claims are claims about which we are notoriously unreliable. There are a great many false positive beliefs. Indeed, such claims, even when they might initially seem extremely well supported, are regularly successfully debunked.

Given these facts about X-claims, we should be very cautious about taking them at face value. This is not to say that no X-claim is true, or could ever be reasonably believed. But, knowing of our remarkable proneness to false positive belief in X-claims when that belief is grounded in some combination of testimony and subjective impression, it's surely unwise to accept any X-claims on just that sort of basis.

Let’s now turn to the question – how likely is it that someone like Peter might come to believe that a belief system like Christianity is reasonable even if, in reality, it's unreasonable?

The answer is, of course, quite likely. Christianity, as understood by someone like Peter, is built around a core of X-claims - claims about a gods, angels, miracles, and so on. And, as we should all know by now, human beings have an impressive track record of being convinced about the truth and reasonableness of such beliefs quite irrespective of their actual reasonableness. There’s every reason to expect a belief-system like Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism to appear reasonable to a great many people even if it is not, in fact, reasonable.

So an atheist like Ada can easily explain why someone like Peter might consider Christianity even if it is not. For Christianity is an example of a variety of belief - X-claim belief - about which we are notoriously unreliable judges of reasonableness. Notice that this explanation of Peter's error is also not a 'just so' story. There really is excellent evidence that we are highly prone to misjudge such beliefs as reasonable when they're not.


What conclusions can we draw from the above observations? We shouldn't conclude that there really is no adequate, non- 'just so' currently explanation available for why many atheists like Ada might misjudge the reasonableness of Christian belief. For there remains at least one obvious candidate explanation that I have yet to mention. The fact is that disagreements about the reasonableness of positions are widespread across many arenas, including the political, philosophical, and even the scientific. We humans are fallible, and even the best and most informed of us regularly make mistakes, including mistakes about what's reasonable and what's not. So Peter can explain Ada's supposed error in this way: it's a consequence of this all-too-common human fallibility that we're already very familiar with. Ada and atheists like her have just made an honest mistake. And this explanation is also no 'just so' story - our human fallibility is a well-established fact.

However, I noted already that a majority of professional philosophers tend to be atheist, with less than 15% even leaning towards any sort of theism. There has been a dramatic collapse in religious belief among professional philosophers over the last century or so. Why so, if not because they have figured out that such beliefs are, in fact, pretty unreasonable? Even within philosophy of religion, where professional philosophers tend to be Christian, it appears that, in so far as philosophers change their opinions in light of argument, more tend to shift in the direction of atheism. So, while Peter might perhaps not implausibly explain Ada's supposed error by appealing to common-or-garden human fallibility, I think even this sort of explanation is far more plausibly applied by Ada with respect to Peter's supposed error.

I now want to draw five morals in light of the above discussion concerning how Peter and Ada might usefully approach each other in debate and argument.

1. There's a tendency among the religious to take offence at comparisons drawn by atheists between religious belief and other supernatural beliefs such as belief in ghosts, fairies, etc. No doubt some atheists do just want to belittle and bait the religious by making such comparisons. However, it seems to me that, given that the X-claim explanation of why Peter fails to recognise the unreasonableness of his Christian belief looks fairly plausible and certainly is no 'just so' story, drawing such a comparison can be very appropriate. I certainly intend no offence by drawing it. I don't think the religious should take offence.

2. Atheists should not suggest that religious folk are stupid. Unfortunately, many do. While there is some evidence that a lower IQ correlates with increased religiosity, the fact is that most popular religions - even the most absurd - can boast adherents at least as smart as myself. I count among my close friends Christians with impressive intellects. They aren't fools.

3. I suggest honesty is the best policy. Christians who, like William Lane Craig, suppose the sin of rejecting God is so momentous that deathbed atheists really deserve to burn in hell ought not to attempt to hide that opinion for fear of causing offence (Craig doesn't do this, of course). First off, most atheists have thick skins. We know we're a highly distrusted minority (more Americans would rather have a pot-smoking President than an atheist one, for example). Secondly, I for one would much rather understand what my intellectual opponent really believes about me than have them disguise it. After all, if a Christian really believes that, as an unrepentant atheist, I am hell-bound, they surely have a moral duty to warn me. I understand and appreciate that. I think we atheists should be similarly honest. I consider Christian belief of the sort defended by Peter to be pretty ludicrous: scarcely less ludicrous, in fact, than many other religious belief systems that Peter himself would probably find ludicrous (such as Mormonism and Scientology, for example). I think I should be honest about that, rather than disguise my opinions for fear of 'causing offence'. For obvious reasons, dialogues between belief systems where the participants try to disguise their beliefs and deal in half-truths are unlikely to be helpful in terms of getting at the truth. Nor am I convinced such deceit is even the best policy when the aim is merely getting along. If Peter tells me he believes that, being an atheist, the depth of my moral depravity is so deep as to qualify me for eternal damnation, I'll be a little shocked. But I'll be happy to discuss that with him. If, on the other hand, he chooses to hide this assessment from me, then there is a good chance that I'll nevertheless detect his attitude. If you'd feel sullied after having shaken hands with a mass murder like Pol Pot, imagine how sullied Peter may feel after shaking hands with me. I doubt Peter could keep such moral revulsion entirely under wraps. And my detection of his deceit is, in turn, likely to make me suspicious and distrustful of him.

4. A little mockery and leg-pulling is, in some circumstances, entirely appropriate. No one should abandon a belief because others laugh at it. Nor should any religious person or atheist be mocked merely to cause them distress. However, while humour should not take the place of rigorous criticism, it can enhance the latter's effectiveness by breaking the spell of deference and 'respect' that belief systems are capable of casting over us. In Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes, the small boy who points and laughs breaks the spell: he allows everyone else watching the naked Emperor see they have been duped, to recognise the absurdity of their situation.  Of course, some authoritarians (be they religious or atheist) who revel in pomposity and demand overweening respect are aware that humour can unmask them, which explains why they are particularly fearful of it (I am now thinking of Charlie Hebdo). I am more than happy for others to pull my leg. I hope they won't mind if I sometimes pull theirs.

5. Atheists should understand the often good motives of those who evangelize. After all, Christian evangelists really are trying to save us atheists. The stakes couldn't be higher. If I could only save someone from a dangerous fall by rudely grabbing them and shouting my warning in their face, I would. I will generally forgive those who strive, by behaving with similarly urgency, to save me from a fate literally worse than death. I certainly don't expect the religious to keep their beliefs to themselves.

[1] (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press 1997). p130).
[2] The Last Superstition (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2008) p. 10.
[3] Results of a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life – results summarized at: http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx
[4] Results of the Philpapers survey are at: http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl
[5] In the English-speaking world just over 70 percent of those who specialize in philosophy of religion are theists according to two studies Most of them are
Christian. See Bourget, David and David Chalmers 2009. ‘Correlations with: AOS:Philosophy of Religion,’ in The PhilPapers Surveys. http://philpapers.org/surves/linear_most_with.pl?
A=profile%3AAOS%3APhilosophy%20of%20Religion and De Cruz, Helen 2012. ‘Confirmation Bias or Expertise? The Prevalence of Theism in Philosophy of Religion,’ http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2012/02/one-of-thestri.
[6] Preliminary report of results from the 2013 British Academy funded survey are available online from Helen de Cruz here: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/2013/12/31/results-of-my-qualitative-study-of-attitudes-and-religious-motivations-of-philosophers-of-religion/
[7] Alvin Plantinga, ‘Reformed Epistemology’ in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (eds.) A Companion to The Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell 1997), p. 387
[8] Plantinga’s account of how firm and certain knowledge of the great truths of the Gospels can be had by means of a process of belief formation instigated by the Holy Spirit (a process that brings about belief in those truths in response to the of reading scripture, etc.) is presented in his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). See chapter 8.
[9] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) pp. 35-36.
[10] See Taber, Charles S. and Milton Lodge 2006. 'Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs', American Journal of Political Science 50 (3): pp. 755-69.


Paul P. Mealing said…
I think your X-Claim argument is the best one.

I may have misconstrued you, but when you discuss IIHS, surely that can apply to Muslims as readily as Christians, because both can have an inner experience of God.

Personally, I think religious belief and theism, in particular, is very much a part of one's inner world. In other words, without the human mind, I doubt God would exist, and if God did exist then He, She or It would have no purpose without the human mind, as it is the only connection between the Universe and God. I put this argument to Sye, btw (on his own blog) when he was arguing on your blog, but he never responded to it.

One of the arguments you have not discussed, which I think is the most relevant, is people's belief, not so much in an afterlife, but in the Universe having a 'purpose' beyond the mediocrity of our lives. Regarding this question, I believe science is neutral, which is why some scientists are not atheists, especially amongst physicists.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I hope I'm not being a nuisance, but this short interview with Leonard Susskind pretty well encapsulates what I mean in my last sentence (above).

Note his humility in trying to address the 'Big Questions' - his willingness to concede his and our ignorance.
Robert Overall said…
Hi Stephen,

Intellectually, this article of yours is very inspirationally stimulating to me.


Until now I didn't think it was possible to have a free conversation with a scholar like yourself online period

Unlike you, I have no real academic credentials or degrees to lend any significant credibility to any opinions or statements of fact that I may express in blogs like yours. But I do have an intense interest in critical thinking, especially in regards the many different worldviews that one may encounter on this plane of existence.