Sunday, August 17, 2014

Theists' Attitudes Toward Atheism

Ed Feser describes what he sees as the kinds of attitudes atheists hold toward religious beliefs and practices, and in the process, reveals a bit of his own attitude toward atheists.

First, his categorization of atheists' attitudes toward religious practices:
A. Religious practice is mostly or entirely contemptible and something we would all be well rid of.  The ritual side of religion is just crude and pointless superstition.  Religious morality, where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry.  Even where certain moral principles associated with a particular religion have value, their association with the religion is merely an accident of history.  Moreover, such principles tend to be distorted by the religious context.  They certainly do not in any way depend on religion for their justification.

B. Religious practice has a certain admirable gravitas and it is possible that its ritual and moral aspects fulfill a real human need for some people.  We can treat it respectfully, the way an anthropologist might treat the practices of a culture he is studying.  But it does not fulfill any universal human need, and the most intelligent, well educated, and morally sophisticated human beings certainly have no need for it. 

C. Religious practice fulfills a truly universal or nearly universal human need, but unfortunately it has no rational foundation and its metaphysical presuppositions are probably false.  This is a tragedy, for the loss of religious belief will make human life shallower and in other ways leave a gaping void in our lives which cannot plausibly be filled by anything else.  It may even have grave social consequences.  But it is something we must find a way to live with, for atheism is intellectually unavoidable.

And their attitudes toward religious belief:
1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all.  It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations.  But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it.  Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism.  An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

Thus, according to Feser, an Atheist could be categorized as belonging to one of nine groups ranging from A1 (the worst) to C3 (the best).  This is what Feser thinks of the A1 type:
In Walter Kaufmann’s day, A1 atheism was represented by marginal, vulgar cranks like Madalyn Murray O’Hair.   Now, equally vulgar cranks like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, and Coyne are by no means marginal, but widely regarded as Serious Thinkers.  This is the reverse of intellectual progress. 
I think Feser has an attitude of his own.  It's a shame that he, like so many theists, refuses to listen to what they have to say.

It is interesting to note that these groupings don't adequately express the real attitudes that atheists have.  Regarding attitudes toward religious belief, I think #2 comes pretty close to my own feelings, but it still doesn't hit the nail squarely on the head.  As for the attitudes toward practices, none of them fits my own attitude.  I agree with elements of all three, but none of them completely.  So where I stand in Feser's groupings, I really don't know.

Also, he doesn't describe these groupings in terms of levels of friendliness - least to most.  No, Feser calls them levels of hostility, even though attitudes 2, 3, B, and C don't actually describe any kind of real hostility at all.  What does this tell us about Feser?  I think he sees all atheists as enemies of some kind, regardless of their attitude.  Even the ones in the C3 category are seen as the least hostile, although in my own view, they seem pretty friendly toward religious believers and beliefs.

There are plenty of theists, and even theistic philosophers who seem obsessed with bashing or denigrating atheists at every opportunity.  I don't put Feser in this group, but Victor Reppert seems to devote half of his posts to "gnu" bashing of one kind or another (interspersed with somewhat less frequent appeals for Socratic discussion).  While Victor is relatively soft-spoken in his own remarks about atheists, there are many others who are much more openly hostile.  For example, see Atheist Watch, Militant Atheist Exposed, itsnobody, and many, many more.

This proclivity for hostility toward atheists is not merely a reaction to the advent of the "new atheists".  It has a long history, dating back many centuries, to times when theocracies outlawed atheism, heresy, and apostasy.  The guilty were subjected to all manner of punishment, including imprisonment, torture, and execution by the most gruesome means imaginable.  Oh, come to think of it, there are still theocracies who execute people for the crime of not believing.  In the United States, atheists are generally reviled.  We still have laws banning atheists from holding public office in some places.  We have religious media celebrities blaming atheists for natural disasters and everything bad that happens.  We have people like David Marshall who spread pernicious lies about the agenda and ideology of atheists (equating contemporary secularism to communist ideology) in the guise of scholarship.  Hatred toward atheists is widespread, and has been for a very long time.

Is it any wonder the "new atheists" are tired of all this, and want to speak out?

Victor's latest post shows clearly how many theists will cast aside any semblance of justification for their hatred.  If you provide financial support to the Dawkins Foundation, it isn't because you agree with the goals of the foundation.  You must be a "cultist of gnu" - just because Victor says so.  One of his blinkered followers says,
I said for years that the Cultists of Gnu weren't just cultists - they are people who are being fleeced, every bit as much as Jim Bakker fleeced his flock. The only difference is that if Dawkins gets caught having an affair with his secretary, they can't hit him for hypocrisy. It'd be all too consistent with his principles.
Don't ask these people for rational justification for their visceral hatred.  The best you'll get is quotes taken out of context and gross misrepresentations of his stated position.

Why so much hatred against Dawkins?  I think it's fear.  Reason is the thing they fear the most, because it dispels superstition.  Reason is the mortal enemy of theistic belief.


  1. Well you were doing okay until your last paragraph, then you lost all credibility. We don't like Dawkins because Dawkins is a hateful, petty, juvenile little jerk, and completely irrational to boot. There is literally nothing to fear there, but plenty to be contemptible about.

    1. "Dawkins is a hateful, petty, juvenile little jerk, and completely irrational to boot."

      So much for your credibility. Would you care to make a rational argument? I'm listening.

  2. Do you want me to whip out the endless Dawkins quotes that illustrate my point? Granted, if you agree with Dawkins then you will of course try and defend them, but to anyone else, he comes across as a pompous and arrogant person. But if you desire, I can provide the quotes, along with quotes from his peers and other anti-religious bigots if you wanted to get even more broad on why we dislike New Atheists for hosts of reasons that have nothing to do with fear.

    Speaking of, care to provide evidence that we dislike Dawkins because we fear his "reason"? I'd hate to be the only one providing evidence instead of pure hyperbole.

    1. Let's address Victor's post as a case in point.

      Victor takes the position that people who support Dawkins' foundation are "gnus" who belong to a cult, and Dawkins himself is the chief "gnu". Any reason for these accusations? Just an article by a fellow Dawkins hater who ridicules the idea that the higher-dollar donors have opportunities to meet Dawkins. Oh, how shameful!

      And what of the accusation of fleecing the donors? Any evidence that Dawkins is misusing the foundation's money in any way? Of course not. As a matter of fact, you can get Dawkins' books for free. The same is true for Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, Coyne, and others. Does that sound like fleecing? What about Reppert's book? What about Feser's? How many of these gnu-haters make their books available for free?

      Just like your own reaction above, what I see from gnu-haters is not a reasoned response to what Dawkins says, it is a visceral response. It is nothing but an expression of hatred. It is this visceral reaction that leads me to believe that they are motivated by fear more than reason.