Nagel: The Darling of Theists
I can't tell you how many times I have been discussing some issue with theists and they counter my point with something like "Well Thomas Nagel disagrees with you, and he's an atheist." The implication seems to be that if some particular belief is acceptable to another atheist, it should be acceptable to me. It is a blatant appeal to authority (since Nagel is a prominent philosopher).
Let's try a little experiment. The next time a theists espouses some Catholic belief, I should counter with "Well, Jack Chick disagrees with you, and he's a theist." How far do you think that argument would get me? Here's something theists might be interested to hear: Chick's beliefs have more in common with your theism than Nagel's have in common with my atheism. In fact, I'd venture to say that Nagel's beliefs have more in common with your theism than they have in common with my atheism.
And that's what makes him the darling of theists.
Atheism doesn't entail any particular metaphysical view. But it is fair to say that a mainstream form of atheism is a scientific, materialist understanding of the world, based on empirical evidence. I refer to this as rational atheism. Of course, there are other atheistic views, but they depart from the rational scientific mainstream.
Nagel is a philosopher, not a scientist. As such, he often takes an unscientific point of view. He often argues from the same perspective as theists. This is evident in his book Mind and Cosmos. Read more here, here, and here.
Nagel's rejection of materialism and evolution theory sounds very much like a typical religious view:
I find this view antecedently unbelievable — a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. ... I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two. [Mind and Cosmos]Nagel defends religion and upholds the notion that intelligent design is valid science. This reveals his stunning lack of scientific knowledge.
He has engaged in a mutual love-fest with Alvin Plantinga. His reasons for being an atheist are vague and unconvincing. He admits an irrational basis for rejection of theism.
I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative [i.e., theism] as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables — indeed, compels so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose.and
I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.... It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. [The Last Word]The unstated implication is that if not for those irrational reasons, he would probably be a theist. He certainly has expressed no rational basis for being an atheist.
Does any of this mean that Nagel should be regarded as a "traitor" by atheists? Of course not. He is entitled to believe what he wants - the same as anybody else. As far as I'm concerned, his beliefs more closely resemble those of a theist than those of a mainstream rational atheist. Good for him. But don't expect me to be impressed when he is cited as an example of an atheist authority figure.