Monday, November 12, 2007

the motivations of militant atheists

Over at Dr. Vallicella's blog is this comment, the boldface portion of which I would like to address:

The first thing that came to my head upon reading your quote of Grayling is that the militant atheist seeks the comfort of bearing no eternal consequences for his actions. Thus, the atheist, being all too human, has the same psychological needs as the theist he berates. So, of course, I was quite pleased when the Maverick Philosopher capped his fine essay with the same point. ;)

Overall, I think it is effective, as you have done, to point out that atheists have the same alleged psychological flaws and intellectual failures they identify in theists. This is akin to the point I have been making in distinguishing ideology from religion. Both the ideologue and the religionist embrace their first principles with faith, as they must if they are to act with purpose on those principles. So the problem is not with faith, as the ideologue might complain, but what a man puts his faith in.

(And not to belabor the point from previous threads, but what I mean by faith is one's intellectual assent to a proposition that is shown by reason to be true if not absolutely certain.)

In the case of the atheist, I thought you did a good job of citing a number of things the atheist must hold in faith (or even worse, superstitiously) to maintain a naturalist view of the universe.

Finally, Bill, I think your point about religion not being so comforting as the atheist caricaturizes it is well done. I will also say that this supports my argument in the previous thread that religion is not a species of ideology.

I'm not a militant atheist, nor can I presume to speak for atheists, but I suspect that most atheists would scoff at the above claim in boldface. To say that all people are driven by powerful psychological needs is, at best, trivially true. To go further and claim that atheists in particular are trying to evade cosmic consequences is to assume that atheists possess some deep-seated fear of cosmic consequences to begin with. On what is this assumption based?

The above claim strikes me as more of a small-minded riposte than an accurate description of the atheistic mindset. Theistic philosophers have often tried to show that scientifically minded atheists are somehow the mirror image of their theistic counterparts-- You think we're superstitious? Well, you're superstitious, too! And here's how! The tactic occasionally has merit but often seems childish; it also reinforces the increasingly popular view that religion, while still strong in the world, is largely on the defensive.

I do agree, however, with the remark in Dr. Vallicella's post (to which the above comment was appended) that it is a mistake to view religion merely as a crutch providing comfort. True: some elements of religion do serve that comforting function, but religion also (1) makes stringent ethical demands and (2) paints a picture of the cosmos that is, in its particulars from tradition to tradition, frequently far from comforting.

But if we grant that the religious worldview is often discomfiting, it seems only fair for those who engage in "mirror, mirror" tactics to note that the atheistic viewpoint is equally, if not more, discomfiting: human beings face the Void (here I use the term in the existentialist sense) alone and unsupported, benefactors of an insignificant uniqueness conferred by our placement in space-time while totally lacking cosmic specialness. To the atheist, we are not the cherished progeny of any deity. Life, as per Nabokov's bleak assessment, is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Not a particularly comforting thought for most of us, wouldn't you agree?


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