Monday, May 5, 2008

The Atheism Project

Though I have not been a Christian since before I graduated from high school, and have consciously thought of myself as a skeptic for at least the past decade, I have never really grappled directly with the question of whether my skepticism amounts to atheism.

I have usually been content casually to think to myself - and occasionally to write in this blog - that atheism strikes me as altogether too dogmatic, and its public proponents too zealous, shrill, and occasionally repellant for it to really be taken all that seriously.

But then, recent work I've done on the consequences of the Darwinian revolution for human self-understanding and moral experience has led me to think that I cannot remain as nicely neutral on, say, the relation between science and religion, as I might have hoped.

Let me put it this way: skepticism calls for suspension of judgment on matters that cannot currently be decided, particularly those that transcend the world of our common experience. Sextus writes of "equipollence", a condition in which arguments for one side and the other of a particular belief are evenly matched in their merits and their flaws, with no way of deciding between them. Then, the skeptic suspends judgment and is at peace, focusing instead on practical affairs in the world of common experience.

Accordingly, I've thought to myself that what I object to in organized religion is dogmatism, not theism per se. I myself am not a theist, but as long as theists do not insist on pushing their views unduly in the public forum, I have hoped, we can all get along just fine.

But can I be so sure of that? Could atheists be correct that there is something so terribly implausible and wrong-headed about theism that equipollence is broken and the suspension of judgment itself suspended? Is it possible that, even while continuing to suspend judgment about what's really going on in the world, back there, behind the curtain, I can at least say: "Whatever it is, it's not the intelligent creator-God of the theists"?

I think it is at least possible, in which case my skepticism does amount in principle to atheism - though in truth it has long amounted to atheism in practice.

So, I'm going to devote some of my time and energy this summer - starting now, as my spring semester has just ended - sampling the recent spate of "new atheist" books. Right now I'm working through what may turn out to be the best of them, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I'll take in Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and others, take a tour through Jacoby's scholarship on the subject, and consider some of the less hysterical replies, including Hedges' recent book, I Don't Believe in Atheists.

Since much of the reading I do outside of my research takes place while riding public transit, I'll be interested to see what happens if anyone notices me reading The God Delusion or God is Not Great on the bus . . .

Wish me luck.


Doc Nagel said...

Is "as long as theists do not insist on pushing their views unduly in the public forum" a counterfactual hypothetical?

It's interesting to me that dissenting voices are often perceived as shrill (some of those you've listed certainly are, but that's not really the target of my comment). Administrators on my campus have taken to the tactic of characterizing faculty dissenters as shrill or uncivil, which seems an obvious attempt to dismiss the content of the dissent... and in turn, it often leads dissenters to speak more vehemently.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
I am going to be an asshole. You proposed that people can believe what ever they want... as long as they don't really believe it.

Think all non-believers will burn in hell? That is great- just don't bother trying to save them. Sure, failing to do so will condemn their souls to hell, but um...

Seriously- if the believers are right they are the good guys- they are trying to save people from a fate worse than death. You can't combat that by asking them not to really believe what they believe- it would work as well as asking communists- or any political group for that matter.

The only alternative is a religion that doesn't touch the real world... which would be sliced by occum's razor.

Robert Kirkman said...

"You can't combat that by asking them not to really believe what they believe"

I'm not asking them not to believe what they believe. As citizens of a democracy, however, we have the right to ask for public reasons to support claims made in the public forum, and to subject all reasons offered to critical scrutiny.

So, if in the interest of saving people's souls certain religious people argue for daft ideas like abstinence-only sex education or intelligent design theory, we can insist they provide evidence and reasons not tied to their particular view of the world.

(I'm presupposing here some recent views of political theory - a dash of Rawls, a little Habermas - that try explicitly to cope with the problem of making decisions together even when we come to the table with radically different views of the world.)

My own interest as a skeptic is in is continuous critical inquiry, suspension of judgment on questions that cannot be decided, and a shift of focus from the unknown beyond to the practical details of everyday life in the common world.

As I said, though, I may be coming around to the view that even though I cannot say for sure what's going on behind the curtain, I can certainly rule out some possibilities, including theism.

Aspentroll said...

What worries me about theism is it's ability to get into government. Huckabee stated he would like to change the Constitution to better serve America as a religious nation if he became President.
McCain has tied himself to the
evangelist Hagee just as Bush did with Ted Haggert.
Atheists have to be bold and
outspoken about religion in government or we will all be led around by the delusions of the over zealous.

Robert Kirkman said...

Yes, that is a serious problem - but not one that necessarily requires an atheist response. There are good reasons to maintain the church/state separation that have nothing to do with belief or non-belief in God. In this, atheists should probably make common cause with moderate theists, skeptics, deists, agnostics, whoever in strident opposition to the incursions of fundamentalist theists. A good place to start, I'm trying to suggest, is to insist on public reasons for claims and proposals in the public forum.