Thanks to Jeremy Pierce and Matthew Mullins for getting me on The Prosblogion. And thanks to those who welcomed me in the comments section.
I want to start with a question: why are atheistic philosophers so much more certain of their beliefs than theistic philosophers are? (N. B.: I’m talking here just of atheistic and theistic philosophers – not the man in the street.)
Let me elaborate a bit:
In my experience, most philosophy graduate students and professors who are atheists seem not to have any worries or doubts about whether their atheism is true – they (or at least the naturalists among them) don’t seem to suffer from the worry that naturalistic atheism might just be some wonderful (or horrifying) dream. Most, or at least many, of the theists I know, on the other hand, seem to have just that worry about theism, or at least about their religious version of it: maybe I believe theism (or Christian theism) because of wish-fulfillment, or just because I was raised that way, or because of self-deception, or whatever.
Moreover, many of the atheistic philosophers I know are quite confidently atheistic because of one (or more) of the following arguments: the evidential argument from evil, the argument that the concept of God (or at least the popular, “three-O” conception) is incoherent or self-contradictory, or the argument that bringing in God doesn’t explain anything that naturalism doesn’t explain better. The theists, by contrast, are often inclined to play defense. Obviously, there are people out there like William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, and our own Alexander Pruss who are happy to give arguments for believing theism, particularly Christian theism, but many Christian philosophers I know think those arguments are non-starters, or at least aren’t Christians on the basis of arguments like that. Instead, they tend to believe in God or Christianity on the basis of religious experience or upbringing, and hold that there is nothing irrational in their doing so.
I admit my impressions may be wrong; perhaps I am one of only a few philosophers who thinks this is the state of things. If so, then of course the above doesn’t really need much of an explanation. But since this is how things seem to me, I’m going to assume I’m right. My wonder about this is: what explains this state of affairs?
Here are a few possible explanations:
- Atheism is just more reasonable than theism, either in the generic form or in any of its religious guises. Because atheism is more reasonable, people who believe it generally feel quite comfortable believing it, whereas those who deny it (and who, like philosophers, are in the business of constantly examining their assumptions) cannot help but to feel unsure about their non-atheism.
- Theism is more chipper than atheism. That is, if theism is true lots of other things we want to be true are much likelier to be true – for instance, salvation in the afterlife, a genuine right and wrong, an ultimately intelligible nature, a meaningful life, etc. Any belief-system that confirms so many of the things we want to be true is one we may suspect is too good to be true.
- Philosophy right now is dominated by atheists. Because theists are in the minority, they generally feel more circumspect in forwarding their conclusions and are less likely to feel invulnerably confident about their beliefs. After all, if most of the smart people you know don’t agree with you about something as fundamental as theism, then you may very well think that there’s something wrong with you rather than them. (Compare this to the situation of the atheist: most of the people around him agree with him; indeed, he might go through his entire graduate career encountering no theists at all.)
- Philosophers have a superiority complex. On this view, philosophers typically invest a lot of their self-esteem in their sense of how intelligent they are. One way of convincing yourself that you’re intelligent is by disagreeing with conventional wisdom about matters – belief in God, for example.
- Skepticism is easy. Skeptical views – atheism, hard determinism, moral nihilism, and perhaps anti-realism – are perhaps hard to live, but are easy to maintain. While it’s true that any skeptical position relies on some positive epistemic principles, it also seems that denying a position often, or perhaps usually, takes less hard thinking than asserting something.
- The religious explanation: All the foregoing were explanations that did not themselves advert to religious principles. But we can add one such religious explanation, stemming from the nature of faith itself: belief in God requires faith, and faith is a habit, or the result of a habit, that has to develop through practice, and perhaps even in a community of like-minded believers. Thus, it is not surprising that there should be fewer theistic than atheistic philosophers; what is instead surprising is why so many non-philosophers claim to be religious.
I think many of these explanations, particularly (2)-(5), have something going for them that explains the situation. Rather than go into my reasons for believing parts of (2)-(5), I think I should leave this one to the commentators.