What Atheists Want

What we atheists want is for people of faith to say “It’s possible” rather than “It is so.” We want them to say “I believe,” not “I know.”

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Recently, a few Christian philosophers have endorsed the view that believers have every right to treat their basic intuitions about a sacred order in the same way that all of us treat ordinary perceptual beliefs: they may be trusted in the absence of disconfirming evidence. So, just as I’m permitted to trust that the image of a tree formed by my visual cortex reliably indicates that a tree really does stand in front of me, Christians are entitled to trust that the feeling of God’s presence reliably indicates that God really is present. In other words, these philosophers argue that Christians are justified in applying the generous epistemic principle we routinely apply to perceptual beliefs – “If it seems so, it is reasonable to assume that it is so” – to beliefs about a transcendent order.

Even though such epistemic generosity is not without its difficulties, let’s grant for a moment that these philosophers are correct. It would then only seem fair that the same latitude be granted to atheists, whose experience and reasoning have persuaded them that a loving deity does not preside over the universe. If Christians are entitled to trust their perception that God exists, then atheists are justified in trusting their perception that God does not exist (Michael Martin refers to this as the negative principle of credulity). Is there any reason why an atheist’s experience of reality – assuming, of course, that it is rooted in epistemic diligence and sincerity – should not count just as much as a Christian’s?


Of course, both experiences of reality can’t be correct. They are, in fact, fundamentally incompatible. To resolve the issue, some of these same philosophers then suggest that atheists either have “unredeemed” perceptual faculties that require divine rehabilitation or that they are willfully suppressing the truth. On what grounds can such claims be made other than pure prejudice? To me – to all atheists, I imagine – they represent the height of arrogance.

While some atheists admittedly will insist that any option other than a strict materialist view of reality is indefensible, I am proposing the far more modest claim that an atheist’s understanding of the world simply be acknowledged as the outcome of sound and sincere belief-forming practices. I’m perfectly willing to grant that believers see the universe as they do for very good reasons, but I expect the same courtesy to be extended to me – and to all atheists, for that matter. However, here in the U.S., it is the Christian’s worldview that is taken to be “self-evident” and the atheist’s that is “skewed” or “deficient,” perhaps due ultimately to unresolved anger over the premature death of a loved one, or to an unfortunate experience with fundamentalism as a child – to anything other than an honest effort to make sense of our world.

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