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.”

BY: James Metzger


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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.

Many of my atheist friends will want more from believers, but I would be perfectly content with a little humility and respect – humility because religious models of reality are not empirically verifiable, and respect because we atheists also do our best to make sense of reality. Our perceptual faculties are not damaged by sin, as some have suggested, nor are we willfully “suppressing the truth.” Like people of faith, we too believe what we do because the evidence we currently have (or don’t have) seems to support our convictions. In fact, because the huge majority of our beliefs arise involuntarily and just “seem so” to us, theists and atheists alike ought to show at least some empathy for those who don’t see the world just as they do. None of us has access to an Archimedean point beyond the self from which to objectively assess reality, and none of us subscribes to our models of reality simply because they are “rational.” Biography always play a role. If both camps were finally to give up on the notion of epistemic privilege, perhaps we shall be able to talk with one another again.

Jim Metzger received his Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University and has taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Luther College, East Carolina University, and Pitt Community College. He has published in several journals of religion and literature and is the author of two books: Consumption and Wealth in Luke’s Travel Narrative (Brill, 2007) and Dim: A Novel (Aberdeen Bay, 2011).

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Related Topics: Faith, Atheism, Belief