In addition to having people of faith hold their convictions about an unseen order with a measure of humility, we also would like our understanding of the world to be viewed as the product of a sincere and earnest attempt to come to terms with reality. Too often, atheists’ worldviews are seen as having their basis not in a quest for truth but in, say, negative childhood experiences with religion or a dogmatic commitment to scientific materialism.
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.
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).