Can Atheists Receive the Benefits of Theism?

(For a follow-up to this post, see my March 21 entry.)

In reading Julian Baggini’s “Heathens Progress” blog, I am impressed at how hard he tries to be objective in the theist-atheist debate. Although he’s an atheist, he often takes his fellow “heathens” to task, and he acknowledges positive aspects of religion that non-believers tend to ignore.

On January 5, for example, he posted “Can it be rational for the religious to be non-rational?” In this post and the next (January 12), he showed why the answer may be a qualified “yes.”

“We heathens may be proud that we have refused to sell off our reason to pay the unacceptably high price of faith. But we should admit that as a consequence, others are enjoying the rewards of their purchase while we have to make and mend do with alternatives that are adequate, better in some ways, but very possibly inferior overall.”

Seeing erroneous belief as the price people pay for practical benefits “offers atheists a richer credible error theory for why people persist with religious belief. Putting it down to just human stupidity or wishful thinking won’t do.”

Baggini also provides solid support for what I call broad-spectrum agnosticism. “[Decades of research in psychology have shown us to be unreliable, distorting, self-serving creatures who routinely reason with prejudice.” It is difficult or impossible to think our way out of these limitations. In fact, highly intelligent people “sometimes seem to be more capable of distortion than others, since they are clever enough to construct whatever argument they need to prop up what they already believe.”

Have you known bright people who outsmart themselves, glibly rationalizing irrational behavior? I certainly have!

Because we tend to be irrational, some philosophers despair of knowing anything at all, but I do not agree with such extreme skepticism. In principle, I admit that radical skepticism could be correct. In could be, for example, that the entire universe came into being five minutes ago, in a way that endowed every person with false memories of past experiences. But setting aside such unlikely scenarios, what we know about human cognition demonstrates that our beliefs are sometimes highly accurate, sometimes off-base but good enough to get by, and other times almost totally unreliable.

Obvious cases of well-justified beliefs: I’m now sitting in a chair, I’m quite hungry, and as I glance out the window I see that it’s sunny. These are the kinds of concerns we were evolved to address, and we deal with them well.

Politics and religion, on the other hand, are hard for us to get right. Although I have strong opinions in each of these areas, I know that I am probably wrong in at least some significant ways. Such issues are complex, involving many unknown factors. They also tend to be emotionally loaded. Complexity and emotionality befuddle us, especially in combination.

Even so, some of the reasoning power that helps us get ourselves in out of the rain also enables us to figure out some important things about more challenging issues. I’ll explain what I mean in a subsequent post.

Julian is also interested in finding atheistic analogues of traditional spiritual practices. His January 12 essay begins, “I’ve recently started praying. Well, not exactly praying …” He’s spending a few minutes each morning reflecting on topics such as: how he should be living, his responsibilities to others, his own failings, and being grateful for his relative good fortune.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister I have suggested something similar to UUs who are atheist or agnostic: Find out what “sings the god-song” for you. What plays roughly the same positive role in your life that belief in God plays for theists? Those who reject the concept of god can look for a related concept, a conceptual cousin of theism. Or if you dislike the very idea of deity, then just add an o to “god” and focus on your vision of the good.

Baggini doubts that non-theistic spirituality will ever amount to more than “small, fringe movements. Much as I appreciate the non-realist Sea of Faith movement and the non-creedal Unitarian church, there just isn’t a strong enough reason for most people to join such groups.”

Since he’s from the UK, I assume he’s referring to the Unitarian Church in England. American Unitarian Universalism is somewhat different, but we certainly aren’t as large a denomination as I would hope. Even so, it may take a long time to shape new ways of meeting age-old psychological and spiritual needs. Success in this endeavor is not assured, but it’s well worth the effort.

Roger Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Julian Baggini’s Quest for Common Ground


In his Heathen’s Progress blog on November 25, Baggini noted the “complaint that ‘new atheist’ criticisms of the supernatural aspects of religion miss the point. If that’s true, then it should be possible both to set the atheists straight and establish the credibility of religion by clearly stating what faith without silly, primitive beliefs looks like.”

I’m glad Baggini is addressing this topic. I have found it extremely puzzling to read statements such as these:

“Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions.” — James P. Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief, p. 31 (For more comments on this book see my postings on October 25, November 18, and November 21, 2011.)

Similarly, philosopher Mark Johnston scoffs at Dawkins and his allies, referring to them as “undergraduate atheists.” In Saving God, p. 39, he writes, “The ‘undergraduate’ atheists, if we may call them that without reflecting adversely on actual undergraduates, uncritically share a defective premise with their secret fundamentalist allies, namely, that religion is essentially supernaturalist . . . (Did they meet in a back room with the fundamentalists, long ago, to agree to collaborate in the task of obscuring real religion?)”

Importantly, Johnson says most churches are peddling idolatrous superstition. But since he knows that few churchgoers would agree with his theology, he could actually make common cause with atheists, applauding their critique of popular religion.

“[T]he worry,” writes Julian, “is that people who do not at all represent real, existing religion are defending it by appealing to characteristics it doesn’t actually have.” Indeed, and I also appreciate his suggestion that it may be better to focus on agreed-upon values rather than on theories about what Douglas Adams called Life, the Universe, and Everything.

In his October 12 post Baggini affirms “the sacred trinity of open dialogue, mutual respect and finding common ground.” Even though I’m a Unitarian, that’s a trinity I can revere.

In the same essay he critiques Jonathan Chaplain’s proposed basis for theist-atheist dialogue: “We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant and therefore proceed in debate on the basis of an attitude of mutual intellectual respect for each other’s convictions.”

“Of course I do not think that theistic beliefs can ‘legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant’”, Baggini replies. “It is precisely because I think belief in God lacks sufficient (and so reasonable) epistemic warrant that I don’t believe in him.”

He goes on to say that “I also keep channels of communication open out of disrespect to my own intelligence. When you look out into the world and see that it’s insane, you have to accept the likelihood that you probably have your little pockets of insanity too.”

Exactly! So here’s a common-ground proposal that may get at what Chaplain is driving at:

“We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can be held by sincere, intelligent and knowledgeable individuals. We therefore enter into dialogue on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s search for truth.”

What do you think? If we truly believe this statement, is it a sound basis for fruitful conversation?

Roger Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.