Making a mockery of the principle of charity: or see how easy it is to ridicule atheism when you don't understand it

People become atheists for all sorts of reasons, but one of the more commonly cited reasons is that atheism is a rational and reasonable position to take based on the lack of evidence for the existence of any sort of god. However, it is not uncommon for religious believers to argue that atheism is somehow based on faith and is inherently irrational, presumably more so than standard religious beliefs. A recent example of an attempt to argue for the irrationality of atheism can be seen in the online magazine Philosophy Now, in a piece by Stephen Anderson, a philosophy teacher in Ontario. A striking feature of Anderson’s article is that he repeatedly claims that he is doing his best to observe the principle of charity, by addressing atheism’s “strongest and most representative form, rather than in any of its weaker or less representative forms.” I find this deeply ironic, as what he actually addresses is a straw man version of atheism that very few atheists indeed would accept as representing their views. Hence, he has not been charitable at all.

Anderson’s article is verbose and convoluted and contains much that is of doubtful relevance, so I will try to summarise the key points as best I can. He begins by noting that although atheism was once a hazardous position to hold, it has now become a respectable and orthodox one that is no longer particularly radical.

Today, atheism has taken its comfortable seat by the fire and has its feet up… Atheism has never been so respectable.

This ignores the fact that in some parts of the world today, professing atheism remains extremely hazardous. Consider for example, recent cases of atheist bloggers being hacked to death in Bangladesh. But I digress. The purpose of Anderson’s article is to examine the credibility of atheism as a philosophical position.

He states that it is important to define what atheism actually is. He then argues that in doing so we should observe the principle of charity, a subject he reiterates many times. A detailed explanation of this principle can be read here. Here is Anderson’s take:

This means we ought to address an opposing view in its strongest and most representative form, rather than in any of its weaker or less representative forms. In charity, then, we must ask ourselves, ‘What is the strongest form of atheism?’

This is actually a decent summary of what the principle means. However, from this point on things take a strange turn indeed. He notes that atheism derives from Greek roots combining the word for god with the prefix ‘a’ signifying negation. (However, this prefix is more usually translated as ‘without’ and is used in this sense in many English words, e.g. acausal, ‘having no cause’.) Therefore, Anderson asserts, atheism claims that “there exists no kind of god.” This definition may come as a surprise to many people who consider themselves atheists, who prefer to define it as lack of belief in gods, which is subtly different from the assertion that gods absolutely do not exist. Vlogger QualiaSoup sums up this view in an excellent video on the subject as “Gods don’t feature among the things that I believe exist.” The claim that “there exists no kind of god” represents what is sometimes called “strong” or “positive” atheism, as opposed to “weak” or “negative” atheism. In practice, positive atheism seems to be very rare, and most self-described atheists are of the negative variety.

However, Anderson will have none of this. He argues that “a less categorical definition” of atheism that “allows for softer forms of skepticism” will not do, because “atheists will surely want to reject that.” His argument is that a “less-than-firm stand on the question of the existence of a Supreme Being” is already known as agnosticism, and that atheists will not be satisfied with agnosticism because it is no more than a personal declaration of one’s own lack of knowledge that fails to bind anyone else. Hence, the “strongest” and hence most charitable version of atheism in his view is positive atheism. I consider this to be a weird application of the principle of charity. As he stated earlier, according to this principle, one should address the “strongest” version of an argument. Usually, this is taken to mean the most persuasive, most reasonable, and therefore the best version. Yet in this case, Anderson conflates “strongest” with the most literal and extreme meaning he can think of. Anderson also stated that according to the principle of charity we should address the “most representative” form of atheism, yet the definition he provides hardly seems representative of what most atheists would consider the best and most reasonable form of atheism: a lack of belief in gods due to the absence of evidence that any such entities exist. 

In order to buttress his argument that a less absolute form of atheism is not acceptable to atheists he gives a silly and convoluted example of someone being agnostic about the existence of Denmark because they have never been there. He then argues with no evidence whatsoever that an agnostic who has no personal knowledge of the existence of gods “has no logical reason at all to insist that no one else can possibly have such knowledge.” This is because some people do claim to have actual knowledge of god’s existence, so agnosticism cannot be generally applicable. Anderson does not address arguments that skeptics have made that these kinds of “knowledge” that some people claim to have (e.g. personal experiences of a mystical nature) are not valid claims about objective reality, or that knowledge of the existence of god may actually be impossible. Instead, he proceeds to argue that atheists will not be satisfied with mere agnosticism because it “does not sponsor the kind of firm commitment implicit in atheism.” (Perhaps he has never heard of agnostic atheism?) He then goes on not only to argue that atheists cannot admit to any sort of uncertainty, but to insist that this really is a charitable interpretation of what atheism is actually about in the real world:

If I'm wrong about this, I'm open to being challenged: maybe atheists don’t mind pulling the deadweight of those who may be less than firm in their metaphysical doubts. But the charity principle seems to suggest we must accord atheism the firmness its most passionate advocates want it to have. Thus we have to take atheists at their word, understanding their claim as being that there is ‘no God.’ Period.

Please note that at this point he has not cited the word of a single one of these “most passionate advocates” to prove that they actually do insist that atheism must be the claim that “there exists no kind of god.” Later on he even acknowledges that Richard Dawkins, surely one of the most passionate advocates of atheism today, does not actually insist on this level of firmness. I will return to this point later. For now, I will briefly look at the remainder of his arguments.

He rambles on at great length at this point, in order to make two arguments that atheism is inherently irrational. Firstly, he disputes the claim that atheists’ disbelief is based on evidence. His argument is that because atheism involves an absolute negation of the existence of gods, that this would only be justified if atheists had absolute proof, which would require them to have godlike knowledge of everything in the universe. Obviously this is silly, so atheists are deeply silly people who do not realise just how illogical and irrational they are. To further hammer home his point he makes a second argument, accompanied by yet another convoluted and inane example, that atheism requires proving a negation to be true, which is clearly impossible, and therefore atheism is ridiculous.

He then goes on to say something I found infuriating in its smugness:

Now, we have been trying to be kind to atheism, not going beyond what it claims. We have done our best to observe the principle of charity in describing its essential features.

Tried to be kind?? Not gone beyond what it claims?? He still has not specified who actually makes these claims that he thinks are so ridiculous, and yet he still insists he has done his best to be charitable! Is this some kind of joke? Remember that the principle of charity means that one is supposed to address the “most representative” form of an argument that one wishes to argue against. Yet he then goes on to state that Richard Dawkins, “contemporary atheism’s most famous proponent” does not actually endorse this view of atheism. Anderson argues that Dawkins has “realised the problem” that “atheism simply is not a rational choice” and “publicly declared himself a ‘convinced agnostic.’” As evidence of this he links to a YouTube video with the misleading title Richard Dawkins: I can't be sure God does not exist.

However, what Anderson fails to note is that in the video Dawkins acknowledges that he is an agnostic, and states that the problem he has with that term is that for most people it connotes a stance that there is a 50-50 chance that god exists, whereas he regards the probability of god’s existence as “very, very low”. Hence he refers to himself as a "de facto atheist". He goes on to point out that in his book The God Delusion he argued that it may be useful to rate belief in god on, say, a 7-point scale, where 1 represents “I know god exists” and 7 represents “I know god does not exist.” As for Dawkins himself, he would rate himself a 6.9 on the 7-point scale.

Anderson argues that Dawkins only seems to use the term atheist as a “rhetorical flourish” and that deep down he understands how deeply irrational atheism really is. In spite of Anderson’s repeated insistence that he has been as charitable as possible, this take on what Dawkins actually thinks is about as disingenuous as could be. Since Dawkins has taken pains to be clear that his version of atheism is not the same as the “irrational, ridiculous” version that Anderson critiques, then surely the most charitable interpretation is that Anderson’s version of atheism does not accurately represent what Dawkins means by the term in the first place. After all, critiquing a straw man that no-one actually believes is the complete opposite of what the principle of charity entails.

Anderson’s final paragraph indulges in some cheap cynicism about why atheism has become so popular in academia, stating smugly that since atheism cannot be justified on a philosophical basis it must be just empty posturing. I would be so bold as to venture that perhaps it has become so popular in academia because most academics are smart people who have a better grasp of logical reasoning than Anderson shows here. Anderson seems to reveal something of the true nature of his motives for writing this egregious piece of sophistry near the end: 

As for the Supreme Being, if He has seemed reticent to weigh in on this debate, it is not too surprising. Those who claim to know something about Him have often insisted that God is particularly uninterested in bowing to the demands of the hard-hearted cynic.

My response is “Good luck with trying to convince anyone of the existence of the Supreme Being with this pretentious bit of non-logic supported by no evidence.”

Anderson ends his piece with this charming bit of prose:

Even by our most charitable account, we have seen that atheism is a disingenuous, bombastic claim to certainty, one without evidence or logic. What then can one call it but foolishness?

As I hope I have made clear, Anderson’s version of atheism is not a charitable one at all, but a nonsensical caricature, ironically itself without evidence or logic. Hence if anyone is guilty of being disingenuous, bombastic, and foolish, it is Anderson himself.

I dedicate this article to the memory of my old school friend Sean McGerty, who sadly passed away in August 2015. I hope this article is something he might have enjoyed. 

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. 

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Comment by Craigart14 on August 20, 2015 at 10:15pm

I didn't actually read past his Humpty-Dumpty definition of atheism.  As the OP points out, the "a" preceding English words such as moral, gnostic, sexual, causal, and many others is ordinarily rendered as "without."  Worse, though, is Anderson's butchery of the word "theism," which he seems to think means "God," though to the rest of the English speaking world it means "religious belief."  A simple word that means "without religious belief" has come to mean "I am positive there is no God"--in the name of charity, of course.  Therein lies the problem of philosophy: It's an intellectual exercise without any basis in fact.

Comment by Michael Penn on August 16, 2015 at 7:53am

Here we go again with articles by a philosopher, and so many people wonder what philosophy a person has studied to become atheist. I'm even asked that question on other blogs by many theists. To me it's a non-question and I don't give a tinkers dam what philosophers say.

Having studied for the ministry in earlier life (Pentecostal no less) I finally discovered I was atheist in 2012 after listening to a series of lectures by former minister, Jerry DeWitt, on You Tube. I was simply amazed! I had felt this secretly for years and Jerry validated my experience. I got into lectures by Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins and others at that time as well.

Now to the real "key" of me being an atheist, you have to go into every aspect of how we got the gospels, and how we got our Bible. I had studied it before, but one must study the real truth here and not apologist bunk. The "holy scriptures" do not stand on their own except as plagerism and nonsense. There is no truth in any of the Abrahamic religions or anything else out there. God did not write a book or instruct anybody else to write a book. The very idea is absurd. Use your own logic, reasoning, and evidence.

It follows that god is imaginary and there is no proof of anything supernatural.

Comment by Gerald Payne on August 15, 2015 at 1:07pm

Anderson's critique shows the difficulty of having to defend a discredited idea. His categorising of atheism into levels of dogma, and insinuating these are gradations of some atheistic faith, are foolish. ''Metaphysical doubts'' as he so charitably describes them are not due to a lack of belief, their due to disbelief. The problem facing theism is not atheism but theism itself. Sticking all their doctrinal eggs in the basket of faith has left them exposed to a form of reality creep.  

Comment by John B Hodges on August 15, 2015 at 8:48am

Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled "Philosophy's Ulterior Motives", in which he argued that many philosophers had a strong desire to believe in some abstract general position on metaphysics or ethics or something, and were not able to believe comfortably except on what they thought were rational grounds. (I am paraphrasing, since I do not have the essay immediately available.) The more learned, skilled, and intelligent the philosopher, the more subtle and complex must his fallacies be, for him to achieve his desired state of intellectual conviction. "This is why philosophy is obscure." In other words, many philosophers are world-class rationalizers, believing what they want to believe. The difference is only that they are VERY GOOD at it.

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