Christian Responses: ‘Can atheists be trusted?’

Can atheists be trusted?

Last week Stephen Maitzen, a very fine philosopher of religion, provided the links for two of his papers. The popular distillation of the argument is “Does God Destroy our Duty of Compassion?” (Free Inquiry, (Oct/Nov 2010), 52-53). That is the place if you want a quick overview of the argument. The second paper, ostentatiously titled “Ordinary Morality Implies Atheism,” (European Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 2 (2009), 107-26), lays out the argument more fully. We’re going to spend some time on the topics. I really do recommend you take the time at least to read the Free Inquiry article.

Since I’m still recovering from teaching a one week intensive class, I’ll take a very modest step into the whole debate today by addressing a topic that emerges in the beginning of both papers when Maitzen refers to a recent survey by Penny Edgell et al which shows that “Americans distrust atheists more than any other group…” (“Duty,” 52).That’s not quite true I suspect. Rather, Americans distrust atheists more than any other group surveyed. But I am pretty sure that given the choice of hiring a member of the free thought society or a member of Al-Qaeda that most Americans will choose the former. Still, I also admit this may not seem like much of a consolation. As a general observation atheists are viewed askance. To put it bluntly, atheists are like the Dodge Nitro: they may not be the worst car on the road but they’re not far off.

I think that this is a really important issue to camp on for a bit not least for the enormous practicality of it. So what explains the low esteem in which atheists are held? This is Maitzen’s analysis: “This distrust apparently comes from the widespread belief that atheism is bad for morality and that atheists are therefore morally unreliable.” (“Duty,” 52) Again he writes, “This popular association of morality with theism may explain why atheists showed up as the single most distrusted minority group in a recent opinion survey….” (“Ordinary,” 107). So Maitzen’s analysis is that Christians (by far the largest demographic group in Edgell’s survey) typically reject atheism for having an inadequate meta-ethical framework to ground moral discourse.

I demur. I think that analysis is off by a good bit. In point of fact I don’t think the general distrust is generated by concerns over the inadequacy of atheistic morality at all. So then what is the problem? I would suggest that the problem lies not with atheism but rather with atheists and it is outlined in Romans 1:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

From an epistemological perspective, there are two ways to read Paul’s claim here. Either people naturally have belief in God and certain of his attributes as properly basic or they naturally reason to it from properly basic evidence available in the natural world. Whichever of these two views you take doesn’t really matter for our purposes. What does matter is the consequence. In short, this means that atheists who deny the knowledge which is generally available to everyone are wickedly suppressing evidence that is available to them.

Consider the following analogy. Imagine you are Galileo staring in amazement through your telescope at the moons of Jupiter. It makes no sense: according to the church’s official Ptolemaic cosmology there shouldn’t be movement in the heavens around anything but the earth. And yet these satellites appear to be moving around another heavenly body.

Word has gotten out about your discovery and so a Jesuit astronomer shows up on your doorstep and sternly demands to peer through your telescope. You willingly oblige – after all, you’ve nothing to hide. He does so but instead of admitting your discovery he sternly retorts “I see nothing” and he writes as much in a report back to the Vatican.

Would you still include that Jesuit on your Christmas card list? Not likely. How can that Jesuit scholar possibly deny the evidence right in front of him? And yet he does. It is pretty obvious to you that he did see something. After all, he’s a competent scientist, and he surely isn’t blind. In that moment you conclude that he was suppressing the truth by his wickedness, unwilling as he was to confront the falsity of his Ptolemaic worldview and submit to a new theory.

I submit that this is the way many Christians view atheists, as unwilling to admit what they see through the telescope. The only way that atheists can deny the existence and attributes of God is because of a sinful unwillingness to confront the truth that lies before them.

This means that insofar as atheists are interested in increasing their public image among Christians it will come not by defending an atheistic view of moral objectivism or critiquing the Christian theistic view of moral objectivism. Rather, it will come by challenging the popular view based on Romans 1 that they are sinfully suppressing that which they really do know.

For further discussion see chapter 10 “Not All Atheists are Fools,” in my book You’re Not as Crazy as I Think (Biblica, 2011).