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The 6 Varieties of Atheism (and Which Are Most Defensible)

Atheism

A religion typically has both practical and theoretical aspects.  The former concern its moral teachings and rituals, the latter its metaphysical commitments and the way in which its practical teachings are systematically articulated.

An atheist will naturally reject not only the theoretical aspects, but also the practical ones, at least to the extent that they presuppose the theoretical aspects.  But different atheists will take different attitudes to each of the two aspects, ranging from respectful or even regretful disagreement to extreme hostility.  And distinguishing these various possible attitudes can help us to understand how the New Atheism differs from earlier varieties.

Consider first the different attitudes an atheist might take to the theoretical side of a religion.  There are at least three such attitudes, which, going from the most hostile to the least hostile, could be summarized as follows:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.
 
2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.
 
3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

Obviously one could take one of these attitudes towards some religions, and another of them towards other religions.  For example, a given atheist might take a type 1 atheist position with respect to Christianity and a type 2 atheist position with respect to Buddhism (or whatever).  Or he might take a type 1 attitude towards some versions of Christianity but a type 2 or type 3 attitude towards other versions of Christianity.

Now, among well-known atheists, it seems to me that Quentin Smith is plausibly to be regarded as taking a type 3 attitude toward Christianity, at least as Christianity is represented by prominent philosophers of religion like William Lane Craig or Alvin PlantingaKeith Parsons, by contrast, seems to take at best a type 2 attitude towards Christianity and maybe even a type 1 attitude.  And Jerry Coyne seems almost certainly to take a type 1 attitude, though perhaps on a good day and with respect to at least some varieties of religious belief he’d move up to type 2.  (I’m happy to be corrected by Smith, Parsons, or Coyne if I’ve got any of them pegged wrong.)

Now let’s consider three different attitudes an atheist could take toward the practical side of a religion, going again from the most hostile to the least hostile:

A. Religious practice is mostly or entirely contemptible and something we would all be well rid of. The ritual side of religion is just crude and pointless superstition. Religious morality, where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry.  Even where certain moral principles associated with a particular religion have value, their association with the religion is merely an accident of history. Moreover, such principles tend to be distorted by the religious context.  They certainly do not in any way depend on religion for their justification.
 
B. Religious practice has a certain admirable gravitas and it is possible that its ritual and moral aspects fulfill a real human need for some people. We can treat it respectfully, the way an anthropologist might treat the practices of a culture he is studying. But it does not fulfill any universal human need, and the most intelligent, well educated, and morally sophisticated human beings certainly have no need for it.
 
C. Religious practice fulfills a truly universal or nearly universal human need, but unfortunately it has no rational foundation and its metaphysical presuppositions are probably false. This is a tragedy, for the loss of religious belief will make human life shallower and in other ways leave a gaping void in our lives which cannot plausibly be filled by anything else. It may even have grave social consequences. But it is something we must find a way to live with, for atheism is intellectually unavoidable.

Here, too, a given atheist might of course take attitude A towards some religions or some forms of a particular religion, while taking attitude B or C towards others.  Once again, Jerry Coyne seems to be an example of an atheist whose attitude toward religion lays more or less at the most negative end (A).  Perhaps Stephen Jay Gould took something like attitude B.  Atheists of a politically or morally conservative bent typically take either attitude B or attitude C (though I know at least one prominent conservative who is probably closer to attitude A).  Walter Kaufmann is another good example of an atheist (or at least an agnostic) who took something like attitude B towards at least some forms of religion.  Indeed, he seemed to regard religion as something that speaks to deep human needs and whose moral aspects are of great and abiding philosophical interest.

Now these two sets of possible attitudes can obviously be mixed in a number of ways.  That is to say, a given atheist might take a more negative attitude towards the theoretical side of a given religion and a more positive attitude towards its practical side, or vice versa.  And he might take different mixtures of attitudes towards different religions or forms of religion.  For instance, he might take attitudes 2 and C towards some kinds of religious belief, and 1 and A towards other kinds.  Thus we could classify atheists according to their combinations of attitudes towards the practical and theoretical sides of religion or of a particular religion—A1, B3, C2, and so forth.

An A1 atheist, then, would be the most negative sort, especially if he took an A1 attitude towards most or all forms of religion.  A C3 atheist would be the most positive.  At different times during my own years as an atheist, I would say that I tended to take either a B or C attitude towards the practical side of religion, and perhaps attitude 2 towards the theoretical side (at least until the latter part of my atheist years, when I started to move to 3 before finally giving up atheism).  No doubt I had moments when I probably came across as more of an attitude 1 and/or attitude A type atheist with respect to at least some forms of religious belief—it’s easier to remember specific arguments with people than what one’s general attitude was during a given year, say—but overall I’d say that I probably hovered around B2 territory for at least much of my time as an atheist. (Walter Kaufmann was one of my heroes in those days.  Indeed, Kaufmann’s attitude towards Christianity—which was more negative than his attitude towards other religions—influenced my own, and no doubt helped delay my eventual return to the Church.)

I find that atheists who fall on the most negative ends of these scales—A1 territory—are invariably the ones who are the least well-informed about what the religions they criticize actually believe, and the least rational when one tries to discuss the subject with them. And when you think about it, even before one gets into the specifics it is pretty clear that A1 is prima facie simply not a very reasonable attitude to take about at least the great world religions.  To think that it is reasonable, you have to think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations—Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al.—had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition, more or less rationally groundless and morally out of sync with the deepest human needs.  And that simply isn’t plausible.  Indeed, it’s pretty obviously ridiculous.  Even if all religious belief turned out to be wrong, it simply is not at all likely that its key aspects—and especially those aspects that recur in most or all religions—could have survived for so long across so many cultures and attracted the respect of so many intelligent minds unless they had some significant appeal both to our intellectual and moral natures.

Hence a reasonable atheist should acknowledge that it is likely that attitudes 2 or 3 and B or C are the more defensible attitudes to take towards at least the ideas of the greatest religious thinkers and the most highly developed systems of religious thought and practice.

When one considers the prima facie implausibility of the A1 attitude together with the ill-informed smugness and irrationality of many of those who approximate it, it is pretty clear that its roots are not intellectual but emotional—that it affords those beholden to it a sense of superiority over others, an enemy on which to direct their hatreds and resentments, a way to rationalize their rejection of certain moral restraints they dislike, and so forth.  In other words, A1 atheism is often exactly the sort of ill-informed bigotry and wish-fulfillment A1 atheists like to attribute to religious believers.

And here’s the thing: If there is anything new about the New Atheism, it is the greater prominence of atheists who at least approximate the A1 stripe.  In Walter Kaufmann’s day, A1 atheism was represented by marginal, vulgar cranks like Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  Now, people with similar attitudes like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, and Coyne are by no means marginal, but widely regarded as serious thinkers about religion.  This is the reverse of intellectual progress.  And we know what Walter Kaufmann would have thought of it.
 
 
NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.
(Image credit: Religion News)

Dr. Edward Feser

Written by

Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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  • It's an interesting list, and I'm glad that you can mix and match for different religions. With respect to one religion, there are not six but nine different varieties of atheist and agnostic: A1, A2, A3, B1, etc. With respect to the multiple religions out there, the variety of atheists and agnostics is quite high.

    Also, there are different parts I would like to choose from the theoretical/practical stance toward the religion of Christianity. I'd probably be a 2.5, since I think theism is defensible today but also think that "Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options." And I'd be somewhere between a B and C. I think the Christian religion doesn't provide anything very useful in terms of metaphysics or morality, but provides powerful inspiration for human action. That level and quality of inspiration, to good works and beautiful art, may not be able to be found in anything except the Christian religion.

    • On your first paragraph: Just think of all the possibilities that a musical scale of 12 notes allows! And I don't have to be an astro-physicist or a mathematician to 'intuit/sense' the difficulties this presents in understanding living consciousness, which is possibly on the reasons/explanation why there are 'religions'.!!! I have thought of religion as one solution to the problem of understanding our 'selves'.!!!

    • Kraker Jak

      beautiful art unique to Christendom, may not be able to be found in anything except the Christian religion.

      Does this so called as you say powerful inspiration mean that Christendom is the epitome of inspiration for human action and beautiful artwork, over and above that of other religions and cultures. I must say that you disappoint me Paul. You used to be more objective.....but perhaps that was a mistaken assessment on my part.

      • I've disappointed Kraker Jak. Does this mean I don't get the toy at the bottom?

        • Do you mean you're looking forward to a cartoon!!!

        • Ignatius Reilly

          We did have great art before Christianity: In many ways, Christian art became great when it imitated the Greeks.

          • What I said:

            That level and quality of inspiration, to the kinds of good works and
            beautiful art unique to Christendom, may not be able to be found in
            anything except the Christian religion.

            What I meant:
            (a) There is certain beautiful art and there are certain good works that have distinctively Christian inspiration.
            (b) That level and quality of inspiration may not be able to be found in anything except the Christian religion.

            There's doubtless beautiful art and good works that have a distinctively Islamic inspiration, that may not be able to be found in anything except Islam.

            I don't know if there's a good non-religious substitute for this. Certain non-religious beliefs may inspire scientific research and certain social progress, but I don't see non-religious beliefs providing the same sort of inspiration religion does, to great art and good works.

            But maybe I'm wrong.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't think art is inspired directly by religion. I think art is inspired by our existential crisis, which religion tries to answer. Religion is an inspiration, but not the cause of the inspiration, if that makes sense.

            I think both Norse and Greek mythology have supplied at least as much inspiration as the Christian religion. Personally, I prefer the pagan myths to Christianity, but that may be a matter of taste. In many cases, Christian stories and myths are rather bland. In the early middle ages, Christian theatre involved stories of martyrdom. I much prefer Greek tragedy with its focus on fate or renaissance tragedies. If we could only have one Greek or Christian, I think we would be better off with the Greeks.

          • I personally prefer much about the Greek religion too. The gods are a lot easier to reconcile with the problem of evil, for one thing.

          • Lucretius

            Other than the myths themselves, what art did the Norse myths inspire?

            Christi pax.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Tolkien, genres of metal, and fantasy. Numerous paintings and sculptures.

          • Lucretius

            I was thinking more along the lines of Art in Norse society: what art did the myths inspire in ancient and medieval Norse culture? The Greek myths inspired art in the same society in which the myths themselves were created, but this doesn't seem true in Norse society.

            However, you do make a great point about the myths in later cultures.

            Christi pax.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The Norse myths are art. The Norse paradigm is at least as inspirational as the Christian of Greek. No, they did not have sculpture or theatre, but their geographical region was not as temperate as Greece.
            We actually don't know a lot about Norse art. Partially due to the ravages of time and I doubt the Christian population was particularly keen on preserving pagan art.

          • Lucretius

            I think I said "other than the myths themselves." It's good that you understand that the myths are works of art.

            Regarding Christians and art, it depends. Christians didn't destroy all classical art, for 1) some of it survives to today, 2) they enjoyed it as well. Constantinople was the stronghold of classical art up until the 4th Crusade and the Turks.

            Christi pax.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            But most classical art was lost. Some of it I would very much like to read.

          • Lucretius

            I know. Damn corrosive forces and pillaging soldiers!

            Christi pax.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I am not convinced that Christianity was either a positive or negative force vis a vis the preservation of classical work and culture. I was not trying to argue that Christianity deliberately destroyed cultures at that particular point in time. Historically, Christian cultures have destroyed other cultures, sometimes deliberately. Sometimes assimilation is just a nice word for that destruction. sometimes the assimilation is forced.

          • Lucretius

            sometimes the assimilation is forced.

            I always hear about Christians forcing others to adopt their religion, but I've never found them doing so for the sake of God. I've found Christians forcing natives to be Christian for the sake of the State, but very rarely Christian for Christianity's sake. The closest I've found is the Saxons and Charlemagne, I think.

            Also, since all of classical culture was perserved by Christians (the Greeks thay became Christian didn't just stop being Greeks), I don't think anyone can ultimately claim that Christianity was nothing other than positive overall.

            Christi pax.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't think we can separate Christianity from the culture/state as easily as you imagine. Christianity permeated the culture and it was part of the culture.
            I think one can definitely make the claim that Christianity was a negative force on society, but whether that claim is correct is another question that I am not prepared to answer.

          • Lucretius

            Fair enough.

            Christi pax.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Forgot Wagner!

          • Gordon Reid

            The thought that there is no good non-religious substitute for the level and quality of inspiration that religion provides to art is refuted by Picasso's Guernica. Picasso's Guernica is as inspired as Michelangelo's Pieta.

          • I don't think that's a very good example, since the Guernica would seem to be directly inspired by the Christian religion. For one thing, there's the depiction of the stigmata in the painting. For another, the subject matter of the painting is believed by many to be the Spanish Civil War, a largely religious war, inspired in large part by the Catholic Faith, and about which Traditionalist Catholics still argue.

            There is doubtless great art that is not inspired by the Christian faith. I think the greatest poem ever written is the Iliad, definitely not inspired by the Christian religion. The Iliad lacks the distinctively Christian quality that the works of Michelangelo and Picasso possess. The Iliad instead is inspired by the religion of its time; its opening invokes the Goddess as the source of the poet's voice, and mentions also Hades and Zeus.

            Can non-religious beliefs provide this sort of inspiration?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Can non-religious beliefs provide this sort of inspiration?

            Yes and no. Our religious beliefs are very much apart of our culture. I don't think it is possible to ignore them, nor do I think a great artists would want to ignore them, because within them are many things to draw inspiration from. Without religion we would use other things for our inspiration, such as cultural myths (which is what I think religion essentially is), historical events, and our human experience. Some people paint events from Lord of the Rings. So literature could also provide inspiration.

            It seems we could have something like The Great Gatsby or Monet without religious inspiration. Christian beliefs have inspired great art (they have also inspired some awful art), but I do not think they have inspired the greatest art or are the best inspiration.

          • I think we've laid out our respective positions. I don't have anything more to say at this time except that this has been one of the most productive discussions I've had on this website. Thanks for that.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Thanks. Always a pleasure.

          • Gordon Reid

            Yes, I think you are right that the example I chose was not very good. I, unfortunately, just went with Picasso being an atheist and the theme of Guernica being an anti-war statement to represent non-religion inspired art. Your reference to The Iliad seems much better but it does include reference to the religion of its time. Even though The Iliad does reference the contemporary religion, I do not get the impression that The Iliad has a religious inspiration. I suppose pre-historic cave drawings of animals is our only possible example of art not in some way connected to religion. And even that example may be connected to the religion of the cave dwellers, if they had a religion.

          • Thanks for the reply. Something you point out, that I didn't think about carefully (but should), is that you don't need to believe the religion to be inspired by it.

            Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote several beautiful choral works and hymns, and was an atheist/agnostic (according to Wikipedia).

          • I assert that inspiration respects the chain rule: If A inspires B and B inspires C, then A inspires C. To avoid arguing semantics, I will consider this a definitional property.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            More precisely, it became derivative and imitative. But of course great art has been inspired by many religions, even Islam, which eschews entire categories of art.

            I think what Paul may have meant is that the kind of art inspired by Christianity is identifiable. Or as Toynbee once put it, the West is inescapably ex-Christian and not ex-Buddhist. Nietzsche took note of this too when among those things contaminated by Christianity, he listed atheism.

          • I think what Paul may have meant is that the kind of art inspired by Christianity is identifiable. Or as Toynbee once put it, the West is inescapably ex-Christian and not ex-Buddhist. Nietzsche took note of this too when among those things contaminated by Christianity, he listed atheism.

            Stated better than I could have. Thanks.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Sure, but that is to be expected. If I paint the crucifixion, it is obvious that the art was inspired by Christian beliefs.
            The West is defined by much more than what religious belief has been the most popular in the past 1700 years.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            We must remember that Christendom, as the Western and Byzantine civilizations were once collectively called was a complete life-style and permeated and informed all facets of life. That is because, like Buddhism, it was not a list of do's and don'ts, but a way of thinking about the world.

            "Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin,
            even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution
            is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin.
            The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of
            Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin.
            There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present
            day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin,
            and that is Christianity."
            -- G.K.Chesterton, Heretics

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I'm not sure if I necessarily agree with that. What is the essential Christian paradigm in medieval Europe?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            One is that "truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it." Another is that material bodies have been endowed with the power to act directly on one another; so-called "secondary causation." Another was the codification of canon law, leading to the codification of other secular law. Another was the notion of jurisdiction and autonomy. Another was that of straight speaking. (In other cultures, Important Truths were considered unsuited to the masses, and so books were written with steps omitted from proofs, or with them scattered throughout the text, with circumlocutions, and so on. But in Latin Europe, they were written in clear, straightforward prose.) Toby Huffs book on The Rise of Early Modern Science covers some of this.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Personally that is not what I would have picked. I think the main point of the Christian worldview is the fallen nature of man and redemption.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Hmm. Okay. Perhaps that was why the medievals regarded the betterment of life in this world was a prefigure of the perfection of life in the next, avoiding the fatalism so pervasive in other cultures. Likewise, the inexorable cycles of the universe repeating themselves versus the Christian notion that time was linear, supporting the notion that things have causes rather than simply locations on the Great Cycle.

            I tried to range wider in order to illustrate the ubiquity of the Christian ambiance on Western life. Remember that Nietzsche felt that even atheism was tainted with Christian attitudes; or at least Anglophone atheism was.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Of course Christianity affects all of us. It is part of our culture.

    • Lucretius

      I have to ask you: what do you mean when you say that Christianity doesn't provide anything useful in terms of morality?

      Christi pax.

  • The second list of numbers should be letters, I think.

    • Fixed!

      • Also maybe fix: Now, among well-known atheists, it seems to me that Quentin Smith is plausibly to be regarded as taking a type 3 attitude toward Christianity, at least as Christianity is represented by prominent
        philosophers of religion like William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga. Keith Parsons, by contrast, seems to take at best a type 2 attitude towards Christianity and maybe even a type 1 attitude.

        Please know I have a theory about how this happened, and least in comparison with some difficulties I run into with respect to my posts and 'incoherence'. Thanks Brandon.

        • Sorry, Loreen, but what exactly needs fixing?

          • By contrast (who) seems to take at best...etc. etc. New sentence?

        • Got you. I didn't see the period after Alvin Plantinga. Perhaps it was the spacing. My apologies.

          • Galorgan

            I had the same problem viewing it on my mobile device, even though the problem was mine. I think the way the hyperlinks flow fools the eyes.

          • It's always best when you find the simplest explanation. At least it didn't 'devolve' into an argument!!!! (Thankfully, I reread my now deleted post - and 'saw'!!!)

          • Just got your second thumbs up. Thanks so much for both of them and letting me know I was not 'alone'!

      • Betty Calagoure

        Nope

  • Doug Shaver

    I see nothing here that adds any credibility to Christianity, but it is nice to see an apologist acknowledge that we skeptics don't all think alike.

    • "I see nothing here that adds any credibility to Christianity"

      Then it's clear you missed the main point of the article. Why would you think this article was written to defend Christianity?

      • And thank you for a comparative analysis. I've been attempting same. (It's so much more 'scientific' than a mere contest of arguments!!!!)

      • Doug Shaver

        Why would you think this article was written to defend Christianity?

        Because old habits die hard. Before I found this site, I'd spent many years participating in various forums run by evangelical Protestants. Everything they do is intended to defend Christianity.

        • "Because old habits die hard. Before I found this site, I'd spent many years participating in various forums run by evangelical Protestants. Everything they do is intended to defend Christianity."

          That's a personal problem then. Not sure how to help other than suggest you read an article before commenting and then actually engage its content other than what you expected or wished it had said. Those are basic prerequisites for civil discourse.

          • Lucretius

            The fact that this was posted on an apologetic website does seem to imply it somewhat.

            Christi pax.

    • Also, Doug, I'd be curious to know: using the letters and numbers above, what label would you apply to yourself?

      • Doug Shaver

        I'd be curious to know: using the letters and numbers above, what label would you apply to yourself?

        I would quibble with some of the wording in all of them, such as "atheism is intellectual unavoidable" in C. That noted, if I had to pick a category, I'd like to think I'm 3C or at least moving in that direction.

        When I first got on the Internet some 16 years ago, I was definitely 1B. My attitude has evolved, to whatever extent it has, partly because of my interactions with Christians online and in large measure as a result of my formal study of philosophy.

        The professor for the two courses I took in the philosophy of religion was a protégé of Alvin Plantinga. Near the end of the second course, I remarked to him one day after class, "I have been dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that Christianity is more defensible than I thought it was." His response was simply, "Well, good."

        Of course I'm talking in general terms about both religion and Christianity. Toward some religions and some varieties of Christianity, I have always been and still am firmly 1A. That particularly includes the kind of fundamentalism I once embraced.

        • Michael Murray

          Would you support this part of C ?

          This is a tragedy, for the loss of religious belief will make human life shallower and in other ways leave a gaping void in our lives which cannot plausibly be filled by anything else. It may even have grave social consequences.

          • Doug Shaver

            Not as stated. I'm guessing that the writer attempted to convey some ideas that I do agree with, but I think it was a poor attempt.

            If there were some gadget that could make people's religious beliefs just go away without changing anything else about their thinking, then yes, I think the result would be at least tragic, if not catastrophic. But the extinction of religion, if it happens, will not happen that way. It will be a process of social evolution, and it will take several generations. We'll have all the time we need to adapt in whatever ways we will need to adapt.

            The one phrase I particularly disagree with, and would not even try to rephrase, is "cannot plausibly be filled by anything else." There are countless atheists these days who used to be religious, and many of us can testify that there is no gaping void in our lives. Whatever good things we got from religion, we now get from some other source. Or else we have decided they weren't so good after all, and we feel better rid of them. And we don't think we're all that special. What we could do, anyone else can do.

            But I do agree, if that's what the writer meant to say, that for many people the transition won't be easy. Social evolution of this magnitude never is.

  • Doug Shaver

    Now, among well-known atheists, it seems to me that Quentin Smith is plausibly to be regarded as taking a type 3 attitude toward Christianity, at least as Christianity is represented by prominent philosophers of religion like William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga.

    I've read hardly any of Smith's work, and that was years ago, so I'm only barely familiar with him. But if he thinks Craig and Plantinga are in the same intellectual league, I can't think highly of his judgment.

    • "But if he thinks Craig and Plantinga are in the same intellectual league, I can't think highly of his judgment."

      And we can't think highly of this analysis unless you give us any good reasons to suppose Craig and Plantinga are intellectually inferior in terms of philosophy of religion.

      • Absolutely. Several philosopher friends of mine regard Plantinga as one of the greatest living epistemologists, and hold his work on warrant and proper function in high regard. Peter van Inwagen is also a great philosopher and a Christian. Alex Rosenberg (an A1 atheist if ever there was one) called him the greatest metaphysician alive. So there are some serious heavy hitters among Christian philosophers.

        I don't know enough about Bill Craig to know where he fits in. None of my philosopher friends really talk about him.

        • "I don't know enough about Bill Craig to know where he fits in. None of my philosopher friends really talk about him."

          In terms of philosophy of religion, Craig is a respected leader from people on either side of the God question. He has published several academic articles on philosophy of religion in serious journals. Find some of them here:

          http://www.reasonablefaith.org/scholarly-articles

          He's also esteemed in other philosophical sub-disciplines such as the philosophy of time, history, mathematics, and science.

          • Doug Shaver

            In terms of philosophy of religion, Craig is a respected leader from people on either side of the God question.

            Can you quote one atheist writer who agrees with that?

          • William Davis

            But look at Platinga's award from wiki:

            Plantinga served as president of the American Philosophical Association, Western Division, 1981–1982.[22] and as President of the Society of Christian Philosophers 1983–1986.[16][23]

            He has honorary degrees from Glasgow University (1982), Calvin College (1986), North Park College (1994), the Free University of Amsterdam (1995), Brigham Young University (1996), and Valparaiso University (1999).[23]

            He was a Guggenheim Fellow, 1971–1972, and elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975.[23]

            In 2006, the University of Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion renamed its Distinguished Scholar Fellowship as the Alvin Plantinga Fellowship.[24] The fellowship includes an annual lecture by the current Plantinga Fellow.[25]

            In 2012, the University of Pittsburgh's Philosophy Department, History and Philosophy of Science Department, and the Center for the History and Philosophy of Science co-awarded Plantinga the Nicholas Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy,[26] which he received with a talk titled, "Religion and Science: Where the Conflict Really Lies".

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Plantinga

            To me there is no comparison. I don't know of anything close to this kind of distinction from Craig. Don't think he's gotten the first award actually, but please correct me if I'm wrong

          • Doug Shaver
      • Doug Shaver

        [Deleted. Inadvertently double-posted.]

      • Doug Shaver

        I was not comparing either of them to Smith. I was comparing them to each other.

        • "I was not comparing either of them to Smith. I was comparing them to each other."

          Ah! I see. Mea culpa! I misinterpreted your original comment. It would have been clearer had it read: "But if he thinks Craig and Plantinga are in the same intellectual league with each other..."

          You'll find no argument here that Plantinga is a preeminent philosopher, and has more impressive credentials and a wider influence than Craig.

          I struggle to see how that point is relevant, though, to Feser's original line, "at least as Christianity is represented by prominent philosophers of religion like William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga."

          To describe two different philosophers of religion as "prominent" isn't to suggest that they are equally prominent. This just seems obvious to me.

          Let's not nitpick over irrelevant details....

      • William Davis

        I second Plantinga being in a much higher intellectual league than Craig. I like Plantinga, don't like Craig, for whatever it's worth to you :)

        • Ignatius Reilly

          Same. Interestingly, Plantinga is not a classical theist.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Neither is Craig, as I understand it.

    • Daniel G. Fink

      Doug,

      I frequent Dr. Feser's blog, where I have read that Craig and Plantinga both hold to "theistic personalism", a significant factor by which to categorize them for classical theists like Dr. Feser (and myself, from reading the layman-friendly Frank Sheed).

      • Doug Shaver

        I wasn't evaluating them in terms of their particular positions. I was evaluating in terms of the arguments they use to defend their positions.

  • SattaMassagana

    Ed, this seems like a very reasonable assessment. One small thing that stuck out to me:

    "where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry"

    While I'm probably closer to B, that seems too broad for even the most hard line type A. For example, I doubt they count the Mormons prohibition on personal coffee consumption on the same level of moral outrage as the prohibition of same sex marriage. In other words, harmless personal religious dictates not imposed on others through the force of secular government would ever be called bigotry.

  • David Nickol

    Now, people with similar attitudes like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, and Coyne are by no means marginal, but widely regarded as serious thinkers about religion.

    In the original on Edward Feser's blog, the above reads a bit differently:

    Now, equally vulgar cranks like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, and Coyne are by no means marginal, but widely regarded as Serious Thinkers.

    I am not sure either one of them is true. I haven't done a survey, but it seems to me that the books of people like Dawkins and Harris on religion are generally considered to be seriously inadequate when reviewed by other Serious Thinkers in the pages of publications like The New York Review of Books or by Semi-Serious-Thinkers in less weighty publications. Dawkins is, of course, highly respected when it comes to evolution.

    • Papalinton

      Yes. The two faces of Feser. And he is most certainly a category A1-hole theist.

      • Michael Murray

        Surely vulgar crank just means a crank who doesn't write in latin?

        • Papalinton

          Or is that a vulgate crank?

    • William Davis

      Comments like

      Now, equally vulgar cranks like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, and Coyne are by no means marginal, but widely regarded as Serious Thinkers.

      show me Feser is more interested in preaching to the Catholic choir than engaging in philosophy. I guess you can't really blame him, that's how he sells books and makes money. Controversy sells, but it often isn't very educational.

  • Gordon Reid

    The article is interesting but it misses or ignores the much more significant factor causing atheists to be one type or the other. As others (SattaMassagana) commented here, I think the spectrum (A.-C.) concerning religious practice is much more dependent on the specific practice we are talking about and the degree to which the religious believer seeks to use the force of secular government to have that practice implemented throughout society as a whole. As an atheist, atheism would cease to have relevance for me just as soon as religious believers begin to practice their religion for themselves and stop trying to implement their religious beliefs across society through the force of law. As an atheist, I do not mind if Mormons live out the belief that prohibits consumption of caffeine. So I guess this would make me a C. But if Mormons tried to pass a law to ban the sale of coffee or caffeine soda, I would immediately become an A. Don't get me wrong, if there were a valid secular argument for a law banning products containing caffeine, I would support that law. I also have no problem when religious believers press for laws that conform with their religious beliefs. So I am a Type C. when the religious present valid secular arguments for a proposed law. However I become a Type A. when the proposed law lacks secular reasons to support the law, and especially, when the proposed law goes against well researched evidence against the law.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Next thing you know, they'll be telling us what kind of light bulbs we can use or what sort of toilets. They'll be banning peanuts from schools the day after, and...

      Oh. Wait.

  • Manuel Buen Abad Najar

    3x3=9.

    • Michael Murray

      Well spotted but remember 3 = 1 for Catholics! Not that that helps 9 = 6.

      • Andrew Y.

        Those darn Catholics! Good thing we have atheist math to set us straight. 0 = 1

        • Michael Murray

          Yep 0 = 1 uses advanced kraussculus.

      • Guest

        Since when? I assume you are venturing a childish mockery of the Trinity?

        For something to be a contradiction you must claim "X" and "Not X" at the same time and in the same relation. Well in God there is Unity in the one sense of divine essence and multiplicity in another sense of subsisting divine relations.

        Thus Catholics do not profess 3=1.

        Lame.

        • Michael Murray

          Lame.

          Yes that's what my kids used to say about my sense of humour. Here is the thing. I was raised in a Catholic family, baptised, did my First Communion, confirmation, went to mass weekly, ate fish on Fridays, suffered guilt over masturbation and nearly everything else I did, spent some time with the Marist Brothers etc, etc. Me and the RCC go a long way back. So I reserve the right to make the occasional joke about it. I do also make serious criticisms but I doubt you'll enjoy them much either.

          Note below I had a dig at Krauss thinking 0 = 1.

          • Guest

            I see so you where not serious then? Well fair cop. Humor doesn't have to be logical.

            The thing is thought there are idiot Fundie Gnus who actually think the Trinity is 3=1 or some such nonsense. They haven't read anything more theologically or philosophically sophisticated then one's second grade Communion workbook.

            Those of us who read Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange roll our eyes when we see such nonsense with the same force a gnu like Richard Dawkins justly does when some YEC know nothing claims the second law of thermal dynamics "refutes" evolution.

            Sorry I am just allergic to stupidity regardless of the source.

            But you where joking so no harm no foul.

            Cheers.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          For something to be a contradiction you must claim "X" and "Not X" at the same time and in the same relation. Well in God there is Unity in the one sense of divine essence and multiplicity in another sense of subsisting divine relations.

          Evidence?
          Two of the Abrahamic religions and various Christian "heretics" don't think what you just said is true.

          • Guest

            That is basic logic 101 The law of non=contradiction. So you reject logic?

            You need "evidence"that x+1 is > than X? What are you smoking buddy that is just weird?

            The accusation was "Catholics believe 3=1" which was a swipe against the Trinity well I showed that wasn't true.

            Engage me logically or concede the point.

            PS You don't have to believe in any gods to see the accusation the Trinity is a contradiction is a false one. Indeed continue to disbelieve but stop insulting my intelligence.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The comment that you are getting all excited about was a joke. I am asking you for evidence for this particular claim:

            Well in God there is Unity in the one sense of divine essence and multiplicity in another sense of subsisting divine relations.

            You have instead decided to insult me. I am asking you how you know that God is three persons instead of one.

          • Guest

            Well it was a joke as the other follow informed me but as I informed him it is also a serious polemic used by some fundamentalist Atheists and Gnu Atheist low brow types. I am sorry but I am allergic to bad arguments regardless of the source.

            > I am asking you for evidence for this particular claim:"Well in God there is Unity in the one sense of divine essence and multiplicity in another sense of subsisting divine relations."

            That is also a stupid question on the level of the 3=1 trinity nonsense. We can't know scientifically or even Philosophically God is a Trinity. So a demand for "evidence" in this case is foolish and a category mistake.

            We can only know God is a Trinity if we accept the Authority of a particular divine revelation (i.e. the New Testament) and religious tradition (i.e. Catholic Church & or Orthodox Church) to interpret it.

            Your real question is "How do you know the New Testament is an authority & divinely inspired of God & that the Catholic or Orthodox Church is the authoritative interpretor of it? How do you know what the true religion is assuming there is one?"

            Of course the scope of answering those questions seems to be the subject of this particular blog and other religious apologetic blogs and is rather formidable and broad. To ask it is like asking "Prove Quantum Physics or Evolution is true in 100 words or less".

            My own amateur expertise is in natural theology and I don't profess to have the competence to expound on the broader reasons to accept any one religion with any justice. Just as I don't have the scientific competence to expound or defend Evolution against Young Earth Creationist polemics thought I still tend to believe in Evolution.

            I am not afraid to admit my limitations. So seek answers to the above corrected question elsewhere rather then me.

            But I will correct bad arguments and flag bad questions.

            Both sides of the question are thus bad even if no religious tradition is true.

            PS if I offended you I am sorry but your questions where bad. That I don't apologize for. Best use my correction one from now on when you demand "evidence".

          • Ignatius Reilly

            That is also a stupid question on the level of the 3=1 trinity nonsense. We can't know scientifically or even Philosophically God is a Trinity. So a demand for "evidence" in this case is foolish and a category mistake.

            It is not a stupid question. I wanted to know why you believed that God is Trinity. To be honest, I think Classical Theism necessitates God being one person. I am not an expert on it, but I think that simplicity implies oneness.

            We can only know God is a Trinity if we accept the Authority of a particular divine revelation (i.e. the New Testament) and religious tradition (i.e. Catholic Church & or Orthodox Church) to interpret it.

            Fair enough. What do we say about philosophical arguments that suggest that God is one? Islamic scholars have plenty of those. They do not argue strictly from a religious text and interpretation.

            How certain are you that God is Trinity? As certain as you are about gravity or mathematics?

            My own amateur expertise is in natural theology and I don't profess to have the competence to expound on the broader reasons to accept any one religion with any justice. Just as I don't have the scientific competence to expound or defend Evolution against Young Earth Creationist polemics thought I still tend to believe in Evolution.

            May I ask why you believe?

            But I will correct bad arguments and flag bad questions.

            You have so far corrected a joke and flagged a question that was asked so we can begin dialoguing (if you are even interested in that, which I would assume since that what this site is for). I didn't know if you maybe had philosophical reasons to believe in the Trinity or if it was purely a matter of faith or somewhere in between. I remember a couple arguments for the Trinity, but I do not find them convincing, so I was curious where you were coming from.

            In the future best use my corrected questions from now on when you demand "evidence". It saves time

            Those questions are far to broad for a combox. Perhaps you could tell me how we know that one book say Genesis is inspired by God, while other books are not.

          • Guest

            >It is not a stupid question. I wanted to know why you believed that God is Trinity. To be honest, I think Classical Theism necessitates God being one person. I am not an expert on it, but I think that simplicity implies oneness.

            It is a stupid question(perhaps it's more polite on my part to say "Bad" instead of stupid?) . You didn’t say “Why do you believe God is a Trinity?”.

            You said “I am asking you for evidence for this particular claim:"Well in God there is Unity in the one sense of divine essence and multiplicity in another sense of subsisting divine relations.” You can’t seem to separate a question that implies empirical verification from rational philosophical and logical verification. In short I find your use of language a tad bit obscure.
            So I am sorry, no offense to you but it as bad as the YEC who says”The second law of thermal dynamics refutes evolution” because he treats a law of physics like a metaphysical principle and makes a category mistake. You are making a category mistake as well thought not of course the same type as the YEC does in my example. But a category mistake none the less.

            >Fair enough. What do we say about philosophical arguments that suggest that God is one? Islamic scholars have plenty of those. They do not argue strictly from a religious text and interpretation.

            God’s Essence is One which is shown by natural theology and philosophy & the dogma of the Trinity assumes this as a starting point. Divine Simplicity mean God contains no real physical & or metaphysical distinctions in the divine essence. The Divine Relations/Persons/hypostasis’ are really distinct one from another but whatever that real distinction is it is not any type of real physical or metaphysical distinction in the divine essence. It is best classified as a real but mysterious distinction. An unknowable one. A Mystery.

            >How certain are you that God is Trinity? As certain as you are about gravity or mathematics?

            I guess that is kind of a broad question as well.

            >May I ask why you believe?

            Another broad question and a general one so I will give a broad general answer. I find the philosophical arguments for the existence of God to be sound and compelling. I find no good arguments for Atheism and I find the modern Gnu Atheist belief in Positivism to be comically incoherent. That is just for starters.

            >You have so far corrected a joke and flagged a question that was asked so we can begin dialoguing (if you are even interested in that, which I would assume since that what this site is for). I didn't know if you maybe had philosophical reasons to believe in the Trinity or if it was purely a matter of faith or somewhere in between.

            I believe with St Thomas Aquinas that reason precedes faith.

            >I remember a couple arguments for the Trinity, but I do not find them convincing, so I was curious where you were coming from.

            Arguments for the Trinity or explications of what the doctrine means? Do you know the difference? Because I believe with the whole scholastic tradition that is harms the faith to try to prove God is a Trinity by philosophy. God can only be known to be a Trinity by divine revelation found in Scripture and Tradition.

            Philosophical and Natural Theology can tell me God contains no real physical and or metaphysical distinctions. But it can't inform me there are mysterious real distinctions subsisting in the divine essence.

            >Those questions are far to broad for a combox. Perhaps you could tell me how we know that one book say Genesis is inspired by God, while other books are not.

            Well you seem to have little trouble asking broad questions? Asking " how we know that one book say Genesis is inspired by God, while other books are not” is broad and general. First Genesis is part of One book the Torah and by other books do you mean like the Koran or the Book of Mormon or like Exodus.

            So we haven’t gotten away from the broad questions. But I say you get an A for effort. Thank you my friend for the stimulating conversation.

            I will try to give you the last word since like Oscar Wilde I can resist anything except temptation.

            Cheers and for what it is worth God Bless.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            It is a stupid question(perhaps it's more polite on my part to say "Bad" instead of stupid?) . You didn’t say “Why do you believe God is a Trinity?”.

            I would say the question was imprecise or perhaps poorly formed. I would agree with that assessment.

            You said “I am asking you for evidence for this particular claim:"Well in God there is Unity in the one sense of divine essence and multiplicity in another sense of subsisting divine relations.” You can’t seem to separate a question that implies empirical verification from rational philosophical and logical verification. In short I find your use of language a tad bit obscure.

            When I said evidence, I meant any type of evidence. Philosophical argument from first principles or something more empirical. Perhaps many people thing evidence = empirical, but I am not one of those.

            So I am sorry, no offense to you but it as bad as the YEC who says”The second law of thermal dynamics refutes evolution” because he treats a law of physics like a metaphysical principle and makes a category mistake. You are making a category mistake as well thought not of course the same type as the YEC does in my example. But a category mistake none the less.

            The YEC doesn't understand the 2nd law. The YEC error is that the earth is not a closed system. Not sure what that has to do with metaphysics.

            Another broad question and a general one so I will give a broad general answer. I find the philosophical arguments for the existence of God to be sound and compelling. I find no good arguments for Atheism and I find the modern Gnu Atheist belief in Positivism to be comically incoherent. That is just for starters.

            What is the best argument for God's existence? You don't have to outline it. Just let me know which one. Perhaps this would be the best place to start. It is the most basic question.

            The problem of evil is not a good argument?

            New atheists don't believe in logical positivism. A new atheist is an atheist who not only lacks belief in gods, but also is glad that religion is not true, or believes that religion is harmful.

            Arguments for the Trinity or explications of what the doctrine means? Do you know the difference? Because I believe with the whole scholastic tradition that is harms the faith to try to prove God is a Trinity by philosophy. God can only be known to be a Trinity by divine revelation found in Scripture and Tradition.

            I was thinking the argument that God loves perfectly and perfect love must love another. Therefore there is a second person. Perfect love begets another. Therefore there is a third. There is a serious problem with this argument.

            I will try to give you the last word since like Oscar Wilde I can resist anything except temptation.

            At least we can both agree on Oscar Wilde.

          • Guest

            Briefly.

            >I would say the question was imprecise or perhaps poorly
            formed. I would agree with that assessment.

            K’ay.

            >When I said evidence, I meant any type of evidence.
            Philosophical argument from first principles or something more empirical. Perhaps many people thing evidence = empirical, but I am not one of those.

            I see, I tend to makea distinction between “evidence” vs “logical argument”.

            >The YEC doesn't understand the 2nd law. The YEC error is
            that the earth is not a closed system. Not sure what that has to do with metaphysics.

            He treats a scientific law of physics as if it were a metaphysical principle that reality tends toward disorder thus requires something
            to impose order. All the second law means is in a closed system energy will run out. With Earth that will happen in a few hundred
            Trillion years (assuming during the Red Giant phase gravity shifts the Earth into a higher orbit around the sun) when the Sun enters it’s Black Dwarf phase. The opposite error would be when idiots like
            Dawkins treats “motion” in Aquinas’ first way as Newtonian momentum & as a scientific description or explaination.
            When in fact it is a metaphysical description of a potency being made actual.

            >What is the best argument for God's existence? You don't
            have to outline it. Just let me know which one. Perhaps this would be the best place to start. It is the most basic question.

            I might start with the 5 ways, argument from reason, etc. Not sure about the ontological argument though….

            >The problem of evil is not a good argument?

            Only if you believe God is a moral agent unequivocally comparable
            to a human moral agent with equivalent divine power. God is metaphysically and ontologically Good but not “morally good” the way we are morally good. God has no obligations to us and God didn’t even have to create us. Given God’s Classical Nature and relation to us all His good acts toward us are purely gratuitous. The problem of evil in the modern sense presupposes a “god” who has obligations to us His creatures. Thus theodicy is out forth to try to justify God’s inaction in the face of an evil He Providence foresees and permits. I am a strong Atheist in regard to the existence of such a “deity”. A Classic Theistic God needs a Theodicy like
            a fish needs a Bicycle. Leave the Theodicies for some weak Theistic Personalist “god” I wouldn’t sacrifice a field mouse to worship.

            >New atheists don't believe in logical positivism. A new
            atheist is an atheist who not only lacks belief in gods, but also is glad that religion is not true, or believes that religion is harmful.

            I said Positivism not Logical Positivism otherwise known as
            Scientism and in my experience New Atheist Polemics rely totally on that for their polemical framework like a Protestant relies on Sola Scriptura.

            But both ideologies are self referential.

            >I was thinking the argument that God loves perfectly and
            perfect love must love another. Therefore there is a second person. Perfect love begets another. Therefore there is a third. There is a serious problem with this argument.

            At best that is an explanation(not argument) of why God is a Trinity or why the First Person eternally generates the Second but it presupposes you already via trusted revelation know God is a Trinity.

            I will try to give you the last word since like Oscar Wilde
            I can resist anything except temptation.

            I guess I wasn’t brief? Well take the last word I have other fish to fry and I thank you again for the stimulating remarks.

            Cheers too you.

  • GCBill

    In addition to the "greatest minds" observation, I would have also pointed out that A/1 should be regarded as intrinsically less probable than B/2. The latter are more modest (and therefore harder to falsify).

    I myself am probably a 2 and fall somewhere bewen B and C. I think religions are exceptionally refined low-cost (time + effort) social support systems. I think this is borne out by research comparing the organizational efficiency of religious vs. secular communities (which I can probably dig up later if anyone is interested). I also think it's the reason why wealthy nations tend to be more secular: the wealthy are better-equipped to do without such support. However, I think that even the most plausible interpretations of religious traditions strain credulity too much for me to consider them "live options." Furthermore, I'm hesitant to say that religion appeals to a "universal need;" in fact, I suspect that different religions appeal to very different needs, at least some of which may be culturally-specific.

  • VicqRuiz

    After many years of reading and discussion I have reached the conclusion that I am one of those who was born without any propensity to religious faith. I view believers not as "wrong" or "deluded" but only as "different".

    With that in mind, I have adopted Thomas Jefferson's test - if religion neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket, I find no objection to it.

    • Perhaps there are similar sentiments with other organizational structures as well. Just as one example: Perhaps Karl Marx would have a similar criteria. :)

    • Hopefully your interpretation of Jefferson's test isn't strictly first-person. I've rarely been personally attacked by religious people driven by their religion, but I recognize that for me it's morally essential to be in solidarity with the people whom organized religions are persecuting these days, such as LGBT folk in some Christian-dominated regions, and members of minority religions in some Muslim-dominated regions.

      • VicqRuiz

        Might be corrected to: "such as LGBT folk in some Christian-dominated regions, and members of minority religions, and LGBT folk, in some Muslim-dominated regions."

        Yes, I am upset by persecution, but as far as persecution against gays is concerned, "allowing someone to not bake them a wedding cake" is persecution of a slightly different order than "stoning them to death".

        • That doesn't seem to be a correction so much as shifting blame. Two wrongs don't make a right even if the other guy's wrong is way worse than yours.

          Also I don't appreciate your minimization of the violence that LGBT people have received and in some areas continue to receive at the hands of Christians. How would you like it if atheists minimized persecution of Christians by acting as if social scorn for fundamentalists was all that was happening, ignoring the slaughter in some Muslim-dominated regions? Similarly an accurate sense of charity toward LGBT people ought to include honest and unforced recognition of the actual record of their mistreatment by Christians.

          • VicqRuiz

            I happen to agree with Chris Hitchens and Sam Harris that contemporary Islam is worse than contemporary Christianity. Far, far worse. But I don't want to threadjack here - if there is another forum on which we could discuss this I'd be happy to move on over.

      • "but I recognize that for me it's morally essential to be in solidarity with the people whom organized religions are persecuting these days"

        Who or what binds you with that moral requirement? Or is it merely a subjective feeling?

        • Binding is such an ugly mental model of morality. :-( Catholicism may view morality as an imposed slavery to supernatural requirements, but that dismal theory is of course not at all shared by atheists. I'm pretty typical among atheists in thinking that morality is reason plus empathy, and that the point of morality is that it helps us achieve the kind of lives we all want.

          Clearly I'm a human subject and morality does, in part, involve some of humanity's most important feelings, desires, values, and needs. These are subjective in that humans have them but, e.g., rocks and plants and empty space don't have them. And just as clearly we don't get to choose how the world works, so our use of reason toward these our noblest ends has objectively correct and incorrect applications.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Catholicism may view morality as an imposed slavery to supernatural requirements.

            Well, it doesn't.

            Catholic morality is freely binding oneself to the good. We bind ourselves to it because it is good. What binds us firmly are virtues like prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, charity, and chastity.

          • "I'm pretty typical among atheists in thinking that morality is reason plus empathy"

            This definition seems utterly vague and vacuous to me (vacuous in the sense of "devoid of substance"). It naturally leads to several questions, such as, whose reason? And whose empathy? If a parent has a paralyzed child and they reason that the empathetic response is to kill the child, to just put him out of his misery, how would your morality discourage this act? Who is to say which person's reasoning is morally praiseworthy, and whose is deplorable? Your moral definition provides no answer.

            "and that the point of morality is that it helps us achieve the kind of lives we all want."

            Again, this seems vague and vacuous. Who is "we"? The majority? "We" as individuals? What if one action helps someone achieve the life they want at the expense of someone else, for example the greedy CEO who achieves his ideal lifestyle on the backs of oppressed wage-slaves? Or what if a majority of people (or even 99% of people) achieve their ideal lifestyle at the expense of an oppressed few? Is that moral?

            "And just as clearly we don't get to choose how the world works, so our use of reason toward these our noblest ends has objectively correct and incorrect applications."

            But what is that objective standard? What are you measuring your own reason against to determine whether it has arrived at a sound moral conclusion or one that is misguided?

            Finally, you never really answered my original question. You said it was "morally essential" to be in solidarity with oppressed people. I simply asked, from where did this moral requirement come from? Or to pose it another way, why should that moral requirement be binding on me, instead of me just ignoring it? I'm still curious about your answer.

          • I'm surprised by the thoroughgoing relativism of your response. Though it is consistent, in a way, for a Catholic to relativize even truth and morality to "What my preferred authority figures say".

            To start with the beginning, though: Why do you think that reason and empathy are vacuous? I'm normally happy to respond but honestly I would only appeal to reason and empathy, not authority, so that would apparently be pointless in your case.

          • I didn't say reason and empathy are vacuous. I said your using them as a definition for morality is vacuous, since in the context of this topic they are too vague to mean anything substantial.

            I clearly explained why in my comment, and then asked you specific questions, none of which you answered. Until you do, I'll take your silence as an admission that my diagnosis of your definition was correct.

          • Greg Schaefer

            Brandon.

            Your last sentence is not really your best parry.

            Because, employing this tactic, it would seem that your silence in the face of thousands of comments by atheist/agnostic commenters expressly directed to you over the past couple years should be taken as an admission of the truth of the substance of their comments and the vacuity of yours.

          • Until you do, I'll take your silence as an admission that my diagnosis of your definition was correct.

            OK. I'll take this whiny snark as an admission you're uninterested in polite reasoned conversation. Let's talk with other people for now.

          • "OK. I'll take this whiny snark as an admission you're uninterested in polite reasoned conversation today. Let's talk with other people for now, unless you care to exercise a smidgen of interpretive charity."

            Sorry if it came across that way, Ryan. I didn't mean to be snarky.

            I'm completely interested in charitable dialogue, which is why I respectfully responded to your original comment and answered all your questions. I was simply hoping that you would return the favor and answer mine.

          • OK. I'm halfway convinced that these types of conversations need to happen in person, to add in the vocal nuances of meaning, the nonverbal gestures and body language that add such dynamically detailed degrees of certainty and emphasis, the ingrained habits of face-to-face politeness and empathy, the ease of interrupting to seek clarification and dispute mistakes, and the overall jolly camaraderie of such discussion. But only halfway convinced, because I've had these types of conversations in person many times, too, and we always end up wishing we had the editable exactness of expression, the ability to stop and think carefully before replying, the ability to organize and systematize our thoughts, the opportunity to research before making a claim, and the ease of recalling and reviewing what the other has said.

            In any case, my silence here simply means my priorities lie elsewhere - work, family, friends, personal projects, beautifully refreshing swimming holes in the river when it's a sunny summer day, etc. Much the same is true of us all. Also I like to let others have the last word when it's clear that we disagree and have made our points sufficiently.

            If you like I'll back up to a previous point in the thread and make more transparent the connections between your questions and my responses to them.

    • Mike

      very interesting pov.

  • If we're applying this categorization system to the various religions, then there's nothing in it that's specific to atheism. Mutatis mutandis:

    * A Roman Catholic might be 2B toward Sufi Islam.
    * A Eastern Orthodox might be 3A toward Roman Catholicism.
    * An Amish Christian might be 1A toward Roman Catholicism.
    * A Unitarian Universalist might be 1C toward everything.
    * An Anglican might be 2C toward Anglicanism.

    etc.

    So does this categorization teach us anything about theism and atheism?

    Perhaps yes, inasmuch as atheists don't have any party line we have to adhere to. So we will tend to be much more varied in our stances toward the various religions, based on our best understandings of them, whereas most theists will feel social pressure to toe the party line regardless of where they personally see the evidence pointing, and so perforce they'll be more monolithic in their interfaith relations.

  • In Walter Kaufmann’s day, A1 atheism was represented by marginal, vulgar cranks like Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

    Lest any casual reader mistake Feser's penchant for slurs for any kind of fair commentary, I'll post here a link to Madalyn's own words. She's passionate and she disagrees with Feser. She was never a professional philosopher -- just an activist. If that makes it fair to call her a vulgar crank, then it ought to be equally fair for atheists to call the faithful in the pews "vulgar cranks" as well for professing their beliefs in joyful unsophistication.

    If you listen past the first few minutes, Madalyn gives her own categorization of the varieties of atheism and which are most defensible. And it's fun listening. :)

    • neil_ogi

      the most hated woman in america!

      • Doug Shaver

        the most hated woman in america!

        I think that speaks more unfavorably about America than it does about her.

        Not to say she didn't deserve some of the reaction she got. Much of what she said was intemperate and badly reasoned. I was never in favor of her being the public face of American atheism.

  • Ignatius Reilly

    I find that atheists who fall on the most negative ends of these scales—A1 territory—are invariably the ones who are the least well-informed about what the religions they criticize actually believe, and the least rational when one tries to discuss the subject with them.

    Since this was the point of the piece(?), maybe it should be defended with more than

    To think that it is reasonable, you have to think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations—Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al.—had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition, more or less rationally groundless and morally out of sync with the deepest human needs.

    Firstly, very smart people can be wrong. Newton was an alchemist. I assume the proper attitude towards alchemy is 1 on the theoretical.

    Secondly, it is certainly possible to defend mere bigotry and superstition, if it is axiomatic to one's theology. Bigotry and superstition have been defended eloquently countless times. So I suppose it is not mere bigotry and superstition, but also sophistry.

    Thirdly, human beings have all sorts of impulses. Some good and some bad. Religion can fulfill and take advantage of these impulses. This says nothing about the rationality of religious belief.

    Fourthly, for somebody like Aquinas Catholicism was ubiquitous. He may have been a great mind, but that does not mean that he would have had the ability to question the religious worldview of society at that time. That he thought religious belief was rational could have been more of a testament to the times rather than the actual rationality of religious belief.

    Fifthly, this is something of a straw man. Few atheists would describe those thinkers in the manner that Feser believes they do. (Actually this whole article is something of a straw man. The 9 categories are not really representative of atheism.)

    it is pretty clear that its roots are not intellectual but emotional—that it affords those beholden to it a sense of superiority over others, an enemy on which to direct their hatreds and resentments, a way to rationalize their rejection of certain moral restraints they dislike, and so forth.

    Seriously?!?!? Feser you really need to get out more.

    And here’s the thing: If there is anything new about the New Atheism, it is the greater prominence of atheists who at least approximate the A1 stripe. In Walter Kaufmann’s day, A1 atheism was represented by marginal, vulgar cranks like Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Now, people with similar attitudes like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, and Coyne are by no means marginal, but widely regarded as serious thinkers about religion. This is the reverse of intellectual progress

    Dawkins is an excellent writer and an effective proponent of evolution. I have not read The God Delusion, but everything that I have read of Dawkins is not as polemical or mean spirited as some theists seem to like to pretend.

    Hitchens is a first class writer and polemicist. Since Feser is so enamored with polemics, he should perhaps study Hitchens and learn from him, because as of right now all of Feser's polemics have been boring. Hitchens makes excellent points on and about religious belief. Most of them are even serious. He is also sometimes mistaken. This does not make him unserious.

    The other two I am not very familiar with, but I am sure Feser is misrepresenting their views.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Alchemy was quite respectable in its time. No one had a good idea of what was possible with chemical elements. Indeed, no one had a good idea of what a chemical element was. Of course, there were some who tried to use it to do magic, and others who were charlatans; but this continues today, as when deconstructionists pepper their essays with references to quantum mechanics or topology.

      Science and magic both try to use the properties of matter to achieve an effect. Science uses manifest (i.e., "known") properties while magic uses occult (i.e., "hidden") properties. Got a headache? Chew willow bark. Magic happens! One of the reasons the pagan Romans were so brutal regarding witches (poisoners) was they regarded the actions of poison as magical. (They could see how disembowling with a sword might kill someone. It was not so clear how drinking wine tinctured with "the powders of inheritance" did.)

      Basically, science and magic are on the same axis and as more and more occult properties became manifest the magicks moved up the axis to science. Alchemy gradually became chemistry, dropping its Arabic article.

      • William Davis

        I agree with in general. What is technology if not magic that actually works. If the romans could only see chemical and biological weapons we have now. Our prohibitions of these things is similar to prohibitions on witchcraft, but at least we can actually test for these things.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        But what reason would an alchemist give for thinking that it is possible to turn lead into gold? Not knowing what is physically possible is not reason to believe that turning lead into gold is physically possible.

        Alchemists did not have good reasons to believe that transmutation was possible.

        • William Davis

          I think it was wishful thinking (the source of many ideas, including heaven). Sort of a get rich scheme of the middle ages.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          A few comments from an historian of science that touch on Renaissance alchemy.

          https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2012/12/22/pseudo-science-proto-science-pre-science-or-just-plain-science/

          Campbell <b?falsely identifies alchemy with the transmutation of metals, correctly called chrysopoeia, whereas seventeenth century alchemy encompassed a wide range of activities including all of that which in the early eighteenth century became chemistry.
          https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/alchemical-confusion/

          https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/alchemical-confusion-redux/

          Alchemy is not magic and any medieval or renaissance alchemist would have been deeply insulted if anybody had accused him of practicing magic. Alchemy as practiced by Newton or Boyle considered itself to be a well-founded knowledge system and it was this that attracted Newton. Newton certainly never had vision of diving into gold coins and neither did Boyle.
          https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/do-you-believe-in-magic/

          • Ignatius Reilly

            That is really interesting.

        • bdlaacmm

          Alchemists had excellent reasons for believing that transmutation of the elements was possible - mainly, the concept of "elements" (as we today understand it) was unknown to them. They had only four elements (air, earth, fire, and water) and they saw these four endlessly changing from from one form to another. Why not lead into gold? Surely it was only a matter of finding the right procedure.

          If I did not know what I've been taught about atoms and elements, I would probably find no problem with the idea of turning lead into gold, if only one know how to do it. (and, as a matter of fact, we now know that it is entirely possible to turn one element into another - at the center of stars. That is, in fact, where all the heavy elements of the universe were formed - by transmutation from hydrogen and helium into iron, etc.)

          • Ignatius Reilly

            You may be right. However, what you have just said does not make me think that they had good reason to believe that transmutation was/is possible.

  • Yes, there are different perspectives, and on both sides of the theism discussion.

    But I think Feser is wrong to say there has been a reverse of intellectual progress.

    Firebrands like Dawkins and O'Hair have bee prominent for well over a century. Robert Green Ingersoll is echoed in the speeches of Hitchens and Harris. We even have examples dating back to antiquity of similar approaches. Much less when the penalty for such was death.

    But then and now we have serious intellectual discussions which are not at all hard to find. We see excellent discussion from the writers of Secular Outpost on Patheos. We have debaters like Justin Scheiber. There are philosophers like AC Grayling, Dan Dennett and scientists like Sean Carroll.

    But we also have people like Hitchens and Harris who have looked at the arguments for and against Gods and found them extremely poor, (I would agree) These folks also attribute significant harm and suffering to people who gladly proclaim their actions are based in these beliefs and use hyperbolic rhetoric to denounce what they see as the source of much of this harm (I am less confident about.)

    What I think has occurred since 911 is some on the atheist side have grown impatient with subtle philosophical debate. We have looked at the arguments and decided that they are on balance extremely weak, meanwhile people are suffering because of these indefensible beliefs. So the rhetoric has been intensified, by some.

    If you are disturbed because the gloves are off and we do not show enough respect for Aquinas and Catholic charities, fine. We have sites like this one where we have to play nice and have intellectual discussions. Let's continue the discussion.

  • David Nickol

    I followed the link in the Note appended to the Feser piece above, which reads as follows:

    NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.

    I followed the link to Feser's blog and read the piece there. I noticed a difference (in tone more than substance) in the last few sentences, so I quoted both versions. I did not make an issue of the differences, but merely argued in my comment that I didn't think most of the "New Atheists" (or their books, in any case) were taken seriously in publications like The New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review.

    My comment was deleted. It certainly didn't violate any of SN's stated guidelines. I can only imagine it was deleted because I quoted the following sentences:

    In Walter Kaufmann’s day, A1 atheism was represented by marginal, vulgar cranks like Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Now, equally vulgar cranks like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, and Coyne are by no means marginal, but widely regarded as Serious Thinkers.

    So apparently, my comment was deleted because I quoted Feser accurately. If someone from SN had contacted me privately and said, "We'd really like to focus on the less inflammatory version of the article we modified for SN, so could you please rewrite your comment to eliminate the quote from the original?" I think I would have done so with a minimum of grumbling. The point of my comment did not depend on the original quote. But my comment just vanished without any trace or any explanation.

    Of course, I really don't know why the comment was deleted. If it was for some reason I haven't imagined, I would be curious to know. If somehow I really did violate guidelines, how can I avoid doing it again if my violations are not explained?

    • David, I replied to your original comment to explain why it was deleted, before deleting it.

      As I noted, it seems you're just trying to dig up dirt on Feser. What Feser said in a previous version of the article is irrelevant to this edition of the article. Per our commenting policy, please focus discussion on the piece posted above.

      • David Nickol

        As I noted, it seems you're just trying to dig up dirt on Feser.

        Allow me to say that I think you misread my comment. As I recall it, there was nothing at all in it that indicated I was trying to "dig up dirt" on Feser. On the contrary, I wasn't defending the people he named. I was saying I didn't think they were considered "serious thinkers," at least not by the people I consider to be serious thinkers.

      • Greg Schaefer

        Brandon.

        Prof. Feser indicates (here, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/01/estranged-notions.html ) that "I told him [Brandon] I had no time to contribute new articles [to Strange Notions] but that it was fine with me if he wanted to reprint older pieces [of mine, from my blog] as long as they were not edited without my permission."

        Did you -- or someone else who did the actual editing -- obtain permission from Prof. Feser to edit his article, in the fashion in which it was edited before posting here?

        [Edited for formatting quote from Prof. Feser.]

    • Ignatius Reilly

      I have noticed that whenever a comment is deleted and an explanation is provided, the explanation is deleted with the comment. So, if you are online and looking at disqus before the comment is deleted you will see the explanation. If you log on a couple hours after the deletion, you will no longer see the explanatory comment. I believe it was said that your particular comment was off-topic. I disagree with that assessment, but so it goes.

    • Henry

      That's how Brandon Vogt rolls. He's a dishonest piece of garbage.

  • Kraker Jak

    For those who submit articles and for those who comment on same.
    Can't people just say what they think or believe about a particular point instead of numerizing or alphabetizing everything as per an article.....articles of which which most often these days seem to try to cover every nuance of a situation. belief or philosophy, or combining both these labels. Just speak to the specific points that you want to make in the article under discussion....rather than try to speak to the whole gamut of every scenario, and every particular point, as comment formulation trying to cover all the bases at once. This may be too much to ask of wordy persons who can't shut their mouths at the best or worst of times......especially for those commenters who hold Phd's and doctorates. Instead of longwinded comments, write your own articles.

  • tico1177

    This is a great article as it certainly presents something of a measure on an atheist perceptions. I can certainly agree that a major fact that is ignored would be the variable of what I like to call "Intensity" of the subject matter. As Gordon Reid said in his own comment, there are circumstances when a non-Believer or even a Believer is going to be more "Nasty" or "Passionate" about his/her viewpoint. I think one of the biggest determining factors would be if the subject matter directly affects that person. So if government bans smoking as an example, a non-Believer smoker will suddenly become a major activist to stop that change from happening. The same goes for a Believer who suddenly has government stopping religious freedoms in the United States.

    What would be interesting is to write this same article on the flip side to measure a Believer's attitude.

    The one thing that I find amusing is that most people who make large generic comments implicating Christianity as a large part of the problem, tend to neglect some major facts about it. Everyone should easily ask themselves one simple question... What happened back in 1st century Palestine that caused thousands of Jewish people to stop sacrificing lambs or celebrating passover or other traditional rituals as enforced by their Jewish Temples only to be baptized and become Christian? Was it a trick? Did Jesus not bring someone back from the dead? Did he not cure a blind man from birth?

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    John Adams had a two-way classification, but of atheism not of atheist attitudes toward "religion."
    One group held that everything was fundamentally deterministic.
    The other group held that everything was due to chance.
    The two sects are fundamentally incompatible, but most atheists are what we might nowadays call "cafeteria atheists," choosing chance or determination as the Spirit moves them.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    This type of article reminds me of other arbitrary divisions, such as the 7 seas, or 7 continents....Pointless really. Just a study in how some people like to finely divide a subject to no real purpose.

  • bdlaacmm

    Where do you place the (to me incomprehensible) group of atheists, who despite trumpeting their disdain of all things religious, nevertheless haunt religious themed websites, compulsively commenting on every issue? I've often wondered about these people. I don't seek out atheist websites to disparage every poster there, yet they seem compelled to visit ours. Could it be that their supposed rejection of religious faith is not as solidly based as they claim?

    • David Nickol

      I have told this story several times reconstructed from memory. (I would love to find the original.) Here is how I told it the last time:

      There was a little village somewhere, and every day without fail the
      village atheist visited the village rabbi, and they argued all day about
      the existence of God. After this went on for years and years, the
      rabbi's wife finally couldn't bear it any more. She confronted them both
      and said, "What is the point? You argue hour after hour, day after day.
      Neither of you convinces the other. Neither of you is going to change
      your mind. This is a complete waste of time!" And the rabbi and the
      atheist both turned on the wife and began to argue with her, because the
      rabbi and the atheist were agreed as to one thing—the importance of the question!

      You say:

      I don't seek out atheist websites to disparage every poster there, yet they seem compelled to visit ours.

      Note the following from the "About" section for Strange Notions:

      What is StrangeNotions.com?

      StrangeNotions.com is the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists. It's built around three things: reason, faith, and dialogue. Each day you'll find articles, videos, and rich comment box discussion concerning life's Big Questions.

      What good is a site created for dialogue between Catholics and atheists if there are no atheists participating.

      Could it be that their supposed rejection of religious faith is not as solidly based as they claim?

      For some of them, sure. Would you want such people to just go away? Maybe you can reach them. Isn't it actually the duty of a good Catholic to try?

    • Michael Murray

      Or could it be we come here because we were invited. Or maybe we think the world would be a better place without Catholicism. After all we found it a better place when we gave up Catholicism.

    • Ignatius Reilly

      People comment on websites for all sorts of reasons. This is the only website besides outshine the sun that I comment on. When I was a theist I argued with atheists and know that I am an atheist I argue with theists. Some people (myself included) enjoy talking about these sorts of things. It does not mean that we think you are right in believing in a tri-Omni personal God, who sent his son to earth to redeem all of us for a sin that we did not commit.

      I also comment because I think there are some aspects of Catholicism that are harmful, and I think it is important to talk about those things. Finally, I comment because I learn things from other people through dialogue. Even people that I often disagree with. Maybe you shouldn't impugn motives and just enjoy the conversation.

  • Graham Sneddon

    An interesting graph to pin people to, but I'm curious as to why atheists are singled out, as the scale and classification works the same for anyone of any religious persuasion. A Methodist may be C3 with regards to Anglicans but A1 on Hinduism or Catholicism even. This scale merely measures our attitude to the religions we do not believe in and that surely includes everyone including agnostics.