Atheism: the view from nowhere?

In his recent bestseller Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes the following about what atheism is:

“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” (p.51)

These words are quite surprising from someone who claims to be trained in philosophy and neuroscience. What he is claiming here in effect is that atheism, as "an admission of the obvious" and "nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs" represents that coveted 'view from nowhere' that Thomas Nagel despaired of ever finding. Atheism is presented as an ahistorical, nearly transcendent vantage point from which the truth about the world and ourselves seems obvious. He has no sense of the ways in which atheism is just as culturally and historically conditioned as religious belief is.

It may be that part of the reason for this is that traditionally the study of religion has focused entirely on 'explaining' the phenomenon of belief in God or spirits or the afterlife. The great theorists of the past two centuries such as Freud, Marx, Feuerbach and Durkheim took the superiority of their own liberal Western perspective for granted and assumed that what must be explained sociohistorically is not why people don't believe in God but why they do.

In spite of this deficiency there has certainly been a lot of sociohistorical analysis of atheism, the details of which make many atheists squirm, as demonstrated by the many hostile reviews on of Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism. Another important study is found in cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett's Why would anyone believe in God? in which he demonstrates the extent to which atheists have to work hard at keeping their mental barriers up against any possible intrusion of religious belief, just as modern theists are accused of doing against any possible intrusion of doubt. Peter Berger's work in the sociology of religion should also be mentioned (such as The Heretical Imperative, The Social Construction of Reality), with his important discussion of the social legitimation of belief systems. It is easy to see why Sam Harris can take his viewpoint for granted in a modern, pluralistic society like our own, but it does not advance his claim to be right one little bit.

To be sure, there are thoughtful atheists who have taken these things into account, and the recent Cambridge Companion to Atheism edited by Michael Martin has several entries on the sociology and history of atheism. But it is clear that much work still needs to be done to make atheists see what is truly obvious: that scientific 'psychologizing' can be applied just as much to them as to religious believers.


Anonymous said…
If atheism shouldn't be a word, as he says, then fine. Let's call the position materialistm, or naturalism, or whatever. It comes out the same. This position's philosophy is thus not defined in terms of a denial, but in terms of a positive statement regarding reality: that material causes can explain everything. I think we can deal with them on these terms--for those explanations are very, very problematic.

Having said that, though, I don't see where he gets his premise from, that atheism (or whatever you want to call it) is the default position. Looking at the history of humanity, and looking at subjective inner experience, there is no prima facie privileged position for that view. And even Richard Dawkins admitted that the biological world seems designed, and that explaining how that could have come to be without an actual designer is a central problem of biology. All of that seems to mitigate against taking atheism as a default position.
Anonymous said…
True enough, Tom, but I have no problem with someone claiming that this or that view should be the default one. In fact, that's how the human mind always works. We start from a certain default position, and along the way as we analyze more and more information that position may change.

But Sam Harris does not think atheism is the default position in that sense. He thinks it is something obvious and has no doubt that that is where intelligent, critical people should always end up. He does not hold atheism as his default position. For him it is the beginning and end at the same time. And that betrays not only an ahistorical consciousness, but a dogmatic one as well.
Jason Pratt said…
The main problem with calling atheism 'naturalism' or 'materialism', is that these are ontological claims, not claims about sentient fundamental agency or the lack thereof. Folding the category claims together instantly invites easy category error in discourse, and provides (non-material {g}) material for convenient jumping around between categories in order to avoid being tagged by a criticism about one of the claims.

(To be fair, we theists are in the same boat. Even though I am a supernatualistic theist, I shouldn't be conflating the category claims into one or the other term.)

Atheism is inextricably a denial of something already evident to any observer, which would be evident to any observer even if all observers were and historically always had been atheists. It's a denial that fundamental reality has a property characteristic we perceive to be true about ourselves; a characteristic we must also technically presume to be true about ourselves, tacitly or otherwise, in order to make arguments ourselves.

Admittedly, there is often a large amount of quibbling over what that characteristic is that we possess, which is being denied by atheists to be true about fundamental reality. But I notice that the quibbling quickly ceases when it comes time for an atheist to delineate what he is denying to be true (or at least is refusing to believe to be true). Even robust agnostics know what they are being agnostic _about_ when it comes to the theism/atheism question.

Complaining, then, that a denial of a characteristic is a _denial_ of a characteristic, is frankly silly.

(Excellent post, btw, JD. Good comment from Tom, too, my techncial disagreement with the first portion aside. {s})


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