There’s a certain kind of atheist who doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for religious folk. They either read or write books by people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, they call themselves sceptics or rationalists or humanists depending on how closely they follow the trends, and they basically think religious people are being silly.
I’m an atheist too, and I’ve got some sympathy for this way of thinking. Suppose you’ve got a pretty vanilla epistemology, and you apply the same kinds of critical thinking to the claims of religion that you apply to claims about miracle cures, the Rev James Jones, faster than light neutrinos and the garment industry in Mauritius. From that point of view it’s basically impossible to persuade someone else of much in the way of religious claims, and unless you’ve had some pretty out-there experiences you’ll have a hard time becoming very certain of them yourself too. Now, you might say that if you applied these kinds of critical thinking to everything then you’d end up believing not much at all, and if you’re jazzing up your epistemology anyway you might as well salvage your religion. That’s a caricature of Alvin Plantinga’s line – I haven’t read much of his work on this and don’t know how accurate it is – but maybe there’s something in it, or in something like it. But if you don’t buy into it, and I can see why people don’t, then most of the claims of religion can come over as pretty tenuous, and the believers can seem pretty silly.
The kind of atheist I’ve got in mind responds by saying all the billions of religious people should wise up, stop going to church, stop praying, stop believing that there’s been divine intervention in human affairs, evolution, cosmology or whatever, and just become straight-up atheists. And in fact, about twelve years ago I did just that. I stopped going to church, stopped praying, stopped attributing things to divine action and went from committed Christian to convinced atheist. I went back and forth a bit, and the process took about a year.
So if I can do it, why can’t everyone? Well, I think that what these unsympathetic atheists are disregarding is the fact that they’re asking people to make some really radical changes in their lives, and making radical changes in your life is difficult! Sure, they’ve heard the sceptics’ little arguments, and sure, they can’t really say what’s wrong with them, but so what? If you’re going to radically change your life in response to an argument, you’d better be damn sure it’s a good argument, and who has the time to put in that much thought? And if even they did put in the thought, let’s not forget that some of the greatest minds in history have spent an enormous amount of time thinking about pretty much these same issues, and a lot of them come out of it disagreeing with Dawkins. The so-called new atheists might like to pretend there’s no serious debate here, but this only indicates that they haven't got the expertise or the inclination to engage with it. The debate's there, it's serious, and there are smart people on both sides. One might try to claim that one side isn’t arguing in good faith, but I don’t think this claim can be made in good faith except from a position of extreme ignorance.
So anyway, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people who don’t want to radically change their lives in response to a simple argument. And in fact, I think this follows a general pattern: I try not to be unsympathetic towards people for not doing something that is very difficult to do, and as I said, radically changing your life is very difficult. Of course, it’s sometimes very difficult to be sympathetic even with people in a difficult position, and I try to be sympathetic with people who don’t follow this pattern.
Perhaps people’s sympathies could be jiggered along a bit by considering another simple argument for radically changing your life: Peter Singer’s arguments about charity. Regular readers might remember me writing about these a couple of times before. You’d save the life of a child drowning in front of you if you could do it at a small cost to yourself, so why not save the life of a child dying of famine or diarrhoea or whatever far away? You can argue it back and forth, but the fact is that people are dying every day who wouldn’t be if someone middle class spent less time on Amazon and more time on Givewell. If you’re middle class, then today you could be that person! But if you follow Singer’s arguments through, you end up giving away most of your disposable income, and that’s hard. Or at least, it seems to be hard. So, what have the atheists’ arguments got that Singer’s haven’t? If you’re so smart, why are you rich?