Many theists charge atheists with arrogance. This is a habit I’ve seen among theists for as long as I can remember. The accusation of arrogance is usually put out there as if it were self-evidently true, and all anyone needs is for someone to point it out, and every by-stander will automatically “see the light” and recognize its unassailable truth.
I must be at a disadvantage, for even though I have been called arrogant many times for simply being an atheist, it was never quite clear to me why someone would sincerely think that I am arrogant simply because I didn’t believe another person’s claims. Indeed, it seems quite the reverse is the case: I’m being told that my non-belief is an offense to something which the believer can only imagine, and that I should “repent” of the “sin of unbelief” and submit myself in fear to what is nothing more than a fantasy, just as the believer has chosen to do. Meanwhile, I’m “arrogant” for simply being honest and recognizing that I don’t believe the theist’s claims because I know that they are not true.
But apparently my grasp of the situation is off a bit. Thanks to David Smart of the Aristophrenium blog, my misunderstandings on this matter have been corrected. (David Smart posts on his blog under the name “Ryft Braeloch” and elsewhere as “Arcanus” – not to be confused with Arch-Anus I’m sure.) In a recent post of his, Smart explains the problem once and for all. Apparently it is arrogant for an atheist
to presuppose the truth of his system of thought and expect the Christian to work within the framework of that system.
evidenced quite sharply by the response of the Atheist when the Christian opens the Bible to support their claims. Rather immediately the Bible is denounced as any sort of acceptable method of supporting claims, precisely because it fails to satisfy the Atheist’s presupposed criteria.
This criticism applies only to those Atheist responses which deny for the Christian the very principle the Atheist allows for himself. Such a response is a one-way street that exhibits an arrogance that cannot be defended except by fallacy.
The controversy which concerns Smart involved an exchange between himself and atheist Austin Cline. In that exchange Cline posed the following challenge to Smart:
Why don’t you point to someone actually doing that [shoving their beliefs down my throat] before whining that this is your “true” argument.
When an Atheist presupposes the truth of his system of thought and expects the Christian to work within the framework of that system, but denies for the Christian the inverse thereof because the only presuppositions the Atheist permits in the field of debate are his own, he is precisely shoving his beliefs down my throat.
Perhaps Smart thinks I would be “shoving” this “belief” down his throat if I expected him to abide by this distinction “in the field of debate.” But why? Theists observe the fundamental distinction between what is real and what they imagine in so many areas of their lives, such as when they get out of bed in the morning, consume breakfast cereal, dress themselves, drive their vehicles to work (if they work), tally their monthly bills, balance their bank accounts, walk across their yard, etc.
Why would they object to observing this fundamental distinction “in the field of debate”?
The “inverse” of this principle is that there is no fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. But on this premise, whatever one imagines could be real. So what’s behind Smart’s gripe? If allowing the distinction between reality and imagination to be blurred is the preferred ideal, the atheist may simply be imagining that the theist’s god is not real. In so doing, the atheist is adopting the essentials of the theist’s worldview (as we’ll see below), but I suspect that the theist will find some way to object to this outcome.
Smart’s complaint suggests that the concern underlying his charge of arrogance against the atheist is that reluctance to allow the Christian to “work within the framework of [his] system” impedes debate. But I’m not persuaded that debate is what Christians really want. I know this because of the persistent futility of trying to engage Christians in debate. Where are the disputers of my worldview? The silence is indeed deafening. And it’s not because I’ve been absent from the conversation.
I suspect that the real agenda behind the charge of arrogance is much simpler: it is to smear and discredit non-believers and reinforce believers’ commitment to the religious prism through which their worldview requires them to view human nature and interpersonal relationships.
Smart explains his problem with what he considers “arrogance” on the part of atheists in an earlier post:
the Christian is expected to provide arguments in defense of Christian theism which accord with the atheist’s epistemology in particular and world view in general.
This analysis is certainly compatible with what Smart states next:
This is implicitly demonstrated in challenges such as, "Provide evidence that God exists." The relevance of evidence, and even what constitutes evidence, are defined by his system of thought.
Smart proposes that
if it is permissible for the atheist to presuppose the truth of his system of thought and expect the Christian to work within the framework of that system, then it is also permissible for the inverse of that situation.
So if a non-Christian adopts the underlying metaphysical assumptions of the Christian worldview, as Smart would prefer that he do, then he cannot be faulted for the varieties of conclusions he might draw when applying the primacy of consciousness while trying “to work within the framework of that system.” He may, for instance, adopt the view that the universe is the product of conscious activity, and identify the author of that conscious activity as something other than the Christian god. Instead of imagining the conscious agent which created the universe as trinitarian, he may think of it as infinitarian in nature, as some theistic animists have conceived of their own deity. Where the Christian imagines his god as a “father” who chose to give up his son to vicious persecutors, the atheist trying on the theist’s shoes may conceive of his ruling consciousness as being eternally sonless. And instead of imagining that human beings are inherently in need of “salvation” because of a botched creation, the atheist who adopts the metaphysical basics of the theist’s worldview “for argument’s sake,” may draw the conclusion that the logical outcome of the creative process of a perfect creator is a perfect creation (see for instance here), and that human beings are therefore exactly what the creating consciousness had planned them to be, and that the notion of “salvation” misses the point entirely. That’s just the problem once one grants validity to the primacy of consciousness: he could imagine any scenario, and on the premise of the primacy of consciousness accept it as “true.”
So if Smart had his way, it may not work to his worldview’s advantage after all.
Smart insists that if the atheist holds the theist accountable to his own (non-theistic) presuppositions, then
the atheist would shoulder the epistemic responsibility for explaining why the only presuppositions permitted in the field of debate are his own—and I would not anticipate a rational argument for that.
a) there is a fundamental relationship between consciousness and its objects, and
b) that the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of the conscious activity by which one perceives and/or considers them.
Smart tells us that
the arrogance of atheism is proven by atheists who "presuppose the truth of their system of belief and then tacitly insist their Christian opponent work within the framework of that system" while prohibiting by fiat any competing epistemic structure in the field of debate.
As for allowing “any competing epistemic structure in the field of debate,” the only one I can think of is one which allows a thinker to confuse his imagination with reality, and no theist has persuaded me that this is ever rationally appropriate.
If I may make a few observations, let me state the following. I’ve often suspected that the real cause behind a theist’s choice to accuse an atheist of arrogance stems from a deep-seated resentment of the atheist’s certainty, whether the atheist really is certain or the theist simply imagines that he is. The atheist should bear in mind the fact that he is essentially a spoilsport for the theist, and that his mere existence as an atheist serves as a constant reminder to believers that not everyone on “God’s green earth” has obsequiously surrendered his mind to a frightening concoction of the imagination, and this spawns a sense of private envy in the mind of the believer: he wishes that he had the spiritual courage that it takes to distinguish between the real and the imaginary on a consistent basis and stand up to the arbitrary claims of religion, just as many non-believers do. But he lacks such courage and thus resents those who do.
As confirmation of this analysis, notice how often theists insist that there really are no atheists, that atheism is an impossible alternative to theism, and that, if anything, agnosticism is the rightful category of self-professing atheists. Many have misconstrued agnosticism as essentially equivalent to non-belief. But this is mistaken. Agnosticism is the view that certainty on a given matter is unachievable. It does not have to be in the context of theism, but in the context of theism agnosticism would be the view that no one can be sure whether or not a god exists. An agnostic can be a theist just as he could be an atheist; he could believe that there is a god, or he could disbelieve that there is a god. The agnostic is one who takes issue with a position of certainty on the matter. Such persons tend to be more inclined to succumbing to Pascal’s Wager than to acknowledging the imaginative nature of god-belief. Also, theists who have come to realize that their apologetic arguments intending to prove the existence of their god are faulty and consequently unpersuasive, are more inclined to object to an atheist’s certainty and insist that he’s really an agnostic on the subject.
Note also that the atheist is not someone who claims to have been “chosen” to be included in some group or another by an invisible magic being. A genuine atheist does not presume to be the recipient of favor distributed among men by some supernatural source; he typically understands that he needs to rely on his own wits in life, and seeks to develop them for that very purpose. Thus he values his own wits, and acts to protect them from subterfuge and deceit. Perhaps this is what the theist has in mind when he calls the atheist “arrogant.” The atheist is typically not the one who seeks to pass himself off as numbering among “the chosen” and preferring to characterize everyone else as numbering among “the damned.” Christianity, for instance, holds that there is no greater prize than “God’s grace,” and Christian believers style themselves as recipients of this prize and everyone else as lacking it. Given this aspect of god-belief, the charge of arrogance seems entirely misdirected when leveled against the atheist.
Since arrogance is a form of the unearned, the accusation of arrogance is the charge that one is claiming knowledge which he has not earned. But is the atheist really claiming such knowledge? Theists typically like to characterize atheism as the claim that there are no gods at all, a claim to knowledge which no man could, presumably, have “epistemic rights” (while a claim to knowledge of the supernatural is accepted uncritically and without anything approaching a rigorous epistemological account). Would the theist likewise say that the atheist is being arrogant when he says that there are no square circles? On the theist’s premises, it seems that one is in fact being arrogant when he denies the existence of square circles. For how could he know that there are no square circles residing somewhere in reality? What “epistemic rights” does anyone have to say that there are no square circles? Does the theist hold that there might possibly be square circles in existence somewhere? If not, isn’t he guilty of the same “arrogance” that he charges against the atheist?
Let me be very clear here. I for one would not accept the theist’s god-belief claims if he could not substantiate them without first demonstrating that the god he claims exists can be reliably distinguished from what may merely be imaginary. It’s unclear how someone who is concerned about the preservation of the rationality of one’s beliefs could have any objection to such a standard. At the same time, it does not suffice for the theist to simply insist that his god is real and not imaginary, for in doing so he is acknowledging the fact that there is indeed a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. But in insisting that his god is real and not imaginary, is the theist demonstrating that his god can be reliably distinguished from what he may merely be imagining? Clearly not. I would say that the theist has a very tall order to fill, and I’d also say that I’ve not encountered one theist who’s been able to meet it (and I’ve encountered many theists throughout my lifetime). And if the theist cannot meet this minimal standard, as rationally intact as it is, am I really being “arrogant” for disbelieving his god-belief claims? To borrow an expression attributed to Jesus, “I trow not.”
I certainly do not mean to “shove” my beliefs down David Smart’s throat. But if Smart is an adult, I would expect that he at least grasp the distinction between what is real and what he imagines. If he doesn’t, then what value could any worldview which he professes possibly have? That is something he must answer, for beyond mere entertainment, I do not see what value the theistic imagination could possibly have.
by Dawson Bethrick