Assuming the Intellectual High Ground

It’s not uncommon to hear atheists argue that the reason why theists believe in God, is because of either personal reasons (they want meaning, or community, or eternal life etc), or sociological reasons (they were born into a certain country/family from which they’ve inherited their beliefs).

The assumption is that people embrace atheism because of intellectual reasons, but those who embrace theism do so because of either personal reasons (they want God to exist) or sociological reasons (they’ve merely adopted the beliefs of their community). This is comforting for atheists because it solidifies their belief that atheism has reason and logic on its side.

Unfortunately (for atheists), the reality is never that simple. Humanly speaking, people invariably believe and disbelieve, and come to believe and come to disbelieve, because of a combination of intellectual reasons, personal reasons, and social reasons as well. Tim Keller puts the point like this:

“There are three basic kinds of reasons [for which] all people who believe, believe; and for which all people who disbelieve, disbelieve. If you disbelieve in God or you believe in God it’s because of all three of these kinds of reasons. The first kind are intellectual reasons… Secondly though you have personal reasons. Nobody believes in God or disbelieves strictly for intellectual rational reasons, there’s always personal reasons… And lastly there’s social reasons. Now, there’s a whole disciple called the sociology of knowledge. And the sociology of knowledge says that, basically, you tend to find most plausible the beliefs of people that you need, people that you’re dependent on, and people who are in the community you’re in or want to be part of. Their beliefs tend to be more plausible than the beliefs of people who are in communities you don’t like or aren’t interested in and don’t want to be part of.”

There are of course, intellectual reasons on both sides. People are often persuaded of the existence of God by arguments such as the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral argument; and for Christianity in particular, historical arguments for the person and work of Jesus Christ. For the non-existence of God, people are often persuaded by the problem of evil, or a perceived tension between science and faith, and so on.

And yet, both theists and atheists have personal reasons as well. Believers are often drawn to theism’s offer of meaning/purpose in life, resources for coping with suffering, hope for the future, and/or basis for community and social justice. On the other side, atheists are often put off by theism’s view of God’s judgment, claims of exclusivity, and/or views of sexuality. Both sides have personal reasons for their worldview.

And both sides have social/sociological reasons too. If you’re a part of a community that believes or disbelieves, you’re naturally going to find their view more compelling. If all the smart people you know are atheists, you will find atheism more plausible. If you go to a church made up of people whom you respect and look up to, their views will seem be more believable to you.

Whatever worldview you have, there are always intellectual reasons, personal reasons, and social/sociological reasons behind it. The real dishonesty comes when someone says: my reasons are intellectual, but your reasons are personal or sociological. At best this is incredibly naïve, and at worst it’s intellectually dishonest.

In discussions between theists and atheists, atheists often assume an intellectual high ground. Sometimes they may even have it in comparison to their conversation partner. But atheism does not have intellectual superiority over theism, and the insistence that it does is not only dishonest, but part of the smugness and arrogance that puts so many people off atheism.

This point was made by atheist Dan Barker at the 2010 global atheist convention in Melbourne. When asked: “how do you talk to Christians without coming across as if you’re talking down to them [even though] let’s be honest, we think we’re smarter than other people”? Dan Barker said:

“We can’t assume that we’re smarter than them. A lot of them are extremely brilliant. I was one and I was smart. I took some IQ tests that even surprised me. So it wasn’t that I was dumb or stupid or unable to think. I think your point is, how do we dialogue without disrespect? And the way to do it is to respect them and honour the reasons why they believe.”

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