Some varieties of atheism

by Edward Feser

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…


Edward Feser: Some varieties of atheism

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