The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

What would it take for you to believe?

Would this be sufficient...?

What would it take for you to believe? It’s an interesting question to put to any atheist, and often the answer can come as quite a surprise…to them. Given that you are aware of the arguments for God’s existence and find them to be un-compelling, which of any of the standard religious experiences would manage to make a believer out of you? A voice from the heavens? “I would probably dismiss that as some sort of audible illusion. Probably thunder, or an airplane, that I’m mishearing and falsely interpreting as a voice.” A direct appearance, before your very eyes, of an angel, or even of God Himself? “Likewise, I’d think I was hallucinating. I’d probably ask myself what I’d eaten that day! Or who had spiked my drink!” What if the apparition came back day after day, and you knew there was no extraneous cause? “Then I’d think that I had gone mad.” Really, the answer is that for many atheists there is simply nothing that they could experience that could convert them from their position. And then they are surprised when they meet the exact same attitude in their theistic opponents!

So, considering this, a sentence caught my eye recently in the abstract for an article on ‘Militant Modern Atheism’ that I happened to stumble across; in talking about the contemporary debate between theists and atheists, “The challenge [for the militant modern atheist] is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism.” This is followed by, “Meeting that challenge is, I claim, one of the central problems of philosophy today.” The author is sensibly responding to the deficiencies of the particular variety of ‘militant modern atheism’, and is pointing out that they need to offer a little more, by way of an incentive to the believer that they wish to persuade to their position, than merely an almost aesthetic appreciation of the wonders of science. People need more, especially if they are not naturally inclined to see the world in the way that Dawkins does. People need religion, some might claim, or at the very least a functional stand-in for it. And yet, as I was browsing the Philosopher’s Eye, I also noticed the title of another article featured in the latest issue of the Philosophy Compass: “Caring in Confucian Philosophy”

Now, I don’t know a great deal about Confucianism, I have not studied it in any great depth, have no affiliation with it or upbringing within it, and so lay no claims to being an authority on the matter. But as I understand it, Confucianism presents a rather effective model of ‘secular humanism’. So too, I believe, can certain strands of Buddhism stand to be interpreted as similarly effective models of ‘secular humanism’, models that would appear to satisfy the previous author’s call to “develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism”. Perhaps this call has already been answered; well-articulated and convincing versions of secular humanism have already been developed, and are alive and well and living to provide satisfaction to millions of people.

The question, then, is not how to develop versions of secular humanism, but why those versions that already exist fail to be quite as convincing as they deserve to be. They are convincing enough for millions, why are they not convincing enough for billions? The challenge is not to come up with new versions in the hope that they will be convincing, but to assess what these versions are lacking in comparison to their theistic counterparts. The challenge, really, is to find out what it would take for a theist to believe in a version of secular humanism…has anyone asked?

Related Articles:

Militant Modern Atheism

Philip Kitcher

Caring in Confucian Philosophy

Ann A. Pang-White

Recent Approaches to Confucian Filial Morality

Hagop Sarkissian

5 comments on “What would it take for you to believe?

  1. Jonathan
    June 3, 2011

    Why have they failed, by and large, to be convincing?

    Because there isn’t much of anything in back of them, or grounding them. In Confucianism, for instance, you a lot of nice maxims that many people, including religious people, can and probably already do agree with. Then of course it has a lot of maxims (e.g. what sort of clothes to wear) that are obviously dated and irrelevant. But Confucianism doesn’t give one a robust worldview like other religions do. It just gives you a lot of tradition with the presupposition that tradition is great. It is very much grounded in a particular period of China, even if some of (many?) the maxims can be applied across time and various cultures.

    Buddhism has as many different variations as Christianity has denominations. Those schools of Buddhism which are most effective (i.e. dominant in a population) are simply forms of theism, pantheism, etc. It’s not the atheist/secular kind of Buddhism you find in America. It’s also not necessarily the organized religion you find in America. For most I would wager it operates at the folk level, a set rituals that help keep away evil spirits and allow the practitioner to be good enough to warrant something in the afterlife.

    Secular humanism fails to be convincing because, again, it has nothing backing it. Many atheists (e.g. Joel Marks, Michael Ruse, etc.) have recognized that without a God, “morality is flim-flam.” So the moralizing of secular humanism falls on deaf ears. A useful fiction, but it’s hard enough motivating people to be good when they believe in God, heaven, and hell…. good luck motivating them to be good when they know that all they’ve got is about 60 years where it doesn’t really matter in the end how they live.

  2. pateroo
    June 10, 2011

    Because the existing versions are battling with centuries of indoctrination and tradition? Ask the question again in 4000-5000 years?!

  3. Hamish1
    June 10, 2011

    As an atheist for longer than most people have been alive, life without God has its burdens. I have written on and researched the the topic, largely for self-clarification for over thirty years, and have reached the rather sobering conclusion that to be human, meaning to be self-conscious matter in historical motion, is unavoidably to rely on illusions of one sort or another. This is not to recommend one or another existing religion, rather it is to realise too late perhaps, that any more or less coherent religion, is probably better than the illusion that you have no illusions. A life without illusions would probably be unbearable. Consequently, the task for our species is the articulation of illusions that our rising generations can embrace as enriching insights with limitless fascination making up their substance. Is it possible or merely a utopian daydream filled with hope, but no prospects of ultimate fulfilment; the journey not the arrival, is what counts. Isn’t that what religion is anyway. Capitalism cannot fulfil these requirements because of its class and gender based antagonisms, but if any satisfying possibilities exist they will have be be global in their appeal, and global capitalism has at least prepared the way for it.

    Best wishes
    H

  4. Jennie Kermode
    June 13, 2011

    In order for me to be convinced by a religion I would have to perceive it as making logical sense.

    This argument does not always apply in the other direction. I have talked with numerous religious people whose argument has been “When you know, you just know,” and who have dismissed mere logic out of hand. It doesn’t matter how clear or well substantiated an argument is if it clashes with what they accept unreservedly as truth.

  5. mattw
    June 13, 2011

    The wider assumption that there has to be some sort of yang to the yin of religious belief is, I think, wrong: being atheist doesn’t require me to believe in secular humanism, it simply requires me not to believe in god.

    In an ideal world the assumption that nothing can convert an atheist from their position is also wrong. Independently testable and verifiable evidence should do the trick, though the reality is that some atheists would find it harder to accept such evidence, should any such come to light, than others – but that’s human nature for you.

    What would convince me? Impossible to say – but if it only convinced me it would be no good.

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