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The Case for “Friendly Atheism”

June 24, 2007

The gist of Rowe’s article seems to be this: An atheist’s reason for disbelief is based on the evidential existence of evil, which is incoherent with the notion of an all-loving God. Whereas at the same time, he might be persuaded to have sympathies with the theist, based on the “G. E. Moore Shift”- that other arguments for the existence of an all-loving God can cause the conviction of the belief in the existence of God, and thus to maintain coherence, it should not be the case that there are defeating evils which is beyond the goodwill and control of an all-loving omnipotent God. 

From thereon, Rowe explores three possible variations of atheism (unfriendly, indifferent and friendly) and argues for the possibility of friendly atheism, however concluding with the following: 

“I’m aware that the central points of the paper are are not likely to be warmly received by many philosophers. Philosophers who are atheists tend to be tough-minded- holding that there are no good reasons for supposing that theism is true. And theists tend either to reject the view that the existence of evil provides rational grounds for atheism or to hold that religious belief has nothing to do with reason and evidence at all. But such is the way of philosophy.” (p137) 

The question is thus “can friendly atheism stand?” Rowe uses the analogy of waiting for rescue from the aftermath of a plane-crash: 

“Under these circumstances they (your friends) are rationally justified in believing that you have perished. But it is hardly rational for you to believe this, as you bob up and down in your life vest, wondering why the search planes have failed to spot you. Indeed, to amuse yourself while awaiting your fate, you might very well reflect on the fact that your friends are rationally justified in believing that you are now dead, a proposition you disbelieve and are rationally justified in disbelieving. So, too, perhaps an atheist may be rationally justified in his atheistic belief and yet hold that some theists are rationally justified in believing just the opposite of what he believes.” 

If I may call a person who thinks it is totally the case that his friends should still believe that he is still alive as an “optimist,” then a person who believes otherwise should be a “pessimist.” For the first case, if he at the same time thinks that it is rationally justified for some friends to believe that he is dead, then he should be called “a person who is quite optimistic,” and for the other case, “a person who is quite pessimistic,” it does not quite make sense if we say one is an “pessimistic optimist” and the other, an “optimistic pessimist.” 

 Drawing from the main line of argument of Plantinga’s “Warranted Belief in God,” (Chapter 6 of Warranted Christian Belief) where he argues that the “de jure question is not independent of the de facto question,” I do not see how one can on the one hand, see the belief in the existence of God as a warranted belief, yet on the opposite as warranted as well, without affecting his position as a theist/ atheist. That is, if one wants to be called a theist/ atheist, then one should have full conviction of being one.  I think the picture will be clearer if we try to imagine, if it is even possible, what it means to be a “friendly theist.”

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2 comments

  1. “An atheist’s reason for disbelief is based on the evidential existence of evil, which is incoherent with the notion of an all-loving God.”

    >>> i see what you mean. It would be important though to make clear that Rowe is presenting an evidential argument from evil, not a logical one. The phrasing of the above could be made a bit clearer 🙂 perhaps we could say: “even if the existence of evil is not logically incompatible with the existence of an all-loving God, it is evidence against it and justifies atheism.”

    ‘Drawing from the main line of argument of Plantinga’s “Warranted Belief in God,” (Chapter 6 of Warranted Christian Belief) where he argues that the “de jure question is not independent of the de facto question,” I do not see how one can on the one hand, see the belief in the existence of God as a warranted belief, yet on the opposite as warranted as well, without affecting his position as a theist/ atheist. That is, if one wants to be called a theist/ atheist, then one should have full conviction of being one. I think the picture will be clearer if we try to imagine, if it is even possible, what it means to be a “friendly theist.”’

    >>> i think i see where you’re coming from. It’s better not to bring in warrant into the picture because warranted beliefs are, as far as i understand, significantly different from rational beliefs and Rowe means only to deal with the latter. i might be wrong here but it’d be safer to stick with rationality 🙂 as for whether a friendly a/theist is possible, let’s go on to the next point…

    ‘If I may call a person who thinks it is totally the case that his friends should still believe that he is still alive as an “optimist,” then a person who believes otherwise should be a “pessimist.” For the first case, if he at the same time thinks that it is rationally justified for some friends to believe that he is dead, then he should be called “a person who is quite optimistic,” and for the other case, “a person who is quite pessimistic,” it does not quite make sense if we say one is an “pessimistic optimist” and the other, an “optimistic pessimist.”’

    >>> the optimism/pessimism part might be quite tricky. how would you define those terms? quite a bit might turn on them. Rowe’s claim seems to be that some people have evidence that is not accessible to others and thus what might be rational for one to believe might not be rational for another. For instance, the survivor is certainly rational to believe he is still alive. But his friends back home who have heard nothing of him after many days and perhaps with knowledge of the very low probability of survivor under such conditions, would be rational to believe he is dead in a way the survivor himself is not. But it seems the survivor could consider them rational even if he takes their belief to be false – he accepts that it is rational for them to believe so based on the evidence they have. Analogously, the atheist might take the theist to be rational. But as Rowe says, their evidential bases cannot be the same. The atheist could think the theist has some experiences which convinced her of God’s existence but he never has such an experience and has no reason to accept her testimony. alternatively, the atheist might say that the theist might not have considered the problem of evil sufficiently to see it as a decisive objection to the truth of theism. Do you think this works?


  2. Hmm i think this works. Haha. Okie so you are saying that the gist of the article is that a friendly theist remains a theist, but at the same time understands why the atheist holds on their false belief and the case is so also for an atheist. Hmm which means a philosopher of certain position A should be considered friendly if he can emphatise with another holding A’- okie but do you think the author is stating the obvious? 🙂



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