Sunday, November 21, 2010

Do Atheists Possess Special Courage?

Well, it happened again this week. Another of my atheist friends (Nick, this time), claimed the high ground with regard to courage. “It takes courage to abandon faith,” I hear over and over. “Atheists must face reality with courage!” I’m not not impressed.

Atheists insist that belief in God is commensurate with belief in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or in Leprechauns. So let me see if I have this straight: denying the existence of soaring pasta or fantasy imps requires courage? Really? How can atheists, with straight face, tell us that belief in God is vanishingly trivial, and then speak of the abundance of courage necessary for their denial?

No. Atheism requires no courage at all. Walking into a lions den, suppressing your natural fears by pretending lions do not exist, now that requires a semblance of courage (mixed with extreme folly). But atheist are careful to claim that they are doing no such thing. Their “courage” is the kind required to acknowledge that the sky is blue, that fish swim, or that 2 + 2 = 4. Courage?

I responded to my friend’s claims of courage on facebook with this comment:

Nick, I've been thinking a lot lately about that oft repeated mantra, "it takes courage to be an atheistic materialist." I'm not so sure. I often feel it would be much easier for me to let my naturally skeptical mind drift into complete unbelief. And for me, quite honestly, holding on to faith requires the greater effort, and the greater courage.

I'm not saying atheists have wimped out. But I am saying that continuing to believe, maintaining hope that our existence is not futile, that there will be ultimate justice, that there is profound meaning and purpose threaded throughout this universe—for me, this involves determination and courage.

.... How is courage involved in a world-view that has abandoned hope? Sometimes I fear unbelievers mistake "whistling in the dark" for courage.

The Pragmatist, William James, understood (as do I) that faith is a choice. And likewise, for the atheist: disbelief is a choice. Atheists like to assert that non-belief is the default position for an empirically non-verifiable claim. But this assertion holds no water; it begs the question: for the very notion of faith acknowledges the absence of the sort of evidence they consider necessary. James comments,

"To preach scepticism to us as a duty until "sufficient evidence" for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what ... is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?"

So this is how James saw it: Unbelief is grounded less in courage than fear. Fear of making the mistake of believing without “sufficient evidence”. We can derive from James that faith is grounded in fearlessness, courage, as well as hope.

So the next time an atheist asks me how I can believe what I cannot empirically prove, I will respond, “It takes a lot of courage! do you have enough courage? or have you settled for the safety of resignation?”


Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

You are correct: God really is trivial, and trivially false; denying belief in God requires no courage whatsoever. (Indeed affirming belief in God is the most trivial kind of infantilism.)

On the other hand, publicly denying the trivial, infantile superstitions of a large majority of the population — especially when those people tend to react with extreme and brutal violence when their infantile superstitions are denied — does require a bit of physical courage.

Tom said...

Hey Cliff,

Any move from what you are comfortable with takes courage. An unbeliever coming to Christ takes courage. A believer in Christ moving to atheism also takes courage. People are prone to believe in what makes sense, but "evidence" is always subjective.

Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for your comment.

I've noticed, too, that when people feel outnumbered, or feel their views threatened by the majority, many of them an assume a license to bombast.

Cliff Martin said...


I understand you point. However, this was not the courage to which Nick (my friend) referred, nor is it the courage I often hear touted by atheists. It is the "courage" required to face an empty universe.

My point (which I presume you understand) is that, for a skeptic like myself, a Christian well acquainted with all the arguments forwarded in support of unbelief (cogent and otherwise), maintaing hope and faith require genuine courage.

Tom said...

James' quote seems to be an eloquent and long-winded Pascal's wager. You also imply the same when you say "I'm not saying atheists have wimped out. But I am saying that continuing to believe, maintaining hope that our existence is not futile, that there will be ultimate justice, that there is profound meaning and purpose threaded throughout this universe—for me, this involves determination and courage."

It certainly involves determination, but when you cast atheism as choosing futility, injustice, and has no meaning or purpose, then I can't say that your stance is courageous.

Cliff Martin said...


I can see only a vague similarity to Pascal in the James quote. As I read him, he is not arguing for the superiority either of belief or unbelief. Rather, he is countering the atheistic assumption of superiority. Do you not agree?

Pascal's argument is that the consequence of being mistaken are more severe for disbelief than for belief. But James is not suggesting that at all. He is not even suggesting that it is better to believe than to disbelieve. He is merely asking why it would be preferable to be duped by fear than to be duped by hope. Do you have an answer? Or do you want to take up his gauntlet and argue that atheism is not, at its core, motivated by the fear of being wrong?

Rich G. said...

I doubt that atheists have any corner on "courage". I find this expressed by Chesterton "A brave man ought to ask for what he wants, not for what he expects to get. A brave man who wants Atheism in the future calls himself an Atheist; a brave man who wants Socialism, a Socialist; a brave man who wants Catholicism, a Catholic.". But to me, an atheistic system is more limiting. As a Christian, I can allow for a supernatural intervention into a universe regulated by natural laws, or not, while the atheist must not. Atheists may be brave, but also must be on guard to prevent real free thought.

Eric Reitan said...

My post today was inspired by this one and the ensuing exchange, and offers a bit more exegesis of James (and contrasts his intellectual journey with that of Walter Stace). For those interested, you can find it here.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about your response to the point Tom raised. You talk about atheism as meaningless and atheists as lying to themselves, among other negative attributes to atheism and atheists- then you say it would be so easy for you to become an atheist and that you're brave for not choosing that. How is it bravery when you cast it in such a negative light? How is it brave to say, "I'm not going out in the cold rain today, I'm going to stay inside by the woodstove."


Cliff Martin said...

Rich and Eric, thank you for your comments. I may have overstated my point (I do that a lot). I appreciate the balance your comments here and on Eric's blog bring.

Cliff Martin said...

Maybe some believers find their faith comparable to a toasty woodstove. I do not. I do have reasons for not abandoning faith (you cite a few), but that in itself does not make persevering in faith any easier.

Tom said...

Cliff, over the past couple of years, you and I have explored our various "proofs". This seems yet another example of my materialist view seeing any god as a gaps argument -- if there is a hole fill it with God, which you label here "hope". From your point of view, you see that I'm utilizing atheist-of-the-gaps -- where there is a hole I leave it empty. Your spin, though, is frustrating. You cast holes without some god figure to backfill them as hopeless and purposeless.

I don't live in fear of being wrong, but I respect my life and encourage a world that is factually honest. That is not to say that atheism is superior to other world views. We can all dream, scheme, dance and imagine all sorts of fantastical things to fill in those gaps, but we do owe it to ourselves to be truthful and accept evidence as it arises that might be counter to our world view. You are doing that in your efforts to build a cohesive theology coupled to material evidence. In that sense, you are courageous, but it would be even more pronounced if you understood that atheism is not so bleak and still chose your particular road.

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Tom. I still long for the day when I can get to Denver, or you out to Oregon, and we can visit at length over coffee or a glass of red, and go deep. But for now, rather offering my response, I will honor your thoughtful comment by letting it stand.

Boz said...

Cliff, I agree with you that holding any one opinion is trivial.

What requries courage is being an atheist in the rural bible belt, or being a christian in Saudi Arabia/Iraq, or being a muslim in USA.


Do you really think that a person chooses their beliefs? Could you honestly convince yourself that the earth is made of marshmallow? Even if I gave you $1b and a year to try? I haven't chosen any of my beliefs. Though, maybe this is me showing my projection bias ?

Cliff Martin said...


Yes, any opinion which is not verifiable through evidence is a chosen belief. If you're interested, I elaborate on the difference between chosen beliefs and evidence-based beliefs here. I also wrote here about why my theism is chosen.

Boz said...

cliff, thanks for the reply, and the links to those posts.

Based on your detailed discussion, it looks like I was wrong to assume that, like me, people don't choose what to believe. Could you choose to believe anything? like the marshmallow example, or given your investigations, could you choose to believe that evolution is false?

maybe there are some things that we can choose to belive, and some things that we cannot?

Cliff Martin said...


Your reply leaves me in serious doubt that you actually read the linked posts.

Of course I do not "choose" to believe in evolution. That was the whole point of the post. Evolution is supported by volumes of empirical data, and as such it is an evidence-based opinion. But if I were to say that I do or do not believe that other planets in our galaxy are inhabited by life, it would be a chosen opinion, one not supported strongly with evidence. Of course, nothing compels me to form an opinion on a question for which little evidence exists. But most of us do form such opinions along the way.

This seems like an elementary principle to me. But it has been useful for me in understanding my own faith, and the opinions and beliefs of others.

Your continued reference to the absurd (marshmallow earth) illustrates that you do not understand what I mean by "chosen beliefs".

If you looked honestly and closely enough at your own opinions and views, I'm sure you could identify some as chosen beliefs, and others as evidence-based beliefs. I am convinced that all of us have beliefs which fall into each category.

Boz said...


I did read the linked posts, and I think you are right that I was misunderstanding what you are meaning - this idea is new to me.

It sounds like you are suggesting that we can only have a chosen-belief where the evidence-based conclusion is unclear. Is that fair to say?

Can you give some examples of chosen-beliefs that i might hold?

Under the life on other planets issue, lets assume that the current empirical data suggests a 60% probability of "yes it exists", and 40% probability of "no it does not". Now under the chosen-beliefs scenario, I could say: "I have a chosen-belief, I am convinced, I am almost certain, that there is no life on other planets in our galaxy." Now, this is inappropriate because the conclusion goes far beyond the available evidence.

A Similar challenge could be made of other chosen-beliefs. What do you think?

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Boz,

My earlier posts on chosen beliefs vs evidence-based opinions have more to do with many Christians who (in my opinion) do not think clearly about beliefs. They say things like “Cliff believes in evolution”. I have never declared that I “believe” in evolution, as though I rolled out of bed one day and made a choice to be an evolutionist. Rather, I accept evolution because the data makes evolution nearly certain. On the other hand, I choose to believe in God. I do not have overwhelming evidence of the kind that makes God a certainty. Though you may deny this, I would suggest that you have chosen to believe that the universe, and life on earth, came into existence without the aid of an intelligent creator.

I agree with you: expressing certainty in any “chosen believe” (i.e. your example of life on other planets for which we have inconclusive evidence) is inappropriate. Still, people (not all people) choose to have an opinion on the question. Such an opinion is chosen, in my view.

Do you have chosen beliefs? Perhaps not. A strict empiricist may have opinions only on matters for which he has ample empirical evidence. (While some take pride in such evidence-based opinions only, it sounds rather dry and boring to me. I much prefer to speculate, and then investigate those speculations, testing them experientially if I can.) But I think most of us form opinions on “gray” areas, opinions to which we might assign an array of levels of certainty. But to hold any of these chosen beliefs with anything close to absolute certainty would be inappropriate, in my opinion.

Rich G. said...


When you wrote "Do you have chosen beliefs? Perhaps not. A strict empiricist may have opinions only on matters for which he has ample empirical evidence. ", it reminded me of this:

"It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all."
-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ch.3.

Cliff Martin said...

Thanks, Rich!

And your Chesterton reminds me of these lines from my favorite Tennyson poem:

Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:
Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no
Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay my son,
Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven ...

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say there is no evidence. The Bible mentions three sets; that of nature, that written on our heart in the nature of objective truth, and the eyewitness testimony of those who walked with Jesus. I put a lot of faith in the words and lives lived of those who witnessed Jesus. I gave it little thought or credibility before I actually put some study into the history of the bible.

I would say atheists are extremely courageous if they live a self sacrificial life simply for the benefit of others. My own principles seemed to easily slide when I was an atheist. Cheers to all atheists who have their own strong personal compass and stick to their beliefs in making the world a better place for all.

Cliff Martin said...

Well said! Thank you for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a simple yet beuatiful response. After reading the God Delusion 3 times in 2012, I let go. From Devil, Witchcraft, demons, to Angels and God. At first I refused to read the book. After big struggle, I'm enlightened. Fear and retribution No more. It takes laziness to ignore evolution and Darwin's wonderful work

Cliff Martin said...

So, are you saying that reading The God Delusion turned you toward faith?

Anonymous said...

I disagree, it does, non believers burn in hell and have no afterlife, when you are raised with those beliefs, it takes courage to deny them for what you feel is right, it's a duel with a merciless society-installed super-ego who threatens you with eternal damnation if you are wrong.

We may say that it took courage, because it did, we have been there, done that and we realized that it was so hard, there is no mind switch for "stop-believing", actually you kind of know you don't believe but "kind of knowing" and "fully accepting and expressing" are not the same thing, lots of doubts and the shadow of disapproval and doom may scare you back into "faith".

I have many friends who say things like "I am MOSTLY a non believer", that's because they also kind of don't believe but are still scared and don't have the courage to do what they feel it's right for them.. What if they die and lose their afterlife? What if people and society stopped loving them? What if god will punish them with an horrible life for what they did?
Others choose to go for more esoteric-oriental type of faith, that's just trading a master for another master, they came to hate christianity but fear living with their own spirituality in their hands, and without a savior pheraps.

So it does take courage, if we say it it's because we've gone through that, atheists are not an organization, if every atheist says the same thing it's because, for us, it did.

Anonymous said...

It does take courage...

It takes courage to tell your deeply religious family that you do not believe...

It takes courage to stand for your beliefs amidst a society that is not only strongly religious, but one that also negatively stereotypes Atheists as evil and imoral...

It takes courage to realize that you might be wrong, and that you may end up in Hell for eternity, to hold on to the belief that the truth matters more than believing out of fear itself...

It takes courage to realize that this life is All there is, and that you will never see your loved ones again...

It takes courage to realize that this world is not about you, that you are an infinitesimally-small part of this magnificent world...

It takes courage to realize that you will never grasp the entirety of the cosmos in your lifetime...

It takes courage to believe in yourself, and that you are the sole decision-making force in your life, responsible for all good and bad decisions that you make...

Ultimately, please realize that Atheists don't hold their beliefs to harm you, insult you, or diminish your own. Most of us have taken a difficult path towards where we are, and that in the end, the only certainty that we understand is our lack of understanding.

Cliff Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cliff Martin said...

Thank you for you thoughtful comments. I have no argument with anything you wrote. My O.P. was a response to a certain type of claim in which some atheists insist their path requires the greater courage. And this claim to superior courage is often expressed by those who will use their next breath to trivialize the concept of God. That seemed to me (and still does) remarkably paradoxical. Yet, as I wrote in a comment later, I no doubt overstated the case. The simple reality is that living requires courage. Whether our journey is one of belief or unbelief, simply living requires much courage. And the more deeply we consider our lives, our choices, the more connected we are to our own existence, the more courage is needed.

And yes, I have about 20 wonderful friends who are atheists, none of whom insult or diminish my faith!