In a previous post, I argued that atheists have no general obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence in detail – that is, a typical atheist doesn’t have to review the academic literature about the existence of God to be justified in believing that God doesn’t exist. In this post, I will discuss the conditions under which an atheist is morally obligated to study the arguments for God’s existence carefully.
The first category is atheists who have an academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence. I know from personal experience that a philosophy major at a good school will be required to understand a number of arguments for the existence of God in order to get good grades in their classes. There is obviously much more to a philosophy degree than arguments for the existence of God, like the nature of knowledge, but understanding arguments for the existence of God is a big component of what a philosophy major has to study.
Why is this? Are philosophers just obsessed with arcane details of the past? No, there is a good reason why philosophy majors have to understand the arguments for the existence of God. A philosophy major should come away from the degree with a fairly strong understanding of the history of philosophy, especially as that history is relevant to the most important modern debates. There are certain basic things that a BA in philosophy should be able to do, like explain what logical positivism was in outline. This is in spite of the fact that logical positivism as such is almost never defended today, because it has been so influential and its ideas are still called upon implicitly by so many people.
The second category is atheists who intend to defend atheism in public, whether that is by arguing with people on the street, writing letters to the local newspaper, or having a formal debate in front of an audience. If you are going to be defending atheism in public, then you need to know what theists will say in defense of theism and be able to respond to it. This isn’t because theists’ arguments are especially cogent, but rather because they can be very tricky to unravel on the spot and there are a lot of variants on them that can add additional complexities.
This is where atheist philosophers of religion come in. Atheist philosophers of religion are not only clever, as anyone has to be to get a job as a professional philosopher, they are specifically educated for the task of developing and refuting arguments in philosophy of religion, and they have usually been writing in the field for decades. Atheist philosophers of religion can come up with much stronger arguments for atheism and much stronger objections to arguments for the existence of God than a typical layman atheist can.
Sometimes this is just a matter of laying things out more clearly than a layman knows how to do. For example, if a layman presented the problem of divine hiddenness, it would probably look something like this:
Well, if God exists, why hasn’t he shown himself to us? God isn’t loving!
Compare that with J. L. Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness:
- If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
- If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
- Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
- No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
- Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).
This is a much clearer and more thorough way of making the argument from divine hiddenness, and if you study Schellenberg in depth by reading his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, you will find that he piles arguments on top of arguments in support of his premises (which are pretty compelling to begin with, frankly).
In other cases, atheist philosophers of religion have an advantage due to their superior understanding of theistic philosophy. For example, Anthony Kenny in his book The Five Ways has argued that Aquinas’ five ways were originally based on Aquinas’ completely false scientific views about the universe, like his astronomical view that the planets moved around on crystal spheres. This isn’t the sort of thing a layman could learn without studying Aquinas in depth, so reading Kenny’s book is a major time saver.
So, there are a lot of advantages to studying atheist philosophers of religion if you intend to defend atheism in public, to the point that I think anyone who is going to defend atheism in public has a moral obligation to make some effort to research their work.