Atheists and Doubt

Another great quality of many atheists, which is too often unappreciated by Christians and other religious people, is an openness to doubt, a flexibility to look at the world from different angles, and an interest in the rational critique of established positions.

Of course there are atheists, who as much as some Christians, seem to display a boastful overconfidence about the evident certainty and obvious conclusions of their positions. But in general, my experience has been that there are very many atheists who are self-critical, open-minded, and interested in the rigorous examination of worldview claims.

For instance, many atheists also call themselves “free thinkers”, a title suggesting that they are not beholden to any one perspective, but always open to following wherever reason and evidence may lead. As the current description of “Freethought” on Wikipedia reads:

Freethought holds that individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason. Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas. Regarding religion, freethinkers hold that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena.

Of course Christians will disagree about the basic tenets of freethought in regards to religion, but the first section of this description is one that nearly everyone should be able to gladly affirm. (We might want to broaden what counts as a legitimate basis for our opinions to include testimony from others, memories, and other ‘properly basic’ beliefs, but I digress).

In this regard, atheists (and others) who denounce a fideistic approach to religion are doing religious people a great service.

Whenever the claims of faith are said to be outside of rational investigation, it creates a great challenge for everyone else. To take a small scale example, I once knew a student who would occasionally cancel Bible studies because “God told me that we should not meet today.” The truth of the matter was more likely that she was behind in her homework! Her ‘prophetic’ explanation was frustrating and a conversation stopper, but it also came across as fairly disingenuous, and it eroded the trust in our relationship.

A similar, but more significant, problem exists when Christians say “you just have to take it on faith” or “you just need to believe” or “pray about it and it’ll become clear to you” when confronted with difficult challenges to their beliefs. These words initially sound good, and pious, and noble, but upon reflection (or hearing them one too many times), they start to sound like an intellectually lazy way of avoiding the problems. When atheists (or others) criticize Christians for this, they are calling us to a higher level of reason, thoughtfulness, and conversational engagement with other viewpoints.

This process—of going from conviction, to being challenged, to doubt about our own ideas, to investigation, to fresh conviction—should be celebrated. It is okay to not have answers and it is okay to change our minds as we continue to learn and grow. Going through the emotionally wrenching experience of uncertainty is necessary if we are to process the complexity of contemporary challenges to religious belief (or, alternatively, the current arguments against atheism).

To be fair, there are some good arguments against having too much doubt as well! There are some people who argue that to generally live in a state of doubt is a good thing. But this is going too far. Surely what we want (even if we are not always able to have it) is a reasoned confidence in what is true, and knowledge of what we can reliably build our lives upon. The point is that periods of doubt often lead us into a more robust and more reasoned confidence about what is true and reliable.

Another legitimate challenge is that there is a place in our intellectual lives for trust, and for faith. When we recognize that someone is trustworthy in general, it is wise to extend trust to them in areas even when we can’t verify all the details. Likewise, if we have experienced the goodness and love of God, and we see His promise-keeping character established in the Bible, we have reason to trust Him, or have faith in Him, in other ways and times (like when we go through suffering).

But again, in general, it is good for society to have avid defenders of reason, curious seekers of truth, and open-minded conversationalists. It is good for humanity when we look for evidence that not only supports our views, but also for that which undermines our current perspective. This kind of humility and openness to new ideas and perspectives means we continue to learn and grow. All of this fosters respectful and mutually beneficial conversation with one another, because we share the value of seeking after the truth.

In conclusion: I want to gladly praise and celebrate the many ways that atheists highly value reason, facts, logic, good arguments, and other good methods of learning what is true. These are crucial, time-tested values that benefit our society in general and particularly strengthen our conversations about issues of ultimate importance.