Is Atheism Rationally Coercive?

Let me comment on what Eric said here at DC, who is an intelligent Christian:
I'm just trying to get at the truth. I was an ardent atheist for a number of years, but gradually came to believe that the theistic worldview and the arguments for it are more consistent with my experience of the world and my philosophic intuitions (which we all rely upon when thinking these things through). I've changed my mind in the past, and I'm certainly open to doing it again in the future. I don't think that my position is rationally coercive, but I do think that it's rational, just as I would say (and I presume John would agree) that the arguments for atheism aren't rationally coercive, but atheism is rational. LINK
First off I really appreciate Eric's honesty and willingness to consider his faith to be in error. Not many believers will say what he did, and for that I find it a joy to discuss these issues with him, even if we both think the other person is wrong. Kudos to him! Can I say the same thing?

Am I open to the possibility that I'm wrong? Well, it depends on the question. If the question is whether there was a supernatural force or being who may have created a quantum wave fluctuation which caused this universe to spring into existence as his last act before dying, then yes, I could be wrong. Such a being might have existed. Nor am I 100% sure no supernatural force or being exists now. But if the question is whether evangelical Christianity is true or many other moderate to liberal versions of that faith, then yes, I am very sure. Do I think there is a slightest chance that I might be wrong about Christianity? No. In fact, I am so sure I'm right that I'm willing to risk being thrown into hell for all of eternity. I think this says a lot about how assured I am that I'm correct.

That being said, do I think arguments for atheism aren't rationally coercive? Yes, that's what I think. Let me explain by defining the words "atheism" and "rationally" as well as what it means for something to be "coercive". These distinctions need to be fleshed out to see why I say this.

If the word “atheism” means “metaphysical naturalism,” as Eric and many Christian theists equate the terms, then I do not think “metaphysical naturalism” is “coercive” in the sense that the evidence compels people to accept it. One could affirm deism, or the philosopher’s god. If the word "atheism" is defined as simply "the lack of a belief in God," then that too is not rationally coercive, if for no other reason but that rational people disagree (as I'll explain later when it comes to the word "rationally"). I do think that agnosticism is rationally coercive, if by that we mean a skeptical method for assessing truth claims. We should all be agnostics in the Huxleyan sense. I also think agnosticism is rationally coercive if by that we mean the view that we just don't know why the universe exists (known as "soft-agnosticism"). We must all admit this is the default positon before making any positive claims about the origins of existence. I just happen to think this kind of agnosticism leads us to atheism though, as defined in either sense above.

When it comes to what it is that makes a person reasonable or “rational,” this is a complex topic. If people can only be considered rational if they are correct, then there are a few serious problems to be dealt with which cannot be satisfactorily answered. For one, how is it possible for a rational person to change his mind and still be considered a rational person both before and after changing his mind? Did he all of a sudden become rational because he changed his mind for the truth, or did he become irrational because he changed his mind and is now wrong? Besides, how do we describe what it means to be rational when all of us are surely right about some things and yet wrong about other things? Are we just rationally schizophrenic human beings? Furthermore, how can we tell when someone is rational if being rational means being correct, since everyone is influenced by non-rational emotional factors having to do with what William James described as our passionate natures? If we are to judge whether someone is wrong about an issue and hence irrational, then how sure can we be that we are not wrong and therefore irrational ourselves?

If instead we think being rational means following the rules of logic, then rational people can be dead wrong and still be rational. All they have to do is follow the rules of logic to be rational. Rational people can be dead wrong simply because they start with a false assumption. If they take a false assumption as their starting point then they may be perfectly rational to follow that assumption with good logic to its logical conclusion, even though their conclusion is wrong. They would be wrong not because they are irrational, but because they started with a wrong assumption.

To people who think we should have no assumptions I merely say that we must all assume some things if for no other reason than that we can never examine everything we accept to be true all at once. Ideas which are not subject to conscious scrutiny form a set of background beliefs which are used in assessing a given issue at hand. Our conclusions on these other issues are our accumulated set of assumptions. Yes, we must try to examine everything we accept one at a time, but we can never examine all of that which we accept as true. Just as Michael Polanyi effectively argued that we know more than we can tell, we also accept more than we can justify. Have you, for instance, ever serious examined whether or not communication is even possible between two people? Some philosophers have, and at least one ancient Greek philosopher named Cratylus concluded this was impossible. Given that conclusion of his, Cratylus merely wiggled his finger whenever he was asked a question, which, if he was correct, was the logical thing to do even if it might seem irrational. Your assumption that we do communicate is just that, an assumption, until you actually examine the arguments to the contrary. Was Cratylus correct? I don’t think so. But even if he was wrong he was still being rational. In the same sense I think George Berkeley was wrong for arguing there was no physical universe even if I think he was rational in doing so, and I do.

As another example, I personally think the logic of the Inquisition was impeccable, but absolutely wrong because it assumed God was the author of certain Biblical texts that justified it. As another example, if a believer assumes God exists then this might lead him to logically conclude God is the author of morality and that there is a life after death. The logic is probably there, at least for believers. It’s just that their starting assumption is false.

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