The Scary Conceit of Atheism
John Roughan wrote an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald recently in which he lamented what he calls the "scary conceit of atheism." Roughan, who is himself an agnostic, was responding to the question of why clear atheists are never elected to public office, even though (at least, in New Zealand), agnostics don't seem to have much problem.
His reasoning is that, even if religion doesn't actually reflect the nature of reality, at least religious people are trying to seek something bigger than themselves. Thus, the agnostic who shrugs his shoulders and says, "maybe" to the question of some transcendent being is more deserving of respect than the atheist who's not even willing to wonder.
But I disagree. Sure, there are plenty of appropriate ways to exercise agnosticism. Science itself feeds on the stuff, and without it I'd be out of a job. But atheists aren't necessarily pig-headed know-it-alls who are so full of themselves that they won't even consider any other possibility. Most of us are, in fact, former believers- most of us have indulged the supernatural for years. Many of us have even had minds so open to the possibility of the supernatural that it's somewhat amazing that we've been able to change them.
Ultimately, Roughan is just giving us a variation of the "presumption of atheism" argument that's been used for years by liberal theists and agnostics who want to have a good relationship with the faithful while remaining intellectually honest. There's also a bit of the "religion/spirituality should be respected" thrown in there as well, for no other reason than to do otherwise seems to Roughan to be impolite. I wonder, do all ideologies also deserve his respect? He mentions the callousness that his Soviet friend had towards churchgoers- was he callous in his dismissal of the man's Communism?
I think that when a conclusion seems reasonable, it should be accepted. I see no reason to penalize someone for nothing more than having convictions- it would be one thing if Roughan mounted some kind of intellectual criticism, but to fault someone for actually having a concrete opinion... that's just lame.