William Rowe claims that an atheist can hold three different opinions about the rationality of theistic belief: unfriendly atheism, indifferent atheism, and friendly atheism (307). All three positions maintain their atheism by not believing in a supremely good, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal being (308). The first and most extreme of these varieties of atheism, unfriendly atheism, is the position that theistic belief is not rationally justified (312-13).
The second variety of atheism, indifferent atheism, is the lack of an opinion concerning the rationality of theistic belief (313). The final variety of atheism, riendly atheism, is the position that theists are rationally justified in their theism (313). Rowe examines three different versions of friendly atheism, each version being stronger than the last (313-14). As friendly atheism gets stronger, it becomes more paradoxical (313-14).
The strongest account of friendly atheism posits a theist and an atheist who have each been exposed to the same evidence for the lack of theistic belief (313-14). In this account, even though they have seen the same exact evidence and came to different conclusions, the atheist holds that the theist is rationally justified in maintaining his heism (313-14). When two equally rational people encounter the same evidence for and against a belief, we generally expect them to arrive at the same belief.
If they arrive at disjoint beliefs, we tend to think that one of the beliefs is unjustified. Contrary to this general perception, the strongest version of friendly atheism shows an atheist who believes that the theist is rationally justified in holding his belief and yet believes that he, the atheist, is equally justified in holding the opposite, mutually exclusive belief (313-14). This position certainly seems paradoxical (313-14). Despite the fact that friendly atheism seems to be paradoxical, Rowe holds that it is a rationally stable and defensible belief (314).
Rowe says that friendly atheism can be a rationally stable position “if he [the atheist] has some reason to think that the grounds for theism are not as telling as the theist is justified in taking them to be” (314). At first approximation, this statement seems to reduce friendly atheism to a weaker, less paradoxical form. In order to show how this is a defense of the rational stability of the strongest version of friendly atheism, it may be best to first examine some rguments surrounding friendly atheism.
By analyzing these arguments, we might see the strength of the argument against friendly atheism and uncover what I consider to be the best argument in defense of friendly atheism. The first way that the friendly atheist could defend the rational stability of his view is to argue that two equally rational people might weigh evidence in different ways. While this potential solution seems to be promising, a person arguing against friendly atheism could respond by saying that the two people should then debate their weighing methodology (Kasser, 2017).
In this debate, they could gree upon a standard for weighing evidence and then use that standard to ultimately arrive at the same belief (Kasser, 2017). So, the paradox remains. The second way a friendly atheist might try to defend his view could be to argue that friendly atheism is the only view that respects the theist’s way of thinking. If this argument is made, then the opponent to friendly atheism may argue that just because we should respect the theist does not change the fact that one of the disjoint beliefs should lack rational justification.
It seems impossible for disjoint beliefs to both be rational at the same time unless one party as more evidence than the other party. This way forward seems to fail the friendly atheist. Finally, the friendly atheist may defend his view by arguing that one should consider the theist’s belief rationally justified in an attempt to avoid intellectual arrogance. By “intellectual arrogance”, I mean the seemingly unwarranted belief that your justification is better than another’s justification. The opponent to friendly atheism may argue that while intellectual arrogance seems rude, some may just have better justification for their beliefs.
This defense for the friendly atheist also appears to fail. As these arguments may have demonstrated, the best argument against friendly atheism rests on the fact that the view seems to be irreversibly paradoxical. It is extremely challenging for the friendly atheist to hold that some evidence can rationally justify a belief in theism without also appearing to believe that theism itself is true. When two equally rational individuals encounter the same exact evidence for and against a belief, it seems that they should reach the same conclusion regarding that belief.
So if two equally rational individuals have been shown the same evidence or and against the existence of the theistic God, they should come to similar conclusions. But the atheist and the theist do no such thing. Sure, the atheist can think the theist is justified in his belief if the atheist thinks himself better at analyzing evidence and arguments than the theist (Kasser, 2017). But if the atheist believes the theist is rationally justified for this reason, he makes himself a less friendly atheist, holding that the theist is in some way less rational than he is (Kasser, 2017).
Either the theist is irrational (or less rational) and wrong, or he is just as rational and correct. The friendly atheist cannot have both. By carefully analyzing the previous arguments, one may be able to uncover the best way of defending the rational stability of friendly atheism. This final defense of friendly atheism posits that internal states, which vary from person to person, cause people to make different judgements regarding the evidence they are exposed to.
These internal states are things that could be thoroughly described by one to another but never directly experienced by the other. These would include mental states, emotional states, and past experiences. It should be noted that he different judgements are not different evidence-weighing methodologies, but something else entirely. This may prove too difficult to draw. That said, it can be noted that even if two people used the same method of weighing evidence, they may rationally come to disjoint conclusions.
They might agree on how to weigh evidence and still weigh evidence differently, simply by disagreeing on how well the evidence meets their criteria for achieving a specific weight. This final disagreement is one that cannot be settled because it is determined by internal states which are inaccessible to the other party. In accepting that the other party is still rationally justified, we accept that the another’s internal states might give them better access to the truth than our own internal states, while simultaneously standing by our own internal states.
It should be noted that by acknowledging that another can reasonably believe something different, the friendly atheist acknowledges that the evidence does not make the truth obvious. This is an act of intellectual honesty, recognizing that while the evidence may seem to be compelling to one person, the truth may still be obscured. If the ruth is still obscured, either party could be correct. Thus, both parties should be considered justified in their beliefs.
If one refers back to Rowe’s statement regarding the rational stability of friendly atheism, they might now realize how Rowe avoids reducing friendly atheism to a weaker form. By saying that friendly atheism is rational if the atheist “has some reason to think that the grounds for theism are not as telling as the theist is justified [emphasis added] in taking them to be,” Rowe makes a solid argument for the rational stability of friendly atheism (314). In this case, the friendly atheist would hold that he theist is justified in their theism because of their internal states, which are inaccessible to the atheist (313).
The friendly atheist may simultaneously hold that theism is “not as telling as the theist is justified in taking [it] to be” (314). The theist takes theism to be obviously true because of past experiences, emotions, or mental states. The friendly atheist, lacking those particular experiences, emotions, or mental states, takes theism to be obviously false. Both are justified in their disjoint beliefs because their lives have been shaped in different ways, which as caused them to interpret evidence inherently differently.
Further, the presence of an internal state in one is not enough to confirm a belief, for the lack of that internal state in one carries as much justification as the presence of that internal state in another. It is my personal opinion that friendly atheism is a rationally stable view to hold. The reason for this opinion rests on the argument in favor of friendly atheism outlined above. Those who deny that friendly atheism is a rationally stable view have a strong argument, which gives them many convincing ways to efeat some of the friendly atheist’s arguments.
That said, the best argument in favor of friendly atheism’s rational stability seems to have the ability to withstand the attacks of opponents. I think friendly atheism must ultimately be rationally stable because we do not have direct access to the truth in many of the issues we face, including religious belief. Due to this obscurity, we must be able to hold that while we are justified in our beliefs, our internal states could have led us astray. Thus, those who disagree with us should also be considered rationally justified in holding their views.