Chris Mooney wonders something.

Wilkins’ post stirs up something that, especially as a journalist, has always made me wonder about the New Atheists–how are they so confident?…I met a lot of moderate religious people, in the course of my life, who were anything but irrational or fundamentalist. And they changed me…[T]hey certainly made me less of an absolutist. They made me less confident that I had all the answers, that my way was the only way–not just for finding out the truth, but for getting through life.

How are ‘the New Atheists’ so confident of what? What is it that Mooney takes ‘the New Atheists’ to be so confident of? Apparently that they have all the answers and that their way is the only way. Well that is (to use a good word that he also likes) a canard. I simply don’t know of any atheists who are confident that they have all the answers. In fact one thing the atheists I know are confident of is that they don’t have all the answers. Is that what Mooney means? How can ‘the New Atheists’ be so confident that they don’t have all the answers? Well…because it is so obvious that there are so many answers to be had and that life is short and the human mind is limited. But Mooney implies that the atheists he knows are confident that they have all the answers. I wonder if he could quote any of them saying anything that would back that up.

I suspect that what Mooney means, but didn’t manage to pin down accurately, is ‘how are they so confident that the epistemology of religion gets things wrong?’ I would put the confidence I have in this way: I am confident that I know of no good reason to believe that a god exists. I think that’s what atheists in general are confident of. Not that they can be certain that no god exists, but that there is no good reason for most of us to think so. I say most of us because it may be that for people who have had really powerful experiences of god, it is reasonable to say that there is a good reason for them to think so. A goodish reason anyway. Well, not really a good reason, but a reason of sorts. But for most people, there isn’t. I think we are and can be confident of that simply because if there were such a good reason, everyone would know about it. As it is – we don’t! We ask for a good reason, and we are handed a stone.

Now…is that ‘so confident’? Is it so confident that it is too confident, deplorably confident, strangely confident, unreasonably confident? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just the commonplace kind of confident like the confident in ‘I am confident that there is no good reason to think Will Shakespeare is sitting across the room writing a new sonnet.’ It’s just vulgar everyday empiricism. I have good reason to think there are oranges in the glass bowl, I don’t have good reason to think there are elephants in it. There could of course be a kind of expertise or scholarship or instrumentation such that if I were properly trained I would be able to detect elephants in the bowl or Shakespeare across the room or a god – but I have no good reason to think there is. No one has any good reason to think there is.

That’s the kind of confidence I have. I think it’s not an over-reaching or arrogant kind of confidence because it does leave room for being wrong, and for learning better. It could be (in principle) that there is such a reason and that nobody has found it yet. It’s a temporal claim. So far, nobody has any good reason to think there is a god. (Well I suppose I can’t be confident that there are no secretive or isolated people who do have such a good reason and simply haven’t made it known yet. But other than that – if there were such a good reason it would be common knowledge in a heartbeat. It would knock Michael Jackson right off the front page.)

So that’s how we are ‘so confident.’ We are confident that we shouldn’t be expected to believe things if there is no good reason to believe them. That’s not quite the same as thinking our way is the only way, as Mooney hinted. It’s just thinking we should match important beliefs to good reasons, by way of caution, you see.

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