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On the Motives of Atheists June 5, 2007

Posted by Joe in agnosticism, atheism, fallacy, logic, psychology.

I recently read Evolution and the Bible and commented on a few things there. I often hear in religious discussion an attack on both sides of the motives of the other. Regardless of the fact that the appeal to motive is a type of ad hominem fallacy and should not be considered a valid refutation of most impersonal arguments, the motives ascribed to either side are usually inaccurate and in poor taste.

Theists are often characterized as being motivated by an inability to cope with harsh reality, an infantile need for authority, being brainwashed or otherwise unable to think for themselves, or possibly just being too stupid to dim witted to understand the complexity of the real world.

I hope the falseness of these mis characterizations is obvious. There are many intelligent theists that have well thought out and considered ideas and opinions on many subjects. I have had enlightening and interesting discussions with theists and have learned a lot from them.

Despite the feelings of many atheists, religion is not a haven for the stupid and ignorant. Are there stupid and ignorant theists? Of course, but there are also stupid and ignorant atheists, agnostics, etc…

A motive often ascribed to atheists is one I find particularly insidious. It stems from the common mis perception that religion is the source of all morality. It goes something like atheists choose to not believe in god because it would interfere with the immoral things that they want to do. Usually sexual immorality is implied or stated. This serves a twofold rhetorical purpose, it poisons the well for atheism by painting atheists as immoral sexual deviants and it attacks the motives of atheistic belief.

When any of these devices are resorted too, one can presume that the wielder is not interested in a positive discourse, but I think the benefit of the doubt can be given and you should try and cut through the rhetoric.

I believe the only way an intelligent respectful discussion can be had is for both sides to presume that the other’s motives is as they represent. Typically a pure desire to pursue the truth is what I presume, unless I am given signs otherwise by use of the usual rhetorical techniques.

 (Edited to fix confusing sentence described by Richard Wade below)



1. Dan - June 5, 2007

Actually, regarding your “mischaracterizations” above – I agree that they’re harsh and exaggerated, but I would not call them false outright. Those ARE valid aspects of theory of mind, more or less, that have been shown to play into elements of the psychology of religion.

But yes, that’s hardly the whole story of religion, and there are indeed many intelligent thests that have rationalized their faith.

2. Worlds Apart On the Motives of Atheists - Creation and - A Rambling « - June 5, 2007

[…] the presuppositions, for they are always there, unlike what is submitted here.  “Typically a pure desire to pursue the truth is what I presume, unless I am given signs […]

3. Jeff de Ruyter - June 5, 2007

They are valid for both Athiests and Christians. However, I would argue that it is natural, and should be expected.

4. Richard Wade - June 6, 2007

Joe, when you said “For atheists a favorite motive is one I find particularly insidious.” I got confused, because the rest sounds like a slanderous thing that some theists do. Could that have been a typo? Did you mean to say “For theists a favorite motive…” ?

5. undergroundreformation - June 6, 2007

I appreciate your balanced view of each end of the argument. It’s hard as a Christian minister with a passion to have an eloquent and intellegent understanding of my faith to be seen in such a light due to those who voice their “understanding” of their faith the loudest…who incidentally have the least to say. The great number of Christian thinkers who have a deep understanding of the teachings of Scripture as well as understanding of the workings of the world are overshadowed by those who enter into religious battle with a bull horn and a squirt gun. The Christian faith is to be one of love, understanding, good reputation, peace (and conflict, but only when absolutely necessary) and devotion; and yet it is constantly looked at as violent and obnoxious in light of the few and the loud.

6. Joe - June 6, 2007

Jeff: I am not sure what you are saying, could you clarify?

Richard: Sorry my sentence was poorly worded. I’ll see if I can fix it. It should say that a favorite motive for theists to ascribe to atheists.

undergroundreformation: Things look the same from this side. The loudest most obnoxious people are the ones who get the attention, making the whole group look obnoxious. That’s one of the things I am trying to get away from in this blog, painting a whole group with the attributes of its worst members.

7. al66888 - June 7, 2007

I’m very impressed with your blog, very well written and very balanced. It’s extremely rare to see, especially on the issue of religion. A man’s belief is so personal, that many cannot debate it with a level head I find it amazing that you, an anthiest, and undergroundreformation, a Christian minister, see thinngs from a similar point of view, even though you are looking at the question for opposite ends. It’s refreshing. Most posts and comments I see (and I am guilty of this myself sometimes) is in an attacking nature, and not a debating nature.

8. Joe - June 7, 2007

Thanks for the positive comments.

I have been guilty of the same visceral attacking argument when I feel backed into a corner. Attack and defense are interesting rhetorically, but the ideas that are being discussed become secondary to the argumentative styles and forces of personality.

I think a dialog with the intent to convert removed, but instead with a motive of communication and understanding on both sides is what creates the best environment for actual positive exploration of the ideas and concepts being discussed.

9. Richard Wade - June 7, 2007

Thank you for writing this very interesting posting about motives. It made me think about how I have changed in the last several months.

When I first started commenting on discussion boards and blogs centering around religious issues I was eager to sieze any opportunity to satirize or ridicule others. I was good at it and I was sometimes unkind to say the least. My motives were egocentric and immature.

But I was inspired to change my ways by reading the comments of interestingly enough, an American Muslim woman. She would be attacked viciously by ignorant, bitter and bigoted people from all sides, both believers and non-believers. She would keep her dignity, patiently and respectfully responding to each person. She didn’t glaze things over or talk in a blissful trance; her arguments were clear and pointed, but always patient and polite. It was remarkable. In her position I would have torn each of them several new orifises but she remained calm. It didn’t come from her spiritual persuasion, it was just her personality.

I lost interest in the primitive idea of “winning” in such discussions and became primarily interested in understanding and being understood. It’s much more satisfying and I have learned so much. There is often argument, but not in the “quarreling” sense of the word, just points of view supported by logic, reason and accurate information. The underlying motivation of desiring a mutual benefit or at least mutual understanding is what has changed. I now have several new friends with widely varying points of view, including the Muslim woman I mentioned.

I try my best (sometimes I blow it) to follow my new code of conduct with a few simple principles: Never, ever lie or pretend, never deliberately insult, be interested rather than interesting, and listen with my words more than talk with my words.

It doesn’t mean I’m milktoast or appeasing; I can argue firmly and effectively but without discrediting myself with rudeness or cruelty.

Joe, I’m so glad you have started this oasis in the desert of invective and vitriol. There are just a couple on the net I have found so far. I hope both you and your blog prosper.

10. Joe - June 8, 2007

I just hope I can keep it going.

11. Richard Wade - June 8, 2007

It’ll probably wax and wane many times, starting slowly. Don’t give up. Main thing is to have fun regardless.

12. Melinda Barton - July 2, 2007

The problem is that too many people on “both sides” as it were insist on defining themselves in relation to the other side rather in any intrinsic way. This forces them into a position where, in order to maintain/develop positive self-image, they must maintain/develop a negative image of the “other.” This includes assigning both negative attributes and negative motivations to the other. Every potential positive about the other must be twisted into a negative.

I read a lot of scienctific and philosophical material, so this brings me into contact with a lot of atheist writing. I see too many people who have to constantly assert some negative about theists for every positive about atheists. Ex.: I’m a freethinker. Theists are enslaved to their delusions and refuse to think for themselves.

On the religious side, the same holds true. Ex.: I’m a moral person, unlike those atheists who can’t see anything greater than themselves.

These mechanisms require the twisting of logic and the absolute refusal to see that one is often making the errors one condemns. Now, when it comes to self-image, we all twist logic to some extent, but drawing one’s value from “relative” rather than intrinsic standards exacerbates this tendency.

13. Joe - July 2, 2007

Great insight, Melinda!

I think these are just defense mechanisms to shore up a position when the argument turns to the defensive. Being on the defensive brings out the worst on both sides.

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