Friendly Atheism

I’ve previously mentioned the American philosopher of religion William L. Rowe, who’s mostly known for developing the evidential argument from evil (as opposed to logical variety, which, in philosophical parlance, ‘fails hard’). However, he also wrote about several varieties of atheism – unfriendly, indifferent, and friendly. As far as I know he’s only gone into any detail on the latter, but the other two are pretty easy to figure out from that.

So, what is ‘friendly’ atheism? Essentially, it means believing that you are rationally justified in being an atheist while also believing that someone else might be rationally justified in being a theist. Rowe uses a plane crash as an example: imagine that your intercontinental flight goes down over the ocean, but you survive and are left bobbing in the waves wearing a life jacket. It’s dark, and the rescue planes don’t spot you in the increasingly bad weather conditions. After several hours, your friends at home might be rationally justified in believing that you’re dead, while you are obviously rationally justified in believing the exact opposite. In this case, neither of you are ‘wrong’ for believing what you believe, given the differing levels of evidence available to you.

Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t really work when it comes to the atheism/theism debate. Let’s take a look at another hypothetical example:

You’re an atheist who is convinced that your atheism is rationally justified based entirely on the evidential problem of evil. You come across Bob, a theist, who has yet to hear of the problem of evil. In this situation, can you believe that you are both simultaneously justified in your beliefs? Certainly, since Bob doesn’t have the same amount of information that you do.

But what if you explain the problem of evil to Bob? He is now privvy to what you believe is an irrefutable argument for atheism, yet he’s still a theist. (We’ll assume for simplicity’s sake that he’s unable to change your mind about the problem of evil.) Can you now believe that you’re both rationally justified in your beliefs? Rowe thinks so, but he doesn’t really explain how. Keep in mind that the issue here is rational justification, not the mere holding of a belief – you could certainly accept that Bob has the right to believe whatever he wants, but could you really accept that you’re somehow both right? From Bob’s point of view, the same is true – if he takes the Cosmological Argument to be completely convincing, can he accept that you’re rationally justified in continuing to be an atheist even after you’ve had the argument explained to you? I would say no.

Interestingly, however, there is one particular  instance where I can see ‘friendly theism’ making sense. Let’s suppose that you are completely convinced of God’s existence based on what you believe to be some sort of divine revelation or communication from him (in this case it doesn’t matter whether any such event really took place, only that you believe it did). If you meet Jane, a lifelong atheist who has never experienced anything like this, could you believe that she was rationally justified in being an atheist? It seems that you could, since you not only have evidence available to you that she doesn’t, but it’s evidence of a sort that you can’t simply share with her. Unlike a philosophical argument or a piece of physical evidence, you can’t show somebody a private act of God. I’ve actually met some theists who took this position.

What do you think? Am I overlooking something, or is the concept of ‘friendly atheism’ itself irrational?

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6 Responses to “Friendly Atheism”


  1. 1 C Campbell January 17, 2009 at 2:25 am

    What does Rowe mean by rationally justified? Based on the analogy provided, it seems Rowe is using “rationally justified” to mean “reasonable conclusion.” That is, based upon the persons’ existing knowledge and perspectives (e.g., beliefs and so on) they draw the conclusion which seems to be the most plausible, but it is not necessarily a definitive conclusion (i.e., the ‘right’ conclusion).

    Rowe seems to be suggesting the friendly atheist does not think in narrow terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ That is, the atheist is right and the theist is wrong. Rather, the friendly atheist recognizes degrees of justification for belief, and notices his/her own epistemological limitations. Hence, the friendly atheist refrains from categorical judgments and grants the theist may well be justified within his/her own limited perspective.

    This is how I understand Rowe, but I am not familiar with his work beyond that stated in this entry. So, I could be completely off. Anyway, I thought that I would offer an alternative perspective.

  2. 2 augustine January 17, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    That could be what he meant, and given what I know about Rowe’s general opinions on philosophy, it might actually be quite likely. However, what you’re describing seems to suggest either some sort of weak relativism, which I don’t think Rowe would agree with (and I certainly wouldn’t, in this case at least).

    A rather obvious method of finding out more would be to see if he’s written more on the subject, or if anyone else has developed the idea further. That never occurred to me before now!

  3. 3 C Campbell January 18, 2009 at 12:09 am

    I am unclear what you mean by weak relativism. Would you mind clarifying the term for me? Thanks.

  4. 4 augustine January 18, 2009 at 8:42 am

    It’s not a ‘real’ term, but what I meant was that Rowe seems to be suggesting that something can be wrong for you but right for me (or vice versa) or alternatively that, in this area at least, there’s no such thing as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ (or no way to tell, which I guess would be skepticism rather than relativism). But I could be misreading him.

  5. 5 C Campbell January 19, 2009 at 8:14 am

    I see. That’s not quite what I was attempting to express. Rather, the idea is that right and wrong exist, but in general within the human context we function more on plausible conclusions rather than ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ conclusions. Combined with the limitations of human knowledge and experience, something could well be more plausible for you than it would be for myself. That is, given your experience and knowledge, you would be justified in accepting a belief which I would not given my experience and knowledge. This is to say our justification is based on our immediate context (i.e., our current knowledge and experience) rather than the total context (i.e., all things).

    I hope that makes sense. :)

    As a side note, there was a Michael Martin article I came across on this. I can seem to find it off hand. He critiques and disagrees with Rowe, but I think Martin misreads Rowe based on the thinking above.

    Anyhow, thanks for the thoughts.

  6. 6 augustine January 19, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Yes, I see what you mean now. I’m sure Rowe probably did mean to say that even if someone knew all of the arguments that you did, there could still be some other circumstances that meant you could consider them justified in disagreeing with you. The only problem is that he doesn’t make this terribly clear, and seems to be suggesting that even if everything else is equal you could still adhere to friendly atheism.

    But like I said, I should really look up more on the topic! Let me know if you find that article you mentioned.


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