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Atheism and the principle of charity

Atheism and the principle of charity


It can be a difficult thing to remain charitable
to other people when we feel they are wrong about something that affects us personally
or that has undesirable consequences. The Dunning-Kruger effect is often invoked
in popular discourse to explain the high opinion with which other people regard themselves,
but we have to remember that it applies to us as well. While there are those that are generally dismissive
and generally hostile to outside viewpoints, these are not required attitudes for giving
an uncharitable interpretation of someone else’s thought. One of the things you learn in an introductory
philosophy course is to attribute the best form of an argument to your opponent. This approach has been called the principle
of charity. Adhering to this principle reminds us to avoid
strawmanning another person’s argument, but it does more than this, too. When we look first to understanding something
instead of criticizing it, we adopt a sympathetic view that can give us a clearer vision of
the ideas under discussion. Rather than coming to an idea defensively,
we step back, momentarily suspend our own beliefs, and become receptive to it. In this open state of mind, we might even
find that we hit on some things the other person hasn’t thought of. Now, why would you want to strengthen another
person’s argument if you disagree with them? For one thing, it looks better and puts you
on a better footing to critique the strongest argument for a position than it does to take
aim at a lesser version. But a second reason here is that a charitable
approach appreciates the difference between ideas and the manner in which they’re articulated. All of us make mistakes in how we express
ourselves, and yet our minds deal in concepts, experiences, and associations that bespeak
a logic, consistency, and coherence. Willard Van Orman Quine noted that, “assertions
startlingly false on the face of them are likely to turn on hidden differences of language.” Understanding and critiquing ideas in their
most persuasive form seems a much more worthwhile endeavor than attacking the mistakes that
people make in struggling to express those ideas. Donald Davidson has referred to this also
as the principle of rational accommodation, which has the specific intent to maximize
truth, whereas Daniel Dennett has referred to the principle of humanity, whereby we attribute
to others the attitudes we suppose we would have in their circumstances. It takes effort to be charitable and it isn’t
usually as entertaining as it is to go on the offensive. Particularly when it comes to the big debate
over religion and the existence of God, it can be all too tempting to dispense with the
principle of charity. Lots of folks, atheists included, seem to
reach a certain point where they feel they’ve been charitable enough to the other side,
and they henceforth abandon all pretense to fairness. But one of the thornier problems with the
principle of charity is determining when enough is enough. Were we as open and receptive as we could
have been? Did we give a fair hearing? Or did we perhaps cut things a little short
before we launched into our critique? I will be the first to admit that I still
struggle with these issues, but that’s a large part of why I think the principle of charity
is important. Of course, no one is expected to be so thorough
or generous in trying to understand an argument to the extent that it becomes unreasonable. However, the far more common thing we see
is people being grossly uncharitable to each other, not overly charitable, and this principle
can help remind us to keep our head and to be as fair to others as we would like them
to be with us. You may not like religion, you may think it’s
nonsense, and possibly even evil. Conversely, you may not like atheism, and
you may think it’s nonsense and possibly even evil. But being aware that this is the direction
you lean in, it should be recognizable what value the principle of charity has. Because the reality is that we all have some
beliefs that other people don’t get, don’t respect, and maybe just despise, and these
beliefs are definitely not limited to subjects like God and religion. When we feel ourselves pulled strongly to
one side, we should remember how this can color our interactions with the other side. Thank you for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please consider
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  • How is that approach a good idea when believer just parrots some nonsense or lie that has already been debunked countless times?

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