With all this apparatus in hand, let’s review. Every nonreligious person has a set of commitments based on the two major axes of knowledge claims and existence claims, and on the basis of what they count as contrary to theism, are one of a number of kinds or combinations of agnostics and atheists. Moreover, they have to have a stance for each claim they encounter. This forms a “volume” in which they locate their commitments as a coordinate. One way to conceive of this volume is as a card index of the old kind that one found in libraries. Instead of “borrowed” or “reserved”, each claim is marked with one of the locations on the two axes.
A hypothetical theist’s commitment space
However, one doesn’t just take each claim as it comes and set up a unique card index for each. It gets a bit boring after a while: “Thor?” Known nonexistent. “Loki” Known nonexistent. “Wodin?” Known nonexistent … Instead you will tend to classify claims en masse, with a category for each class. Known nonexistents and known existents (possibly an empty set if one is not a theist), and unknowns, and so forth. So our third “axis” is the sets of claims one is prepared to make, and the claims one is not prepared to make.
Now such groupings are more than merely conceptual – they are also social. We do identify ourselves with others based, in part, on what we assent to. Of course we use common beliefs as surrogates for community as well, so merely sharing beliefs does not a community make, which is why it is so hard for atheists of the privative variety to form communities in opposition to church communities. One of the singular functions of religion is to form mutual aid societies. Lacking a belief is not the basis for an alternative community.
But community does affect how we form and maintain our belief sets, and what is more, it can make it very hard to hold views that are unique to you, say, as the result of rational reflection. For example, there is a strong atheist tradition in the west, that often goes by the name “skeptics” or “freethinkers” (in an earlier age). If you attend atheist meetings or skeptics meetings, you are expected to have certain political and social interests as well as adopting an atheist stance towards religion. If you are, for example, a compatibilist (a term often used in Internet debates these days is “accommodationist”) between science and religion, you can expect the kind of social exclusion that a liberal theologian would encounter in a fundamentalist church.
So the “surface” within the “space” is determined in part by the social structure of the people around you. It is hard to remain a strong agnostic when you engage with those who are positive atheists, for example, and I speak from experience. There is a constant tendency to shrug and say “yes, I am an atheist”. Only pedants and philosophers (but I repeat myself) continue to make these fine distinctions. But they matter, if we take rational reflection to be the grounds on which we should base our belief set and stances. And if we do take reason to be pre-eminent in belief construction, then we must allow that some theists are equally as rational even if we think their conclusions are false.
How social forces can cause us to adopt a position we did not achieve by rational reflection, using a contour map metaphor.
If what matters is social cohesion and bonding, of course, then this is not the case. We see exactly the sort of attacks upon heterodoxy from many atheists as we do from theists when somebody makes an assertion (like “Religion and Science are not in necessary conflict”) that fails to meet the community rule. As in many cases, including within scientific debates themselves, reason is not always or even often the basis for belief formation so much as conformity. After all, we are social animals, not Vulcans.
The purpose of this series has been to try to disambiguate and make sense of the variety of positions people actually hold. I have not argued in favour of any of these positions, although I am an agnostic with respect to philosophical deities and an atheist with respect to the folk deities of popular culture. I began this chain of reflection because I was deeply offended by some comments made by Dawkins and Coyne, among others, that if I do not immediately reject theism as false and pernicious, I must have “faith in faith” (I saw Dawkins make exactly this claim at the opening revivalist meeting he called the God Delusion lecture tour). This is rhetoric, pure and simple. It serves no purpose in clarification or aiding reflection, but it does serve to rally the “faithful” faithless. And it is exactly the same social dynamic one sees in populism of all kinds, including religious populism.
I hold to a somewhat dated opinion that reason can give us a better view of the world, and that by using it carefully we can avoid mistakes and the contingencies of social influences. If you think that all belief sets are socially constructed, in a kind of pseudomarxian view of false consciousness, then you may not care. I do. I hope this series has helped you to care about reason and toleration.