Reply to Dr. Randal Rauser on the Suppression Thesis

Over at “The Tentative Apologist” blog, Christian Randal Rauser responses to my last post about the so-called ‘Suppression Thesis’ (he calls it the ‘Rebellion Thesis’) in his own post titled “Do atheists marginalize God? Do Apologists marginalize atheists?”. Now Dr. Rauser rejects the Rebellion Thesis and he has written a book articulating his position against that thesis.  Dr. Rauser also claims that I defend the Rebellion Thesis and takes umbrage with what he calls my “argument” for it.

Now, in reference to my specific post, Dr. Rauser replies with the following:

In reply [to my post about the Suppression / Rebellion Thesis], I’d [Dr. Rauser] like to offer the ‘Smear Thesis’:

I note that the ‘Smear Thesis’, an idea born out of my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, is the claim that believers impute the Suppression/Rebellion Thesis to atheists on the flimsiest of evidence because of a dislike of atheists and a desire to marginalize them and their opinions, and in contemplating this idea, and in remembering that some fact or observation counts as evidence for one hypothesis (H1) over another (H2) if that fact or observation is more likely / more expected on the first hypothesis (H1) rather than the second (H2), I would like to argue that I believe that one piece of evidence for the Smear Thesis is the fact that, as I establish in my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think, many evangelicals and other believers routinely use those hypocritical double-standards and selective hyper-skepticism to argue for their own position and against atheism, which is, I contend, precisely what would be expected if the Smear Thesis were true (for it would be expected that believers wold use any means necessary to suppress the truth in such a case) but not what would be expected if the Smear Thesis was not true….” (Paraphrased with appropriate substitutions from the article “Evidence for the Romans 1 Suppression Thesis”)

At this point, I would like to offer a response to Dr. Rauser and his brief post.

First, I should immediately make clear that I have not read Dr. Rauser’s book on this subject (Is the Atheist my Neighbour?), but a sample of it is sitting in my Kindle as we speak (downloaded about two weeks ago) and I will hopefully be able to tackle it soon.  However, the fact that I have not read Dr. Rauser’s detailed work on this topic needs to be clear as this fact may cause a change to my forthcoming replies once that work is read.

Second, as a point of order, it should be noted that while I think it is both reasonable and understandable for Dr. Rauser to call my post an “argument”, from my perspective, this is a bit of a stretch.  It would be more appropriate to call it an “argumentative musing / thought”. After all, if you notice, that post is just one paragraph-long sentence (that is my artistic “thing”, so to speak), and as such, such a post obviously cannot address all the points that should be addressed if it were a full argument.  If Dr. Rauser wishes to see what I call one of my “investigations”, then he can peruse my free PDF work “Is Theism Just a Lack of Belief in Atheism:  An Investigation into Whether ‘Weak Theism’ is Simply a Lack of Belief Concerning God’s Non-Existence”.

Third, as another point of order, it should also be noted that Dr. Rauser claims that I “defend” the Suppression / Rebellion Thesis, and again, I think that it was both understandable and relatively reasonable for Dr. Rauser to think so given the content of my post. However, as Dr. Rauser no doubt knows, a person can argue that there is evidence for a specific position without actually accepting that that position is true or that it is rational to believe. And had he asked me before posting about it (but, of course, he is under no obligation to do so), Dr. Rauser would have discovered that I would be best described as a ‘cancellation agnostic’ about the Suppression Thesis.  I think that there is some good evidence on both sides of the argument, and as such, at present, I suspend judgement and ultimately remain agnostic about the Suppression Thesis.  But if push came to shove—and this may surprise both atheists and Dr. Rauser—then, given both my high-regard for human testimony as well as the clear knowledge that it is quite possible that my sample of atheists is not representative of the full group (although it should be noted that I live in a place where there is a lack of genuine and/or overt Christians, not really a lack of the irreligious), I actually lean more towards the falsity of the Suppression Thesis (at least when taken in the grand and all-encompassing sense) rather than towards its truth.  However, with all that stated, I am also willing to claim that there is evidence for the Suppression Thesis and that the Suppression Thesis has a sufficient ‘air of reality’ that it cannot be easily or hand-wavingly dismissed.  Furthermore, as a so-called cancellation agnostic concerning this matter, I am not willing to give either the atheist or the full-fledged ‘Suppression Thesis’ believer a free pass concerning this matter; if they wish to demonstrate either the truth or falsity of the thesis, then they need to meet their respective burdens of proof by presenting clear and convincing evidence for either one of their positions. And this leads me to my main point…

The fact is that the ‘Suppression Thesis’ is an empirical claim, and as such, we should actually, you know, test it empirically before pronouncing it either confirmed or not. Furthermore, if proposing that the evidence for this thesis should be examined, and if proposing that there actually is some evidence for this thesis makes atheists feel smeared, then, ultimately, too damn bad.  We are after the truth here, not good feelings or happy thoughts.  I hope Dr. Rauser would agree with this.

Furthermore, I also note that atheists have had their own version of the ‘Suppression Thesis’ for years concerning religious believers.  Indeed, atheists have often claimed that religious belief is simply borne out of irrational wish-fulfillment, fear of death, etc. Now I do not mention this as a “tit-for-tat” type of argument, but rather to point out that atheists were completely right to propose such hypotheses and then test them (if they could be tested), for if they turned out to be true, then so be it. That would not necessarily make religious claims false, but it would provide evidence towards the motivations of religious belief.  And the same would be true concerning the testing of the Suppression Thesis.

Additionally, it seems to me that both atheists and Christians should be happy about the general idea of the Suppression Thesis, for it is a claim that can be empirically tested and potentially falsified, which is something that unbelievers often claim cannot be done with religions claims. So here is a claim that can be put to the test, and we should embrace that fact.

Finally, I should also point out that there is nothing in the ‘Suppression Thesis’ that mandates or requires that it come from a religious source. After all, any scientist, secular or otherwise, could have easily noticed that broad atheists form a relatively small percentage of the human population, and then asked himself what was the reason / motivation for their atheism, whether moral or rational, and then set out to investigate the matter.  In fact, it is arguable that only because academia has been largely filled with the secular irreligious that such studies about atheists have not been considered, but I think that it would be fascinating if we started seeing such studies in the future.

So, I simply note that the ‘Suppression Thesis’ is an empirical thesis with evidence on both sides of the argument; given this, it is an empirical thesis worth testing, and until and unless we do that, I think a strong stance either way about the Suppression Thesis is unwarranted.  And my post was meant to show that there is indeed some evidence for the Suppression Thesis that I concede is there.

To conclude, please note that what I will provide below is a discussion that I had on the ‘Secular Outpost’ a number of months ago concerning the topic of the Suppression Thesis.  This discussion articulates some of my thoughts on this matter, especially concerning some of the points in favor of the Suppression Thesis and how it could be tested.  Since I do not wish to re-type the whole discussion, I will simply repost my comments below (and the link to the full discussion is here):

–QUOTE–

22056 • 2 months ago

As someone who is agnostic about the idea that there is no lifelong, non-culpable non-belief, and given that a prima facie case can be made on both sides of the debate (see below for an explanation of this claim), what I would like to see is some actual evidence above and beyond the mere testimony of unbelievers or the distribution of theistic belief concerning this matter.

For example, consider the following ways that this issue could be explored more rigorously:

1) A good amount of atheists could be surveyed in such a way as to extract the true reasons for their unbelief.

2) Tests could be devised to determine if atheists react in ways that would be more indicative that they were actually anti-theists rather than atheists.

3) Unbelievers could submit themselves to lie detector tests where questions could be asked about the existence of God and their reasons for their atheism in order to determine their underlying truthfulness. Hypnosis could potentially be used here as well.

4) An exploration of the times and dates that unbelievers de-converted (for those that did de-convert) could be examined to determine if the de-conversion was strongly correlated with an emotional and traumatic event (not exactly the time for clear, rational thinking).

5) Brain studies and neurological exams could be conducted to see if atheists suffer from some type of cognitive defect or anomaly when compared to the remainder of the population.

6) An examination of other psychological factors which could case unbelief, such as lacking or abusive fathers (Paul Vitz’s hypothesis).

7) And so on.

The fact is that this whole issue is an empirical question, and it should be studied that way, for then the evidence might provide us with a better understanding one way or the other.

Finally, in terms of the prima facie case for both sides, consider:

1) On the side (mostly atheists) of those in favor of the idea that there can be lifelong non-culpable unbelief there is, primarily, the evidence of the testimony of unbelievers. However, as we know, self-deception does exist and people do lie and people have cognitive defects, so the case is not clear cut.

2) On the side (mostly Christians) of those opposing the idea that there can be lifelong non-culpable unbelief, there is:

– The known psychological fact that people do rationalize their beliefs while concealing their true reasons for them.

– The fact that certain atheists (Thomas Nagel is a famous example) readily admit that they wish theism were not true and do not like the idea of theism, thereby being a prime case of susceptibility to motivated reasoning.

– In light of the above two facts, the fact that denial is a known psychological defensive mechanism, so it is not a stretch to see why an anti-theist might, for psychological reasons, embrace atheism rather than maintain anti-theism (denial is, after all, easier than a daily struggle against an omnipotent being). Indeed, if God exists and a supernatural realm exists, it would not be unexpected that a small percentage of the population could not deal with that reality and thus retreat into denialism as a way to protect their mental health.

– The fact that some surveys have shown that atheists admit that they believe in God.

– The fact that some studies show that some atheists react angrily to the idea of God, a fact which, I contend, is more likely on this point of view than not.

– Finally, also the fact that some studies are potentially showing a link between atheism and autism (or other cognitive issues).

So again, an initial case can be made on both sides. What is needed is more evidence.

22056

–UNQUOTE—

And then, in response to a commentator who offered the hypothesis that most theists believe for emotional / wish-fulfillment / fear reasons, I replied as follows:

–QUOTE—

Now let me make my own prediction about atheists (and I will make it with as much vigor as you did yours):

If this question [the Suppression Thesis] is tested, [I predict / hypothesize that] the vast majority of atheists will be shown to be atheists for moral and/or emotional reasons, not evidentiary ones, and they will admit to being anti-theists more so than atheists (for example, be admitting that even if the Christian God did exist, they would refuse to follow Him). At the same time, it is predicted that atheists are ‘denialists’ who, in being scared of the existence of a supernatural realm, prefer to deny its existence rather than admit its existence, and they do so as a psychological defensive mechanism used to protect their mental health. Furthermore, those atheists that do not fit this mold will, upon investigation, be shown to be neurologically atypical when compared to the rest of the human population, thereby providing a potential ‘cognitive malfunction’ explanation as the basis for their unbelief. As a supplementary hypothesis, I also contend that we should thoroughly examine whether an abusive or weak or absent father is strongly correlated with atheism as well.

So, these are good predictions. Now, we should test them.

–UNQUOTE—

And so, to really conclude, I will simply state that I still agree with my last comment.  The Suppression Thesis, and the equal and opposite Fear / Wish-Fulfillment Thesis about religious believers both make good predictions that can indeed be tested in various empirical ways.  And given that they are testable, then that is exactly what we should do, actually test them to see where the evidence points. Until and unless we do that, then, to me, neither the affirmation nor the denial of the Suppression Thesis is justified.

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