Do atheists have an excuse?

In a short post few months ago, Bill Vallicella argued that “If God exists, and one is an atheist, then one is ignorant of God, but it does not follow that one is culpably ignorant.” (Italics added.)

Bill takes his definition of “culpable ignorance” from a Catholic dictionary: ignorance is blameworthy if the ignorant one could have “cleared up” his ignorance, but chose not to. “One is said to be simply (but culpably) ignorant,” the dictionary says, “if one fails to make enough effort to learn what should be known.”

Bill applies this to the atheist this way:

I hold that there is vincible ignorance on various matters. But I deny that atheists are vincibly ignorant. Some might be, but not qua atheists. Whether or not God exists, one is not morally culpable for denying the existence of God. Nor do I think one is morally culpable if one doubts the existence of God.

Bill acknowledges that his exculpation of the professing atheist “puts me at odds with St. Paul, at least on one interpretation of what he is saying at Romans 1: 18-20.”

I’ll say! As Bill wrote in the post he linked to: “There are sincere and decent atheists, and they have plenty of excuse for their unbelief. The best of them, if wrong in the end, are excusably wrong.”

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Sidney Hook: a halfway house for a recovering Stalinist

“That monster!”

Such was Herbert Aptheker’s reaction when I mentioned my having enrolled in “The Philosophy of History and Culture,” a course to be taught by his nemesis, Sidney Hook (1902-1989).  That was in 1972. I was a New York University (NYU) philosophy undergraduate. The class would be Hook’s last in an NYU teaching career that began in 1926 (including chairing its philosophy department from 1948 to 1969).Picture

I was checking in with Aptheker, the Communist historian, literary executor of W. E. B. Du Bois and, at the time, my “boss,” at his AIMS office to see if he had research tasks for me. The casual announcement was my idea of chit-chat.

Herbert ApthekerEarlier that year I had dropped into Hook’s office at 25 Waverly Place to ask about the class. As a young Red, I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet this infamous anti-communist in the flesh.

A letter of mine in support of Angela Davis, then on trial for aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder, appeared recently in the student newspaper. I had forgotten about it.

After a few minutes of chit-chat I rose and turned to leave. But before reaching the door . . . 

“What did you say your name was?”

Busted. I complied.

“This should be very interesting.”

“Yes,” I muttered.

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