Other Religions Atheism and Agnosticism Why Philosophy Is Important Why Do Atheists Need Philosophy? We Need to Reason Well About Life & Society Share Flipboard Email Print ioseph / Getty Images Other Religions Belief Systems Atheism and Agnosticism Logic Ethics Key Figures in Atheism Evolution Atheism Myths and Misconceptions By Austin Cline Atheism Expert M.A., Princeton University B.A., University of Pennsylvania Austin Cline, a former regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, writes and lectures extensively about atheism and agnosticism. our editorial process Austin Cline Updated March 08, 2017 Defining and explaining philosophy is no easy task - the very nature of the subject seems to defy description. The problem is that philosophy, in one way or another, ends up touching upon nearly every aspect of human life. Philosophy has something to say when it comes to science, art, religion, politics, medicine, and a host of other topics. This is also why a basic grounding in philosophy can be so important for irreligious atheists. The more you know about philosophy, and even just the basics of philosophy, the more likely you'll be able to reason clearly, consistently, and with more reliable conclusions. First, any time atheists get involved in debating religion or theism with believers, they end up either touching upon or getting deeply involved with several different branches of philosophy - metaphysics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, philosophy of history, logic, ethics, etc. This is inevitable and anyone who knows more about these subjects, even if it's just the basics, will do a better job at making a case for their position, at understanding what others are saying, and at arriving at a fair, reasonable conclusion. Second, even if a person never gets involved in any debates, they still need to arrive at some conception about their life, what life means to them, what they should do, how they should behave, etc. Religion typically presents all of this in a neat package that people can just open up and start using; irreligious atheists, however, generally need to work a lot of these things out for themselves. You can't do that if you can't reason clearly and consistently. This involves not just the various branches of philosophy, but also various philosophical schools or systems where gods are unnecessary: Existentialism, Nihilism, Humanism, etc. Most people and most irreligious atheists manage to get by without any specific or formal study of anything in philosophy, so obviously it isn't absolutely and unquestionably necessary. At least some understanding of philosophy should make it all easier, however, and will definitely open up more options, more possibilities, and thus perhaps make things better in the long run. You don't need to be a philosophy student, but you should familiarize yourself with the basics - and there's nothing more basic than understanding what "philosophy" is in the first place. Defining PhilosophyPhilosophy comes from the Greek for "love of wisdom," giving us two important starting points: love (or passion) and wisdom (knowledge, understanding). Philosophy sometimes seems to be pursued without passion as if it were a technical subject like engineering or mathematics. Although there is a role for dispassionate research, philosophy must derive from some passion for the ultimate goal: a reliable, accurate understanding ourselves and our world. This is also what atheists should seek. Why Is Philosophy Important?Why should anyone, including atheists, care about philosophy? Many think of philosophy as an idle, academic pursuit, never amounting to anything of practical value. If you look at the works of ancient Greek philosophers, they were asking the same questions which philosophers ask today. Doesn't this mean that philosophy never gets anywhere and never accomplishes anything? Aren't atheists wasting their time by studying philosophy and philosophical reasoning? Studying and Doing PhilosophyThe study of philosophy is usually approached in one of two different ways: the systematic or topical method and the historical or biographical method. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and it is often beneficial to avoid focusing on one to the exclusions of the other, at least whenever possible. For irreligious atheists, though, the focus should probably be more on the topical than on the biographical method because that will provide clear overviews of relevant issues. Philosophy comes from the Greek for "love of wisdom," giving us two important starting points: love (or passion) and wisdom (knowledge, understanding). Philosophy sometimes seems to be pursued without passion as if it were a technical subject like engineering or mathematics. Although there is a role for dispassionate research, philosophy must derive from some passion for the ultimate goal: a reliable, accurate understanding ourselves and our world. This is also what atheists should seek. Atheists, too, are often accused of trying to strip passion, love, and mystery out of life through relentlessly logical and critical arguments about religion. This perception is understandable, given how atheists can behave, and atheists should keep in mind that even the strongest logical argument doesn't matter unless it's being offered in the service of truth. That, in turn, requires some passion and love for truth. Forgetting this can lead to forgetting the reason why you're discussing these matters at all. A further complication is how the Greek sophia means more than the English translation "wisdom." For the Greeks, it wasn't just a matter of understanding the nature of life, but also included any exercise of intelligence or curiosity. Thus, any effort to "find out" more about a topic involves the attempt to expand or exercise sophia and thus might be characterized as a philosophical pursuit. This is something which atheists in general should develop a habit of doing: reasoned, critical inquiry into the claims and ideas around them as part passion for learning the truth and separating true from false ideas. Such "disciplined inquiry" is in fact one way to describe the process of philosophy. Despite the need for passion, that passion needs to be disciplined lest it lead us astray. Too many people, atheists and theists, can be led astray when emotions and passions have too much influence over our evaluation of claims. Seeing philosophy as a type of inquiry emphasizes that it is about asking questions — questions which, in fact, may never actually get final answers. One of the criticisms which irreligious atheists have about religious theism is how it presumes to offer final, unchanging answers for questions to which we should really say "I don't know." Religious theism also too rarely adapts its answers to new information that comes along, something which irreligious atheists must remember to do. In his book A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, William H. Halverson offers these defining characteristics of questions which fall within the field of philosophy: They do not fall within the competence of any of the sciences.It is genuinely difficult to determine what kind of evidence, if any, is relevant to answering them.They are logically fundamental.They are questions of broad generality, questions whose answers have far-reaching consequences for our understanding ourselves and our world. How fundamental and how general does a question have to be to call it "philosophical"? There is no easy answer and philosophers don't agree on how to respond to that. The characteristic of being fundamental is probably more important than that being general, though, because these are the sorts of things which most people usually just take for granted. Too many people take too much for granted, especially in the realms of religion and theism, when they should ideally be asking questions about what they have been taught and what they simply assume to be true. One service which irreligious atheists can provide is to ask the sorts of questions that religious believers don't ask of themselves. Halverson also argues that philosophy involves two separate but complementary tasks: critical and constructive. The characteristics described above fall almost entirely within the critical task of philosophy, which involves posing difficult and probing questions about truth claims. This is precisely what irreligious atheists frequently do when it comes to examining the claims of religious theism — but it's not enough. Asking such questions is not designed to destroy truth or belief, but to ensure that belief rests upon genuine truth and is genuinely reasonable. The purpose is to find truth and avoid error and thus to aid the constructive aspect of philosophy: developing a reliable and productive picture of reality. Religion presumes to offer such a picture, but irreligious atheists have many good reasons for rejecting this. Much of the history of philosophy involves trying to develop systems of understanding which can withstand the hard questions of critical philosophy. Some systems are theistic, but many are atheistic in the sense that no gods and nothing supernatural is taken into account. The critical and constructive aspects of philosophy are thus not independent, but interdependent. There is little point in critiquing the ideas and proposals of others without having something substantive to offer instead, just as there is little point in offering ideas without being willing to both critique them yourself and having others provide critiques. Irreligious atheists may be justified in critiquing religion and theism, but they shouldn't do so without being able to offer something in their place. In the end, the hope of atheistic philosophy is to understand: understand ourselves, our world, our values and the entirety of existence around us. We humans want to understand such things and thus develop religions and philosophies. This means that everyone does at least a little bit of philosophy, even when they have never experienced formal training. Neither of the above aspects of philosophy is passive. Whatever else might be said about the subject, philosophy is an activity. Philosophy requires our active engagement with the world, with ideas, with concepts, and with our own thoughts. It is what we do because of who and what we are — we are philosophizing creatures, and we will always be engaged in philosophy in some form. The goal for atheists in studying philosophy should be to encourage others to examine themselves and their world in a more systematic and coherent manner, reducing the extent of errors and misunderstandings. Why should anyone, including atheists, care about philosophy? Many think of philosophy as an idle, academic pursuit, never amounting to anything of practical value. If you look at the works of ancient Greek philosophers, they were asking the same questions which philosophers ask today. Doesn't this mean that philosophy never gets anywhere and never accomplishes anything? Aren't atheists wasting their time by studying philosophy and philosophical reasoning? Certainly not - philosophy is not simply something for egghead academics in ivory towers. On the contrary, all humans engage in philosophy in one form or another because we are philosophizing creatures. Philosophy is about gaining a better understanding of ourselves and our world - and since that is what humans naturally desire, humans quite readily engage in philosophical speculation and questioning. What this means is that the study of philosophy is not a useless, dead-end pursuit. It is true that remaining with philosophy does not afford an especially wide range of career options, but skill with philosophy is something which can be readily transferred to a wide variety of fields, not to mention things we do every day. Anything which requires careful thinking, systematic reasoning, and an ability to ask and address difficult questions will benefit from a background in philosophy. Obviously, this makes philosophy is important for those who desire to learn more about themselves and about life - especially irreligious atheists who cannot simply accept the ready-made "answers" typically provided by theistic religions. As Simon Blackburn stated in an address he delivered at the University of North Carolina: People who have cut their teeth on philosophical problems of rationality, knowledge, perception, free will and other minds are well placed to think better about problems of evidence, decision making, responsibility and ethics that life throws up. These are some of the benefits which irreligious atheists, and just about anyone else, can derive from studying philosophy. Problem Solving Skills Philosophy is about asking difficult questions and developing answers which can be reasonably and rationally defended against hard, skeptical questioning. Irreligious atheists need to learn how to analyze concepts, definitions, and arguments in a way conducive towards developing solutions for particular problems. If an atheist is good at this, they can have greater assurance that their beliefs may be reasonable, consistent and well-founded because they have examined them systematically and carefully. Communication Skills A person who excels at communicating in the field of philosophy can also excel at communication in other areas. When debating religion and theism, atheists need to express their ideas clearly and precisely, both in speaking and in writing. Far too many problems in debates about religion and theism can be traced to imprecise terminology, unclear concepts, and other issues that would be overcome if people were better at communicating what they are thinking. Self-Knowledge It isn't just a matter of better communication with others that is helped by the study of philosophy - understanding yourself is improved. The very nature of philosophy is such that you get a better picture of what you yourself believe simply through working through those beliefs in a careful and systematic fashion. Why are you an atheist? What do you really think about religion? What do you have to offer in place of religion? These aren't always easy questions to answer, but the more you know about yourself, the easier it will be. Persuasive Skills The reason for developing problem-solving and communication skills is not simply to gain a better understanding of the world, but also to get others to agree with that understanding. Good persuasive skills are thus important in the field of philosophy because a person needs to defend her own views and to offer insightful critiques of the views of others. It is obvious that irreligious atheists seek to persuade others that religion and theism are irrational, unfounded, and perhaps even dangerous, but how can they accomplish this if they lack the skill for communicating and explaining their positions? Remember, everyone already has some sort of philosophy and already "does" philosophy when they think about and address issues which are fundamental to questions about life, meaning, society and morality. Thus, the question is not really "Who cares about doing philosophy," but rather "Who cares about doing philosophy well?" Studying philosophy isn't simply about learning how to ask and answer these questions, but about how to do it in a systematic, careful, and reasoned manner - exactly what irreligious atheists say isn't typically done by religious believers when it comes to their own religious beliefs. Everyone who cares about whether or not their thinking reasonable, well-founded, well-developed and coherent should care about doing this well. Irreligious atheists who are critical of the way believers approach their religion are being at least a little bit hypocritical if they themselves don't approach their own thinking in an appropriately disciplined and reasoned manner. These are qualities which the study of philosophy can bring to a person's questioning and curiosity, and that is why the subject is so important. We may never arrive at any final answers, but in many ways, it is the journey which is most important, not the destination. Philosophical Methods The study of philosophy is usually approached in one of two different ways: the systematic or topical method and the historical or biographical method. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and it is often beneficial to avoid focusing on one to the exclusions of the other, at least whenever possible. For irreligious atheists, though, the focus should probably be more on the topical than on the biographical method because that will provide clear overviews of relevant issues. The systematic or topical method is based upon addressing philosophy one question at a time. This means taking on an issue of debate and discussing the ways in which philosophers have offered their views and the various approaches they have utilized. In books which use this method, you find sections about God, Morality, Knowledge, Government, etc. Because atheists tend to find themselves engaged in specific debates about the nature of the mind, the existence of gods, the role of religion in government, etc., this topical method will probably prove most useful most of the time. It probably shouldn't be used exclusively, though, because removing philosophers' answers from their historical and cultural context causes something to get lost. These writings were not, after all, created in a cultural and intellectual vacuum, or solely in the context of other documents on the same topic. Sometimes, a philosopher's ideas are best understood when read along with his or her writings on other issues - and that is where the historical or biographical method proves its strengths. This method explains the history of philosophy in a chronological manner, taking each major philosopher, school or period of philosophy in turn and discussing the questions addressed, answers offered, major influences, successes, failures, etc. In books using this method you find presentations of Ancient, Medieval and Modern philosophy, on British Empiricism and American Pragmatism, and so forth. Although this method can seem dry at times, reviewing the sequence of philosophical thought shows how ideas have developed. Doing Philosophy One important aspect of the study of philosophy is that it also involves doing philosophy. You don't need to know how to paint in order to be an art historian, and you don't need to be a politician in order to study political science, but you do need to know how to do philosophy in order to properly study philosophy. You need to know how to analyze arguments, how to ask good questions, and how to construct your own sound and valid arguments on some philosophical topic. This is especially important for irreligious atheists who want to be able to critique religion or religious beliefs. Simply memorizing facts and dates from a book isn't good enough. Simply pointing out things like violence committed in the name of religion isn't good enough. Philosophy depends not so much on regurgitating facts but on understanding - an understanding of ideas, concepts, relationships, and the reasoning process itself. This, in turn, only comes about through an active engagement in the philosophical study, and can only be demonstrated through the sound use of reason and language. This engagement, of course, starts with understanding the terms and concepts involved. You cannot answer the question "What is the meaning of life?" if you don't understand what is meant by "meaning." You cannot answer the question "Does God exist?" if you don't understand what is meant by "God." This requires a precision of language not normally expected in ordinary conversations (and which may at times seem annoying and pedantic), but it is crucial because ordinary language is so rife with ambiguities and inconsistencies. This is why the field of logic has developed a symbolic language for representing the various terms of arguments. A further step involves investigating the various ways in which the question can be answered. Some potential answers might seem absurd and some very reasonable, but it is important to try and determine what the various positions may be. Without some assurance that you have at least brought up all of the possibilities, you'll never feel confident that what you have settled on is the most reasonable conclusion. If you're going to look at "Does God exist?" for example, you need to understand how it might be answered in different ways depending on what one means by "God" and "exist." After that, it is necessary to weigh the arguments for and against the different positions - this is where much philosophical discussion takes place, in supporting and critiquing different arguments. Whatever you finally decide upon will probably not be "right" in any final sense, but by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the different arguments, you will at least know just how sound your position is and where you need to do further work. Too often, and especially when it comes to debates over religion and theism, people do imagine that they have arrived at final answers with little work done to seriously weigh the various arguments involved. This is an idealized description of doing philosophy, of course, and it is rare that any one person goes through all of the steps independently and fully. Much of the time, we have to rely on the work done by colleagues and predecessors; but the more careful and systematic a person is, the closer their work will reflect the above. This means that an irreligious atheist can't be expected to investigate every religious or theistic claim to its utmost, but if they are going to debate any particular claims they should spend at least some time on as many of the steps as possible. Many of the resources on this site are designed to help you go through those steps: defining terms, examining various arguments, weighing those arguments, and reaching some reasonable conclusion based on the evidence at hand.