Purdue philosophy professor a gentle atheist
In a nation in which 80 to 90 percent of adults say they believe in God, the label “atheist” rarely lands quietly in a conversation.
Say it, and many folks picture some joyless, nasty-tempered misfit who spends his days filing lawsuits against public displays of crosses and menorahs.
What to do then with the gentle, civilized, dog-loving human being that is Bill Rowe?
“Iʼve always been soft about religion in spite of my…” Rowe searched for the perfect word then just smiled. “Thatʼs why I say Iʼm a friendly atheist.”
No one who knows him begs to differ, especially Roweʼs theistic colleagues in the Department of Philosophy at Purdue University, from which he soon will retire. Nor would disagreement come from thousands of philosophy of religion students (I among them) whom Rowe has taught during his 43-year career in West Lafayette.
The author of five books and editor of two more, Rowe will be honored this weekend during a three-day conference at Purdue on the “Problem of Evil.” He and his philosophy colleagues will address the thorny issue of reconciling the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving supreme being with the unrelenting existence of evil and suffering in the world.
“Iʼm just going to give a brief paper trying—once again—expressing this view that the evils in the world count against the existence of God,” Rowe said during an interview in his seventh-floor, Beering Hall office.
“Thatʼs an old argument of mine, and there are some really good criticisms of it that I need to take into account. But Iʼve got some ways of supplementing the argument that I hope will shore it up—at least in the eyes of the faithful.”
If any of that sounds simplistic—We believe in God or donʼt, right?—it isnʼt. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said about the very rich, philosophers are different from you and me. Nothing about their thought processes is a simple stroll from Point A to Point B.
When philosophers “argue” about the existence of anything, especially God, it doesnʼt look like a dinner table fight or a “Crossfire” exchange. There is no yelling or brandishing of Bibles. Often there isnʼt any speech at all because philosophers argue on paper a lot more than in person. Rowe himself is the author of nearly 100 major papers, book chapters, encyclopedia or dictionary entries and reviews. The titles of his papers range from the very big picture—“God and Evil” and “Death and Transcendence”—to the super-specific—“The Fatalism of ‘Diordorus Cronus’” and “Evil and the Theistic Hypothesis: A Response to Wykstra.” In a similar vein, it would be a mistake to assume that Roweʼs arguments for the non-existence of God are the product of an unexamined spiritual path.
Schooled as a boy on Sundays in a variety of Protestant denominations, Rowe experienced an Evangelical conversion in a Baptist church when he was a teenager. For college, he chose the Detroit Bible Institute, with plans to enter Christian ministry.
He transferred after his second year to Wayne State University because his favorite teacher at Detroit was dismissed from the faculty for something called “ultra-dispensationalism.” (Space prohibits even a cursory definition of the term here but, trust me, it isnʼt remotely connected to a disbelief in God.)
At Wayne State, Rowe took philosophy courses to better study theology. One professor, an atheist from whom he was “oceans apart” on religion, emerged as an intellectual mentor, friend and, eventually, catalyst for change. Roweʼs first choice for graduate school, the conservative Fuller Theological Seminary, could not offer him financial aid, so he settled for a three-year fellowship at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary. The intellectual atmosphere was different from anything heʼd experienced. “It was a seminary that wasnʼt fundamentalist and was very liberal in its thinking,” he said. “So, there, I came to get a kind of critical approach to the Bible, learn something about its origins and also came in contact with theologians that were far distant from fundamentalism. The start of my third year, I could feel inside of me my fundamentalism beginning to crumble and disappear.”
How frightening was that?
“It was scary,” Rowe said. “I sat up late at night wondering what would become of me. I started to read Dostoevsky novels. I didnʼt fall apart, but I was concerned about what I sensed were changes occurring in me that I didnʼt really have full control over.”
Rowe soldiered on, received his divinity degree (summa cum laude) and figured he would continue at Chicago for a doctorate in religion. But his professor pal at Wayne State urged him to pursue his obvious gift for philosophy at the University of Michigan. Rowe changed cities and life courses.
During his first teaching stint at the University of Illinois, Rowe attended a theology lecture series and met Calvin Schrag, who was on his way to becoming one of the two pillars of Purdueʼs young philosophy department: When Rowe moved his wife and children to West Lafayette in 1962 to teach philosophy of religion, the second pillar was in place. Last autumn in Philosophy Now magazine, Rowe said his unlikely route to atheism was a gradual and very personal process, not the result of philosophical or scientific arguments contradictory of his theistic beliefs.
Studying the factual origins of the Bible had made him skeptical of its divine authenticity, but the truly compelling factor “was the lack of experiences and evidence sufficient to sustain my religious life and my religious convictions."
“I knew that it was wrong and arrogant to ask for some special sign from God. But I longed for a sense of Godʼs presence in my life,” Rowe told interviewer Nick Trakakis. “And although I spent hours in prayer and thirsted after some dim assurance that God was present, I never had any such experience.”
“I tried to be a better person and to follow whatever I could glean from the Bible as a life service to God. But in the end, I had no more sense of the presence of God than I had before my conversion experience. So, it was the absence of religious experiences of the appropriate kind that, as I would put it now, left me free to seriously explore the grounds for disbelief.”
During our discussion in his office, Rowe described the longing for a sense of Godʼs presence in the life of another theologian and philosopher, the 11th-century archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm. Like Rowe, Anselm was a gifted and lucid writer.
In a nutshell (which is the worst place to put any philosophical premise but all that a daily newspaper has), Anselmʼs famed ontological argument for Godʼs existence goes like this:
God exists because the very idea of a greatest possible being — what the saint called “that than which nothing greater can be thought” — exists, even in the mind of a disbelieving fool.
“Itʼs a very powerful argument,” said Rowe. “Anselm precedes that argument, however, with a kind of lament. Here he is, a Christian saint in charge of monks, and they respect him, love him, and yet his lament is that heʼs never seen God. Heʼs never had what he would be able to say is a personal experience of God himself. And thatʼs remarkable.
“In its place he has to put this argument, a wonderful argument, and itʼs not easy to tear it apart. But itʼs a long way away from a direct personal experience of God.”
Opening his studentsʼ minds to Anselmʼs argument, to the arguments against Anselmʼs argument and to scores of other arguments from centuries of great religion philosophers, is something Rowe has enjoyed since Eisenhower was in the White House. As much as he looks forward to retirement in June, he seems about as burned out on teaching as Warren Buffett is on making money. The predominance of Evangelical religions in America, he said, tends to produce high-school graduates unfamiliar with critical thinking about religion.
“So when they come to university and take a course in philosophy of religion, itʼs a new experience for them to first even realize that there are important arguments, philosophical arguments for the existence of God and to see that what theyʼve accepted on faith can have some basis in reason,” he said.
Likewise, it is a new experience for students to learn in the very same class that “there are not insignificant reasons to think perhaps God doesnʼt exist.”
After he retires, Rowe will continue reading and writing about lifeʼs Big Questions, travel with his wife, Margaret, who is Purdueʼs vice provost of academic affairs, and lavish affection on his 105-pound Labrador retriever, Cody.
“I love dogs,” Rowe said.
When I pointed out that “dog” is “god” spelled backward, Rowe laughed, more like a merry little boy than one of the most important philosophers in America. His delight made me think of a survey result Iʼd recently read: According to a poll by ChristianWebSite.com, 44 percent of U.S. adults believe that “good atheists” will make it into heaven.
Friendly Churchgoing Atheist
What exactly is a “Friendly Atheist”?
A Friendly Atheist is someone who:
Believes everyone should do what makes them happy, provided they are not stopping anyone else from doing the same.
Does not judge others for following a different path than his/her own.
Shows kindness, volunteers, and helps others.
Does not go around denigrating other religions, because he/she knows that to get respect, one must give it.
Can talk to a religious person without invoking an argument.
Questions his/her own beliefs as much as othersʼ beliefs.
Invites positive dialogue from religious people.
In my own experience, nearly every Atheist Iʼve met has been a Friendly Atheist. Weʼre everywhere. This is, sadly, a well-kept secret. By talking about the definition, as well as showcasing examples of Friendly Atheism as they occur, perhaps the public image of Atheists can be reshaped.
What did your original eBay post say?
The eBay link can be found here. But hereʼs what I wrote:
Iʼm a 22-year-old Atheist from Chicago. I stopped believing in God when I was 14. Currently, I am an active volunteer for a couple different national, secular organizations. For one of them, I am the editor of a newsletter that reaches over 1,000 Atheist/Agnostic college students. I have written several Letters to the Editor to newspapers in and around Chicago, espousing my Atheistic beliefs when Church/State issues arose. My point being that I donʼt take my non-belief lightly. However, while I donʼt believe in God, I firmly believe I would immediately change those views if presented with evidence to the contrary. And at 22, this is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me.
So, hereʼs my proposal. Everytime I come home, I pass this old Irish church. I promise to go into that church every day— for a certain number of days— for at least an hour each visit. For every $10 you bid, I will go to the Church for 1 day. For $50, you would have me going to mass every day for a week.
My promise: I will go willingly and with an open mind. I will not say/do anything inappropriate. I will respectfully participate in service, speak to priests, volunteer with the church if possible, do my best to learn about the religious beliefs of the church-goers, and make conversation with anyone who is willing to talk. (Though I do reserve the rights to ask the person questions about the faith.)
I will record my visits through a journal, pictures, or whatever other method of proof youʼd like— I will uphold my promise.
Will I become religious? Well, I donʼt know. I really do have an open mind, but no one has convinced me to change my mind so far. Then again, I have also never attended a real church service. Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me “the way” could do what no one else has done before.
If the Irish Church doesnʼt work for you, weʼll just find some other place local to me. Iʼll go to any place of worship— a Christian Church, a Catholic Church [revision: I realize a Catholic Church is a Christian Church… so let me rephrase. By Christian, I mean Protestant], a Mosque, a Synagogue, etc. Theyʼre all nearby. Makes no difference to me, but perhaps itʼs your faith that could change the mind of this Atheist.
I also assure you that if you bid on this, I will write an article about my experiences in the newsletter mentioned earlier. The article would reach over 1,000 college students who share my current views. Even if you donʼt end up changing my mind, perhaps you can change theirs.
If you have any questions about this auction, Iʼd be glad to answer them.
The auction ended on February 3, 2006. The winning bid from Jim Henderson of www.Off-the-Map.org was $504. (Back to Top)
Atheism Defended By A Christian
Atheism tends to be a term of disrepute in the Western world, but we ought to do all we can to change this situation. The honest atheist is simply a person who has looked out upon the world and has come to believe that there is no adequate evidence that God is, or that there is good evidence that God is not. Very seldom does this make a man happy or popular…
A man who has no practical belief in God may nevertheless be a good man. Sometimes it is the very goodness of a man which makes him an unbeliever; he is so superlatively honest, so eager not to accept anything without adequate evidence, so sensitive to the danger of believing what is comforting, merely because it is comforting… Such a man we can only honor.”
- Elton Trueblood (Quaker theologian), Philosophy of Religion
A Christian Defends Atheists
Not one man in a thousand has the goodness of heart or the strength of mind to be an atheist.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A Deist Defends Heretics
All the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not, like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them.
- Ben Franklin as quoted in Benjamin Franklin: His Wit, Wisdom, and Women
by Seymour Stanton Block
A Believer In God Who Lived Happily With Atheists
I believe in God, although I live very happily with atheists… It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.
One day a man was asked if there were any true atheists. Do you think, he replied, that there are any true Christians?
- Denis Diderot (1713-1784), cited in Against the Faith by Jim Herrick
A Catholic Authority Finds Atheism Permissible
Atheism is clearly always a permissible view of man in a world in which God is not immediately evident.
- 2 th Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism
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