Saturday, October 13, 2012

Belief, Disbelief, and Will

One of the claims I make in my book In the Absence of God (see link above right) is that belief and disbelief are for most people, believers and unbelievers alike, matters of the will and not matters of evidence or reason.

It's common to hear "New Atheists," for example, accuse Christians of Freudian wish fulfillment, of believing what they fervently want to be true. Perhaps they're right. I certainly think it's true of many Christians that they believe the Gospel because the Christian story is so compellingly beautiful and they just want that story to be true, but it's also true of most atheists.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel says in his book The Last Word that he is curious
"whether there is anyone who is genuinely indifferent as to whether there is a God - anyone who, whatever his actual belief about the matter, doesn't particularly want either one of the answers to be correct ..."
He himself openly admits in the book that his disbelief is not a matter of reasoned thinking about the matter:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
I think that were most atheists as honest with themselves as is Nagel they'd say the same thing. Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald presents us with another example of what we might call atheistic wish-fulfillment. Back in 1954 he wrote:
There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility....I will not accept [a supernatural creative act of God] philosophically because I do not want to believe in God, therefore I choose to believe that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to Evolution.
I confess that though I certainly think that many atheists disbelieve simply because they don't want there to be a God, I have difficulty understanding this desire. Why would someone not want the universe to be the sort of place where there's a ground for moral duties, where life has genuine meaning, where one has good reason to hope that death is not final and that this life is not all there is, where there's good reason to think that ultimately justice will prevail, where human beings have genuine dignity and worth, and where the Platonic ideals of the Good, the Beautiful and the True are actually instantiated in a Being who deeply loves us?

I don't understand why anyone would want the world to be the sort of place where none of these are possible and indeed where life is meaningless, moral obligation is non-existent, where there's no hope of anything transcendent, where human beings are nothing more than transient collocations of atoms, where life is nothing more than a cruel joke and nihilism and despair are perfectly rational responses to the human predicament.

Those are the two worlds each of us must choose between. To want God to exist is to opt for the first, to want him to not exist is to prefer the second.