Sunday, June 27, 2004

God and Comfort

Itis exceedingly difficult to get atheists to take theism seriously, to treat it as a live intellectual/existential option. Their tendency is to dismiss it out of hand as little more than a reflection of a deep-seated need for psychological comfort in a universe indifferent to human wishes and desires. The belief in God appears to them like the belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. No doubt, some atheists argue against the existence of God, and to this extent take the belief that God exists seriously; but not as a belief that they themselves might adopt, but as a belief that they would like to eliminate in their opponents. These arguing atheists are not out to establish for themselves that God does not exist – this proposition being antecedently obvious to them – but to undermine theistic belief in the consumers of their arguments. In short, these arguing atheists are not inquirers, but ex post facto justifiers of a position they already accept. (Of course, there are also arguing theists who are in the same logical boat.)

Now one simple point that needs to be made here is that the question of whether or not a belief is comforting is logically independent of the question of whether or not the belief is true. To say that two propositions are logically independent is to say that each is logically consistent with both the truth and the falsehood of the other. If P = Belief that God exists is comforting, and Q = God exists, then there are four logical possibilities: {P, Q}, {P, ~Q}, {~P, Q}, {~P, ~Q}. Neither of these propositions entails the other, nor does either entail the negation of the other.

The following is therefore an invalid argument: The belief that God exists is comforting; therefore, God does not exist.

But suppose our interest is in explaining why theistic belief is widely held. We might offer this explanation: Theistic belief is widely held because it satisfies psychological needs such as the needs for comfort and security. But even if this explanation is a good one, all it does is specify a psychological cause of the prevalence of theistic belief. It does not specify a reason for believing that God exists. Since the causal explanation has nothing to do with reasons, it would be a mistake to think that the only reason why theists believe in God is because holding that belief comforts them. What cannot be a reason, cannot be the only reason. Given that theistic belief has sociological and psychological causes, it doesn’t follow that it cannot also have reasons, and among these, some good reasons.

Consider an analogy. Among the causes of my knowing the multiplication table is its having been drummed into me by rote in the third grade. But from the fact that I was caused to learn such truths as that 6 x 9 = 54 by rote memorization, it does not follow that these truths are not rationally justified. Thus, my believing that 6 x 9 = 54 can have a cause without prejudice to the fact that the proposition believed has a reason. (One way to specify the reason would be via
deduction from the Peano axioms.)

Beliefs are facts in the world. As such, they can be studied like any facts, and accounted for causally. (Why does little Ali believe that Jews are the sons and daughters of pigs and monkeys? Because that belief was put in his head by the Islamo-boneheads in the local madrassah.) When we study beliefs in this way, however, we prescind from their truth-value, which is just as essential to a belief as its being a state of a believer. Every belief-state (whether occurrent or
dispositional) has by its very nature a propositional content, and thus a truth-value. The main point I am making is that the question of whether or not a belief is true cannot be resolved by any inquiry into the causal genesis of the belief’s being held. To think otherwise is to commit what is called the genetic fallacy.

Let us now assume that it can be proven that God does not exist. If that has been established, it is appropriate to psychologize and sociologize theistic believers, to explain away their beliefs in terms of environmental conditioning, psychological needs, and what-not. Suppose it is said that theistic beliefs are originated and held because they are comforting. This explanation is good only if it is true that theistic beliefs are comforting. (I take it to be self-evident that in any adequate explanation the explanans (the explaining proposition) must be true.) But is the explanans true?

If God is but a comforting illusion we project into a Godless universe, then why do religions contain such dreadful notions? If our unconscious aim is to comfort ourselves, why do we (collectively and unconsciously) project notions that are terrifying and unsettling? For example, why, on Ash Wednesday, do Christian believers tell themselves that they are dust and unto dust they shall return? (Gen 3, 19: quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris.) This does not sound like a comforting escape from harsh reality, but rather a rubbing of one’s nose in it. One literally gets ashes rubbed into one’s forehead in the sign of the cross, the cross being the most horrible form of execution the brutal Romans could devise. Why don’t Christians tell themselves that they are really immortal beings who have nothing to fear from death? And why do they tell a story about a Last Judgment, a sort of final examination that it is possible to fail with disastrous consequences? Why do they speak of working out one’s salvation in fear and trembling?

I have made two main points. The first is that the question whether theistic belief is true is logically independent of questions about the origins of theistic belief. The second is that the commonly heard explanation that theistic beliefs are originated and held because they are comforting is inadequate. For theistic beliefs are just as unsettling as they are comforting. The same is true of atheistic belief. It is both comforting (because one need not fear any consequences of one’s actions beyond this life) and disturbing (because it leaves one without hope: the meaning of one’s living and striving is mitigated if not annihilated by the utter finality of death). In either case, the appeal to comfort fails as an explanation.