*Posted by Barry Creamer
Atheists have a tendency to accuse Christians of wishful thinking. In The Future of an Illusion Sigmund Freud relegates theism itself to psychological wish fulfillment, arguing that the human psyche’s desire for a powerful protector is the reason people come to believe in God. Sam Harris’ oft-internet-cited quote claims that religion endures precisely because it “conforms, at every turn, to our powers of wishful thinking”. Less authoritative, granted, but just as instructive are untold numbers of cases in which believers are accused of wishful thinking for believing there is a heaven to reward goodness and a hell to punish evil. And, being frank about it, some believers probably do hold those beliefs primarily because they are comforting, not primarily because they are true or because they are justifiable. (They are all three, of course, in my humble opinion.)
But there is no inherent relationship between a belief’s truthfulness and its desirability. The fact that a belief makes a person happy does not make the belief false, and the fact that a belief troubles a person does not make it true—two of only eight relationships flowing from the claim about belief, truth, and desirability.
Whether people want there to be a hell has no necessary relationship with whether it factually exists. Whether people want science to solve all human woes has no necessary relationship with whether it can. Jonah learned that wanting God to punish people does not make it happen. And Dives learned that wishing for a life free of dependence on others does not keep a man from being answerable to God in eternity.
One example of wishful thinking on both sides can serve to make a point beyond the hopeless stalemate between the two positions—it might (again, in my humble opinion) instead actually indicate which side has better grounds for believing what its wishes desire to be true.
From a believer’s perspective, for a skeptic regarding supernaturalism to believe that reason is reliable and that man can progress to better things is wishful thinking. From a skeptic’s perspective, for a believer to anticipate paradise is wishful thinking.
The skeptic will of course argue on the face of it that there is no stalemate between the two desired beliefs. The skeptic’s view is rooted soundly in experience and matured by reason, while the believer’s view is devoid of any substantial justification—in fact, is defined by its lack of justification as faith.
But the skeptic has missed a point. It is not the whole argument, but it is a significant point, and it is sufficient to turn the propensity of the argument away from his position. The faith-skeptic believes in an eschaton created by scientific advancement and consisting primarily of tolerant and harmless human relationships. (Obviously not all skeptics or atheists believe in such a future, nor even have such a desire. But the ones who don’t are not significant in this discussion, representing a perspective unattractive to the vast majority of buyers in the marketplace of ideas.) This eschaton, while occasionally overtly discussed among some “new atheists,” is most often the subtle background in their contention that stodgy old religious, moralistic, and partisan practices are keeping science from solving mankind’s real problems.
Oddly, though, their own rationale argues against their hope for the future. Reason does not teach that a religion-free scientific community promotes benevolent relations between people. Authors from Mary Shelley to H.G. Wells make that point obviously enough. Science serves the values of the people who use it—whether as creators or consumers. As science, it has no other option. And the values of its creators and consumers are often indicative of destructive, not harmonious, relationships.
But experience also fails to teach that a religion-free science will lead to a humanistic eschaton. There is no model in history (with or without science, by the way) in which human progress leads to anything other than a more grandiose cataclysm—the final means or scope of which is supplemented by the very technologies developed to aid “man’s inevitable march to perfection.”
But remember, both groups hold to an eschaton: believers to the realization of God’s kingdom; atheists (the ones we are talking about here) to a humanistic coexistence.
If, as believers often contend, it is the case that universal (or nearly so) human desires reflect or reveal a creative intent about their nature, then there is at least one reason to believe the world ought to be a better place. Accordingly, the belief that the world ought to be a better place is itself evidence of the world’s purpose, and of the possibility that something is leading toward the fulfillment of that purpose.
The question then, since both groups have already gathered on opposite banks of this stream, is not whether there is a stream, a current, or a calm body of water somewhere around the bend. The question is rather simply which boat leads to it. Neither reason nor experience says human progress will get there. So the only boat with any real offer of transport is the one that requires faith.
I’m already strapped in.