Atheism, Wishful Thinking, and Paradise

*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.

This entry was posted in Culture, Philosophy, Science, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Atheism, Wishful Thinking, and Paradise

  1. John Rigler says:

    Carl Sagan once said that “Extraordinary Claims require extraordinary evidence”. I see atheism as the simple proposition that there are no ‘magic things’ which contradict what we can observe in nature. Humanism on the other hand is a place where one is free to explore a personal spirituality, love, or divine awe. Humanism allows this to happen regardless of belief or non-belief in the supernatural world. The distinction is not simple. Atheism does not and should not comment on ethics, happiness, or even science. Richard Dawkins created the idea of the ‘non-stamp-collector’ as a parallel to atheism. If someone does not collect stamps, we don’t call them a non-stamp collector. The assumption is that they simply don’t collect stamps. If they did, they would say so.

    I dream of a world which doesn’t know the word atheism because it would not be necessary to use. I do not dream of a world that doesn’t know the word humanism. I use the word humanism or sometimes ‘the divine’ because I feel like the words ‘faith’ and even ‘spirituality’ are loaded with magical connotation. People in my dream world would be assumed to not have a special sort of ‘sacredly untouchable’ beliefs just as we today assume non-stamp-collection. Please don’t take this comment one step further to infer anything about my spirituality beyond the fact that it is compatible with atheism. You can assume that in addition to not believing in heaven, that I don’t believe in reincarnation, ghosts, or fortune tellers. You should not assume that I can’t or don’t pray. The only argument that you could make is that prayer would be foolish for me and that my humanism is lacking, not my atheism.

    I understand that this is a bit confusing. I applaud your post in that it has pushed me to articulate what is clearly a subtle line. When I attend a Unitarian Church I may sing, talk, or even pray with theists (or more likely deists). The fact that I am an atheist is irrelevant in this
    case. We recently read a book together by Jimmy Carter. Even though he discussed religion in the book (he is a life-long Baptist), the fact that some of us believed in God and some didn’t never even came up. It was simply irrelevant to what we were doing at the time. If we were to read ‘The God Delusion’, then our conversation would necessarily be different.

    Christopher Hitchens once remarked that it may be true that faith in God makes you a better person, and that atheists may in fact be overall less happy, may be more often heavy drinkers, may even be more prone to kick their dogs. All of the major new atheists (the Four Horsemen of Atheism) comment that religion may have a positive effect on society and that removing it may be detrimental. None of this changes the true nature of the universe. Ten million years ago, when there was no need for the word atheism and when their was not even a creature with a pre-cortex capable of speech, evolution was either happening or it wasn’t. Any discussion we have today doesn’t change that truth one bit, regardless of how we perceive or misperceive it.

    You have accepted the notion that religion is a good thing and you as a religious practitioner have written this blog post to promote both religion and thought. I support you in your cause, but believe that one can both be spiritual and also understand that the Bible was complied from
    ancient writings of men and is not literal.

    I once asked you on your radio show why I never hear talk of Satan. Your answer was (if I remember correctly) that “he is still out there and it still a big deal, but that it just isn’t helpful to focus on him”. Satan talk has been evolved out of the useful toolkit for which you promote your religion. No one is more keenly aware of this right now than poor Rick Santorum. I think all that is supernatural will go the way of Satan talk. It will just fade away quietly. That is fine with me. I know it isn’t fine with you, and I am sorry. Those interested in seeing the wheels and gears of religion being retooled need to simply check out the writings of Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong, or just look around them. The changes can be observed in any religion. It is a very exciting time for both my atheist and humanist natures and I want to somehow share that excitement with you guys in an open and respectful way.

  2. Yetunde says:

    Hello Dr. Creamer,

    Thought provoking discussion you have here. Atheists’ anti-supernatural bias muddies any serious pursuit of truth on their part. In other words, their prejudice has them finding what they are looking for instead of following the truth wherever it leads. Like the Pharisees of old who made up their minds that Jesus was not the Son of God (in spite of all the miracles He did), some atheists will not see the evidence for the existence of God.

    Even a child can look up at the heavens and realize there must be a Creator. Like Romans 1 says (atheists in particular) profess themselves to be wise but are really fools. The foolishness of atheism is really exposed when atheists step forward to debate creationists on the major issues. When an atheist and creationist debate, many times the atheist has the weaker argument. Creationists should not back down from debate because the truth is on the creationist’s side.

    What an atheist and creationist can agree upon is that we are here on planet Earth, in this solar system, etc. One of the many ways an atheist and creationist disagree is HOW we got here. If an atheist wants to attribute the intelligence, design, complexity, fine-tuning, and beauty in our universe to naturalism – that requires a lot of faith on their part.

    Cheers,
    Yetunde

  3. Alex D says:

    I was thoroughly impressed by this post. John Rigler certainly had a thoughtful reply as well. Yetunde, albeit brief, left a notable contribution as well. This life leaves many questions unanswered. Science can only get us so far when it comes to what I like to call ultimate truths. Our world is like a puppet and the natural laws are the strings. We all see the effect but we must consider ourselves lucky if you ever get to see the puppet master in our lifetimes. We can speculate all we want but we really need to know how our faith is reasonable. There are certain means in which we can justify it of which I am sure you are aware. The real question lies in the realm of trust and having a heart willing to accept the cost of the belief. There is no lack of historical evidence for it is innumerable in the realms of archeology and the documents of antiquity. What an unbeliever must do is evaluate is to what degree they are willing to submit. If they are unwilling, they are easy prey for Satan’s heart-hardening influence. They want the things that are fleeting and must assert that the historical evidence is invalid often going so far as to seek anything to use to quell that quiet inner voice of truth. That is where we step in and evangelize for the Kingdom’s sake. All are precious in His eyes. Appreciate what you’re doing.

  4. John Rigler says:

    Yetunde, I would like to analyze your post point by point:

    >Atheists’ anti-supernatural bias muddies any serious pursuit of truth on their part. In other >words, their prejudice has them finding what they are looking for instead of following the truth
    >wherever it leads.

    Yes, the one thing atheists actually claim is that we can only know what we can understand from a scientific perspective. I have often heard the term ‘divine’ used simply is an expression of what we know and can’t explain. The problem with loading up too much into ‘divine’ knowledge is that by definition none of it can be proven. I believe that a ‘divine’ experience is just an activity like watching a movie. At the end of the ET, I was deeply moved and filled with various feelings, but as the credits rolled, I still knew that ET didn’t really exist. I chose to experience the movie and that experience may change me. I need not to believe in ET for this to happen. This isn’t a prejudice, it is a core belief; and I argue that atheism should be so simple that it is THE ONLY belief which can fall under that label.

    >Like the Pharisees of old who made up their minds that Jesus was not the Son of God (in spite >of all the miracles He did), some atheists will not see the evidence for the existence of God.

    Yes, I understand that they were atheists.

    >Even a child can look up at the heavens and realize there must be a Creator.

    I can look at the sky or a sunset or a mountain range and can feel moved. I could chose to ignore this feeling or I could attribute it to part of my brain which has evolved to deal with such feelings. I could then chose to simply enjoy ‘the movie’, or I could come to attribute it to the local religious ideas of the people around me. If we were in ancient Greece, you would look up at the sky and you would say that you could feel Zeus looking back at you. It is no coincidence that folks today in Texas believe strongly in the God of the New Testament Bible because that is what is pushed around here. Also, I would have to say that when you look in the sky, you see something beautiful which makes you think of a Christian creator, not an impartial Deistic one who may not even realize that there is life on our one tiny planet for this brief flicker of time.

    >Like Romans 1 says (atheists in particular) profess themselves to be wise but are really fools. >The foolishness of atheism is really exposed when atheists step forward to debate >creationists on the major issues. When an atheist and creationist debate, many times the >atheist has the weaker argument. Creationists should not back down from debate because >the truth is on the creationist’s side.

    Really? I often find that I present overwhelming evidence which is written off with an argument as simple as “I read the book you sent, it was interesting, but I simply disagree”. This is not an argument at all. You yourself are not making any actual arguments, but simply stating your perceptions.

    >What an atheist and creationist can agree upon is that we are here on planet Earth, in this >solar system, etc. One of the many ways an atheist and creationist disagree is HOW we got >here. If an atheist wants to attribute the intelligence, design, complexity, fine-tuning, and >beauty in our universe to naturalism – that requires a lot of faith on their part.

    Christians seem to have two ideas which they all agree on which perpetuates their beliefs:

    1. Faith in God without evidence is virtuous, even though faith in anything else without evidence would be foolish. This has been labelled ‘belief in belief’. Once someone subscribes to the idea that belief is good for you, all they must do is fight to maintain their belief. After a while they realize that the struggle to believe is just as virtuous as the original goal of believing. The problem is that they have abstracted themselves from actual religious practice when doing this. They have raised belief itself into a religious act and they find a bliss in doing it well. This is why it is perceived that God cares if you believe in him or not. When everyone believed in one god or another, ideas of individual deities simply jockeyed with each other for acceptance. Today’s God of Christianity must also fight for the very idea that he exists at all.

    2. Conflicting religions or denominations don’t point out the nonsensical things that other religions or denominations say or do. I find it amazing that the softer Christian religions like the Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopals, and even the Catholics or Mormons have allowed Evangelical Christianity to come to be seen as simply ‘Christianity’. When you argue that an atheist believes in evolution out of some sort of blindness, you must also agree that many many people who call themselves Christians also believe this (as do many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc). If they don’t, they certainly have a different creator than yours. I recently listened to a criticism of William Lane Craig which went like this: “OK, I will pretend to agree with your flimsy argument for an intelligent creator of the universe because of your ‘something can not come from nothing’ statement. What I don’t agree with is you then making the gigantic leap to say that said creator must be the God of the Bible. You still have a huge amount of explaining to do.” It is a little troubling that all of the various denominations of Christianity aren’t more outspoken when arguments like his are allowed to represent all of them, but they are help in check by a gentleman’s agreement and a fear that you might turn a microscope onto their understanding of God.

    As I an atheist, I am not really that much different from many folks who attend churches all across the country. I just take the social hit in life for being honest about my godlessness. I can’t ever be elected to office, I am at times accused of worshipping the devil, and I am in general assumed to be an unhappy person. I do this because it is the truth about what I believe. If all of the atheists sitting in Church today were to be honest, open, and seeking of something greater than the status quo and social or business gains, you would see that your views are of quite a fringe minority.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s