Most important, or least important?

In the March 6 issue of Science, there’s an interesting story on paleontologist Stephen Godfrey, who grew up in a fundamentalist environment and lost that form of faith through his education.

One part I want to highlight comes toward the end:

Trying to articulate where his religious beliefs stand now, Godfrey’s eyes fill with tears. “It’s been so long, a lifelong struggle, to sort out,” he says. He has flirted with atheism but found it too depressing. Several years ago, he stopped attending church for a year before returning. He believes in God today, he says, but tomorrow may be different.

Note the “too depressing” bit.

On one hand, I find this irritating. If you want an accurate understanding of the world, whether some proposition seems depressing or not should be one of the least important considerations. It’s probably irrelevant.

But on the other hand, it’s also understandable. Claims about the gods are not just dry elements in a theoretical picture of how the world works. Taking a position on theism and atheism usually also means figuring out how to live one’s life, taking a view of what transcendent purposes life might have, and involves a host of personally important issues in a way different from ordinary claims about, say, the nature of black holes. Indeed, it seems that from a personal point of view, whether some view seems depressing is a legitimate consideration, as one has to live as a depressed person or not. We cannot forever avoid taking a personal point of view, even though certain intellectual activities such as science encourage a detached, third-person perspective and derive a good deal of their explanatory success from doing so.

So I can see if someone takes whether atheism is something one can live with to be one of the most important questions. I, as a person thoroughly brainwashed by science and who regularly invites accusations of scientism, might downplay debates over philosophies of life and insist on truth over therapy. But why on earth should others take on my bad habits? Even attempting to answer that question positively would force someone like me into distasteful discussions about whether atheism is depressing; I cannot get away with my usual “who cares.”

But now things perhaps get more interesting. There are, in fact, infidel philosophers who argue that some variety of secular humanism or other color of atheism is a more satisfying life stance. But are they really convincing? Devout philosophers and theologians might more plausibly claim this territory. A morally-infused cosmic view that allows you to toss around language about selfless love and transcendent goodness and all that with no sense of embarrassment may well enjoy an advantage when it comes to psychological satisfaction. At least, it might do so for most people, including some very smart people.

Note, also, that many sophisticated defenders of belief in God take this sort of approach. They say that crudely fundamentalist views such as creationism aside, modern science does not rule out the existence of transcendent realities. They say that philosophical critiques of God are at best inconclusive. The existence of God may not be obvious to all rational persons, but God is still a real possibility. But now, this means there is a door open for faith. Moreover, now there are weighty reasons to believe in God, including considerations such as cosmic optimism and moral confidence.

I suspect, actually, that such views are partially correct. Whether a claim is well-supported and whether it is the best policy to believe in a claim are separate questions, and their answers need not always run together. For many people, personal considerations that encourage faith will be the strongest. I do not think they are less rational for all that, even if I stubbornly maintain that they very probably end up believing in falsehoods.

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Debate Course Starts Today!
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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