A Dialogue with Quixote, Part III

A Dialogue with Quixote, Part III May 4, 2009

Hello again Quixote,

In reply to your last letter:

Since we’re discussing the real reasons why people become atheists or theists, I concede you make a good point about how many people have just never thought all that deeply about it. That’s a good point which I suspect we’ll have occasion to return to. I agree that people who’ve devoted extensive time to investigation and self-reflection are the odd ones out, compared to the population as a whole. (That makes me doubly glad we’re engaging in this exercise, because the world needs as much introspection as it can get!)

I would stress, however, this is probably somewhat less true for atheism. Certainly you can be an atheist without thinking too much about it, but it’s nevertheless true that in most of the world, some religion or other is still the default option. It takes a certain amount of swimming against the tide to become an atheist, no matter where you’re born. Of course, if atheism ever becomes a popular and established alternative, then it will be true that some people will be raised atheist just as many people are raised theist.

This leads into something else I wanted to comment about:

If existence does in fact precede essence, and my actions determine meaning in my life, then how does the choice to believe in God differ from any other choice, Sartre’s wish to be unobserved notwithstanding?

This may surprise some of my readers, but I don’t think the choice of whether or not to believe in God is the most important decision a person can make in their life. Far more important, in my view, is what moral system you hold and how you relate to your fellow human beings. If it’s a good philosophy, I’m not all that concerned with whatever naturalistic or supernatural premises you put behind it (see my essay “Enemy of Faith“).

That said, just because we’re free to choose doesn’t mean that all choices are created equal. I think knowing what’s true is a valuable thing in its own right, and if I go through life deceived – particularly if I’m deceived about something important – then I think there’s a meaningful sense in which my life is worse than it could otherwise have been, even if my false belief never becomes known to me or causes a bad outcome to one of my other decisions. Making a “good enough” choice is a benchmark, but we can also go further and ask: Am I making the best choice?

If such a thing as proper basicality obtains, belief in God is certainly properly basic in the classic foundational sense. It’s incorrigible, presenting itself as clearly as pain. No wonder most theists do think God is as evident as the sun.

I think there’s an obvious rejoinder here which you haven’t acknowledged: If God’s existence is so obvious, why is there so much disagreement about it?

As you must certainly be aware, there are millions of believers worldwide in hundreds of sects, all of whom insist that their perception of God is clear, unimpaired, and correct, who nevertheless disagree dramatically about fundamental issues of the nature, characteristics, and desires of this God.

For instance, there are large numbers of theists who believe that God is basically like a human being, only larger – he gets angry and jealous, he forgives, he cares about the minutiae of our daily lives, he favors some people and disfavors others, he can be flattered or persuaded through prayer. There are also large numbers of theists who believe that God is not personal, but is more like an immanent vital force that permeates the universe. Some people believe God is a trinity, others a unity, and for much of history, the dominant view was that there was a whole pantheon of gods each overseeing a different aspect of nature. Some people believe that God is still actively involved in the creation and working miracles; others believe in a deist clockmaker who started off the universe and hasn’t done much since.

And, of course, there are atheists. Unless one takes the stance that every professed atheist is being deliberately dishonest – and I know that’s not a position you take – I don’t see an easy explanation for why that awareness of God you write about hasn’t affected us. All I can say for myself is that I have no awareness of any such being, nor any sense of an absence that such belief would fill. If you’re certain that you’ve experienced something different, I may have to say, with David Hume, that “we are essentially different in this particular”. Of course, one can postulate that God is deliberately withholding his presence from some people. Then again, one could also say that some people have some sensory or neurological peculiarity that causes them to perceive a presence where none exists.

That said, I am interested to know more about this feeling you speak of, and I’d like to hear you describe it in more detail, if you can. Is it a unique quale, something indescribable through other sensory modalities, or is it an awareness that comes through the usual five senses?

Also, it seems to me that such a manner of knowing could point to God only as a simple, unitary essence – not as a being with complex desires, traits, and dispositions. It’s true that I would find it hard to explain the basis for my belief, “My friend Mr. Jones is standing in front of me.” But if you asked me to substantiate the statement, “My friend Mr. Jones is a generous person,” I would be able to cite evidence: various statements he’s made, acts he’s taken, gifts he’s given. None of these things boil down to mere intuition on my part. Isn’t there a large distinction between the philosopher’s God who’s a properly basic belief and nothing more, and the world-creating, rule-decreeing, miracle-working, sin-forgiving God of Christianity?

And now, to your second point:

Our shared observation of the universe — love, morality, justice, consciousness, justice, you know the drill — screams God as the best explanation for the theist.

Again, this hearkens back to a point in my last letter. If the existence of justice, morality and the like point toward the existence of God, then it seems to me that injustice and immorality must be evidence against the existence of God. It’s easy to see how those good things you mention could come about by accident, at least some of the time, in a world with no higher authority; random chance will sometimes turn out in our favor, sometimes not. But I think it’s a lot more challenging to explain how evil and injustice could come to be in a world overseen by a deity that does not desire such things.

Furthermore, to the degree that morality and justice exist in our world, they are human creations. They are not woven into the fabric of the cosmos, nor would they exist in our absence. If they existed naturally, without our intervention – if lightning always struck evildoers, say, or virtuous people consistently won the lottery – then I agree you’d have a case for an outside power in control of nature that cared about such things. But as I said, the world lacks any such obvious moral order, so I don’t think I see what you’re getting at here. Can you elaborate? Why is it the case that justice, consciousness and the like raise the odds in favor of a world-with-God hypothesis over those of a world-without-God hypothesis?

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