Post Author: Bill Pratt
A common theme we have revisited on this blog is that the decision to believe in God or not believe in God is more than an intellectual exercise – there are always psychological and emotional factors at play as well. This is contrary to the received wisdom of many atheists who argue that belief in God is about wish fulfillment and emotional neediness, and that atheism is arrived at primarily through rational analysis. I have challenged this received wisdom many times on the blog, but sometimes it is helpful to review.
When thinking about this issue, it is especially enlightening to find well-known atheists in moments of candor explaining why they do not believe in God. One such atheist is the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. Edward Feser, in his book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, reports Nagel’s comments on the atheist “fear of religion.” Nagel writes:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism in our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind.
My frequent interactions with atheists over the last 9 years has also drawn me to the conclusion that more often than not, the cosmic authority problem, as Nagel puts it, is at the root of many atheist complaints about God. Feser picks up this point after quoting Nagel:
It is true that a fear of death, a craving for cosmic justice, and a desire to see our lives as meaningful can lead us to want to believe that we have immortal souls specially created by a God who will reward or punish us for our deeds in this life. But it is no less true that a desire to be free of traditional moral standards, and a fear of certain (real or imagined) political and social consequences of the truth of religious belief, can also lead us to want to believe that we are just clever animals with no purpose to our lives other than the purposes we choose to give them, and that there is no cosmic judge who will punish us for disobeying an objective moral law.
Feser concludes his thoughts:
Atheism, like religion, can often rest more on a will to believe than on dispassionate rational arguments. Indeed, as the philosopher C.F.J. Martin has pointed out, the element of divine punishment – traditionally understood in the monotheistic religions as a sentence of eternal damnation in Hell – shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is. For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting hellfire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this.