In this post I will discuss a number of common reasons why people claim to believe in God. I intend to discuss them in the context of a person becoming a theist. I will claim that the default position is that of an atheist and that there must be a reason to start believing in the first place. I will then attempt to show that none of the reasons I list are rational. This is not to say that no other reasons to turn to God exist. Although I can’t claim to be exhaustive, I will try to cover as much field as time permits.
The meaning of theism for this argument
Clearly, if I am going to discuss theism, I need to first ascertain what it is that I mean by that concept.
In this thread, when I refer to “theism” I refer to a belief in a God or gods. By this I mean sentient and supernatural entities who are, to some extent, omnipotent. This doesn’t have to mean that they are absolutely omnipotent. It just means that they are very, very powerful. I also want to limit this to a belief in a God who has created the universe and humans. The latter need not be direct creation. Thus, if one believes in a God who created the “singularity” and all the laws of nature that govern the singularity and the matter and energy that arises out of it, he is not precluded from being classified as a theist for the purposes of this discussion. However, the being has to be sentient. So, for example, when discussing a cosmological aspect, positing that something out there must have “pushed” the singularity to explode, will not be considered a theist belief. Not unless that “something” is believed to be sentient in the sense that it has self awareness and the awareness of other things and that it has will and can make decisions and act upon those decisions.
An “atheist”, by contrast, is somebody who’s not a theist. Broadly speaking, this may mean many different things. For example, one can be an atheist in one God but a theist in another. But for our purposes, and to keep things simple, an atheist is anyone who doesn’t believe in the entity or class of entities that I have described in the foregoing paragraph. When I say “doesn’t believe” I am simply referring to a lack of belief. It doesn’t have to go all the way to “strong atheism” (ie, a belief that no such entity exists). It’s enough that a person has no belief in such an entity.
Lack of theism is the default position
I believe that lack of theism is the default position. When people are born, they do not have any belief in God. They have no knowledge of the concept of God, nor do they have the mental ability to obtain such knowledge such early a stage of mental development.
One might argue that a newborn can’t be an atheist precisely because he doesn’t have any ability to either have faith or not. Thus, a newborn is neither a theist nor an atheist; he is simply a-philosophical (for want of a better term). To avoid going on a lengthy tangent on that detail, I am happy with that position. Thus, for those who would feel inclined to embark on this line of argument, “atheism” can be redefined to state that “a person is an atheist if he is capable of understanding the meaning of belief in a God or gods and lacks a belief in a God or gods.” This would mean that a newborn is not an atheist but at some stage during development a child becomes one as he becomes capable of understanding the meaning of belief in a God or gods.
What follows from the above is that, while the default position (that is, the position at birth) is not necessarily atheistic, it certainly can’t be theistic. A newborn is either an atheist or “non-philosophical”. In either of those cases, the newborn is not a theist. It's an atheist, an apatheist, a non-theist or a nonbeliever. Tags don't really matter.
Since the default position is that of not being a theist, becoming a theist is a positive step. When I say “positive” I don’t mean it in the sense of “good step”. I simply mean that it is some occurrence or some action or some change of state that has to take place in order for the person to become a theist; if nothing at all happens, the person will remain an atheist. I use the term “atheist” at this point because the person I am discussing is necessarily at the stage of development where he is capable of becoming a theist and must therefore be capable of understanding the meaning of belief. This, in turn means, that he is no longer “non-philosophical” but is now an atheist (in the weak sense). Again, this is just a tag and this is just for convenience.
The question for consideration is this: what reason can there be for a person to change their position from atheist to theist? Would such a change be rational? I will attempt to show that it would not be.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
I feel compelled to make a short statement about the above principle. Since absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the fact that there is no rational ground for believing in God (if there isn’t one) is not in itself enough to conclude that God doesn’t exist. However, I am not setting out to show that God doesn’t exist. My attempt is focused only on showing that there is no rational reason for believing in God. If we accept my proposition above that the default position is necessarily an atheist one, it should be clear that in order to become a theist, one needs to change the status quo. This requires a positive act. And a positive act without a rational reason is an unnecessary positive act. Changing the status quo without a rational reason would be changing it just for the “hell of it” (no pun). And of course, I can’t dispute anyone who claims that he has become a theist simply for the hell of it. However, I would think that many a theist would get greatly offended if I were to suggest to them that they became theists for such a silly reason.
Scope of the problem
In order to address the question, I intend to look at a number of possible reasons a person might have to change from being an atheist to being a theist. Of course, I can’t be sure that the list is exhaustive and I am likely to leave some things out. Broadly speaking, however, the following categories of reasons exist:
1. “Knowledge”. This category consists of empirical observations of God or of God’s actions (such as Biblical and other scriptural accounts), and personal revelations. However, this category also extends to some logical a priori “proofs” for the existence of God. These are teleological proofs, ontological proofs and cosmological proofs. Thus, a person could become a theist in an intellectual sense; believing that convincing evidence and/or argument exists for God’s existence.
2. Considerations of “purpose”. This is not as clear a category as “knowledge”. Reasoning that falls within this category involves questions of evil and moral right, of justice and of eternal life. People who believe that “there must be a better place than this; one where evil never wins” or that “it would make no sense for us just to die and to be no more; hence there must be an eternal life of some sort” fall within this category. This category, thus, is more focused on some sort of wishful thinking rather than on any objective analysis of available evidence of any kind.
3. Pascal’s Wager. Surprising as this might be, there are actually theists who claim that they have chosen to believe in God because they would rather be wrong if God doesn’t exist than they would be wrong if God does exist. Risking going to hell is a much higher price than living one’s life following the doctrines of a God who doesn’t exist. They have nothing to lose by doing the latter but potentially a lot to lose by doing the former.
4. Cultural reasons, tradition, upbringing etc. Many people believe in God because they have been brought up that way. Their culture and tradition is a theistic one and they simply assimilate with this culture as they grow up. They are taught by their parents that there is a God who loves them every much.
Combination of reasons
Naturally, it’s not possible (nor would it make any sense at all) to claim that every person who becomes a theist does so due to any one of the above reasons in isolation. Rather, this may be (and probably often is) a combination of some of the above and possibly of some others that I haven’t even addressed. Let us consider whether this affects my position in terms of rationality.
Firstly, let us assume that a particular reason is rational. I will not nominate that reason but we will just call it “R”. So, R is a rational reason to become a theist in the sense that R is a conclusion based on rational and solid evidence of God’s existence and/or of the viability of engaging in the practice of some particular faith. If R is a good and rational reason to become a theist then it doesn’t matter whether any of the remaining reasons are rational. It’s enough to simply rely on R. If all the other reasons to become a theist are not rational, it would make little sense to combine R with those reasons. R is sufficient to stand as a good and solid reason to change from an atheist to a theist.
If, on the other hand, no rational reason exists, does it make any sense to combine any number of irrational reasons and then to rely on them and become a theist? I assert it does not. The fact that you have a number of irrational reasons doesn’t make any of them more rational unless a special case can be established such that a particular irrational reason becomes rational by the fact that another irrational reason exists which on its own merits makes the former rational. But if that were the case then the former reason could be stated as a rational reason in the first place by simply including in itself whatever element it is of the latter that makes it rational. None of the reasons I have outlined above (and will address below) are, as far as I can see, capable of becoming any more rational than they are, simply by combining them with any other of the above reasons.
For example, if the Bible can’t be relied on (category 1) for factual assertions about God and if the cosmological argument (category 2) is not logically sound, the facts that we have the Bible and that we have the cosmological argument do not in combination make either the Bible’s accuracy any better nor do they make the cosmological argument any more logically sound. If all our relatives believe in God this doesn’t mean we should (without some other reason). The fact that we have the Bible doesn’t give us that reason if the Bible can’t be relied on for factual assertions. And vice-versa, the fact that our relatives believe in God does not make the Bible any more reliable in terms of factual assertions.
I would conclude that, unless a specific case can be made out, a combination of irrational factors which do not affect each other’s rationality in some specific way that can be shown, does not of itself make any of them more rational.
And if that is the case, then showing that each of the above factors is irrational in itself is sufficient to dismiss it from our list of reasons to believe in God.
I will now address the reasons for becoming a theist (as I see them).
Scriptural and other accounts.
There are a large number of religions with their scriptural accounts of what God is, what God’s commandments are, how we are supposed to behave, what the rewards and punishments for certain types of behaviours are. There are as many of these accounts as there are religions. Not all of these accounts are written. Some do not show on any permanent record at all but rather are passed on from one generation of believers to the next. Apart from being vastly different between the various religions of the world, these accounts are open to a plaethora of different interpretations in themselves. Many believers claim that these messages should be taken literally. Others claim that they are symbolic in nature. Yet others claim that they are partially literal and partially symbolic.
Since there are a large number of proposed religions, there is absolutely no reason why one should be preferred to another. In other words, it’s not possible to know at all that one religion’s message is more accurate than that of another or which religion it is that holds the more accurate message. In absence of independent evidence by which to assess the truth of any of these claims, there is no rational reason to choose one over another.
Thus, we can’t know if it’s more likely that the sun, moon and stars were vomited into existence by a white giant called Mbombo (this sound like an FSM-like claim but is actually an African religious belief – Bakuba People) or whether the world is a vast ocean on the backbone of an enormous trout created by Kamaiu (Ainu beliefs in Asia) or whether the Universe has always existed and always will exist (Jainism), or whether God created the world and humans in 6 days and rested on the 7th (Judaist/Christian Biblical belief in its literal sense). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creation_mythology#Europe
These accounts are hugely inconsistent with each other. Similarly, the accounts of what God (or gods) is (or are) are inconsistent between the various religions. Ancient Greek gods were capable of hurting and punishing each other and all had their own motivations and their virtues and vices individually. Australian Aboriginal deities were animal-like in nature and much supernatural happened during “Dreamtime”. There are those who believe that God is an alien from outer space. It is beyond any question that there are huge numbers of mutually inconsistent beliefs in a huge numbers of various gods whose nature and attributes differ from all others in many different ways.
These gods have little in common safe and except the fact that it is more often than not believed that they are responsible for our existence. This is hardly surprising, given that humans have a natural curiosity when it comes to this very question: where did we come from? The question is so common to our nature that it is even asked by very young children. Thus, if we were to say that people in ancient times sought an explanation for that great question of existence and filled the gap with an invented God (who would usually be either human-like or animal-like), would that be surprising at all?
At this point, we have an unquestionable fact that can be broken down as follows:
1. Accounts of God and gods and their nature and attributes vary irreconcilably between the various religions of the world; both past and present;
2. There exists no independent yardstick to determine the veracity of one account against that of any other account;
3. Therefore some of those accounts must be incorrect and we can’t know which ones (if any) are correct.
The only conclusion from the above that I can think of is that we can’t know what accounts to rely on. Does that mean that we should dismiss all of them as untrue? Yes. We simply can’t accept any single one of them as true. Starting from the default position of atheism, we cannot, with a straight face, accept any single account to the exclusion of all others. In the absence of any independent criteria for veracity, it would be irrational to choose one at random.
The other point to make at this time is that these accounts are in many aspects contradictory to what we know about the world around us, having learned about it through observation and logical interpretations of that observation: science. When faced with the choice of accepting any one of the many contradicting accounts and at the same time rejecting science and reason and the alternative choice of rejecting all of those accounts and accepting science and reason, I submit that the latter is the more rational choice.
Let me give you a hypothetical example:
Hearsay reports exist that a train crash occurred at a particular level-crossing. Here are some accounts from various sources:
1. Mum told me she saw two trains in a head-on collision.
2. Jenny told me that she saw a train derail itself while negotiating the bend.
3. Mark said his brother saw a train collide with a semi-trailer.
4. Allison said she saw a jumbo jet fall on a train.
Upon investigation, we find that there was a train that broke down at the level crossing. Investigators are not sure yet what caused the breakdown.
We can treat the train as the beginning of the universe. If we do, science agrees that the question is worthy of investigation. Anything else is a speculation. Choosing the 7 day theory over Mbombo vomiting is irrational. Each is based on a set of beliefs that was once or is held by some theists. All we know is that the universe as we know it has had a beginning (well, it might not, but let’s just assume that for the sake of argument).
We may well find that some of these various religious beliefs have some things in common. For example, you will find that the Judaist/Christian God is somewhat similar to the God of the Koran. Can this be explained by the simple fact that both are traced to the same region? Is it any surprise that they are so similar to each other? After all, they represent the values and beliefs of cultures that are very close in geographic proximity. By contrast, American Indian beliefs (or those of ancient Europeans) are markedly different. Is this not an indication of some anthropological and societal/cultural source of belief (as opposed to divine)?
In conclusion, since there are so many accounts of who God is and what His nature and attributes are and how He created the world and whether or not He created the world in the first place, there is no rational justification for choosing any account over any other. And since the majority of them must be false (even if one does happen to be true) and we can’t determine which ones are or are not false, the only rational course is to reject them all (at least the ones that in any way contradict scientific observation and the logical conclusions thereof) until and unless corroboratory evidence becomes available.
Logical arguments for God
There are many versions of these arguments and I don’t seek to address them all. I propose to deal with them in a very short-handed fashion and present that each of the broad category of argument that I address contains a fatal logical error.
Arguments that fall within this category are arguments that rely on the very organised nature of the world around us, of life itself and of the human body and its functions. It is claimed that things couldn’t fall into place so well unless there was an intelligent designer behind their creation.
The first question to ask is: are things really so well organised? I assert that they’re not. The universe is a very random place with huge numbers of bodies and galaxies and clusters of galaxies, all expanding as a result of what scientists call The Big Bang. Stars and galaxies collide, they die, the get attracted to the gravity of other objects and form new bodies or groups of bodies. Of course, from our human perspective, given that we have been around but for a fraction of a second in universal terms, the universe seems very organised. It would certainly look that way to the ancient inhabitants of this planet. They didn’t have the science and the technology to see the chaos that reigns in the universe when considered at the grand scale.
We have strong evidence that the Earth was one day populated by millions of dinosaurs. They roamed the planet for millions of years. And yet, in a relatively short time they became extinct. Some scientists believe this resulted from an asteroid hit. Others blame it on a volcanic eruption. Yet others claim that it was a combination of the two. Whatever the truth of the matter, each is a viable and natural explanation. My question is: what is so organised about a universe where an entire class of species gets wiped out by a single cosmic (or volcanic) event? One might think this event was chaotic; not to say random.
The argument from design has had its heyday. Most scientists (by far) today accept the theory of natural selection as true. The theory holds water because it explains the evolution of life as a natural process. Living things adapt to their environment by way of random mutations. We see these mutations every day. We see kids born with 6 fingers or animals born with two tails. We see insects with unusual (for their species) colours. It’s completely logical to say that a creature that is better adapted to survive is more likely to leave offspring. It’s equally logical to say that the offspring is likely to inherit the parent’s traits. We all know this. Heredity has been known to humans since ancient times. Today, scientists explain it in terms of genetics and DNA. So, if animals that are better adapted to survive are more likely to leave behind offspring, they are more likely to pass on those better-adapted traits. Over time, this results in a changing population. Sometimes, the original population dies out and only those with the new traits remain. At other times, both populations survive and simply branch off in different directions. But we know that creatures change. We have the fossil record. Scientists use that fossil record to look at how creatures have evolved over time. It all makes perfect sense. Sure, there are many details that still need explanation. There always will be. Humans strive for knowledge and the more we know the more we learn about how much more there is to learn. But the point here is that evolution in terms of natural selection makes perfect sense.
I have outlined some very common scientific views just to show that there are perfectly natural explanations for the way the world is “organised”. I am not trying to prove that they are true. I don’t need to prove that. Why? Because we are looking for a positive reason for a default atheist to change the status quo and become a theist. So, in order to make a rational and informed choice to take this step based on arguments from design, the person would have to be aware of the scientific explanations and reject them in favour of the competing theory. But let’s look at what that entails.
1. The argument from design starts from the premiss that things are too complicated to have arisen without an intelligent designer.
2. But in order to overcome the hurdle in (1), the argument posits the pre-existence of a being even more complex and organised than the universe itself is; a being so complex and so organised that it was capable of creating the universe and all the complex things within it while being self-aware and possessing a mind large enough to contain the knowledge of the entire universe plus of the being itself.
The contradiction is a glaring one.
Some apologists will contend that the being in question is God and that only God is capable of being so organised and so complex and of always having existed. In my submission that is circular reasoning. It assumes that God does have certain properties in the first place and that nothing else could have some of those properties. The apologist is further likely to resort to God’s unknowable nature. We can’t comprehend God and therefore we can’t be critical of the propositions put by arguments from design. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t fully understand the beginning of the universe either. If we did, there would be no argument from design in the first place. Once we get our heads around this proposition, the argument from design becomes a species of an argument from ignorance.
Since we don’t understand the beginning of the universe, we can’t claim that the universe was governed by the same laws then as it is now. In fact, many scientists believe that it wasn’t. The nature of the universe during the Planck Epoch was markedly different to what it is now. For example, it is suggested that all forces were unified at that stage. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_epoch
To conclude this section, arguments from design contradict much of the scientific knowledge that we have today. In addition, they rely on circular logic by positing the pre-existence of something even more complex in order to explain the existence of something less complex which, they claim, couldn’t exist except for the existence and interference of the more complex being.
Therefore, for an atheist to rely on arguments from design in the big step of becoming a theist, he would have to reject the majority of the body of science and to accept a circular argument. I submit that this is not a rational course to take.
The typical ontological argument relies on the description of God as a perfect being. Since God is perfect as a concept, God must exist in reality because if He didn’t, He’d be less perfect than one who does and therefore wouldn’t be perfect (because existence is a necessary part of perfection).
It has been said that this argument is abhorred by most but loved by some (see the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy for one).
Regardless of how many people love or hate the argument, it doesn’t flow logically. It simply doesn’t justify the leap between God as a concept and God as a reality.
Quite simply, if God doesn’t exist in reality then God as a perfect concept is just that; a perfect concept. Even if this does make God less perfect than He would be if He did in fact exist, then so be it; this has no bearing on the question. You can’t bring a non-existent thing into existence simply by defining its concept in such a way that would “necessitate” its existence. It’s impossible. Things either exist in reality or they don’t. Their existence doesn’t depend on how we imagine them.
One could be excused in thinking that the ontological argument is just a light-hearted exercise to prove something that is unprovable.
Since the argument is illogical in that it seeks to bring about the existence of something merely based on its definitional attributes, it is not a rational reason for an atheist to become a theist.
This argument seeks to prove God’s existence on the basis that everything that is physical has to have a cause. That being the case, the universe has to have a cause. That cause must be God.
There are several problems with this argument.
Firstly, the very assumption that everything has to have a cause relies on our empirical experience of things around us. We are very much accustomed to things not happening without a cause and it seems unnatural for us to accept that they could. But God is unnatural (He’s supernatural). Therefore, by accepting that God might exist, we accept that things can exist such that they don’t have to have a cause. Why then do we claim that the universe needs one? Is the universe as a whole in any way subject to any principles that we derive from empirical experience? Some might argue that it’s not. Empirical experience is relevant to things that are not unique. There is only one universe that we know of and we haven’t had an opportunity to obtain any empirical experience at all about how universes (as a whole) behave. We simply don’t know if they need causes in order to exist. The assumption that the universe has to have a cause is not based on any verifiable data or observation.
The apologist might now claim that everything that is physical has a cause and the universe is physical and therefore it also must have a cause. Again, my response is the same, but with a slight addition. We can’t say that everything that’s physical has a cause because we haven’t been able to test everything that’s physical (or every class of physical things) for its requirement to have a cause. One thing we haven’t been able to test for it is a universe. There’s only one of those that we know of and there’s nothing to suggest that the universe must have a cause.
The second problem is that there is an assumption in the cosmological argument that the universe can’t always have existed. The term “always” only makes sense when time is part of the equation. But time is a factor of matter and space. Let’s think about this for a second. Just what is time? How do we know of time and how do we measure it? Our units of time are based on the time it takes Earth to make one full revolution around its own axis. We call that one day. Then we arbitrarily divide that by 24 and we get one hour. We arbitrarily divide that by 60 and get one minute. And then we measure time by using clocks of all sorts. They depend on the properties of matter. The matter around us acts subject to some laws of physics and they seem to be fairly uniform. So, a crystal might vibrate at regular intervals and we can use that to measure time. Or a spring or pendulum will move at regular intervals and we can also adopt that to give us some idea of what time it “is”. But without all that matter around us, without the sun and the quartz and any matter at all, would there be time? If there was no universe at all, no matter, no energy, would time exist? Since time is a function of space, there is good reason to believe that there was no time before there was space. Hence, there was never a time when there was no universe. The universe has always existed. There are competing theories on this. Some scientists believe that time existed before the universe; that there was another “timeframe”. Of course, this is just speculation. It’s very probable (and many believe this to be a fact) that we will never be able to know about the universe prior to the Planck Epoch. Time may have existed or it may have not. There may have been another form of a universe or there may have not. Some believe that the universe has been expanding and contracting and then expanding again (a potentially backwardly-infinite series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches).
What does all that mean? It means that we don’t know if there ever was a time before the universe and, even if there was, we don’t know what was there before the universe. We don’t know what laws of nature existed and what caused the universe to change. Does the fact that we don’t know in any way lend itself to the existence of an omnipotent and sentient being? It does not. It could lend itself to any number of things that we simply don’t understand. It’s ok to speculate about them and to say that X Y or Z are possibilities. It’s ok to say that God was a possibility. But it wouldn’t be rational to take just one of those possibilities and claim it to be an absolute truth. To put a sentient and omnipotent God behind our lack of knowledge of the early universe and to leave it at that is nothing short of appealing to ignorance.
In conclusion, using a cosmological argument to change from an atheist to a theist is not rational. It involves a huge leap from not knowing how the universe originated to assuming that there was a sentient and omnipotent being who made it happen. It also relies on an assumption that the universe had to be caused; an assumption that has no support for it given that we can’t know about the properties of the universe in its earliest moments. It also assumes that time was as it is now, which in itself is a huge leap. Reducing all this to a sentient and omnipotent God is a gigantic appeal to ignorance.
Personal Experience and Revelations
We hear quite a lot about theists who claim that they have had personal experience with their chosen God and that God has revealed Himself in some way or another to them. How rational are those claims?
Certainly, if God comes down from the sky and performs a couple of miracles and you are able to verify that they did take place (to exclude yourself hallucinating) and then tells you “I am God, you must believe”, there is little I could argue against in terms of rationality of the claim.
But these are not the type of revelations we hear of. In fact, it’s rare (if it ever happens at all) that we hear of someone who was an atheist and God revealed Himself to them and they then started to believe. Rather, what we hear is believers telling us their testimony about how God works wonders in their lives. Obviously, this scenario isn’t a reason to become a theist. The persons in this scenario are theists already. A theist doesn’t need a reason to become a theist; he can't become a theist for he already is one.
But even those accounts, the accounts given to us by people who are already theists, are dubious insofar as their ability to amount to any reason to believe in God is concerned. Firstly, these revelations are common throughout all the various religions of the world. They have been known in reference to polytheistic beliefs as well as monotheistic beliefs. They have happened to Hinduists and to Judaists and to Christians and to American Indians. Would that mean that it’s rational to accept that all those Gods are true? They vary in their attributes, descriptions and abilities and in their wishes as to what they want us, humans, to do if we are to reach whatever heavenly reward they have in store.
But secondly, how miraculous are these revelations in the first place? If they consist of “I prayed and God fulfilled my prayer” then one might say that they aren’t all that supernatural after all. How many times did you pray and God didn’t fulfil your prayer? Probably many. On those occasions, you might say “obviously it wasn’t God’s will that what I prayed for should happen”. But doesn’t that just equate to saying that what God wants will happen in the first place? And if so, the significance of prayer vanishes. We just end up with “something unusual happened”. This might mean that someone who was terminally ill came back to health. They had a 1% chance of recovery and they recovered. Well, that means that they were that “1 in 100” who do recover. They didn’t even beat the odds. They just fit within the odds.
I have never heard of a theist claim of “personal revelation” that was anything more than a completely natural, even if in itself unlikely, event. That doesn’t mean that none exist.
Insofar as any personal revelations that are not in themselves supernatural (such as God coming down from Heaven or a laptop levitating and saying “repent”), they are not a rational reason to become a theist. They simply reflect things that are perfectly natural, even if rare. Rare things happen. They just happen rarely.
Considerations of “Purpose”
There are those among us who base their belief in God simply on the statement “there must be more to existence than just this”, “evil can’t prevail and it clearly often does on Earth”, “I just can’t believe that we just die and we exist no more” and other such propositions.
To summarise all these in two short words: “wishful thinking”.
Of course it would be nice if we could all live forever. It’s only natural to want to. Not many really want to die and exist no more. To go further, we find it unimaginable that we could actually die and exist no more. This is perfectly natural. We simply can’t imagine not existing. That’s because everything we know of, all our experience and knowledge and perception comes from our own existence. But whether or not we can imagine not existing has absolutely no bearing on the truth of the matter, whatever that truth might be. We can wish all we like for an everlasting life. But either there is such a thing or there isn’t. Wanting something really bad (if we don’t have the power to make it true) just isn’t enough for it to become true.
Does there have to be a world where evil never prevails? No. There doesn’t. It would be nice if there were. We could all get rewarded for acting morally here on Earth. It would be perfect. It would give us a divine incentive to adhere to some principles. But unfortunately that’s not enough to make it true. The question of what “evil” is in the first place is a long and wide one. If we look at the universe as a whole and at ourselves as just parts of the universe, there really is no such thing as “evil”. We do things that we do because we can’t do anything other to what we do. This, of course represents a “deterministic” view of the reality. Anything that we do to ourselves or to others is just the universe doing things to itself. There’s no evil in this. Evil is a concept that humans have invented as a factor of their social interactions. The concept is related to morality. And we all know that morality isn’t a universal thing; let alone divine. There are different concepts of what is moral and what is not in different cultures. Some cultures mandate the circumcision of young girls. Others allow (or have allowed) the killing and eating of another human being. There have been cultures where it was acceptable to kill a deformed baby. Is the Western culture morally superior? We’d like to think so. But is it? Then why do we punish a man who steals to feed an addiction? He is addicted, he gets a craving, he can’t control himself. Does he not need treatment instead of punishment? Why do we punish those who steal to feed a starving child? Do we value property more than we do life? Surely, that can’t be the case.
Morality is a factor of society. It’s an outcome of culture. What is or isn’t evil is a question that’s subject to that morality and it varies from one culture to another. We can wish for a world without “evil” but, as soon as we ask ourselves what “evil” is, we tend to run into problems.
Of course, one could turn around and say that it makes good sense to become a theist if that puts our mind at ease; if we end up believing in something good and we act accordingly. But is that rational? It can’t be. If God doesn’t exist, then believing in Him just to feel better isn’t anymore rational than a cancer patient forcing himself to believe that he’s healthy. And if God does exist, then this “wishful thinking” approach can’t be a rational reason to believe in Him. There is no causal connection between wishing for God’s existence and God’s existence being true. So, if someone believes on these grounds and happens to be right, it’s just a lucky coincidence. But lucky coincidences in this context are pure guesses. They are not rational choices.
Pascal’s Wager can be summarised by the following:
“I may be right or I may be wrong. If I believe in God and I am wrong then I have nothing to lose. If I don’t believe in God and I am wrong then I stand to lose everything”.
Surprisingly enough, I happen to know theists who have turned to God for no other reasons than that. But this can’t be a rational approach. Firstly, if God exists, is He likely to accept this as genuine belief? I can’t speak for God’s sense of fairness but I certainly wouldn’t. Rather, it’s a wiseguy approach aimed at attempting to secure a reward without truly deserving it. Can a Pascal’s Wager believer be considered a believer in the true sense? That question remains open.
But on another level, is there a reason at all to even engage in Pascal’s Wager unless some rational reason exists to become a theist in the first place? If there is no rational reason to take the big step of becoming a theist, why would one even worry about risking an eternity in “hell”? (I use that term loosely as obviously there are different versions of it in various religions and some don’t have it at all). I suggest that there isn’t. If there are no other rational reasons for believing in the first place, undertaking Pascal’s Wager would be like avoiding crossing an old a train track that has long been disconnected from any functioning train services. There is no rational reason to suppose that a train can ever run on that track.
Culture, tradition, upbringing
Why do we have whole countries that are predominantly theist (eg Poland)? Why do we have whole countries that are predominantly atheist (eg Sweden)? Poland and Sweden are no further from each other than LA is from Chicago. And yet such a difference. Is this because God’s message hasn’t reached Sweden? Doubtful. Is this because the Polish are smarter than the Swedish? Doubtful. Less smart? Doubtful (Polack jokes do not reflect on the entire nation; there's a history of how they have become popular). Then why such differences? Isn’t it down to culture? Parents, kinder, school, society. We learn from those around us. It would seem that so many people have made that step of becoming theists based simply on the social conditions around them. But is this rational?
In the sense of “fitting in” it might be. You’re more likely to make friends if you’re just like everyone else is. You might even be more likely to get a job (hidden prejudices do exist). But what would we think of a believer who says he only believes because he wants to be liked or to get a job? We’d think he’s pragmatic. Would we think he’s a real believer? Possibly not. Would those who truly believe accept him as a real believer? Possibly not. Then is he in fact a real believer?
Does it make any sense to believe in God just because your mother does? Probably not. If you’re going to hold out that God in fact exists and that you know His characteristics and that you know how to please Him, you should rely on some evidence of His existence (“evidence” used in the broad sense here) rather than simply on the fact that it happens to be the “in thing” in your family.
At the end of the day, believing in God simply because those around you do, is akin to appealing to popularity. It’s not a rational choice. If your mother taught you (and I know some mothers who did) that men are inherently smarter than women or that it’s perfectly ok to take drugs, would it be rational for you to accept those claims as facts? I submit that it wouldn’t.
It’s not rational to believe simply because those around you believe.
We are atheists by default. We need a reason to become theists. In the foregoing paragraphs, I have demonstrated that a number of common reasons why people may become theists are not rational reasons.
I conclude that, at least insofar as the above reasons are concerned, it is irrational for a person to become a theist.