Atheist prayer experiment, week 5: Should you hope there is a god?

We’ve seen so far that Mawson’s recommendation that atheists should pray is along the right lines: so long as you don’t think prayer is too likely to lead to self delusion, and the costs for the added information are smaller than the benefits, it seems a good idea to pray. It also seems that negative results are valuable: if Atheist prays and gets no answer, that is further evidence their atheism is correct. Here’s another question: should Atheist hope there really is a God after all?

Given what we’ve said above, it seems atheist should hope to be made aware of god if he exists. Believing the right thing about God’s existence is likely a good thing ‘either way’, and particularly good if God does exist. Yet whether atheist should hope God exists is slightly different: should atheist think that a world with god is somehow richer or more valuable than one without god – and, if so, is it worth hoping that is what really obtains, even if the evidence speaks against it?

Would it be a good thing if God existed?

One reply would be talking about the particular consequences of a religion versus secularism. Of course God cannot be a good thing, because religion poisons the world and makes it worse.

This wouldn’t follow. Granting that religion in general is a bad thing (which isn’t clear to me), it wouldn’t mean that the world would be worse if the object of that religion did in fact obtain. Maybe the world would overall have more to celebrate within it if (e.g.) Allah exists, even if Islam makes the world worse. But how would God existing make the world a better place than without?

A lot of pascalian-like discussions focus on how more palateble life is with God than without. Believers have assurances of providence and an afterlife, things naturalists tend to deny. Living forever (united with lost loved ones) seems pretty cool, so one should hope for worlds in which that is assured. One could continue this program by forming a ‘menu’ of desirable things (moral realism, meaningfulness, cosmic justice) that God assures but non-belief does not. [ref] This is a distinct approach from things like the moral argument (or at least, how the moral argument should be prosecuted). A good moral argument will appeal to ‘we should believe there are moral facts’, and offer some case for moral realism or similar. The pascalian-like arguments given here do not need to say we should believe there are things like moral realism, but just that the world would be a better place if they were true (even if the evidence suggests they are false). As you should hope for the world to be better, that God guarantees these – and atheism does not – supplies reasons to hope that God exists.[/ref]

Faith, hope, and doubt?

Yet these sorts of Pascalian-like arguments probably don’t have much pull on the average atheist. Most non-believers aren’t nihilists, and so take the world without God to not be that bad a place to be. The fact the world would be even better if God existed doesn’t motivate Atheist to hope he does, especially if one considers the likelihood remote: I would like a twenty pound note, but I don’t earnestly hope a quantum event will cause one to appear in my hand. So too, perhaps, with God: an atheist world is not that bad, God would not make it much more satisfying to live in, and it is remote anyway.

Hope for others and gratuitous evil

I think we can offer a concern which gives a satisfactory reason to hope that God exists. It shows the world would be significantly better if God exists, that it would be rubbish (by the lights of this concern) if it doesn’t, so providing God is not too unlikely, it seems worth hoping for. This reason is undefeated evil.

There are all sorts of horror stories – of ‘Sue’, of Neil and Kazumi Puttick, of ethnic cleansings and other outrages to the human condition that are used as examples of evils that God, if he really was there, would surely ensure never occurred. Evil tends to pop up as a reason to believe God does not exist, not a reason to hope that he does. But it should do both.

Stealing some language from Marilyn McCord Adams, we can call some of the outrageous things that happen to people horrors. A horror (as McCord-Adams defines it) is an event so bad that someone’s involvement in it gives us reason to doubt that person’s life was on balance worth living or not: were we a guardian angel tasked with that person’s well being, and seeing that their life has that in store, we would consider stopping them ever living for their sake. Child sexual abuse, torture, and many others besides would be candidate events that count as horrors. [ref] This does not mean that all lives that include horrors are necessarily not worth living. Many people who have horrors befall them consider (rightly) that their lives are on the whole worth living – in some cases, they might (rightly) think their lives have gone better for having that horror, as it was necessary to realize even greater goods (borrowing from Chrisholm, we might call that a defeat of a horror). Sadly, this does not apply to every case, and in many cases the presence of a horror in a life makes us wonder whether it is worth living.[/ref] A life might be rendered ‘not worth living’ in other ways: perhaps a life lived generally miserably, where all that persons goals and aspirations are thwarted and they die alone and never loved might be a life not worth living, even without horrors.

I’m generally an optimist about the human condition: I think most lives, even those that involve (by western standards) huge amounts of suffering are nonetheless still worth living, and most people who have lived have had lives worth celebrating. Yet not all. So perhaps hope for them should motivate a hope for god.

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