There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, Faith is believing what you know ain’t so. –Mark Twain, Following the Equator, “Pudd’nhead Wilson‘s Calendar”
No faith dies because it is unreasonable, but only because the instincts which it has satisfied find more complete and permanent gratification in other directions. –Amy E. Tanner, Studies in Spiritism (1910)
Faith is a non-rational belief in some proposition. A non-rational belief is one that is contrary to the sum of the evidence for that belief. A belief is contrary to the sum of the evidence if there is overwhelming evidence against the belief, e.g., that the earth is flat, hollow, or is the center of the universe. A belief is also contrary to the sum of the evidence if the evidence seems equal both for and against the belief, yet one commits to one of the two or more equally supported propositions.
A common misconception regarding faith—or perhaps it is an intentional attempt at disinformation and obscurantism—is made by Christian apologists, such as Dr. Richard Spencer, who wrote the following:
A statement like “There is no god, and there can’t be a god; everything evolved from purely natural processes” cannot be supported by the scientific method and is a statement of faith, not science (Richard Spencer, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis and faculty adviser to the Christian Student Union. Quoted in The Davis Enterprise, Jan. 22, 1999).
The error or deception here is to imply that anything that is not a scientific statement, i.e., one supported by evidence marshaled forth the way scientists do in support of their scientific claims, is a matter of faith. To use ‘faith’ in such a broad way is to strip it of any theological significance the term might otherwise have.
Such a conception of faith treats belief in all non-empirical statements as acts of faith. Thus, belief in the external world, belief in the law of causality, or belief in the fundamental principles of logic, such as the principle of contradiction or the law of the excluded middle, would be acts of faith on this view. There seems to be something profoundly deceptive and misleading about lumping together as acts of faith such things as belief in the Virgin birth and belief in the existence of an external world or in the principle of contradiction. Such a view trivializes religious faith by putting all non-empirical claims in the same category as religious faith. In fact, it would be more appropriate to put religious faith in the same category as belief in superstitions, fairy tales, and delusions.
Physicist Bob Park explains this difference in a way even the most devious casuist should understand. The Oxford Concise English Dictionary, he notes, gives two distinct meanings for faith:
“1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.” A scientist’s “faith” is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word “faith,” therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites.*
There are reasons for trusting science and there are reasons for religious convictions, but the reasons for our trust in science are called evidence and the reasons for our religious convictions all reduce to hope. William James, a scientist and a man of faith, understood this distinction well. In his essay “The Will to Believe,” James opines that the evidence for a god and an afterlife equals the evidence for non-belief and that his hope is for survival of the soul. In science when the evidence is equal for two opposing propositions, James argued, we should suspend judgment until the scales are tipped to one side or the other. We don’t make a leap of faith in such cases, hoping our favored hypothesis is true. When we do give our assent to one scientific hypothesis over another it is because the evidence compels it, not because we hope it is true.
an erroneous view of faith
If we examine Dr. Spencer’s claims, the error of his conflation of two senses of ‘faith’ should become obvious. He claims that the statement ‘there is no god and there can’t be a god; everything evolved from purely natural processes’ is a statement of faith. There are three distinct statements here. One, ‘there is no god’. Two, ‘there can’t be a god’. And three, ‘everything evolved from purely natural processes’. Dr. Spencer implies that each of these claims is on par with such statements as ‘there is a god’, ‘Jesus is our lord and savior’, ‘Jesus’s mother was a virgin’, ‘a piece of bread may have the substance of Jesus’s physical body and blood’, ‘The God of Abraham is one being but three persons’, and the like.
The statement ‘there cannot be a god’ is not an empirical statement. Anyone who would make such a claim would make it by arguing that a particular concept of god contains contradictions and is, therefore, meaningless. For example, to believe that ‘some squares are circular’ is a logical contradiction. Circles and squares are defined so as to imply that circles can’t be square and squares can’t be circular. James Rachels, for one, has argued that god is impossible, but at best his argument shows that the concepts of an all-powerful god and one who demands worship from his creations are contradictory. The concept of worship, Rachels argues, is inconsistent with the God of Abraham (AG) concept.
Rachels makes an argument. Some find it convincing; others don’t. But it seems that his belief is not an act of faith in the same sense that it is an act of faith to belief in the Incarnation, the trinity, transubstantiation, or the virgin birth. The first three articles of faith are on par with believing in round squares. They require belief in logical contradictions. Virgin births, we now know, are possible, but the technology for the implantation of fertilized eggs did not exist two thousand years ago. The belief in the Virgin birth entails the belief that AG miraculously impregnated Mary with himself. Such a belief defies experience but not logic. The Virgin birth is conceivable (to make a bad pun), unlike the Trinity.
All arguments regarding these articles of faith are quite distinct from Rachel’s argument. To defend these articles of faith, the best one can hope for is to show that they cannot be shown to be false. However, the consequence of arguing that logical contradictions may nevertheless be true, seems undesirable. Such a defense requires the abandonment of the very logical principles required to make any argument and is therefore self-annihilating. The fact that arguments such as Rachel’s and those defending articles of religious faith are not empirical or resolvable by scientific methods hardly makes them equally matters of faith.
The statement ‘there is no god’ is quite different from the claim that there can’t be a god. The latter makes a claim regarding possibility; the former is an actuality or existential claim. I doubt that there are many theologians or Christian apologists who would claim that all their faith amounts to is a belief in the possibility of this or that. One can believe there is no god because there can’t be a god, but one might also disbelieve–i.e., reject as untrue–the existense of any god while admitting the possibility of AG or any other god. Disbelief in gods is analogous to disbelief in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny. Yet, those who believe in Bigfoot and Nessie, for example, aren’t known for claiming they believe out of faith. To say you have faith in Bigfoot or faith in Nessie sounds ludicrous. Believers in Bigfoot think there is good evidence for their belief. Disbelievers argue that the evidence is not strong at all and does not deserve assent to the proposition that Bigfoot exists. Disbelievers in Bigfoot do not disbelieve as an act of faith; they disbelieve because the evidence is not persuasive. Belief in a god, on the other hand, could be either an act of faith or a belief based on conclusions from evidence and argument. If the theistic belief is an act of faith then the one holding the belief either thinks the evidence against belief outweighs or equals the evidence for belief, or the belief is held without regard for evidence at all. Otherwise, the belief is not an act of faith but of belief that the evidence is stronger for belief than against.
Another scientist, physicist Paul Davies, represents another kind of deceptive misconception of faith: that science and religion are equally grounded in ‘faith’. Here is how he puts it:
…science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified. (“Taking Science on Faith,” New York Times, Nov. 24, 2007)
The claim that the assumptions of science are of the same kind as the belief in the trinity, the virgin birth, or the existence of God is as wrong as Dr. Spencer’s belief that the claim that ‘everything evolved from natural processes’ is an act of faith. Davies uses ‘faith’ to refer to beliefs that are uncertain or can’t be proved to be necessarily true, but that is not the essential characteristic of religious faith. We can’t prove that it is necessarily true that the laws of nature won’t change drastically tomorrow, but that doesn’t make the countless instances of experienced order and pattern by countless individuals of no evidential importance. Assuming that invisible green angels move objects to appear as if gravity were real is not on par with assuming there are laws of nature. Neither can be proved to be necessarily true but the latter is backed by evidence in support of it. To lump evidence-based belief with beliefs not based on any evidence as both being faith-based is absurd.
If the only alternatives are that everything evolved from either supernatural or natural forces, and one is unconvinced by the arguments and evidence presented by those who believe in supernatural forces, then logically the only reasonable belief is that everything evolved from natural forces. Only if the evidence supporting a supernatural being were superior or equal to the evidence and arguments against such a belief, would belief that everything evolved from natural forces be a matter of faith.
Those of us who are atheists and believe that everything evolved from natural forces nearly universally maintain that theists and supernaturalists have a very weak case for their belief, weaker even than the case for Bigfoot, Nessie, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. But, more important, we are convinced by the overwhelming nature of the evidence that natural forces have brought about the universe as we know it. Thus, our disbelief in a supernatural creator is not an act of faith, and therefore, not non-rational as are those of theists and Christian apologists. However, if Christian apologists insist on claiming that science is faith-based or that their version of Christianity and the rejections of their views are equally acts of faith, I will insist that the apologists have a non-rational faith, while their opponents have a rational faith. Though I think it would be less dishonest and less misleading to admit that atheists and naturalists do not base their beliefs on faith in any sense close to that of religious faith.
N THE EARLY HOURS of New Year’s Day, 1986, a little girl was brutally beaten, raped, and then strangled in Flint, Michigan. The girl’s mother was living with her boyfriend, another man who was unemployed, and her three children including a nine-month-old infant fathered by her boyfriend.
On New Year’s Eve, all three adults went drinking at a bar near the woman’s home. The boyfriend, who had been taking drugs and drinking heavily, was asked to leave the bar at 8:00 p.m. After several reappearances he finally left for good at about 9:30 P.M. The woman and the unemployed man remained at the bar until 2:00 A.M. at which time the woman went home and the man went to a party at a neighbor’s home. Perhaps out of jealousy, the boyfriend attacked the woman when she entered the house. Her brother intervened, hitting the boyfriend and leaving him passed out and slumped over a table. The brother left. Later, the boyfriend attacked the woman again and this time she knocked him unconscious. After checking on the children, she went to bed.
Later, the woman’s five-year-old daughter went downstairs to go to the bathroom. The unemployed man testified that when he returned from the party at 3:45 A.M. he found the five-year-old dead. At his trial, the boyfriend was acquitted of the crime because his lawyer cast doubt on the innocence of the unemployed man. But the little girl was raped, severely beaten over most of her body, and strangled by one of those men that night.
Many horrible stories just like this one occur everyday. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski described an instance of children being thrown in the air and caught on bayonets and another of children being hunted down and torn to pieces by a rich man’s hounds. Surely, any of us would have intervened to prevent any of these heinous crimes if we had known about them and could have prevented them without risking harm or injury to ourselves or others. It is even more certain that we would have intervened to prevent at least one of these terrible acts. But they weren’t prevented by God or anyone else. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he surely knew about the crimes and could easily have prevented them without any risk of harm to himself or others. We see no reason why God, if he exists, would not have intervened to prevent at least one of these horrible acts. So it is reasonable for us to think that there is no such reason. So it is reasonable for us to think that God does not exist.
I want to explore whether this argument against the existence of God is a good one. Can we reason from the fact that we see no reason that would justify God, if he exists, in failing to intervene to the conclusion that it is reasonable to believe there is no such reason and so reason to believe God does not exist?
Sometimes not seeing something is a reason to believe it isn’t there. If I don’t see an elephant in the room, there is reason to believe there is none. However, if I don’t see a virus with my naked eye that is no reason to believe one isn’t there. As Steve Wykstra (of Calvin College) says, it is a matter of seeability. Elephants have high seeability–viruses, low.
Similar considerations apply to a person’s reasons for action. If I am a chess master and see no good reason for a move by a novice, then I have good reason to think there isn’t any. But if the situation were reversed, that is, if the novice saw no good reason for a move by the master, then the novice would not have good reason to believe there is no such reason. Novices’ reasons have high seeability for masters; masters’ reasons have low seeability for novices.
Perhaps a general principle can be constructed based on these few examples:
Noseeum 1 S’s failure to see X is good reason for S to believe X isn’t there if and only if S has no reason to think if X were there S would not see X.
Put another way, this principle says that if we have reason to think we wouldn’t see something even if it were there–reason, so to speak, to think that something is “invisible”–then our failure to see it gives us no reason to think it isn’t there. On the other hand, if we do not have reason to think it is “invisible,” then our failure to see something does give us reason to believe it is not there.
This principle seems to give the right answer in the cases we’ve considered so far. In the case of the elephant, a person has no reason to think that if an elephant were in the room he would not see it–that is, no reason to think elephants are invisible. Similarly, the chess master has no reason to think that if there were good reason for the novice to make some move he would not see it. So the Noseeum 1 principle implies that a person’s failure to see an elephant, or the chess master’s failure to see the point of the novice’s move, gives each reason to believe there is no elephant in the room and no point to the novice’s move, respectively. On the other hand, there is good reason to think that if a virus were present we wouldn’t see it with the naked eye, and good reason to think that even if there were a point to the master’s move, the novice would not see it. That is, there is good reason to think these things are “invisible”–in the first case to all of us, in the second to the novice. So the Noseeum 1 principle correctly implies that anyone’s failure to see a virus with the naked eye, or the novice’s failure to see the point of the master’s move, does not give those people reason to believe that there is no virus or that there is no point to the master’s move.
However, Noseeum 1 does not correctly handle the following example: Some scientists ask me to reach some universal generalization about the color of a certain kind of animal which I had never seen until they showed me a large sample of that kind of animal. While the sample is large, I do not know whether it is representative or has been chosen by the scientists for some special reason unknown to me. Suppose on failing to see any that have orange markings on them I conclude that no animals of that sort have orange markings. Clearly, my failing to see any with orange markings does not give me good reason to believe that none have those markings even though there is no reason for me to think that if some did have orange markings I would not see them (for instance, I have no reason to think that the scientists would keep any such animals out of the sample they showed me).
This example suggests that a stronger principle may be true:
Noseeum 2 S’s failure to see X is good reason for S to believe X isn’t there if and only if S has reason to think if X were there S would see X.
According to Noseeum 1, if I have reason to think I wouldn’t see something even if it were there–reason to think it is “invisible”–then my failing to see it is no reason to believe it isn’t there. However, according to the Noseeum 2 principle, it is not just my having reason to think I wouldn’t see something even if it were there that undercuts the reason-giving force of my failing to see it. That force is also undercut if I don’t have reason to think I would see something if it were there, that is, if I don’t have reason to think it is “invisible.” According to Noseeum 2, reason to think something is not “seeable” is sufficient to undercut the reason-giving force of failures to see, but so is lack of reason to think the thing is “seeable.”
Applying Noseeum 2 to the example above, it turns out that since I do not have reason to think if some of these animals had orange markings I would see them–no reason to think their being orange is “visible,” it follows that failing to see any with such markings does not give me good reason to believe none have those markings. If we applied it to the other examples, we would get the same results as we got from applying the first principle. Hence, Noseeum 2 can account for all the intuitive judgments we have considered about when failing to see something gives us reason to believe it is not there while Noseeum 1 cannot.
Suppose we try to use Noseeum 2 in an argument to show that our failure to see a good whose realization by God would justify him (if he exists) in allowing so much suffering gives us good reason to think that there is no such good, and so good reason to believe God does not exist. The question we have to ask is whether we have reason to think that if God exists and has adequate reason for allowing all the suffering we see, we would see it. In other words, the question we have to ask is whether we have reason to think that if God exists his reasons would be “visible” to us. If the answer is that we do have reason to think they would be “visible,” then our failure to see a point to all the suffering we see will give us good reason to think there is no point. If the answer is we don’t have reason to think they would be “visible” to us, then our failure to see a point will not give us good reason to believe there is none.
Things don’t look promising for those who say we have reason to think that if there is a good whose realization by God would justify him in allowing so much suffering, we would see it. Surely, God would know more about the conditions of realization of the goods we know of than we do; surely, he would know more than we do about what needs to be the case for those goods to come into being or to continue to exist. And even if we don’t have reason to believe there are goods of which we are unaware, goods beyond our ken, surely we do not have good reason to believe there aren’t any. Given our ignorance of what is needed to realize goods of which we are aware and of whether there are goods beyond our ken, we cannot have good reason to believe that if God exists and has adequate reason for allowing so much suffering we would see it. For all we know, he allows it because it is the only way to realize goods of which we are aware or goods beyond our ken.
It looks as though atheists are not going to be able to use Noseeum 2 to argue that our failure to see a point to so much suffering gives us good reason to believe there is none. In fact, theists can use that principle to show the opposite, namely, that our failure to see a good whose realization by God would justify him (if he exists) in allowing so much suffering does not give us reason to believe there is no such good and so no reason to believe that God does not exist.
Before accepting these conclusions we should compare our failure to see a reason for so much suffering to tribesmen’s failure to see a reason to cut open another member of their tribe who is suffering from severe abdominal pains. Suppose a visitor suggests that the tribesman who is in pain should be cut open and a small part of his body (the appendix) removed. Now either (G) there is a good that justifies a skilled person’s cutting open their brother or (-G) there is not. Which should the tribesmen believe, that there is such a good or that there isn’t?
The answer to this question depends, of course, on what justified background beliefs the tribesmen hold. Suppose the tribe members know about Western medicine and believe that a person trained in Western medicine knows more about the body, its illnesses, ailments, injuries, etc., and their treatments, cures, etc., than they do. Suppose, also, they have never observed anyone survive who had a cut in the abdomen like the one that is being proposed. Now whether it is reasonable for the tribe members to believe that it would be best for their friend to be cut open by a skilled person will depend on whether they have reason to believe the visitor is a Western doctor or is at least knowledgeable about the ways of Western medicine. In short, they will have reason to believe (G), that there is a good that justifies a skilled person’s cutting open their brother, if and only if they have reason to believe the visitor is a trustworthy person who is more knowledgeable about the body, its illnesses, etc., than they are.
The question, “Is there a good whose realization by God would justify him (if he exists) in allowing so much suffering?” is like the question, “Is there a good whose realization would justify a skilled person in cutting open and removing the appendix from the tribesman?” Of course, there either is such a God-justifying good (G*) or there is not (-G*). But which is it reasonable for us to believe?
In the case of the tribesmen, whether it is reasonable for them to believe that there is a good that would justify a skilled person’s cutting open their brother depends solely on whether it is reasonable for them to believe that the visitor is trustworthy and more knowledgeable than they about the body and its afflictions. A parallel conclusion seems true when it is a question of whether it is reasonable for us to believe that there is a God-justifying good for allowing all the suffering we see. Of course it’s true that if we have reason to believe God exists, then we’ll also have reason to believe that there is such a good, for God would not allow all the suffering we see if there were not. But it also seems true that in our circumstances we have reason to believe there is such a good only if we have reason to believe God exists.
In principle we could have other reasons for thinking a God-justifying good exists (just as in principle the tribesmen could have reasons for thinking it best to cut open their brother that had nothing to do with their reasons for thinking the visitor is trustworthy and knowledgeable about Western medicine). For instance, if we knew there was a very wise, nondivine person around and that he said there was such a good, then we would have reason to believe there was even if we didn’t have reason to believe God exists. But the circumstances in which we do not have reason to believe God exists, but do have reason to believe that there is a God-justifying reason for all the suffering, do not seem to obtain. Surely, the mere possibility that there are such God-justifying reasons does not give us reason to believe there are. So in our epistemic circumstances, the only reason for thinking there is a good whose realization by God (if he exists) would justify him in allowing so much suffering is that there is reason to think God exists.
Suppose one grants that there is no reason to think God exists. Assume, also, that, leaving the problem of evil aside, there is no reason to think he does not exist. Shouldn’t we then suspend judgment about whether there is a God-justifying reason for his allowing all the suffering we see, not believe there isn’t? No, because the hypothesis that there is no such good is a better explanation of why we fail to see one than the explanation that there is such a good which is hidden to us. Other things being equal, explanations which posit some hidden mechanism are never as good as those that do not. That is why we should believe that there is a real world outside us that is pretty much the way we think it is, not some evil demon causing the sensations in us that we think are caused by physical objects outside us.
The case of the tribesmen exactly parallels our actual situation. They will have reason to believe that there is a good that justifies a skilled person’s cutting open their brother if and only if they have reason to believe the visitor is a trustworthy person who is more knowledgeable about illnesses and the like than they are. We will have reason to believe there is a good whose realization by God would justify him in allowing so much suffering if and only if we have reason to believe that God exists. In circumstances where the tribe members have no reason to think the visitor is trustworthy and knowledgeable in the relevant respects, the best explanation of their failure to see a sufficient reason to cut open their brother is that there none. When they have reason to think the visitor is trustworthy and knowledgeable, the best explanation is that there is such a reason of which they are ignorant. Similarly, in circumstances where we have no adequate reason to think that God exists, the best explanation of our failure to see a good which would justify God in allowing so much suffering is that there is no such good. But if we have adequate reason to think that God exists, then the best explanation of our failure to see such a good is that there is one but either it, or the conditions needed for its realization, are beyond our grasp (or both).
This discussion suggests that the following principle, not Noseeum 2, is the correct principle linking failures to see to reasons to believe:
Noseeum 3 S’s failure to see X is good reason for S to believe X isn’t there if and only if X’s not being there is part of the best explanation of S’s failure to see X (or is deducible from statements which are).
It is clear from Noseeum 3 why a person’s failure to see something would give him good reason to believe that it isn’t there in some circumstances but not others. As we have already seen, in circumstances where the tribesmen have no reason to think the person who proposes to cut open their friend is knowledgeable about Western medicine, their failure to see a reason does give them reason to think there is none. However, if they have reason to think the person is, then the best explanation of their failure to see a reason is that there is a reason which is beyond their grasp. We have also seen that similar results follow regarding divine reasons for allowing suffering.
Noseeum 2 fails because it is not sensitive to differences in epistemic circumstances–differences in the background beliefs a person is justified in holding. When we have no reason to think God exists, Noseeum 2 will imply that our failure to see a divine reason for allowing all the suffering we observe is no reason to think there is none. That is because we have no reason to think we would see a divine reason if there were one–because we have no reason to think divine reasons are “visible.” According to Noseeum 2, that is sufficient to undercut the reason-giving force of our failure to see any such reasons. According to Noseeum 3, if we have no reason to believe God exists our failure to see a reason which would justify God in allowing all the suffering we see gives us reason to believe there is none because that is the best explanation of our failure to see such a reason.
Having argued that we are in a position to judge that there is pointless suffering if and only if there is no adequate reason to believe that God exists, I will now criticize an argument meant to show that we are in no position to judge that there is no good that would justify God in allowing so much suffering, and so in no position to judge that God does not exist on the basis of apparently pointless suffering. The basis of this conclusion is the claim that we are in no position to judge that God’s allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not. For similar reasons it would follow that we are in no position to judge that there is sufficient reason for someone to intervene to prevent some heinous act (say, the brutal beating, rape, and murder of a little girl). After all, both a human being’s failing to intervene, and God’s failing to intervene, might be needed to realize certain important goods. And if we are in no position to judge that God’s failing to intervene is not needed to realize those goods, how can we be in a position to judge that our failing to intervene is not needed and our intervening is morally required?
Here is a formalization of what I have been arguing based on the idea that we are sometimes in a position to judge that human interventions are morally required and yet in no better position to judge that they are than to judge that divine intervention would be required. The argument form is modus tollens: “If p, then q,” “not-q,” therefore, “not-p.” Since the argument is valid, the conclusion follows from the premises so any criticisms must be of the premises.
1. If we were in no position to judge that there would be no adequate reason for God (if he existed) to allow so much awful suffering because we are in no position to judge that his allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not, then we would never be in a position to judge that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act (since we are never in a position to judge that a person’s failing to intervene is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not).
2. But sometimes we are in a position to judge that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act.
3. Therefore, it is not true that we are in no position to judge that there would be no adequate reason for God (if he existed) to allow so much awful suffering because we are in no position to judge that allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not.
Perhaps we are in no position to judge that there would be no adequate reason for God (if he exists) to allow so much awful suffering but if so, it is not because we are in no position to judge that allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not. Hence, an argument which relies on that claim will not show that we are in no position to judge that there is pointless suffering. And any argument that tries to show we are in no position to judge that there is pointless suffering risks proving too much, namely, that we are never in a position to judge that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act.
It is worth pointing out that the consequent of the first premise in this argument does not read:
then we would never be in position to judge that no particular person has adequate reason to intervene to prevent some heinous act (because we are never in a position to judge that failing to intervene is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not).
We might well be in a position to judge that no particular person has such a reason because we are in a position to judge that he has no reason to think that his nonintervention is needed to realize goods weighty enough to justify that nonintervention. But the actual consequent of the first premise concerns what reasons there are, not the reasons some particular agent has, for intervention.
And surely the second premise is true: Sometimes we have adequate reason to believe that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act, not just that she has such reason. We know enough about what reasons there are that might justify nonintervention, and about their conditions of realization, to have adequate reason to believe that nonintervention would be unjustified by this person in these circumstances and intervention required.
Failure to see the point of so much suffering gives us reason to believe there is none, if we have no reason to believe God exists, even though it would not if we had adequate reason to believe he does. Once we have reason to believe that there is pointless suffering then we can use the following argument to show that God does not exist:
1. If God exists, there is no pointless suffering.
2. But there is pointless suffering.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.
Since I do not think we have reason to believe God exists, I think we have reason to believe there is pointless suffering and so reason to believe God does not exist. If I am right, the only way anyone can refute this argument is by offering reasons to believe that God exists. If we lack reasons for believing in God we should be atheists, not agnostics
This article was originally published in Philosophy: The Quest for Truth [third ed., ed. Louis P. Pojman, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1996], pp. 74-80.)
Bruce Russell is professor and chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University. He has published several articles in philosophy of religion and moral philosophy.
Heaven for climate, and hell for society.
– Mark Twain’s Speechs, 1910 edition, p. 117.
We may not doubt that society in heaven consists mainly of undesirable persons.
– Mark Twain’s Notebook
An interesting research study (Förster, Epstude, & Özelsel, 2009) found that asking people to think about sex subsequently improved their performance on analytical tasks requiring attention to detail. Getting them to think about love improved their performance on creative tasks. The underlying theory is that people think about sex in concrete and specific ways involving the present moment which facilitates analytical thinking. On the other hand, people tend to think of love in a more abstract and global way that involves thoughts about the long-term future, which facilitates creativity. Previous studies have found that priming tasks that activate analytical thinking tend to weaken religious beliefs. This raises the intriguing possibility that thinking about sex could weaken religious belief, whereas thoughts about love might strengthen it. If this is true, this might shed some light on why most religions take such a negative view of sex, especially lust without love.
This study was based on the theory that there are two main ways that people can process information: attending to broad global features of the big picture or focusing on concrete specific details, that is, “the forest or the trees.” Global, abstract processing may lead to more remote and diverse associations which are beneficial to creativity (thinking “outside the box”) whereas more narrowly focused thinking may help one remember well-earned logical rules that are relevant to analytical thinking. Furthermore, research suggests that thinking about the long-term future tends to activate global and holistic processing because people know few details about the future, and therefore tend to think about it in abstract way. On the other hand, thinking about the present moment tends to activate local and detail oriented processing as people think about the present in a more concrete manner.
The authors argued that thoughts of romantic love tends to activate a global processing style, because love usually involves a desire for a long-lasting attachment (“together forever”) whereas sexual desires are usually more concrete and specific and generally focus on immediate gratification rather than long-term planning. The authors tested this theory by two experiments. In both experiments, participants were primed either with love, sex, or a neutral topic. In the first experiment, participants were asked to either imagine going for a long walk with someone they loved and to think about how much they loved him or her; or to imagine having casual sex with someone they found attractive but did not love. A control group were asked to imagine taking a walk by themselves. The second experiment used subliminal exposure to words related to either love, sex, or neutral topics. In both experiments, priming was followed by a task to test creative thinking, and then a task to test analytical thinking. One of the creative tasks, for example, involved solving a series of problems where the solution was not obvious and where the answer typically occurred to a person in a ‘flash of insight’ after prolonged thought. The analytical tasks involved solving logical reasoning problems. Results of both experiments showed that participants who were primed with love performed better on the creativity tasks compared to those who thought about sex and the control group. Additionally, those primed with sex performed better on the analytical task compared to the love-primed and the control group. Sex-priming seemed to be actually detrimental to creativity, as this group actually performed worse on this task compared to the control group. Similarly, love-priming was detrimental to analytical thinking, as this group also performed worse than the control group on the logic task. Perhaps this indicates that when people are thinking about sex they become too single-minded to be creative, whereas those in love are too dreamy to think logically.
The results of the second experiment also found that subliminal exposure to words related to sex induced more local processing in a perception task, whereas subliminal exposure to words related to love induced more global processing. These results suggested that the effect of sex-priming on analytical thinking was actually mediated by increased attention to local processing, whereas the effect of love-priming on creativity was mediated by increased attention to global processing.
These results led me to wonder about possible influences of thinking about love and sex respectively on religious beliefs. As explained in a previous article, activities that increase analytical thinking (even something as simple as looking at a statue of Rodin’s Thinker) can decrease religious belief, such as belief in God (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012). Since sex priming can increase analytical thinking, it seems plausible to think that sex-priming could decrease religious belief by increasing analytical thinking. Religious beliefs seem to involve a focus on global ideas such as eternity and infinity. Furthermore, religious traditions emphasise the importance of having a long-term attachment to a higher power, much as one may have a long-term attachment to a loved one. Therefore, it also seems plausible that love-priming could have the opposite effect of sex-priming and strengthen religious beliefs instead. Experimental studies would be needed to confirm that these hypothesised effects really occur. For example, people could be subliminally primed with words relating either to love or to sex and then they could be asked to rate how strongly they believe in God.
This possibility that thinking about sex could weaken religious belief also led me to wonder if this has something to do with the fact that so many mainstream religions take such a negative view of sexuality, particularly lust without love. Religions generally teach people that dwelling on lustful sexual thoughts is “impure” and a distraction from one’s spiritual nature. Even non-procreative acts such as masturbation are proscribed as ‘sinful’ in monotheistic religions, so this is not simply a practical concern to prevent pregnancy outside of marriage. Popular images of the Devil in Christianity are actually inspired by earlier images of the ancient Greek god Pan, who was noted for his sensual lustful nature. Love on the other hand is extolled as a cardinal virtue and love of God in particular is considered to be of the utmost importance. The idea that one should “love thy neighbour as oneself” is certainly very admirable as an ideal, but realistically I doubt if there are very many people who could actually put this into practice. There may be many reasons why most religions tend to idealise love and to disavow lust. Perhaps, one of the reasons that most religions so strongly disapprove of any form of sex outside marriage is that lust without love undermines religious belief itself? There are no doubt other factors involved, but these need not be mutually exclusive.
On the other hand, there are some religious and spiritual traditions that have a more positive view of sexuality. In fact,in a number of cultures the moment of orgasm has been described as a transcendental experience in which one is momentarily elevated to a divine level of awareness, as if one is briefly united with the gods themselves. Perhaps the possible effect of sex priming on religious beliefs might depend on a person’s belief about whether sex has a transcendental, spiritual component. Additionally, the effects of priming thoughts about sex within a loving relationship have not been examined. This is potentially a fruitful area of investigation that might shed light on the relationships between sexual attitudes, religious beliefs, and the cognitive processes that underpin them.