05 April 2016

Should I hope that God exists?

In my recent review of Is the Atheist My Neighbor? by Randal Rauser, I mentioned that I wanted to take a separate post to touch on a slightly tangential topic discussed between Randal and Jeffery Jay Lowder (of The Secular Outpost): should we atheists hope that God exists? I think this is a fascinating topic, particularly because opinions from atheists are all over the map — as Randal details in the book. Christopher Hitchens famously described God as tantamount to a "celestial dictatorship"; Jeff, in the book, takes the opposite stance and offers a few reasons why he hopes God does exist.

Randal devotes a chapter to this subject in the book; here are a few key excerpts to which I'd like to offer a reply, first on the topic of anti-theism reflecting a hostility toward God:
To begin with, an atheist could be hostile toward God in virtue of hoping God doesn’t exist. The first thing to recognize here is that believing and hoping are different things and they are not tethered together. Thus, what I believe could be quite different from what I hope.
[When] atheists hope God doesn’t exist, that hope can be reasonably taken, at least in some cases, to indicate at least some degree of hostility toward God. Put more precisely, it would be hostility directed at the concept or idea of God, a hostility that would be transferred to God himself should the atheist come to believe he does exist.

We also shouldn’t miss the implication that if it is possible for atheists to be hostile toward God, it follows that this hostility could potentially distort their reasoning about God in the same way that a theist’s affinity for God could do so. For example, just as the theist may exercise a confirmation bias in favor of evidence for God’s existence so the hostile atheist could exercise a bias in favor of evidence against God’s existence.
As in so many questions of theism, the obvious sticking point is What do you mean by 'God'? Hitch was taking into consideration the theistic god of Western monotheism: a God that reigns like a celestial King with unquestionable authority; one who judges humans for their actions, their character, and — if certain Biblical scriptures are taken into account (Matt. 5:28, 1 John 3:15) — their very thoughts. Hitch believed steadfastly that humans ought to be accountable to one another for their own actions, and that 'thought crime' was inherently unjust and oppressive. He was unpersuaded by 'sophisticated' descriptions of the Western monotheistic deity, which he more or less found to be elaborate rationalizations for fundamentally perverse, authoritarian ethics.

Randal mentions Thomas Nagel, who balked at the idea of 'bowing' to God even if he were convinced of His existence; I suspect (speculatively) that his sentiment is much the same as Hitchens' — that authoritarian rule is fundamentally unjust, and the idea that we should 'bow' to some unquestionable divine dictator is to become a willful slave to oppression.

With these anti-theists, I find myself in wholehearted agreement. I absolutely have no desire to 'bow' to any such 'celestial dictator' as has often been defined in Western monotheism. I'm offended by the notion that my mere thoughts could make me guilty of a crime against even my fellow humankind, much less some unseen deity. And I'm repulsed by the notion that my crimes against my fellow humans (and animals, for that matter) would not be criminal enough simply by virtue of offense to our inherent human solidarity, to the crucial gregarious bond we share as a necessarily interdependent social hierarchy.

Hitchens, for his part, also rejects what he calls the "Disneyland of the mind and spirit, some Nirvana of utter null completeness." This speaks to a legitimate logical conundrum about what, exactly, Heaven is supposed to be — one I spoke about in my partial critique of Randal's book on Heaven, and an issue that I personally do not find to be satisfactorily resolved by theists.  I think Randal does, however, do justice to Hitchens' position:
And why is Hitchens in such forceful opposition to the existence of a divine being? Because, as he seems to think, God’s existence is a noxious idea that would reduce the noble human being to the role of a mere serf on the land of a powerful divine overlord. In other words, if we embrace God then we abdicate true human freedom and autonomy. And that’s not a trade that Hitchens is willing to make.
Given how the God-concept (and it's related concept of Heaven) has been traditionally and widely presented in Western monotheism, I'd have to concur with Hitch.

Rethinking the God-concept

Randal takes a slightly different approach in this book though, calling into question the authoritarian dictator-god promulgated by Hitchens and Nagel. Instead, he puts forth the 'Anselmian' definition of God, as follows:
According to [the terms of classical theism], God is a necessary agent who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and perfectly good (or omnibenevolent).”This definition can be distilled further to the descriptor famously proposed by Anselm, according to which God is that being than which none greater can be conceived.
He continues,
Hitchens claims to be rejecting the same God that Christians would embrace, that being than which none greater can be conceived. But then he describes life with God as equivalent to a form of mental and physical serfdom in which we endure “cruel laws” and are “subjected to frantic violence.” However, if God really is the being than which none greater can be conceived then life in restored relationship with him wouldn’t be cruel and violent; rather, it would be indescribably wonderful.
Randal's argument is packed with a few unstated assumptions. First, and most controversial, is that our conceptualization of "great", and our personal interests, would align with God's. Over at The Christian Agnostic, Steven Jake (who subscribes to 'Thomism') has argued that whatever God's 'goodness' is, it can't really be understood as a direct parallel to what we understand as good. Jeff Kesterson echoes my sentiment on his own blog, describing the problem thus (emphasis mine):
Presumably, God’s existence would be maximally good from an omniscient, all-cosmic-things-considered vantage point. 
However, that certainly is not our vantage point. Our epistemic limitations require that in order for us to properly hope that God exists, one of the following two conditions must be met: 
1) We have proper reason to suppose that God’s purposes–should God exist–align significantly with the flourishing of conscious beings such as ourselves. 
2) Failing that (condition 1, that is), we can specifically identify the ostensibly greater purposes that God has, should those purposes appear to conflict significantly with the flourishing of conscious creatures. 
For us to hope that God exists entails that we align ourselves with God’s perceived purposes, should God exist. If neither condition is met, then God’s ostensible purposes are opaque to us to such a degree that we cannot orient our own purposes.

 And it's here we come to the problem of evil, which Randal touches on briefly:
Let’s start with the offense that everyone recognizes, namely the brutal murder of the child. Atheist and theist alike are aghast at this heinous crime. However, the greater goods theodicist seeks to make sense of it by claiming that God foreknew this murder would occur and so he allowed it to occur in order to achieve some “greater good.” When the atheist is presented with that claim he hears not a satisfactory account of the murder, but rather a crime that is added to the murder.
This sentiment is reflected in the quote that is in various permutations often passed around atheist circles (I've had some difficulty finding the original credit): If I knew someone was going to rape my child, I'd do everything in my power to stop it. That is the difference between me and your God. If God's divine purposes are so obscure as 1) to be inexorably fixed beyond our epistemic horizon, and 2) to be indistinguishable from a non-existent God (i.e., a universe in which suffering is dispensed in apparently random and arbitrary fashion), then it's not at all clear either what God's 'maximal greatness' actually is, or how it aligns with our individual and collective self-interest.

Frustratingly, Randal avoids further discussion on the topic, instead simply expressing his empathy with the atheists' frustration. He seems fully prepared to tell us that we should hope for a "maximally great" God, but reticent about offering an explanation that could reconcile the apparently indiscriminate reality of human suffering, the ambiguity inherent to the concept of divine goodness, and the problem of divine hiddenness. It's as though he's saying, "I know I can't offer an explanation atheists will find satisfactory, but they should hope that a being exists that would provide a satisfactory explanation" — which just brings us full circle to the original question again.


All this, and I haven't even gotten to the second unstated assumption in Randal's point of view: the afterlife.

Randal seems to assume that the existence of a 'maximally great' God entails the existence of an afterlife and, I would presume, the dispensation of some kind of 'perfect justice', but I don't see why this is the case.

If God's purposes, and their justifications, are beyond our epistemic horizon on this mortal coil (which even the most sophisticated theologian appears to concede is the case), then it follows that the concept of 'perfect justice' as we might imagine it does not necessarily comport with God's conceptualization thereof — just as Steven Jake argued regarding our conceptualization of 'good'. I don't see what in the word salad of 'maximal greatness' should imply that we need ever be aware of what God's purposes actually are. Perhaps, for all we know, the world as it is dispenses 'perfect justice'. How would we know, since we seem unable to ascertain any coherent definition of the term in the first place — much less discern a divine understanding thereof?

It's entirely possible that God exists, but there is no afterlife. Hilter doesn't go to hell, mothers aren't reunited with their children whose lives were tragically cut short. The numerous logical problems in the conceptualization of an eternal afterlife — I'd again refer readers to my partial critique of Randal's book — only compound the problem.

It's at this point that I'm reminded of my sympathies toward theological noncognitivism. Every step of the way, we've seen that the concept of God (and the corresponding concept of Heaven) has been mired in ambiguity. The inability of theologians to clearly define the very terms of engagement means it's difficult for atheists to formulate objections because we're shooting at a moving target. So I find myself taking a slightly different stance than outright "hoping that God doesn't exist": the god-concept and heaven-concept are both so equivocal that it's not really clear to me what exactly I'm supposed to be hoping for in the first place.


I can, however, offer a few reasons why I think we ought to hope that the universe, and this mortal coil we inhabit within, is all that exists:
  • There's no one to blame
    • The apparent injustices of 'natural evil' are not injustices at all. Nature is not cruel, but indifferent. If a child dies of cancer, it's not because God sit complacently while his incomprehensible divine plan unfolds. It's just the world we live in. We evolved as imperfect biological machines, and sometimes things go wrong. Really wrong. It's no one's fault. This allows those of us who've experienced tragedy to simply grieve, without falling into existential despair over whom is to blame. 
  • We must value what we have
    • Richard Dawkins described us who are alive as the lucky ones. Millions are never born at all; millions more die in the womb, or in childhood. We may not understand why we're here; indeed, there may be no such "why" at all. But the frailty and brevity of our existence gives us impetus to make the most of it in a way the eternal serenity never could. 
  • Morality is grounded in human solidarity rather than divine duty
    • It's never made sense to me that a divine ruler should need to dictate rules for us to live by. If such rules are truly in our best interest, should we not be able to reason to them ourselves? The primatologist Frans De Waal said that any zoologist would describe our species as "obligatorily gregarious". We lack moral autonomy because we necessarily live in a cooperative, interdependent social hierarchy. Our impetus to treat others kindly stems from this interdependency. And this is enough. What could divine decrees possibly add, even assuming we could understand them in a way that was uncontroversial?
There are more, but those are just a few off the top of my head. I might add that once we accept our mortal existence as likely being the only one we'll ever have, we can quit fussing over equivocal concepts like a "a being than which non greater can be conceived" and get back to living and enjoying the lives we have.

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