Theism, Atheism and Wishful Thinking 12 July 2016

Head with cogs and wheels for brain on orange background

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

In a bout of apologetic zeal, some theists, (for example, James S. Spiegel in his book “The Making of an Atheist”), have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments, saying things like: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own: I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. Many theists – particularly apologists – claim that if atheism is true then it’s very bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that on atheism our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality.

I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. Whatever we make of such claims, the point is that seemingly many theists do not want atheism to be true.

I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK, we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, social, and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Our capacity for self-deception may well be greater than we care to admit, particularly on matters of ultimate importance. As the prophet says, “The heart is deceitful.” We shouldn’t kid ourselves that wishful thinking, or its close relative confirmation bias, has no jurisdiction in our own minds. Sadly, the only knowledge many budding apologists have of atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected.

Conversely, it’s not uncommon to find popular-level atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite having never read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates. Who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one, but it is only relatively recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon has taken off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda.

Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. So, for instance, we are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. Furthermore, when we read an argument for a viewpoint we already hold, we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. However, when it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the usefulness and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us, so much the worse for the evidence!

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett both argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Given what we know of human psychology, we shouldn’t be surprised to find we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when presented with some piece of contrary evidence which was previously overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters, particularly once they’ve committed themselves in print? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence, on the other hand, can be disturbing, confusing, and worrying.

When we consider so-called “deconversion stories,” it’s striking to note the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, often living in self-denial before making the break. Of course, the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived. Like Nagel, Adler didn’t want there to be a God, he didn’t want the universe to be like that, and his head simply obliged his heart.

Adler’s case illustrates that the existence of God is more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists, then that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they may be less than willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Moreover, for many people their entire social life revolves around their religious community. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs, we shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t easily let go of them.

Whatever the precise science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Or, as William James put it in his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is rarely neutral when it comes to holding or rejecting certain beliefs, particularly important moral and religious ones.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. We can also make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly.

Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Evaluate what books are on your bookshelf. Are many written by people you disagree with? If not, you’re quite probably the victim of confirmation bias. Another suggestion is to write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection, but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t.

Above all, conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

I don’t want the universe to be like that, but that’s the way it seems to be.

This article is from Issue 12 of On Religion. To subscribe to On Religion Magazine for £19 a year, follow the link below.Subscribe Button

About Stephen Graham

Stephen J. Graham graduated in theology and philosophy from Queen's University Belfast. He is a freelance writer with a special interest in philosophy of religion and Christian apologetics.

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