This article is borne out of a conversation betwen Bilbo and Jerry Rivard in the blog. Let’s begin by recounting the exchange.
It all begin when Bilbo observed: “I couldn’t deal with the emptiness of a Godless universe, so I came back to faith.”
This prompted Jerry Rivard to inquire: “In what way does this demonstrate that God exists?”
“It doesn’t demonstrate it to you.” Bilbo replied. “It’s an existential thing. Can I live with a Godless universe? No.”
Jerry Rivard then replied by linking to an excerpt from Sam Harris in which Harris describes a man who believes there is a giant diamond buried in his backyard because of the beneficial effects this has on the man and his family.
This prompted Bilbo to retort: “If you think wishing for a refrigerator-sized diamond is the same thing as wishing that you are not an accident and that your life has meaning, then I think we may not be able to communicate with each other.”
Jerry prompted retorted: “I think a wish is a wish. The implications of a wish don’t make it any less of a wish. Whether God exists is a binary truth, not affected one bit by our desires.”
* * *
So how are we to think of this exchange? Is Bilbo being reasonable in his existential ground for belief in God? Or is it really as irrational and absurd as Sam Harris’ illustration implies?
To answer that question I will return for the moment to one of the more existentially disturbing moments of my youth. When I was a pre-teen I read a lot of paranormal literature. I loved reading about cryptozoology, for instance. I was fascinated by the idea of ghosts and aliens. But perhaps the most intriguing of all were those truly weird accounts of things like frogs inexplicably falling from the sky and people bursting into flames for no apparent reason.
That whole bursting into flames thing really got me. I remember one account of so-called spontaneous human combustion. A man came over to see his friend at the retirement community. Upon letting himself into the man’s apartment he walked into the TV room and discovered feet and ankles sitting on the floor smouldering in front of the man’s recliner. The recliner itself was melted apparently from a great burst of heat. The conclusion? The old man had spontaneously combusted while watching television!
That prompted me to read more into the idea of spontaneous human combustion. The consensus of most “experts” I read seemed to be that anybody could spontaneously burst into flames at any time.
That was quite a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of a wimpy twelve year old kid, and for several days I walked around with a deep lingering fear that at any moment I could burst into flames like that poor old man.
Fortunately I no longer view spontaneous human combustion as a serious threat. But the interesting thing was how I came to that perspective as a twelve year old. To put it bluntly, I found that I couldn’t live a happy productive life believing that I could possibly burst into flame at any moment. Whether I’d burst into flames or not was one thing. But I knew that I couldn’t ultimately settle the matter, so the best thing for me to do was to go about my life as if I wouldn’t burst into flame. Belief often follows practice and this is a great example. Eventually I find myself believing that I wouldn’t burst into flames. And I’ve lived a fuller life for that belief. To summarize the reasoning, if one believes that one might possibly spontaneously combust, and that there is nothing one can do to reduce the possiblity of spontaneously combusting, and that believing one might spontaneously combust will undermine one’s quality of life, then one has excellent prudential grounds for believing one will not spontaneously combust.
Note that this prudential ground for believing one will not spontaneously combust does not suddenly make it more likely that spontaneous combustion is false. But it does justify on practical grounds one’s belief that spontaneous human combustion is false.
For many people, atheism as a claim is akin to spontaneous combustion. That is, they have no way to establish that atheism is false but they have grounds to believe that accepting atheism as true will undermine their quality of life. And that provides good prudential reasons for them to believe atheism is false.
As the title of this essay observes, the defense here is not for the existence of God. Rather, it is for belief in God’s existence. And reasonable belief can be based on practical considerations just as it can be based on evidential ones.