In my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I argue that atheists who hope God does not exist (where “God” is understood to be the maximally great being of classical theism) adopt an irrational position. So when Jeff Kesterson invited me to respond to his article “Be (Sorta) Excited that God Doesn’t Exist!”, I took up the task with interest … as well as substantial skepticism.
Jeff throws the gauntlet down early on:
“I’m here to say not only that I don’t believe in God, but actually that it’s good news for us all that God doesn’t exist. At least, kinda good news. It’s not really the sort of thing that calls for a ticker tape parade, but we all might at least smile a little smile knowing that God doesn’t exist.”
Interestingly, Jeff differs here from the typical “antitheist” who denounces God as a great evil. Think, for example, of Christopher Hitchens who intoned that life in a universe with God would be akin to being exiled into a celestial North Korea. Jeff apparently isn’t that excited at the prospect of God’s non-existence. But it is definitely something he hopes for on balance.
While Hitchens regularly confused God with an East Asian dictator, Jeff is clearer that the God he hopes doesn’t exist is the God of classical theism (and Judeo-Christian devotion):
“I’m assuming here the maximally great and moral being of mainstream theism. I’m claiming that I’m glad that the maximally great and moral being of mainstream theism does not exist.”
So how could it be that Jeff is “sorta excited” that a maximally great and moral being doesn’t exist?
“Because for all we know, there’s an unbridgeable gap between human goals and divine goals. God by definition is maximally great and moral, but as it turns out, that definition tells us nothing helpful about whether God’s goals have anything in common with human goals. And not just the goals we humans typically happen to have, but furthermore the goals we humans ought to have.”
Interestingly, I agree a substantial portion of this excerpt. After all, there can be a divergence between human and divine goals. After all, while God is maximally great and moral, human beings most clearly are not. If God exists, his goals are always in accord with the good. Our goals frequently are at odds with the good. So our goals can diverge from God’s.
Conformity with the good and conformity with God
Where I disagree is with the final reference to the goals we ought to have. If we value the good and the right, then we will believe that we ought to have values and goals in conformity with the good and the right. And since God is maximally great and moral, any values and morals in conformity with the good and right are ipso facto in conformity with God’s values and goals. Alternatively, to the extent where we do not value the good and the right, our values will diverge from God’s.
To illustrate, a morally upright person will hope that a maximally capable and good superhero exists because a morally upright person’s values and goals will be in conformity with those of a maximally capable and good superhero. But a morally degraded criminal will not hope a maximally capable and good superhero exists precisely because this individual’s values and goals will not be in conformity with the superhero’s.
In summary, a person might rationally hope that God doesn’t exist, but only to the extent where their values and goals diverge from the morally exemplary values and goals of the maximally great and moral being that is God.
On logical possibility
“Let’s say that God’s nature/goals/actions are such that the ‘best’ final state of affairs as regards us humans is that we all suffer an eternity of the most unbearable and unremitting physical, mental, and emotional anguish possible.”
Jeff goes on to insist that this bleak outcome in which the maximally great and moral God damns the entire human race for eternity is “a logically possible scenario”.
Let’s concede for a moment that this is logically possible. Does anything significant follow?
Consider another question, this one directed to all the single folk out there. Imagine a maximally attractive, engaging, and virtuous soulmate who is just waiting to marry you. Would you prefer that there be such a person out there?
Before you say “yes”, remember that it is “logically possible” that six months after your wedding, your soul mate could kill you and bury you in the backyard. Implausible? Perhaps. But logically possible? Certainly. Given this logical possibility does it now follow that you should hope no soul mate exists?
And would you like the perfect job? Before you answer, remember that it is logically possible that after six months in the job you could be fired and your life could spiral into darkness and depression. Does it now follow that you should hope you never get the perfect job?
And how about an all expenses paid perfect vacation? Before you sign on the dotted line, remember that it is logically possible that your house could be ransacked in your absence by rabid Smurfs. So should you now turn down every free vacation, no matter how perfect, and keep watch for the rabid Smurfs?
In short, one can endlessly qualify idealized scenarios with awful “logically possible” outcomes that follow from those scenarios. But the fact that it is logically possible to append an awful outcome to an idealized scenario hardly provides a reason to hope the idealized scenario does not itself obtain.
Put another way, I’m offering a reductio ad absurdum to Jeff’s objection, for if we followed Jeff’s logic we should hope that there is no perfect spouse, job, or vacation. But that is absurd.
We can conclude by returning to the assumption for reductio. Is it logically possible that God might damn the entire human race?
My reply shall bring us back to the superhero illustration. Only those whose values and goals which diverge from that of a maximally capable and good superhero would hope that this superhero doesn’t exist. Likewise, only those whose values and goals diverge from that maximally great and moral being we call “God” would hope that God doesn’t exist.
As a result, being “sorta excited” that the maximally great and moral God of classical theism doesn’t exist is less a reflection on God than it is on the individuals who are sorta excited.