CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

Be (Sorta) Excited that God Doesn’t Exist!

“The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” Case closed for many theists; atheists are fools by definition. But other theists are a bit more charitable by granting that some of us atheists might still be reasonable, even in our non-belief. A litmus test of sorts that I’ve heard a number of times is that potentially reasonable atheists are those who are at least decent and sensible enough to hope that God exists, even if they can’t bring themselves actually to believe that God exists, for some (mistaken) reason or another.

But 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.

Some of you might be ready at this point to disregard this as the ill-informed ranting of an amateur. And of course that could be the case, but hang in there with me for just a little longer. No, I’m not assuming a non-standard definition of God as some sort of all powerful but evil or amoral being. 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. We all should be.

How so, you might ask? Doesn’t it flirt with incoherence to wish away that kind of being? If all minimally reasonable and moral people are happy for the existence of the moral exemplars around us, then doesn’t it obviously follow that we should be even more happy for the existence of that being “than which nothing greater can be conceived”?

No, actually it doesn’t.

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.

I’ll start with a decidedly extreme and grotesque, yet hopefully illumining example. [I hope this won’t immediately turn some of my readers away; you’ll have to bear with me for a few more paragraphs as I begin to lay the groundwork for my case. And of course, millions of theists actually do believe that a similarly extreme and grotesque scenario as the following awaits some/many/most people, and is the naturally deserved fate of all people, or at least of all cognitively high functioning adults.] 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. If God–who by definition is the maximally great and moral being–enacts or allows such a situation, then by definition that situation is consistent with the maximally moral state of cosmic affairs. But would we humans therefore be obliged to accept the moral propriety of such a scenario? Or at least, to accept that we ought to accept it, even if it currently–or even permanently–seems entirely bizarre and grotesque?

The short answer is: no.

We rational agents value our own existence and well being. It’s not only that we typically happen to value these goods, but further that we objectively ought to value them. They are foundational goods of nearly the highest value possible to us, and only in extreme and compelling cases might we be forced to choose conflicting goods which we might reasonably value even more highly (say, an act of self sacrifice to save another, with a clear connection between the sacrificial act and the saving result). And so in the absence of any such clearly perceived, conflicting greater good, we always ought to desire and act to maintain our continued existence and well being.

Dear reader, have you ever tried to truly imagine what eternal conscious torment as described above might be like? Visions of this horror robbed little boy me of quite a damn few hours of sleep. And I’m not sure the physical and emotional misery implied can really be comprehended, particularly by a poor frightened young child, so what I would fixate on more than anything else was the unending nature of the suffering. The boundless despair of never catching even a faint glimmer at the end of a vast tunnel, not even the “glimmer” of finally resting in the peace of nothingness. As an adult, the closest glimpses I’ve caught have been in the deep waves of shock and revulsion which have swept over me on several occasions while reading of some of the more intensely cruel and gruesome horrors of Unit 731 and the Holocaust. Yet even these are but pale and fleeting shadows by comparison.

So now imagine that we were to find ourselves and our fellow humans (or sentient/conscious beings more generally) languishing thus in infinite despair and misery. Would there be any remote reason to suspect that a god-like being enacting or allowing such a state of affairs would indeed be God, rather than a deeply malevolent or apathetic god? Even if such a being were to somehow communicate to us, “I am perfect, almighty God,” we almost certainly wouldn’t have any reason to accept the truth of that message. (Was it a lie? A hallucination? A cruel trick?) If somehow we came to perceive a clear, compelling, and necessary connection between our unendurable misery and the achievement of a good that’s so great as to arguably outweigh our misery, it seems that only then might we have reason to regard as a genuine possibility the moral propriety of our situation.

However, it’s worth noting first of all that the sort of collected, rational reflection necessary for such a revelation might well be impossible in such a setting. And, in any event, the identification of just such a greater good as this seems a wildly bizarre and remote possibility, which we certainly have no reason to entertain seriously, here and now. [Incidentally, “we would deserve it, and we would know that we deserve it” is simply not a serious response.] So in the absence of just such a stunning and unforeseeable revelation–and perhaps even in the presence of one–we would have every reason to properly regard our situation as an almost impossibly cruel and profound moral crime, and to offer whatever (likely feeble and futile) resistance we could.

You might be wondering at this point whether I’ve subtly moved the goal posts. I started by discussing the existence of the maximally great and morally good God of traditional theism, and I shifted ground in the preceding paragraphs to a discussion of a god-like being who may or may not be God. So let me now shift back and tie these two threads together.

Let’s assume once again the existence of good God, and that it is good God who has enacted/allowed our miserable situation. Presumably then, our situation must be maximally moral in the cosmic picture. But here’s the critical point: That might all be the case, but if good God’s actions are indistinguishable to us from those of a deeply evil, apathetic, or inept god, then we wouldn’t have any way of knowing that it is in fact good God who has overseen our situation. We could certainly admit our fallibility and the remote logical possibility that good God has indeed placed us in a situation which is consistent with the maximally moral state of cosmic affairs, but so long as appearances are wholly to the contrary then we could never positively affirm the existence of good God and the moral propriety of our situation. From our epistemic position, our situation would constitute a profound moral crime, full stop. And so if good God enacts/allows this kind of eternal conscious torment, then from our epistemic position, good God’s existence would be the worst thing possible for us, and something we ought to hope mightily against.

I’ll take a step back at this point. I’ve assumed for the sake of my argument thus far a situation in which God has placed (or allowed the placement of) all humans in eternal physical and emotional torment of the worst sort possible, and further, in which God has not provided any insight or revelation into the moral propriety of our miserable situation. And if my argument has been successful, I’ve shown why we ought to hope against the existence of God given such a scenario.

And it is a logically possible scenario.

But is there any reason to consider it a legitimately plausible scenario actually to be feared? I’m not sure anyone would take it as a serious possibility; whether because it’s absurd (hint: it is) to think that there actually is some immeasurably great good which logically requires eternal torment for conscious beings, or because surely God would reveal the moral propriety of such torments to us (really? hasn’t happened yet), or because “it’s only going to be those goddamn reprobates anyway–me and the saints will be sittin’ easy in heaven delighting in their torments” (that’s more or less a direct quote from Tertullian, and Thomas Aquinas, and Jonathan Edwards, and Isaac Watts, and a whole host of other miserable bastards).

I’ll throw my hat in the ring too: it’s a stupefyingly implausible scenario. It’s certainly not a damning indictment of theism that this is a logically possible scenario on theism. Hell, it’s a logically possible scenario on atheism as well, minus the God component, of course. But what it does is to illumine certain lessons for the real world which we can draw from this hypothetical.

Let’s assume that a god-like being exists. Might be good God; might be evil or apathetic god. (To be clear, by “god-like being” I mean here a being with all the standard attributes of the God of mainstream theism, other than moral perfection; this being might be morally good, morally evil, or whatever else.) To determine whether this being is more likely to be good God, or evil god, or apathetic god, or fill-in-the-blank god, we have to look at the world around us to see which way the moral evidence points.

So, looking at the world around us we see a tremendous number of dreadful evils. Though they may be “pale and fleeting shadows” by comparison with eternal conscious torment, the horrors of the Holocaust and Unit 731 are not for a moment plausibly outweighed by any supposed greater conflicting goods which we can specifically identify. And these evils are merely the tip of the iceberg, all of history considered. It’s a logical possibility that there are conflicting goods which might arguably outweigh these evils, but even if so, we’re profoundly ignorant about the identity of such goods. The preservation of free will–as an example potential greater good–is woefully inadequate to explain these evils. [For now I’ll simply assert that that’s the case, as I’ll have to save that large topic for a later essay or several. In any event it won’t help to get hung up on these particular examples, because the point is that any significant evil which is unexplained or under-explained is problematic for the good God hypothesis. And to deny any un- or under-explained evils is to reveal, I think, that one simply hasn’t grappled seriously with the problem of evil.]

Assuming still that a god-like being exists, the moral evidence around us suggests powerfully that this being is not good God. Of course, in addition to the countless evils around us we see many amazing, awe-inspiring, and joyful things as well, particularly for those of us like myself who are fortunate enough to live a comparatively sheltered and prosperous life. So the moral evidence doesn’t appear to suggest that this being is evil god, either. As best I can tell, the evidence suggests a morally apathetic or bipolar god. But the point in any event is that we have very powerful moral evidence against good God, and so long as we don’t have commensurately powerful counter-evidence of some sort for specifically good God (and I certainly haven’t caught a glimpse of such evidence; the cosmological, fine-tuning, and other such arguments don’t get us any closer to a specifically good God, even if they’re successful arguments), then from our epistemic position we can’t affirm the existence of good God or the moral propriety of the horrors around us. If good God does in fact exist, it remains the case that from our perspective, good God’s actions are indistinguishable from those of a morally apathetic or bipolar god.

That being the case then, we have no proper reason to hope that good God exists. God’s existence would presumably be good from a cosmic perspective, but even if so, that’s a perspective to which we simply do not have access, at least this side of death. Call it a quirk of epistemology or whatever you’d like, but from where we sit right here and now, we have no reason to think that God’s existence would be good for us, nor do we have reason to hope that God exists.

In fact, on balance it seems that we have good reason to think that God’s existence (if indeed God exists) is bad for us. Of all the countless possible states of affairs which might be maximally good on a cosmic scale, it’s statistically quite unlikely that our well-being would play a significant role in the one maximally good state of cosmic affairs which is being actualized. Or, that the moral propriety of the horrors around us would at least be revealed to us. Put another way, God’s existence is more likely to be very bad on balance for our well-being than very good. So actually we have good reason to hope that God does not exist.

Good thing God doesn’t exist.

The question remains: Is this a particularly noteworthy insight? Should we be dancing in the streets?

I don’t think so. God’s existence is such a remote possibility that this really isn’t that momentous a cause for celebration. We also happen not to live in a world in which vampires exist, and that’s a good thing. But when was the last time you dusted off your clogs for that?

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