“But religion is useful. It makes people happy. It comforts people in hard times. It makes people better-behaved. And losing religious faith can be traumatic. So what difference does it make if it isn’t true? Shouldn’t we be perpetuating it anyway — or at least leaving it alone? Why do you want to persuade people out of it?”
Atheists hear this a lot. The argument from utility — the defense of religion, not because it’s true, but because it’s psychologically or socially useful — is freakishly common. If you spend any time reading debates in atheist blogs or forums, you’re bound to see it come up.
Now, when atheists hear this “But religion is so useful!” argument, our most common response is to say, “Is not!” We eagerly point out that countries with high rates of atheism are also countries with high rates of happiness, ethics, and social functioning. (This doesn’t prove that atheism causes high social functioning, of course — in fact, it’s probably the other way around — but it does show that high social functioning doesn’t need religion.) We’ll point out the many, many examples of religious believers who cheat, steal, murder, and generally behave very badly indeed… entirely undercutting the notion that religion provides an unshakable foundation for good moral behavior. And we’ll point to ourselves, and to other atheists we know — people who clearly don’t need religion, who are living happy, ethical lives without religion, who in some cases are even happier and better without religion — as the most obvious counter-arguments we can think of to this argument.
These are all fair points. I’ve made them myself, many times, and I will no doubt make them again. But there’s a basic problem with all these wonderful fair points.
They make the argument from utility seem valid.
And I don’t want to do that. I think the argument from utility is absurd on the face of it. I think the entire idea of deciding what we think is true based on what we want to be true is laughable. Or it would be, if it weren’t so appalling. I’ve seen this argument advanced many, many times… and it still shocks me to see otherwise intelligent, thoughtful adults making it. It is preposterous.
So today, I want to dismantle the entire premise of the argument from utility. I want to dismantle the entire premise that it’s reasonable, and even a positive good, to believe in something you have no good reason to think is true… simply because it makes you happy.
The Santa Delusion
Let’s draw an analogy. Let’s look at another dearly treasured, deeply held belief about how the world works.
Millions of children are made very happy by their belief in Santa. They have fun imagining the presents he’s going to bring them. They like visiting him in the department store. They enjoy hearing stories about him, singing songs about him, drawing pictures of him. They get a thrill from putting cookies and cocoa out for him by the fireplace (or the gas heater, or whatever), and seeing them gone the next day. They get more and more excited as Christmas gets closer and the day of his visitation approaches.
What’s more, millions of children probably behave better because they believe in Santa. The desire for really great presents, the fear of getting coal in their stockings instead of presents… this has almost certainly made many children behave better. It’s probably resulted in thousands of cleaned rooms, thousands of finished homework assignments, thousands of un-punched siblings. At least during the month of December.
And millions of children get upset when they discover that Santa isn’t real. Letting go of Santa can be a distressing experience, one that people remember well into adulthood. (This isn’t universally true — I was actually excited to discover that Santa wasn’t real, since I figured it out on my own and it made me feel clever and grown-up to have outwitted the grown-ups — but it’s certainly not uncommon.)
Would you therefore argue that we ought to believe in Santa?
Would you argue that, because belief in Santa makes children happy and better-behaved, we therefore ought to perpetuate it? Would you argue that, because relinquishing that belief can be upsetting, we ought to go to great lengths to protect children from discovering that Santa isn’t real… not only during their childhood, but throughout their adult lives? Would you attend Churches and Temples of Santa, and leave cookies and cocoa on their red-and-white-plush altars? Would you pity people who don’t believe in Santa as being joyless and imprisoned in rationality… and would you chastise these a-Santa-ists as intolerant, bigoted proselytizers when they tried to persuade others that Santa isn’t real?
Or would you, instead, think that people ought to grow up? Would you think that letting go of the belief in Santa (for those who grew up believing) is an essential part of becoming an adult? Would you think that we need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it? Would you think that, in order to make good decisions and function effectively in the world, we need to have the most truthful understanding of it that we can muster… and that if the best evidence suggests that Santa isn’t real, we ought to accept that conclusion? Would you look at this idea that it’s okay to decide what’s true about the world based on what we want to be true, and call it preposterous, laughable, appalling, absurd on the face of it?
And if you wouldn’t argue that belief in Santa is valid simply because it’s useful… why would you argue it about God?
Now. You might say that belief in God makes more sense than belief in Santa. You might say that, while we know Santa is a fictional character, the existence of God is, at the very least, an open question… and that therefore, belief in God is more defensible than belief in Santa.
But then you’re back to arguing that God is real. Or at least plausible. You’ve abandoned the argument from utility (which you should, it’s a terrible argument), and you’ve circled back around to debating whether God really exists, and whether good evidence supports that hypothesis.
And the whole freaking point of the argument from utility is that it abandons the case for God being real. The whole point is that it doesn’t matter whether God is real… as long as belief in God makes people happy. So you don’t get to shore up that argument by saying that God might be real after all. Not unless you’re willing to make a pretty convincing case for God being real.
And if you had a convincing case for God being real… why on Earth would you be arguing that it doesn’t matter whether he’s real, as long as belief in him makes people happy? If you can make a better case for God than you can for Santa… then why aren’t you making it? Why are you falling back on this patently absurd notion that grown-ups should believe whatever makes them feel good, regardless of whether that belief has any connection with reality?
The Argument That Eats Itself
Whenever I hear the argument from utility, I pretty much consider it a victory for my side. It’s an entirely self-defeating argument, an argument that admits that it’s wrong in the very stating of it. When people start arguing for the utility of their beliefs regardless of whether they’re actually true, they’ve essentially conceded. They’re essentially saying, “You’re right. The things I believe almost certainly aren’t true. I certainly can’t make a good case for why they’re true. Now will you leave me alone and let me believe them anyway?”
Well, if you want to believe things that you know almost certainly aren’t true, you’re certainly free to do that. I’m not sure what definition of the word “believe” you’re using there… but sure. If for you, “believing” in God means “telling yourself over and over that God exists in hopes that you can make yourself really think it”… then knock yourself out.
But if that’s what you think, then why are you bothering to argue with atheists? If you really just believe things because you want them to be true, why do you care what anyone else thinks about it?
I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here. I’m going to assume that you’re debating atheists because you want to test your beliefs against the people who will question them the hardest. I’m going to assume that you do, in fact, care whether the things you believe are true.
And I’m going to show the argument from utility for what it is: a last-ditch effort to hang onto a belief that you know isn’t supportable, but that you’re having a hard time letting go of. I know that religion is hard to let go of: I know that people have emotional attachments, psychological attachments, social attachments, to believing in God, and/or the soul, and/or the supernatural, and/or the afterlife. I’ve been there. I get it.
So I’m going to do you the respect of treating you like an adult. I’m going to do you the respect of assuming that you’re mature enough to face realities that, at first, are hard to face. And I’m going to do you the respect of being straight with you: If you’re making the argument from utility, if you’re arguing in favor of wishful thinking, you’re not living up to your maturity.
I will tell you here that life without religion can be really good. I’ll tell you that life without religion can be liberating, that it can give you an intense and profound sense of connection with humanity and the universe. I’ll tell you that atheists have meaning in our lives, and joy, and comfort in the face of hard times, and solace in the face of death, and a passion to do right. I’ll tell you that atheism can be a safe place to land, and that, as the atheist community grows bigger and stronger, it’s getting safer every day. I’ll tell you that most former believers I know are tickled pink to have let go of their beliefs.
I’m entirely sincere about all of that. But it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing about atheism is that it’s almost certainly true.
And if you’re defending religion because it’s useful, regardless of whether it’s true… then on some level, you know that.
(Note: The core analogy here about Santa was swiped from Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist by Hank Fox. I’m an ethical atheist, and believe in giving credit where credit is due.)