Skip to main content

"Atheists reject Christianity not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true"

Here is one of four answers regularly offered by Christians (and others) for the failure of atheists to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief (the other three, as well as a continuation of this one, will be blogged later). Edward Feser gets special mention:

(i) Atheists reject Christianity not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true.

Those attempting to explain atheist non-belief as a product of wishful thinking sometimes quote atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who in his book The Last Word, says:

It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.[i]

But is this the view of most atheists? Surely the Christian message is one of hope. It provides numerous attractive reassurances, especially about death and justice. In particular, it promises that we can be reunited with our dead loved ones beyond the grave, that we and they can live in joy forever, and that people will ultimately get their just deserts. These are appealing beliefs for most of us.

Indeed, that Christianity is not, as a rule, the sort of thing people want to be true is fairly obviously contradicted by the manner in which Christians tend to promote it. They often place at least as much emphasis on how wonderful it would be if Christianity were true as on any intellectual case that might be made in its support.

Wishful-thinking-based explanations for the failure of individuals to appreciate the reasonableness of Christian belief also run into trouble with those tortured individuals who struggle valiantly to keep their faith but lose it nonetheless. Their rejection of Christianity does not appear to be motivated by wishful thinking. Quite the opposite.

Atheists don’t want to believe in eternal damnation

But perhaps we have overlooked the less attractive thoughts involved in Christianity, thoughts that might yet motivate an irrational rejection? In his book The Last Superstition, the Christian philosopher Edward Feser quotes Nagel in support of his view that many secular intellectuals reject religion because they don’t want it to be true. Feser adds:

Atheism, like religion, can often rest more on a will to believe than on dispassionate rational arguments.  Indeed, as the philosopher C.F.J. Martin has pointed out, the element of divine punishment – traditionally understood in the monotheistic religions as a sentence of eternal damnation in Hell – shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is.  For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting hellfire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this.[ii]

On Feser’s view, the presence of this unappealing thought in Christianity shows that people are as likely to disbelieve Christianity as a result of wishful thinking as they are to believe.

It may be true, as a general rule, that the fact that a thought is unappealing makes it less likely it will be believed. However, there is an obvious exception to this rule. The exception is when the unappealing thought takes the form of a threat: believe or else.

I once received an email chain message claiming that if I forwarded the message to two friends I would receive good fortune, but if I failed to forward the message I would be cursed with bad luck. The appealing thought that I would receive good luck if I did as instructed was obviously intended to incentivize action. But then so too was the unappealing thought of bad luck if I didn’t. The email waved both a carrot and a stick at me, the stick providing me with at least as much incentive as the carrot.

A recipient of the traditional Christian message is presented with an infinitely more impressive carrot and stick. The carrot includes a promise of everlasting life for those who truly believe; the stick involves the threat of eternal damnation for those who don’t.

Feser is correct that an atheist like Nagel won’t want it to be true that hell awaits those who fail to believe. But then neither do I want it to be true that, as a result of my failing to forward that email message, I will receive bad luck. It does not follow, in either case, that the unpleasant character of the threat functions, on balance, as a disincentive making it less likely the message’s recipient will do as they are instructed (believe the Christian message; forward the chain email).

On the contrary, the inclusion of such threats makes it more likely the recipient will do as instructed, not less. I binned that email message not because of the unappealing threat that it contained, but despite the unappealing threat it contained. Feser is mistaken: those who fail to believe the Christian message do so not because of threats of eternal damnation, but despite them.

There is a further weakness to this particular diagnosis of why it is that atheists fail to recognize the reasonableness of theism or Christianity. A great many Christians, including theologically sophisticated Christians, reject the doctrine of eternal damnation. So, even if the unpleasantness of the thought of eternal damnation did have the off-putting effect Feser claims, it would only put people off those varieties of Christian or theistic belief that involved the doctrine. Assuming the atheist recognizes that they can embrace theism without embracing the doctrine of eternal damnation, why should that unappealing character of the latter doctrine should put them off theism per se?

To conclude: (i) it would appear that the unappealing character of the thought of eternal damnation functions, on balance, not to disincentivize Christian belief, but to incentivize it, and (ii) in any case, belief in theism does not require one to believe in eternal damnation, so [even setting aside (i)], the unappealing character of the thought of eternal damnation does not, as it stands, provide a very convincing explanation for the (as Feser sees it) atheist’s irrational rejection of theism.

[i] (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford `University Press 1997). p130).
[ii] The Last Superstition (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2008) p. 10.


ajollynerd said…
"It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that." - Thomas Nagal

I don't think he's saying this the way theists think he is, when they quote him in support of their point.

I think what he's saying is that, in light of all of the advances in understanding science has given us, it would be a huge anticlimax if it turned out to have been blinked into existence by a magician.

That's what I mean if I say I don't want the universe to be like that. I want the universe to be what it seems to be, a mind-numbingly old and unfathomably huge place that operates under a very specific set of rules that came about naturally.
Paul Wright said…
Nagel's name is spelt thus.

I like the rest of it, though. :-)

Piers Benn said…
This is interesting, but I don't think you've got it entirely right. I suspect that some atheists *do* reject Christian, hell-affirming theism because they do not want to believe that the way they live their lives puts them at risk of hell. For consider: if atheism is true, then there is no significant risk of going to hell. But if hell-affirming Christianity is true, there is a risk of going to hell, even for believers. Conversion entails repentance, and repentance entails a firm purpose not to carry on living in certain ways that had previously been attractive. So becoming a clear-headed Christian entails constantly trying to resist temptation and praying for help in doing so. This is something Christians may believe they need to do, but it does not follow that they will always want to. And if they don't want to, they will suspect that any solicitation for divine help is solicitation for help in living a life one really does not always want to live. In other words, if atheism is true, you won't go to hell, but if Christianity is true, you *may* still go to hell. This is surely one possible reason why atheists would prefer not to believe. As for hell-fire evangelists offering an incentive to belief by talking about the risk of hell, this *may* work with agnostics who have certain susceptibilities. Those who are already atheists are unlikely to take any notice (any more than they take notice of the threats of hell in the Koran). But agnostics may *either* be incentivized to convert, to avoid the risk, or (no less likely) be incentivized to become atheists, so as not to have to worry. The process will, of course, be partly unconscious - otherwise the game will be too clearly up!
sam said…
It seems like Feser ignores Nagel’s “just”: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in god…” One can see no good reason to believe in the existence of the xian god after extensive investigation and experience genuine emotional gratitude that such a wicked, evil entity likely isn’t real. These are not mutually exclusive states of mind. I hold the same attitude towards Darth Vader.

I also question the extent to which Feser might be separating the rational from emotional cogitation. I vaguely recall work done by the neurologist Antonio Demasio on victims of prefrontal cortical trauma. Many of these victims were extremely rational but could not function in society because they could not make basic decisions. You could take them carefully through every logical step to weigh the pros and cons of, say, going to see a movie. Despite the patient’s rigorous evaluation, they lacked the emotional valence to render a final decision. The problem was that these patients were so coldly rational and objective that they were functionally paralyzed.

Would Feser criticize someone who flees an abusive relationship as one who is simply making a irrational, emotionally motivated decision not to suffer abuse? No doubt, a healthy emotional IQ is required to respond appropriately to an abusive situation, but is that a legitimate criticism? If someone suffering from battered person syndrome chooses not to respond emotionally to an abuser, is this person reacting in a way any normal person would call rational? I agree with Evan Fales that any morally decent person has an ethical obligation to reject and censure the god of the xian bible, if it in fact exists.

Regarding those flavors of xianity that advertise eternal hellfire, I agree that this dogma would not emotionally disincentivize an atheist from belief in the xian god. If a fundamentalist can convince me that I am in fact totally depraved and worthy of this eternal punishment as a consequence of the judicious, measured conclusions a perfectly just being, then I ought to accept this judgment without objection. If I value justice & fairness, then I should honorably accept my just punishment & not immorally seek to cheat the system. An honest, decent person would rather spend eternity in the company of fellow humans justly serving the sentences they earned than in the company of those who unjustly & immorally cheated the system & are enjoying the fruits of an afterlife that they did not earn. If I wake from a psychotic break to discover I had engaged in mass murder, I should willingly accept just punishment & not seek a scapegoat. Xian soteriology is morally bankrupt.
Rodney said…
Feser's mention of a 'will to believe' shows he really hasn't ventured outside the Christian thought-frame. He is projecting a religious concept - faith - on to a secular world view. In religion, it's not enough to believe; you have to make a commitment of faith. He seems to be viewing atheist belief in the same way. But atheism is not about willing to believe; it's about simply following reason.

Secondly, he is confused when mentioning Hell. True, not wanting to believe in Hell is a good motivator of religious unbelief. But since religions generally threaten Hell to unbelievers, it cuts both ways: the fear of damnation for unbelief is a motivator of belief.

In fact, this is a pretty good tool for establishing whether one's belief is grounded in will or reason. It only makes sense to accuse me of a will not to believe if my rational instincts otherwise point to belief. But that would mean I am making myself deny a Hell I think is probably true - and therefore damning myself. One would only disbelieve Hell if one thinks there is no cost (damnation-wise) in doing so. Which means that atheists, unlike Christians, are clearly guided by reason and not will, or faith.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for comments - Piers - that thought is covered in next installment.
L.Long said…
The main problem with Xtians isn't that atheist think there is a gawd or not, as in my case whether there is a gawd or not is irrelevant as the universe operates as through there is no gawd. Their main problem is that we don't believe in their gawd, jesus or his asshole father. And they MUST believe in redemption because most xtians would be thrown into HELL immediately because of their actions based on their own holey book, so being able to say 'Cheeses I'm sorry and LLLllOOOooVE YYyyyOOOooUUUU' as they slide down to the end is the only thing that make their end endurable. As it is, death scares the crap out of them or why don't they do high risk activity so as to get to heaven sooner???? as it is more important then their lives.
Christians really do want a universe where people who disagree with them burn in Hell for all eternity.

Atheists don't want people who disagree with them to burn in Hell.

Or else they would become Christians.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I'm not sure any of this has much relevance in today's society, or at least the one I live in. The stick and carrot approach to religion - eternal paradise or eternal torment - is not one that is discussed much anymore because most people with a Western education don’t believe it; yet religion still flourishes.

Twin studies have revealed that a belief in God seems to have a genetic connection, and that explains, I believe, why religion will always be a part of human culture. It's only extreme religious belief that creates its counterpart: militant atheism; otherwise it would not be an issue, and ideally it shouldn’t be in a secular society.

Regards, Paul.
Iain Walker said…
What an odd argument of Feser's. If there was a possibility that something unpleasant was true (e.g., that the universe is a top-down authoritarian playground of some unimaginably powerful narcissist), then I'd certainly want to know if there was any good reason to suppose that it was true, and would make efforts to find out - which strikes me as being just as human a response to ugly possibilities as denial.
Ron Cram said…
Stephen, thank you for an interesting read. As I Christian, I think the Christian worldview is reasonable. I also think you arrived at basically the correct position (that the warning of eternal damnation is usually an incentive to belief) but you arrived there in a flawed route.

Your analogy comparing the warning of damnation to threats in spam email, while a poor analogy, is helpful to the discussion. The reason is that your analogy points to the importance of the credibility of the warning. Email threats have no credibility and so I never, ever forward those threats. I may like the content of the email and want to forward it to friends who I think would appreciate the beauty of the pictures or whatever it is, but the threat itself is so offputting that I generally trashed the entire email. I confess that on occasion I have forwarded the email after redacting the threat, but only on rare occasions. On the other hand, a credible warning is something ever reasonable person would want to hear and to heed. For example, if I knew the bridge was out around the corner I would want flag down any approaching cars to prevent them from going into the ravine. Reasonable people would be likely to heed and be thankful for the warning. Such is the warning of coming damnation. Contrary to the view of one person expressed above, Christians do not relish the thought of seeing people who disagree with them go to hell. Christians, like myself, are seeking to provide a service. We are standing in the highway trying to flag down cars. We don't want people to drive off the cliff and we don't understand why people call us names as they drive past.

My point is that it is impossible to prove that God and hell do not exist. And because the stakes are high (eternity is a long time), most reasonable people will consider the warning of eternal damnation as something that should be seriously considered. This is the reason it is an incentive to belief for most people.

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o

Suggesting a new named fallacy: the Non Post Hoc Fallacy (or David Cameron Fallacy)

Many of us are familiar with the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Fallacy (' after this, therefore because of this) - Post Hoc Fallacy for short). It's the fallacy of supposing that, because B occurred after A, A must be the cause of B. For example: My car stopped working after I changed the oil, so changing the oil caused it to stop working. Or:  I wore my red jumper to the exam and I passed, so that jumper is lucky: it caused me to pass. This fallacy is so common, it gets a latin name. However, there's a related common fallacy that I think also deserves a name. I am going to call it the Non Post Hoc Fallacy (' not after of this, therefore not because of this), or, perhaps more memorably, the David Cameron Fallacy. Every now and then someone desperate to ‘prove’ that X is not causally responsible for Y – e.g poverty is not a cause of crime, will commit the following fallacy. They will argue that as X has often occurred without Y following, therefore X was not the