Would It Be Good if God Exists?*

It’s a distinct question from “Does God Exist?” For example, it’s possible to be an atheist, but wish that God existed because one believes that, on balance, God’s existence would increase the net value in the world. Conversely, it’s also possible to be an atheist and be quite happy that God doesn’t exist because one believes that, on balance, God’s existence would decrease the net value in the world. Perhaps this is the difference between mere atheism and anti-theism. Christopher Hitchens, who compared a theistic universe to North Korea, would be an exponent of the latter. Of course, most theists believe that God’s existence adds value to the world. However, it’s logically possible to believe in God, but wish that God didn’t exist because God’s existence is contrary to certain humanistic values. Perhaps C.S. Lewis, when he speaks about being a ‘reluctant covert’, is an example (although he seemed to overcome his reluctance).

I suspect that almost everybody, believers and non-believers alike, assume that God’s existence would be a good thing. They simply disagree on the existential question. Some atheists even rely on this assumption as part of their rhetorical strategy. Their narrative goes something like this: “Sure, it would be great if God existed. It would be very comforting to live under the watchful eye of a benevolent, powerful father figure. But we shouldn’t believe a story because it’s nice. We must face the fact that we live in a scary, uncertain world.” This narrative is quite common and, on the surface, it grants the theist’s assumption that a theistic world would, on balance, be better. But this standard narrative also undermines that assumption because the atheist’s rhetorical payoff is that courage is more of a virtue in a godless world. So the choice between theism and atheism involves a tradeoff between two competing values — courage and comfort — in this case.

There are other tradeoffs too. For example, if privacy and autonomy are great goods, then those would be lost or severely curtailed if theism is true. If there is an omniscient being, then not even our thoughts are private. In addition, if there’s an omniscient being who knows our destiny in advance, then we are not truly self-directed beings. So these values, privacy and autonomy, seem absent or underrepresented in a theistic universe. However, if immortality and ultimate justice are great goods, then those would be lost if atheism is true. If there is no God, there’s probably no afterlife. In addition, there’s no omnipotent agent to make sure that wrongs are ultimately righted. So these values, immortality and justice, seem absent or underrepresented in an atheistic universe.

In the end, I think it’s very difficult to weigh the relative value of a theistic universe versus a godless one. Is a world with a lot more autonomy, but no afterlife, better than a world containing very little autonomy but perpetual existence? Is a world without privacy, where the wicked are punished, better than a world containing privacy where the wicked sometimes get away with it? Of course, believers and unbelievers will probably answer these questions differently. And that’s precisely the point. There doesn’t seem to be a non-arbitrary way to assign value in these cases. In other words, if God exists, then privacy and autonomy simply are not such great goods; they are at best relative goods that we ought to trade for other goods, like justice. If God doesn’t exist, it’s trickier. Maybe we still ought to trade privacy for justice in some cases. Nothing is a given. But I think that the atheist would assign a higher a priori value to privacy than would the theist.

All of this is to say that we don’t start with a consensus on values and then reason our way to a particular worldview. Rather, our worldview informs our value judgments. This makes any progress on the question very difficult.

*Klaas Kraay at Ryerson University recently launched a research project on this question called “Theism: An Axiological Investigation” which inspired me to think about it.

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14 comments on “Would It Be Good if God Exists?*

  1. A god like the one described in christian holy texts is logically impossible and if there was a god who acted like the one in any of the texts for the Abrahamic faiths, I would only want to kill it. Such a god would NOT be a good thing.

  2. Hi,

    Can I imagine and conjure up a God that would be good to exist… Sure, no problem. Would it be good if God existed, as imagined by Christians, Jews, and Muslims.. No, in my view, and I’m relieved that I can reasonably reject the claims that this God exists.

    The question is perhaps a useful thought experiment (and it does make one think about what we value), but it remains a thought experiment. It is not as pertinent to me as the questions that drive our understanding of the reality we find ourselves in.


    • danielmullin81 says:

      Something like Anselm’s Greatest Conceivable Being would work for the purposes of the thought experiment.

  3. I recall some time ago a speaker doing a good job of defending his thesis: You can only exist in one of three groups, specifically theists, deists and atheists. Knowing that the middle group exists has always been a great comfort to me, perched as I am on the fence and thus proving the speaker wrong :-)
    I do like the flow of your thinking on this matter, though.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Deism adds an interesting wrinkle. If God “spun it and split” then his existence doesn’t really add value. In other words, what makes a deistic universe better than an atheistic universe?

  4. Indeed it is worth considering. It also has an affect on whether being right or wrong in that respect mattera, hence Pascals Gambling advice: If God exists, and you don’t believe, you’re up Shit Creek without a paddle. That is, if we mean the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim monotheistic God. Personified forces of Nature, and the indo-eropean pantheon wouldn’t really mind either way, and would only bestow their boons on their believers, who would willingly give up their privacy and autonomy. If God(s) were real, I would certainly prefer the animistic indo-european variety.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Maybe a theist could give an Axiological Wager argument. For example, say the probabilities of theism and atheism are 50/50 (I know it’s a crude calculation, but for the sake of argument). The theist could say if you believe in God and you’re right, then you gain infinite value. If you believe in God and you’re wrong, then at least you believed in a world that contained more value and acted on that belief, thereby actually adding value to the world by making it a better place. If you don’t believe in God and you’re wrong, then you lose infinite value. If you don’t believe in God and you’re right, then you’ve lived in a world of lesser value, and would have less incentive to actually add value to the world since it’s all futile anyways.

      I think the argument above shares similar weaknesses with Pascal’s Wager, but I thought it might be fun to post it.

  5. Paula says:

    Yet the existence of god does not/would not (necessarily) mean the existence of an afterlife…..

  6. elkement says:

    Thought-provoking – I never seen it from that angle.

    Yet I have just read NNT’s last paper on the effects of religion, co-authored by Rupert Read: http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management – and I cannot help but comparing the different ways to ask questions about religion.

    Taleb and Read call the supernatural aspects of religion an epiphenomenon – so they might say that arguing about God’s existence is not important when judging religion as such.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      I read the abstract. It sounds fascinating. I suspect the existential question will decline in prominence as other angles are explored.

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