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.