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14.7.07

Atheist Wishful Thinking

Atheists often (correctly) point out that many religious people justify their belief based on wishful thinking. It would be really nice if there was a loving and powerful God who had planned your life out for a purpose and will take you to heaven in the end. Unfortunately, I've seen atheists turn right around and make a wishful thinking argument for their own position. (This post isn't the clearest example, because while both Brent Rasmussen and RickU hint at the atheist wishful thinking argument, neither of them directly makes it. But it was that post that reminded me that I'd seen this argument used more directly elsewhere.)

The atheist wishful thinking argument is a spinoff of the Problem of Evil. The atheist wishful thinker says that if God does exist, then the existence of evil (either worldly evil or hell) proves that he's a jerk, and therefore not worthy of worship. So far so good -- we can debate the pragmatic merits of refusing to grovel before a powerful yet evil entity, but it's not illogical to stand on principle and refuse to praise a being you find to be evil. Where the argument becomes illegitimate wishful thinking is when the non-praiseworthiness of God becomes a reason not to believe. But of course something's evilness is no reason to think it doesn't exist -- after all, I still believe that George W. Bush, global warming, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers exist. And many religions through history have in fact held that at least some of their gods were immoral and deserving of at most placation and fear.

This is part of a larger phenomenon of narrow vision among many atheists -- the idea that the choice is between orthodox Christianity and atheism (or at least that any religion is going to be based on the paradigm of orthodox Christianity with the names of the gods and prophets changed). It's an understandable narrowness given the pool of people that Western atheists are going to end up arguing with (and many of those people hold the same false dilemma). But it's important to recognize that an argument against orthodox Christianity is not necessarily a general argument for atheism, because the objection may have no grip on an alternative religion. Indeed, given the diversity of religions, I find it hard to imagine anyone could come up with a positive argument for atheism that would rebut them all. So the argument for atheism must remain negative -- the combination of Ockham's Razor and the failure of any pro-religion argument so far to meet the burden of proof.

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