Thursday, July 30, 2015

Do You Ever Wish You Believed?

            Here’s a question that atheists occasionally get: “Do you ever wish you believed?”

            This is a question that is likely to provoke a wide variety of responses from different atheists. I’ve heard some atheists admit they wish they could believe in a god, and others brush the question aside with such dismissive responses as “I have no desire to become irrational.” There are others who give more complicated or nuanced answers that lie somewhere between those two extremes. And for me, personally, the answer would have to be a “no.”

            That’s not to say that I don’t ever feel awkward about my nonbelief in ways that I know would be alleviated if I did believe. But those situations are more about how I interact with other people than about my atheism. For example, when people experience a tragedy, it is very common for others to reach out to them with expressions of consolation that are couched in religious terms; especially if the recipient is known to be religious. That’s something I can’t do, and it occasionally makes me feel a bit hobbled in attempting to console believing friends. The things I find comforting, they wouldn’t, and so it feels like both an intrusion and an exercise in futility at such times to try and put that perspective forward. At the same time, I just can’t bring myself to offer words that both of us would know to be insincere (or perhaps worse, might be perceived as sincere). And so I find myself offering only the most vague and empty-sounding of platitudes to people I dearly wish to comfort.

            If only I believed, I think that I could speak to people in these situations in ways that might be more meaningfully supportive to them. Although, it should be said, I have known people who, despite being religious, have said they find the religious expressions often offered at these times to be empty platitudes as well. So maybe the idea that a shared religious belief would grant a comforting connection is wrong anyway (or at least not universally true).

            But that’s the only thing about religious belief that ever tempts me. And I hope that you can see why it’s not a reason to actually believe. After all, it has no bearing whatsoever on whether the belief would be true.

            In any other perspective, I think the question, “Do you wish you believed?’ is kind of silly. It seems odd to me that it’s treated as serious and important pretty much every time I’ve heard it asked, as if the desire to believe something is true ought to be separated from the desire for something to actually be true. I mean, why would anyone want to believe there’s a god, independently of wanting there to actually be a god?

            Let me see if I can clarify that with an example. I do not, at present, believe that faster-than-light travel is possible. I really, really want it to be possible. I love the idea of people being able to travel to distant solar systems and explore them within our lifetimes. I want that to be true. But I don’t want to believe that it’s true if it’s not. I don’t want to believe that it’s true if I don’t have a reason to think that it is. The idea just seems absurd to me, that I could want to believe something is true that isn’t (or at least that I don’t have good reason to believe). That’s like actively desiring to be delusional.

            So no, I don’t wish I believed in a god. I can’t even say that I wish that there actually is a god. After all, whether or not I would wish for a god to exist would depend a whole lot on what the nature of that god is, and I have yet to be presented with one that I would want. And of course, the actual existence of any god(s) and/or the form that it (or they) takes is independent of my desires anyway. So I will continue not to wish to believe. If I somehow come across a good reason to believe in one, then I will. And so long as I don’t, then I won’t. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

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