Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Presumption of Atheism

While different people can use “the presumption of atheism” to mean different things, in this article I’m going to use it to refer to the idea that atheism is the correct default position to have on the issue of whether gods exist. There are basically two ways to argue for this. One way is to define atheism broadly enough to include agnosticism, and then argue that agnosticism is the best default position. Another approach, and the one I’ll go for here, is to define atheism as the doctrine that there is no deity and argue that the actual default position should be the non-agnostic sort of atheism.

One Approach

One approach to the presumption of atheism is say that the nonexistence of any given entity is the default position. For example, why do we not believe in fairies, gnomes, leprechauns etc.? Is it because we have overwhelming evidence for their nonexistence? No. The average person on the street will disbelieve in these entities but when pressed she probably won’t be able to cite any evidence against them. Yet such average people are rational to disbelieve in those entities because believing in something’s nonexistence is the default position.

As attractive as this principle may seem, counterexamples abound. Suppose for example Bill ponders the idea of life existing on other worlds, but he has no evidence for or against the idea. The most reasonable position for Bill here is clearly agnosticism about life on other worlds.

A Better Approach

Still, aren’t we rational in believing that fairies and leprechauns do not exist? Why should we disbelieve the existence of fairies whereas Bill should be agnostic about the existence of life on other worlds? One relevant factor in the case of leprechauns and fairies is that they have a kind of substantial deviation from the types of things we know exist, whereas this isn’t true in the case of life on other worlds (e.g. we already know of one planet with life on it).

Yet whether a thing’s existence does constitute such a substantial deviation will depend on the world one lives in. To illustrate, suppose we lived in a world where we knew intelligent beings with supernatural powers exist. Humans regularly interact with fairies, leprechauns, and a few other supernatural species. Suppose also that in this world you have no evidence for or against the existence of deities, where we define “deity” to be an intelligent being whose powers supernaturally transcend human abilities and whom some humans worship. It seems that in this situation agnosticism about the existence of deities is reasonable, since in this scenario a deity would not substantially deviate from the sorts of things we know exist (e.g. we already know that there are intelligent beings with supernatural powers).

In the real world of course, fairies, leprechauns, and the like are all outside our domain of known entities. In the real world, invisible nonphysical deities with supernatural powers constitute a substantial deviation from the types of things we know exist. If for example I tell you that while I was walking in a city I saw a deity shoot lighting from his fingers, you would disbelieve me and rightfully so. But if you would disbelieve that a deity did that even when I said I saw it happen, how much more should you also disbelieve that deity’s existence when I make no claim to witness him? The case for the presumption of atheism becomes clear.

One Good Objection

I don’t know whether this objection to my argument for the presumption of atheism is successful, but it’s worth considering. One objection is whether this argument really counts as a reason for atheist presumption or an actual argument for atheism. To illustrate, J.L. Mackie put forth what is now known as the Argument from Queerness against objective values (a term that includes objective moral values, e.g. an action being objectively evil). In chapter 1 of his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, he writes, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” This was an argument against the existence of objective values, and one could say that my argument for the presumption of atheism is similarly an Argument from Queerness for atheism (and thus an Argument from Queerness against the existence of gods). I’m not sure to what degree that is true, but as I said it is worth considering.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Who Goes to Heaven and Hell?

There are serious intellectual problems with the ideas of heaven and hell, e.g. who goes where. Some religious worldviews have a more difficult with time it than others, and for sake of specificity, I’ll pick on Christianity (and certain flavors thereof), since that’s a familiar religion and a politically correct target as of late. In the Christian faith, Jesus died for humanity’s sins such that anyone who believed in Jesus and accepted his sacrifice would have eternal life in heaven (though there might be additional criteria depending on the flavor of Christianity).

Theories and Problems

Theory: Only those who believe in Jesus and accept him into their heart (whatever that means) go to heaven; the rest rot in hell.

Problem: When pressed, I think you’ll find that most Christians don’t really believe this even if they say they do. Just ask them the following questions. What about a few years before Jesus was born? If you say that some other set of criteria held pre-Jesus, why wouldn’t the same criteria apply post-Jesus to those who have never heard of him? Such questions are so devastating that I think even most Christians will acknowledge this refutes that theory.

Theory: God providentially ordered the world so that anybody who would have responded positively to Jesus got to hear the message of Jesus. Thus all those who don’t hear the message of Jesus rot in hell because they would have rejected Jesus anyway.

Problem: Once again, there’s a refutation so devastating it will convince even Christians. Just ask these people who claim to adhere to this theory the following questions. What about miscarriages and babies who die in infancy? Are you willing to tell the mothers of these children that these children are going to hell, since God has providentially ordered the world so that anyone who didn’t hear the message of Jesus would spend eternity in hell? Even most Christians will realize that a perfectly good God doing that is highly implausible.

Theory: God providentially ordered the world so that anybody who would have responded positively to Jesus got to hear the message of Jesus, except for children who all got to heaven. Thus all those who don’t hear the message of Jesus rot in hell because they would have rejected Jesus anyway, except for children.

Problem: This sounds like a tactic based more on emotion (who wants to say to mothers that their baby who died is going to hell?) than one based on reason. If God is so merciful to children, why doesn’t he show the same mercy when they grow to be adults? Do these people somehow lose their worth to be saved? Moreover, hearing the message of Jesus isn’t enough; some people when they hear it just don’t believe. As an analogy, suppose you are cancer victim, and I offer a cure for cancer but you mistakenly believe the alleged cure is harmful and I deliberately withhold enormous quantities of evidence that the cure is harmless and real. If you were to die of cancer, could I really be held blameless by saying, “Well, I told that person I had the cure” when I deliberately withheld evidence? Similarly, most people don’t become Christians almost certainly would become Christians if they knew Christianity was true. So it’s not enough just to respond positively to the message of Jesus; these people also need to be the sort who would believe it.

Theory: God providentially ordered the world so that anybody who doesn’t become a Christian would not have become a Christian no matter how much evidence they received, except for children. Thus, all non-Christians still rot in hell, except for Christians.

Problem: There’s still the question of why God doesn’t show the same mercy to adults as well as children regarding those who have never heard of Jesus, but let’s ignore that. The fact remains that the majority of humans throughout history, even in the post-Jesus world, do not become Christians. Are we really to believe that most people would reject God’s gift of eternal life to him once they were aware of this offer? Granted, there might be extreme cases where some people might do this, e.g. a hardened serial killer who hates God and refuses to be in heaven with him, but would most people do this? The situation gets worse upon the view that God is the locus of moral value (as Christian apologist William Lane Craig believes), the source of moral goodness itself to which humans can find fulfillment in. Isn’t it highly implausible that the majority of the human race would reject this once they knew that God was like this? On top of that, there’s the question of why God doesn’t make this knowledge of himself obvious to everyone (perhaps by inundating people with an overwhelming feeling of his presence), and we get an argument from hiddenness (why does God hide himself?), though such an argument is somewhat beyond the scope of this article.

Theory: Everyone goes to heaven.

Problem: The idea that everyone ultimately goes to heaven is called universalism. There are different flavors of universalism, one being that some people do go to hell, but only for a finite period of time, kind of like prison. Another variety is that everyone goes to heaven as soon as they die, with no period of hell in between. One problem with universalism is akin to the argument from hiddenness: why didn’t God tell us everyone would (eventually) make it into heaven, instead of having people agonize about spending eternity in hell? While there are some Christians, such as Keith DeRose, who argue the Bible teaches universalism, even if such Christians are correct surely the Bible could have taught it more clearly, as evidenced by an extremely large proportion (and I suspect the majority) of Biblically knowledgeable Christians who reject universalism and argue that the Bible teaches against it.

General Problems

One other point about universalism: C.S. Lewis makes an excellent (and somewhat famous) point in chapter 8 of The Problem of Pain where he says, “I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’” It seems highly likely that some people (albeit perhaps not very many) would not want to be saved, in which case universalism is false, but then why did God create those souls to begin with? Why, if he knew a soul was going to be damned before he placed it into the body (of an infant or conceptus) create a different soul instead? This of course is general problem of for all doctrines who suppose that some people go to hell.

And if God were capable of creating only those souls who would choose to accept him, why not do this early on? Why not create a heaven for all in the first place? Wouldn’t a perfectly good God do that?

One generic point that applies to universalism and all other doctrines of hell is this: why didn’t God make the criteria for going to heaven and hell clearer? Such a matter has huge importance to our existence, and given the high cost of eternal torment, wouldn’t a perfectly good God tell us what the reality of the situation is here?


Numerous points have been made in this article about the problem of who goes to hell and who goes to heaven, but I can summarize:

  1. On the view that children automatically go to heaven if they die (which sounds suspiciously emotionally based—who wants to say to mothers that their dead baby went to hell?), why doesn’t God show the same mercy to adults?
  2. On the view that only Christians go to heaven and that God providentially ordered the world so that any who don’t become Christians would not have become ones no matter what the evidence (with an exception for children perhaps), isn’t it implausible that most people, if they knew that Christianity was true, would reject God’s gift of eternal life to them?
  3. Why should there be hell in the first place? Why, if God knew a soul was going to be damned before he placed it into the body (of an infant or conceptus) create a different soul instead, one that he knew would go to heaven if he were to create it? What’s the point of creating a soul if God knows that the soul would be damned no matter what evidence he or she would face?
  4. Going off of part 4, given that this is within the ability of an omnipotent and omniscient God, why didn’t he create only those souls who would freely accept him and create a heaven for everyone in the first place? Wouldn’t a perfectly good God do this instead of creating the doomed-to-damnation souls for no other apparent ultimate end then to have somebody suffer in an eternal torture chamber?

Thus, there appear to be serious intellectual problems with the ideas of heaven and hell.