Things it is Better to Believe

Since belief is voluntary, it follows that truth is only one of the possible motives for belief, and people can believe things for the sake of other ends as well. Consequently there may be some things that it is always better to believe, even without making a special effort to determine whether they are true or not.

Consider the claim that “Life is meaningful,” understood to mean that there are purposes in life, and therefore good and evil.

If this is true, it is good to believe it, because it is true, and because we need to be aware of our ends in order to seek them.

If it is not true, then it does no harm to believe it, because good and evil do not exist in that situation. And likewise, it cannot be better not to believe it in this situation, since better and worse do not exist.

Thus the strategy of believing that life is meaningful weakly dominates the strategy of believing that life is not meaningful, although it does not “strictly” dominate, since the payoffs of the two strategies are equal if life is not in fact meaningful. Consequently the better thing is to choose to believe that life is meaningful, even without a particular investigation of the facts.

As another particular example of this kind of reasoning, we can consider this discussion from chapter 9 of Eric Reitan’s book Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers:

In his Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), Sam Harris notes that, statistically speaking, somewhere in the world right now a little girl is being abducted, raped, and killed. And the same statistics suggest that her parents believe that “an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family.” Harris asks, “Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?” His answer? “No.” According to Harris, this answer contains “the entirety of atheism” and is simply “an admission of the obvious.” He encourages his readers to “admit the obvious”: that when devout Hurricane Katrina victims drowned in their attics while praying to God for deliverance, they “died talking to an imaginary friend” (pp. 50-2). With righteous indignation, Harris condemns the “boundless narcissism” of those who survive a disaster only to “believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs” (p. 54).

After some discussion of this, Eric Reitan’s strategy is not to try to make things look any better, but to make them look even worse:

A mother, running late for a morning meeting, rushes out the door with both her children. The older son is to be dropped off at preschool, the baby girl at a nearby daycare. When the preschool lets out, the daycare’s minivan will bring the son to the daycare, where he will wait with his baby sister until their mother gets off work.

The mother gets to work, leaving the car in a sunny lot. It’s a hot day. She makes it to her meeting and has a productive day. At five o’clock she gets in her car and drives to the daycare. Her son runs to her. She picks him up and kisses his head, then looks around for her baby girl. Not seeing her, she asks one of the daycare workers. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You didn’t drop her off this morning.” The reply, tentative and apologetic, doesn’t have the tone of something that should tear a life apart. But it does. The mother’s hands go numb. Her son falls from her grasp. It feels as if all the darkness in the world is pressing outward from inside her. No. Impossible. But she has no memory of unstrapping that precious little girl, of carrying her into the daycare. No memory, in the rush of the morning, the urgency to get to her meeting on time. Driving to the daycare after work, looking forward to seeing her children, she never looked at what was in the back seat. And now her knees give out and the sobs escape even before she makes it to the car, even before she sees what’s there. Someone is soothing the son, who stands at the daycare door. The mother is beating at the car windows with her fists. In her imagination the baby girl is screaming for mommy, for comfort, as the car grows hotter and hotter, while all the while the mother is in her stupid meeting, talking about stupid contracts, feeling relieved that she’d made it to work on time. And the son, distressed beyond understanding by his mother’s behavior, breaks free of the daycare worker and runs towards her – into the path of an oncoming car.

This story is loosely based on real events. And there are life stories bleaker than this. Horror is real. According to the 2007 Global Monitoring Report put out by the World Bank, there are at present more than one billion people on earth living in “extreme” poverty (that is, on less than $1 per day). Such poverty is not only dire in itself but renders the poor terribly vulnerable to exploitation, disease, and natural disasters. I could fill a book with harrowing stories of human lives crushed by a combination of poverty, brutal abuse, and the grim indifference of nature. But that isn’t needed, I think, in order to convince most readers that there are horrors in the world so devastating that those who undergo them feel as if their entire lives are stripped of positive value, as if they’d be better off dead – while those who are implicated in them, once they come to appreciate the full measure of their complicity, are torn apart by self-loathing. If there is a God, His reasons for permitting such evils are hidden from us. And, as Marilyn Adams has pointed out, even if traditional theodicies give some general sense of why God might create a world in which evils exist, these theodicies bring no comfort to the mother as she turns away from her infant’s corpse just in time to see her son crushed under the wheels of a screeching car. It won’t give meaning to her life. It won’t eliminate the horror. Her existence has, in a few heartbeats, become worse than a void. It’s become come a space of affliction compared to which the void would be preferable. This woman needs salvation.

In order to survive such a situation, Reitan says, it is necessary to believe in the redemption of evil, namely that in some way a greater good is brought out of such horrors:

For most horror victims, the sense that their lives have positive meaning may depend on the conviction that a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil. Is the evidential case against the existence of such a good really so convincing that it warrants saying to these horror victims, “Give up hope”? Should we call them irrational when they cling to that hope or when those among the privileged live in that hope for the sake of the afflicted? What does moral decency imply about the legitimacy of insisting, as the new atheists do, that any view of life which embraces the ethico-religious hope should be expunged from the world?

He concludes the chapter with this response to Sam Harris:

Somewhere, even as I write this, a girl is being raped and murdered. Her parents believe in a transcendent God of love who will redeem even the most shocking horrors.

Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?

In the darkness of affliction, Harris’s answer rings hollow.

This example differs in some ways from my original example of the claim that life is meaningful. The original claim was understood to be the assertion that good and evil exist in life, and thus the denial would be that there is no good and evil in life. But in Reitan’s discussion, the claim is stronger, namely something like “God exists and will always bring good out of evil.” Harris’s denial of this claim does not in itself imply the non-existence of good and evil, at least not without additional consideration. In fact, his position is that very great evils exist and that we should not try to explain them away with this claim about God, so he is not, on the face of it, denying that good and evil exist. Consequently one cannot immediately deduce that believing the claim about God is a dominant strategy.

Nonetheless, if Reitan’s and Harris’s views are compared here with respect to the good of the people concerned, a fair comparison, since Harris was the one who the claimed that it was bad for people to believe such things, it does seem that Reitan has a much stronger case. The woman does seem much better off believing the claim about God and the redemption of evil.

But this is not the whole story.

6 thoughts on “Things it is Better to Believe

  1. […] This is naturally contrary to common sense, since it is easy to give examples where we think we understand a thing through its origin, such as the example of the carpenter and the chair. And denying the existence of final causes means denying that any of our actions have any purpose, or at least that our purposes explain our actions in any way. Such a denial is even more useless than this entirely useless blog; it would be better to believe that our actions have purposes regardless of the evidence for or again…. […]


  2. […] This happens first of all with some kind of overarching narrative regarding human life in general, and perhaps the rest of the universe as well. Thus for example we saw Eric Reitan argue that people have a need to believe that apparently random destructive events in their lives have a deeper…. […]


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