The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy presents some practical arguments for the existence of God. These arguments don’t claim that intrinsic values require God’s existence, and they don’t claim that it is irrational for atheists to try to be moral. Instead, they argue that there is some sort of benefit to believing in God. This is a very modest argument and it could corroborate the conviction many people have that believing in God is helpful in various ways. I will take a look at two arguments.
The first argument is given by R. Adams, and it states that it would be demoralizing to believe that God doesn’t exist. The second argument simply states that belief in God is morally encouraging. I find these arguments to be unconvincing because (a) it isn’t obvious that we get the benefits from believing in God that people seem to hope for and (b) it isn’t clear that the supposed benefits accorded by belief in God would justify belief in God.
R. Adams’s argument is the following:
- It is demoralizing to reject that the world has a moral order.
- The best explanation of moral order in the world is God.
- Belief in the moral order in the world is morally beneficial.
- We should try to do what we can to attain a moral benefit.
- Therefore, we should try to believe in God.
A moral order is either a divine plan or the idea that “things will morally work out.” If there is a divine plan, then it isn’t clear that there is much wiggle room that allows us to “try to be moral,” but I will accept that morality and a divine plan are compatible for the sake of argument.
Divine plan: If the argument states that the belief in a divine plan is morally beneficial, then it is difficult to reject that God would be required to attain that benefit. No God, no divine plan. I suppose a divine plan might be encouraging to some people. We can expect to eventually become virtuous if there is a divine plan. This would encourage us to try to be virtuous. On the other hand, if there isn’t a divine plan, some people might decide that being moral is too difficult and give up.
I don’t know if belief in a divine plan is morally encouraging to everyone, some people, or no one. We would need a psychological study to find out. Additionally, perhaps morality could only be too hard given unrealistic moral goals. We should only be morally obligated to do what doesn’t require excessive difficulty.
Things will morally work out: If the argument states that “things will morally work out,” then it is clear why we need to believe in a moral order. We need to believe that our moral goals can succeed or we have no reason to have them. However, it isn’t clear why God is necessary for things to morally work out. Maybe things will morally work out just because we know enough about the world to make sure of it.
Why can’t we just learn enough about the world to have realistic moral goals? A doctor can have goals of giving surgery to people who need it. We shouldn’t have goals of giving surgery to people who need if when we aren’t qualified to do so.
This argument is the following:
- If God exists, then he will help us accomplish our moral goals.
- The belief that God helps us accomplish our moral goals is morally encouraging.
- If a belief is morally encouraging, then it is morally beneficial.
- We have reason to do what is morally beneficial.
- Therefore, we have reason to believe in God.
This argument doesn’t force us all to believe in God because we aren’t obligated to do everything morally beneficial possible. It might be morally beneficial to believe in God, cure cancer, and save thousands of lives; but it might not be realistic to do all of these things.
I agree that if God exists, then it might help us accomplish our moral goals. I agree that this belief could be encouraging. I agree that we should do what is morally beneficial. However, it isn’t clear that all morally encouraging beliefs are morally beneficial. Why? Because we need to have realistic moral goals. Thinking God will help us out might encourage people to have unrealistic moral goals, such as trying to give others surgery despite being unqualified. We should have moral goals that don’t need God’s existence.
Two More Objections
Objection 1: The most common objection against these sorts of arguments is that we can’t (or shouldn’t) believe something just because it benefits us to do so. I can’t believe in unicorns, for example, just because such a belief would make the world more wonderous and give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Objection 2: Even if we grant that the benefit accorded by a belief is some reason to accept it, it isn’t clear how much reason a benefit gives us to believe something. If I found a benefit to believing that the Earth is flat (such as getting a huge amount of publicity), that still doesn’t seem sufficient reason to believe it. Why? Because we know it’s false.
If we had equal reason to believe in God as to disbelieve, then perhaps a practical argument would be relevant. However, this agnostic position hasn’t been established. We have some reason to reject God just because we have some reason to doubt the existence of any given entity without appropriate proof. We have reason to doubt the existence of ghosts, leprechauns, unicorns, and bigfoot just because we shouldn’t believe something exists without proof. It seems likely that someone misidentified something everyday for something new, or someone just made up the existence of these things.
It might not be morally beneficial to believe in God, so these arguments are far from persuasive. Even if we established that it is morally beneficial to believe in God, it is still unclear that we have sufficient reason to believe. We might still have more reason to disbelieve than to believe.