Here is one of four answers regularly offered by Christians (and others) for the failure of atheists to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief (the other three, as well as a continuation of this one, will be blogged later). Edward Feser gets special mention:
(i) Atheists reject Christianity not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true.
Those attempting to explain atheist non-belief as a product of wishful thinking sometimes quote atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who in his book The Last Word, says:
It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.[i]
But is this the view of most atheists? Surely the Christian message is one of hope. It provides numerous attractive reassurances, especially about death and justice. In particular, it promises that we can be reunited with our dead loved ones beyond the grave, that we and they can live in joy forever, and that people will ultimately get their just deserts. These are appealing beliefs for most of us.
Indeed, that Christianity is not, as a rule, the sort of thing people want to be true is fairly obviously contradicted by the manner in which Christians tend to promote it. They often place at least as much emphasis on how wonderful it would be if Christianity were true as on any intellectual case that might be made in its support.
Wishful-thinking-based explanations for the failure of individuals to appreciate the reasonableness of Christian belief also run into trouble with those tortured individuals who struggle valiantly to keep their faith but lose it nonetheless. Their rejection of Christianity does not appear to be motivated by wishful thinking. Quite the opposite.
Atheists don’t want to believe in eternal damnation
But perhaps we have overlooked the less attractive thoughts involved in Christianity, thoughts that might yet motivate an irrational rejection? In his book The Last Superstition, the Christian philosopher Edward Feser quotes Nagel in support of his view that many secular intellectuals reject religion because they don’t want it to be true. Feser adds:
Atheism, like religion, can often rest more on a will to believe than on dispassionate rational arguments. Indeed, as the philosopher C.F.J. Martin has pointed out, the element of divine punishment – traditionally understood in the monotheistic religions as a sentence of eternal damnation in Hell – shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is. For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting hellfire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this.[ii]
On Feser’s view, the presence of this unappealing thought in Christianity shows that people are as likely to disbelieve Christianity as a result of wishful thinking as they are to believe.
It may be true, as a general rule, that the fact that a thought is unappealing makes it less likely it will be believed. However, there is an obvious exception to this rule. The exception is when the unappealing thought takes the form of a threat: believe or else.
I once received an email chain message claiming that if I forwarded the message to two friends I would receive good fortune, but if I failed to forward the message I would be cursed with bad luck. The appealing thought that I would receive good luck if I did as instructed was obviously intended to incentivize action. But then so too was the unappealing thought of bad luck if I didn’t. The email waved both a carrot and a stick at me, the stick providing me with at least as much incentive as the carrot.
A recipient of the traditional Christian message is presented with an infinitely more impressive carrot and stick. The carrot includes a promise of everlasting life for those who truly believe; the stick involves the threat of eternal damnation for those who don’t.
Feser is correct that an atheist like Nagel won’t want it to be true that hell awaits those who fail to believe. But then neither do I want it to be true that, as a result of my failing to forward that email message, I will receive bad luck. It does not follow, in either case, that the unpleasant character of the threat functions, on balance, as a disincentive – making it less likely the message’s recipient will do as they are instructed (believe the Christian message; forward the chain email).
On the contrary, the inclusion of such threats makes it more likely the recipient will do as instructed, not less. I binned that email message not because of the unappealing threat that it contained, but despite the unappealing threat it contained. Feser is mistaken: those who fail to believe the Christian message do so not because of threats of eternal damnation, but despite them.
There is a further weakness to this particular diagnosis of why it is that atheists fail to recognize the reasonableness of theism or Christianity. A great many Christians, including theologically sophisticated Christians, reject the doctrine of eternal damnation. So, even if the unpleasantness of the thought of eternal damnation did have the off-putting effect Feser claims, it would only put people off those varieties of Christian or theistic belief that involved the doctrine. Assuming the atheist recognizes that they can embrace theism without embracing the doctrine of eternal damnation, why should that unappealing character of the latter doctrine should put them off theism per se?
To conclude: (i) it would appear that the unappealing character of the thought of eternal damnation functions, on balance, not to disincentivize Christian belief, but to incentivize it, and (ii) in any case, belief in theism does not require one to believe in eternal damnation, so [even setting aside (i)], the unappealing character of the thought of eternal damnation does not, as it stands, provide a very convincing explanation for the (as Feser sees it) atheist’s irrational rejection of theism.