The Wishful Theist

Daniel Dennett in his book Breaking the Spell has talked about “belief in belief in God.”  What does that mean?

People who believe in God are sure that God exists, and they are glad, because they hold God to be the most wonderful of all things.  People who moreover believe in belief in God are sure that belief in God exists (and who could doubt that?), and they think that this is a good state of affairs, something to be strongly encouraged and fostered wherever possible: If only belief in God were more widespread!  One ought to believe in God.  One ought to strive to believe in God.  One should be uneasy, apologetic, unfulfilled, one should even feel guilty, if one finds that one just doesn’t believe in God. . . People who believe in belief in God try to get others to believe in God and, whenever they find their own belief in God flagging, do whatever they can to restore it.  (p. 221)

So the belief in belief in God is so strong that a few atheists even encourage it.  (How many agnostics or atheists do you know who simply say religion is not for them but may be needed for some people, because it gives them meaning?  Or that if someone is demonstrating the fallacies of a religious doctrine, the atheist simply states, “but it works for the religious people?”  Or even a few atheists who wish they were believers?)  Indeed, part of the belief in belief in God already sets up an authority in society: not only does one believe in God, but one should believe in God, one should even, if necessary, struggle to believe in God, that the belief in God is a good thing in itself.  The default, it seems, is that theism is the goal of life and that an atheist who wishes to be a theist is understandable.  I challenge this assumption.

Imagine a young illiterate man from a third world country who suffers from abject poverty and a cripple at that. He has no family, no home and on certain unfortunate days, nothing to eat. His great desire is to commit suicide to end his misery. He thinks of it daily. There is only one thing preventing him from doing so: his belief in God. He knows that suicide is the greatest of sins and he can not offend God. He has tried to reason his way out of belief in God, but no matter how much he tries, he can’t stop believing in God, not for a minute. He doesn’t go to church, loathes it actually, hates the clergy, etc. And as for the afterlife, he would rather not exist at all than have to wait and suffer for years before attaining paradise. And sometimes he even hates God before disbelieving in Him.  In the end, he repents for disrespecting God, but he does so reluctantly.  So here’s the question: is this sort of person possible? If so, is there a psychological reason? Can a theist be so reluctant to be a theist? Is it possible to will oneself to atheism overnight?  We often hear of the atheist wishing that he could believe in God, but can there be a theist who wishes he was an atheist?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Paper Topic, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Wishful Theist

  1. thekillerj says:

    Of course there are theists who wish they were atheist. At least on weekend nights. 😉

  2. thekillerj says:

    I’ll bet some people spending time in the pen for murder or rape are afraid they’ll go to hell. Some might end up hoping for no God.

    • shaunmiller says:

      That’s interesting. I’m wondering if there are some actual prisoners that really wish that God didn’t exist, but they can’t help themselves into believing there is a God. For the atheist, he can’t become a believer because he’s gained some knowledge and he can’t go back to being ignorant. Maybe the believer is thinking the same thing: he’s seen the truth and he can’t go back, even if he wants to.

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