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Paul Obrien Gentle Atheism7

I am going to invite into our investigation a wise and gentle man named William James. Although he lived a century before us, through his works and the power of his ideas, he will join us to help bring this issue to fruition. James hit upon a new chord in the way people ought to address religion. Actually, it was not really new, but he was one of the first to formally express it. Before I discuss his theories, let me express a disclaimer. I am not an expert on James’ works and ideas, although I have read and heard quite a bit about what he wrote. What is important now is not precisely what James thought, but the sentiment and gist that I have distilled from his theory. If I contradict him, please do not dismiss my words, and if I misrepresent him, I am sorry.

James was raised in an intellectually vibrant family led by a father who was an eccentric and liberal preacher. Williams James achieved as much notoriety for his achievements in psychology as he did in philosophy. His brother Henry also attained great fame as an author, writing such works as "The Turn of the Screw."

But William suffered from many illnesses (like so many great philosophers do, strangely enough), and when he was a young man, he felt as if he had hit rock bottom. A philosophical conflict concerning the issue of free will was plaguing him, unsettling any peace that he might enjoy. But rather suddenly, he pulled himself out of this philosophical predicament. He began to write prolifically, became happier, married and became happier still. The rest of his life is an inspiring testament to his kindness and intellectual power. He was one the gentlest and most approachable intellectuals of the time.

So what happened? What pulled James out of his moral predicament and made him live such a rich life? I am convinced it is because he, like many of us, was tackling some of the greatest of philosophical mysteries– but all the wrong ways. He was plagued about human freedom, it is said. He could not philosophically determine whether humans are truly free or not, and it naturally distressed him very much. Freedom and bondage is still a terribly difficult pursuit in modern philosophy, and there have been no easy answers. But apparently he read a piece of work that changed his whole attitude about the issue. From that point on, he was able to address the same philosophical problems from a fresh and different angle. It is this angle we will now pursue.


Let’s focus on what James had to say about religion and God, because he certainly spent a great amount of time writing about it. James, however, did not spend much time considering whether God really existed or not. Rather, he concentrated on the effects of the belief and disbelief in God. Does that sound like a bad idea? To many it did and still does. But I feel James was choosing to address those things which we were talking about in the last section. He saw little point in dwelling on the metaphysics of the issue, but chose rather to look at the practical aspects of God. That is a bold and wise move. It’s bold because intellectuals were generally not discussing the issue in that manner, and it was thus very unconventional. It was and is still wise because looking at the practicalities of the belief God and Godlessness is how we as humans really do look at beliefs. It is an honest method, and it has a lot of truth to bear even though it’s not directly pursuing objective truth.

James was not a mystic. He had a strong scientific education, and he recognized the prudence of applying scientific principles to many issues. But he also recognized that in the case of many philosophical pursuits, science and metaphysics reach a limit and can provide only limited assistance. Such is the case with God. What are we to do then? We should go as far as we can with science, James said, but when science reaches its limits, it is time to weigh our options. James said this: you can rationally and scientifically justify your belief or disbelief in God equally well, because the evidence thus far collected does not indicate the truth of one over the other. But when it comes to choosing whether to believe or not to believe, you believe at your own risk, because you could always turn out to be wrong.

James said there are three characteristics to this issue over God, or to any other such philosophical option. He said that the belief in God is a "living" option because you can believe in God or not believe and yet still find yourself in accordance with the everyday world. Of course, whether God is a living option or not is a matter of personal judgement, but for many people, it is indeed living. If you try to believe in something that is not compatible with the world, such as with the belief that you can fly, you are trying to believe in something "dead;" dead because you know it isn’t true. A living option is one that is viable for you, that is, potentially true, and God is a viable option for many people. Of course, if you try to fly off the roof of your house you may find out just how dead that belief can be.

It is also a "momentous" decision to believe or not to believe in God. That means that the choice you make will have a great impact upon your life, whichever way you end up deciding. Some beliefs have no "cash-value," James liked to say. That is, believing or not believing in them really didn’t change anything. Some beliefs hold no real import and they don’t change or affect our lives very much. For example, the belief that Antarctica is actually three miles wider than what is currently believed really does not affect our everyday lives. Theism and atheism, on the other hand, do change our lives, at least for many of us, and that’s why they are "momentous."

Finally, the choice to accept or reject God is "forced." That sounds a bit extreme, but James had a good reason for describing it as such. James argued, as I will later argue, that you cannot simply leave the issue of God out of your life. You really have to make some sort of decision, even a minor one. Although the options are not entirely polarized, one ultimately either believes or does not believe in God; there is little middle-ground. Agnosticism, the best candidate for a middle-ground position, was addressed by James the way I will address it soon enough.

If one decides not to address the issue of God, they are still making a decision: it is simply a choice not to choose. This seems to mean little, but in this case it means a great deal. Choosing not to choose technically puts you into the lifestyle and idealogy of the atheist, so essentially one is holding (or at least exhibiting) a religious belief they have not really thought out. I will speak more about this later.

So far James’ discussion is flowing very nicely. Science hits a limit, but the choice is living, momentous, and forced. Now what? It’s too important a choice to dismiss altogether, because it holds too much weight in our lives. God isn’t a bad option, but neither is Godlessness. James invites us to reconsider the consideration. He asks us to look at the results and implications of a belief in God as opposed to a disbelief. After seeing the limits of formal reasons, James wants to look at a "what if:" What if I did believe in God? What would be the results in my life? What if I did not believe in God? James wants us to take a good look at these answers, and then let them become important factors in our decision.

James asserts that whichever belief provides the believer with more happiness and contentment, and whichever proves to be the most beneficial, is the one that they should probably believe in. The evidence is limited, so you’ve done all you can to be logical. Taking into the practical implications of one’s belief seems to the next-best alternative, and it’s a shrewd move. If not believing in God would make you miserable, and believing in God would make you happy, James says to go ahead and believe in God. I invited us to look at reasons and implications of religious beliefs, and James has turned the consideration of a belief’s implications into a good reason for espousing that belief. Good implications provide a fairly good reason for subscribing to a religion. That’s the practical, pragmatic way of assessing religion.

James has thus expanded our options. He’s given us something new to work with to help us in our spiritual and philosophical pursuit. What he offers may not be the standard textbook methodology, but it does make good sense and it does appeal to our human sense of practicality.

I want to reiterate that practical concerns about human morality really do weigh as heavily, maybe even more heavily, than logical ones. Imagine this: suppose a great philosopher, someone very brilliant and famous, has just refuted our notion of induction. In fact, he’s made it look irrational and unjustified. By what criteria? By logic’s own criteria it fails, as it turns out, and anyone who uses induction is not justified in doing so logically.

To clarify what induction is, take this example. Every time I walk in front of a speeding car, I suffer some bodily damage. That seems to make very good common sense. Therefore, if I wish to avoid hurting myself this way, I should stop walking in front of speeding cars, right? That’s induction: taking particular cases from the past and present, noting the results of certain conditions, and then predicting what will happen the next time those certain conditions are set up again. But you can forget any formal definitions, if you wish, because if you call upon your experience and knowledge of the past to try to predict something in the future, you are using some sort of induction.

Humans use induction all the time, and it seems to make perfect sense to us. Unfortunately, this great philosopher says it doesn’t make any logical sense at all. Logic tells us that induction in fact is irrational. What does that mean? It means that I have no reason at all to believe that I will injure myself the next time I step in front of a speeding car. My past experiences say nothing about will happen this next time. Logic has then thrown us quite a twist, but common sense is crying bloody murder. We cannot simply abandon the use of induction because it is logically unfeasible. We would all be dead or at least in a state of utter chaos if we followed through with induction’s rejection. Induction may very well be illogical, but let it be; induction is incredibly practical. It keeps up alive and it maintains order in our lives. There can be no other sane conclusion.

Practicality thus holds a lot of weight in our consideration of beliefs, and it shouldn’t be ignored. We should try to hold ourselves true to logic and rationality, but by all means we should try to keep things fairly practical for ourselves as well. Practicality isn’t necessarily the most important factor to consider for some people, but it a powerful factor nonetheless.

We had hit a dead-end with arguments for and against the existence of God, but William James has built for us a new doorway through which to enter. Under pragmatism we have a new criteria to base our consideration upon, and thus we have new things to consider. Before I try to assess theism and atheism pragmatically, it might interest you to know what James concluded about the issue of God. Many of you probably already know that James, after providing this new methodology, asserted that theism was the pragmatically wiser choice.

His reasons were many. He himself had been plagued by the issue of free will, and what plagued him about it was the horror of the possibility that we are in fact not free (not just in action or moral responsibility, but bound in will and choosing in itself). Freedom has clear and distinct advantages over bondage. Without freedom, it seems that nothing we do would be our actions or choices. The actions of saint and sinner alike would be helpless, and seemingly blame and praise would become meaningless ideas. After all, it makes no sense to blame or praise someone if they were forced to do something. No one likes to be physically imprisoned; imagine having one’s very will and mind imprisoned. It does not conjure feelings of contentment.

So James felt free will was one of those beliefs people would be better off believing in because it would make them happier and provide them with more practical benefits. James felt that the belief in God accounts for free will quite nicely, but atheism does not, as least so he felt. But what theism really has over atheism, James said, is that it provides more hope. If you believe in God, you can expect a heaven waiting for you if you lead a just life. God’s benevolence provides you with more security, because if you sin or perform a faulty action, God will be merciful and forgive you. Death is nothing to be frightened of with this afterlife, and life is nothing to fret over if you try hard to abide by God’s rules.

There is absolutely no guarantee with atheism that one will survive one’s death. There’s no guarantee you will be forgiven, or that the world is orderly, or that benevolence will prevail. These facts, James thought, made theism a clear victor over atheism on the practical level, and he supported theism accordingly. James believed that theism has better and more practical consequences than atheism.

But what about atheism? James certainly made his decision, and it is a convincing one. His pragmatic approach to God and his conclusion in favor of theism is considered to be one of the stronger arguments for the existence of God. The reason I did not include it in an early section is that since James’ approach took such a different angle than the other arguments, it deserved separate attention (just as the argument of faith deserves, which I will address later).

I fully respect someone who prefers theism over atheism for pragmatic reasons. How could I not? I do not want to see people sacrifice all practicality for the sake of a religious belief. A religious belief is supposed to make one’s life better, not worse. But obviously I am not so convinced by James’s argument that I agree with it. This is not because I find his technique faulty at all, for in fact I praise it. I think James had his finger on the pulse of why many people believe what they do. Some people I know consider this a slippery, tricky technique, one that side-steps the philosophical issue. It does deviate from the usual approach that intellectuals typically take, but not in any malicious or unwise way. It works and it makes sense, and there’s nothing tricky about that.

So I followed James through his door and down the pragmatic hallway, but when two doors stood before us, James chose one door and I chose the other. Why? I do not agree with James that atheism offers such negative implications, and that theism offers such positive ones. James made theism out to be very good, and I understand his reasoning. But theism and atheism deserve closer consideration than that, and to this subject I devote the chapter after next.