Let me assess James’ conclusion about theism and elaborate upon which points we disagree upon. I want to show why some atheists, like me, might see Godlessness as preferable to theism under the light of serious doubts and criticisms. I will find faults with theism, but they are not conclusive or irreparably damaging. They are also not the primary reasons why I am an atheist.
We must remember that this issue of God and Godlessness is essentially a choice between the two beliefs. Many have chosen to believe in God for the practical reasons I will discuss. I am more skeptical of these practicalities than some theists, and I will voice my doubts about them. Theism has historical power, wide- spread popularity, and a seemingly unbeatable list of positive implications. It is this last point that I will now criticize and consider only to level the playing field and set the stage for the pragmatic atheist.
Free will was one of James’ personal philosophical problems, and it ought to be our concern as well. If we are in fact bound in our will, there are serious implications, namely, that we are not really doing anything at all under our own volition. The choice you made to read this book was not a real choice at all if your will is bound, nor is any other action, mental or physical. In turn, praise and blame no longer seem to apply to anyone or anything. Someone may murder twenty people, but if they were bound to do so and had no way of preventing that act, they simply do not seem blameworthy.
If our will is in fact free, there is hope that we aren’t all moving around and about in vain. Free willing is what we desire. I would like to think that I am writing this work because I am freely willing to do so. I’d like to go so far as to think that I am even free in action (there is no gunman threatening to kill me if I don’t write these words, for example). James thought that free will was a beneficial belief and I agree with him. Free will is a practical and hopeful thing to believe in, regardless of what theories exist against it. Once again, similar to the belief in God, the evidence for and against free will hits a ceiling it would seem (or there is at least an intricate labyrinth very difficult to navigate through). It’s a toss-up for what you would like to pick.
I, like James, would like to pick free will. James thought that God provided a better means for accounting for free will and it is here where we slightly disagree. Setting forms such as Calvinist predestination aside, Christian theology allows for a free will in humans because God essentially wants us to have it, and thus endows us with it. That’s fine and good, but there are other ways to have free will besides a believing in God and it still remains to be seen why a Godless world is a willfully bound one. Why would that necessarily follow? Perhaps it is because as a theist, God directly addresses us in the Bible and says that human will is free. As an atheist, no one can make such an authoritative address about free will, at least not in the sense that an allegedly deity does.
But one can choose to believe that their will is free as an atheist if they want to. There is no proof against such a decision. Metaphysically, there is no argument that has proved solidly that a Godless world implies necessarily a bound willful world. And even if there was a proof, the pragmatist in us may choose to ignore it. Like the case of induction’s logical decimation, free will may be too hard to throw out. We must be careful not to entirely dismiss metaphysical and logical proofs, but neither must we ignore or underestimate the human characteristic to choose that which is most beneficial for us. We walk a thin line. Free will is nonetheless a living option (we believe it can really be true; it is not some wish-fulfillment for most of us) and a momentous one (there can be great hope if we are free and great despair if we are not). Whether it’s forced or not is tough to say, but it certainly is very important to reach a decision on.
Since free will is practical and viable, and there are no strong logical and metaphysical proofs against it, atheists seem entitled to believe in it.
James has a more convincing argument based upon the great hope that the belief in God provides. I will first look at what is positive about theism, and then I will try to explain what might not be so positive about it after all. I will get to atheism both in the process of this discussion and more directly in the next section.
Theism provides hope and security, among other things. God is benevolent and is in charge of the world, a notion that offers a great deal of goodness to one’s world-view. God is personal and that notion combats human loneliness. God is also forgiving, and that notion combats guilt and regret. Maybe most of all, the belief in God usually entails the belief in a decent afterlife for us when we die, which combats the pervasive human fear of death.
That is an extremely attractive theory for all of the pragmatic things that it offers. But as an atheist, I would like you to consider all of these things with a grain of salt. I now want you to consider some of the more negative effects of the belief in God that might slightly diffuse the power of these benefits I have just listed.
God is benevolent, at least as he is usually portrayed in the Bible. There is a great deal of imagery to support this fact, such as the Lord as a shepherd figure. There are many kind things Jesus is supposed to have done in word and action. But the Bible portrays a God that is not always benevolent; there’s a healthy amount of fear mixed in with that benevolence. If the Bible is correct in what it indicates, it frequently portrays a God that purposefully inspires fear among his followers. This does not seem to be an unfounded malicious desire of his, let that be certain. But still God does seem to want humans to fear him, and oftentimes the reason why is ambiguous. Because God does not really articulate exactly why he wants to inspire fear, we begin to run into some difficulties.
We can naturally speculate. Perhaps God wants his believers to know that he means business and that you can’t just do anything you want to and get away with it. Perhaps he wants his followers to know that despite his gentleness, there is an importance to his mission and a gravity to sin and goodness that cannot be underestimated. After all, who did God get the most wrathful with but the people who seemed to be neglecting his doctrine the most?
That is my humble attempt to give a fear of God the benefit of the doubt, but I feel that it does not entirely justify other negative emotions that God sometimes inspires. Besides fear, many religions seem to inspire a great deal of guilt in their followers. This guilt stems from those sins the follower has committed, or more simply, guilt over what they should have done and should be doing, but did not do and are not doing. Guilt goes hand in hand with another tenant within Christianity, that of humility to God. Humility is an excellent quality within a moral code, but many times the Christian version of humility goes too far. Some people are consumed with their worthlessness in the face of God. In fact, I’ve heard many Christians say that you don’t actually feel the full force of God’s presence until you completely succumb to him.
Fear and guilt are clearly weaker forces in the present day and age than they have been historically. Rarely do we hear a "fire and brimstone" style of sermon trying to inspire fear and trembling in the hearts of the congregation. Just as rarely do we find clergy and avid followers flogging themselves or living extremely ascetic lifestyles in the name of God out of a sense of purifying their sins. Such acts as the latter are an extreme form of debasement, and the sermons of the former perform a similar function, except psychologically.
These negative emotions are thus not as extreme as they used to be. I take that to be a good sign for Christianity, because Christians seem to have realized that fear and guilt can be taken too far. Priests don’t usually encourage flogging and other such acts of self-inflicted pain, nor do many preachers try to inspire great fear in their followers. Still, I, like many people, believe this fear and guilt to be still too extreme. I’m pleased by trends towards a more stress-free faith in God, and you will find a lot of churches succeeding in creating just that. But the Bible hasn’t changed its opinions, first of all; it still condones the same activities and practices that many fundamentalists are still enforcing today. The Bible is not like a religious community where leaders succeed each other and councils meet to change policy and update practices. The Bible stands as what it is, a book, and all that can really change is one’s interpretation of that book.
I believe fundamentalists create large impracticalities for themselves. I’ve encountered a large number of fundamentalists who abide by codes that are millennia old. One such example of a bad teaching still upheld by many fundamentalists is having the wife submit to her husband. The husband can demand servitude of his wife, and I believe that goes contrary to all modern common sense. It is very clear that despite past sexism and its lingering remnants, women are equal to men. Most of us believe that a husband has no right to order his wife around (and vice versa).
It seems that those who deny that more current belief and still hold these antiquated sexist views are wielding a very impractical belief within their religion. If we are going to show less respect to all the women in our lives, including women who somehow feel less respect for themselves simply because they are women, then we are going to create psychological problems for th esteem of women and an unfounded ignorance toward one half of the human race. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to follow such an antiquated belief, but this example is not the only example of fundamentalist problems. Other problems arise regarding birth control, attitudes toward homosexuals, and attitudes toward atheists too. I’ve been called a fool many times by fundamentalists because of my atheism, apparently because the Bible says it is so (See Psalms 14, verse 1: "The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ Such are corrupt; they do abominable deeds; there is not one who does good.").
Fundamentalism thus leads to many problems. It suffers from what many poor social organizations suffer from: a general and yet intense intolerance for people not belonging to its group. The sentiments behind nativism, sexism, and racism harbor the same mentality and wield the same brand of intolerance. This uncooperative attitude blocks out negotiations and compromise, and simply seems unenlightened. And I am only scratching the surface of this form of theism upon which a whole book could be written. Luckily, most theists are not strict fundamentalists, and once again, I consider that to be a good sign. Many religions encourage followers to seek the "spirit of the law" within the Bible’s teaching and not take it literally word for word. This more flexible system allows attitudes to change and evolve over time, and it promotes more peace between believers and non-believers.
I am still trying to give Western theism some benefit of the doubt, and yet still there are problems. Many theists believe in some form of Heaven. This addresses the human fear of death very nicely, because the Bible instructs that if people follow the moral code outlined in it, they are almost guaranteed an eternity of bliss in heaven when their physical body dies. Many people believe that this is a definitive advantage of theism over atheism.
There will be much to say about atheistic implications in relation to death and human fear of death, but I want to stick with this theistic conception first. Heaven presents three basic problems as I see it: 1) it is ambiguous as to how to earn entrance into heaven; 2) the antithesis accompaniment to heaven known as hell is problematic; and 3) the motivations someone might have for trying to get into heaven might be considered questionable.
Heaven is discussed at length in the Bible, but the great variety of disagreements about what earns one passage into heaven is not reassuring. Many people believe that one simply needs to have faith in order to go to heaven; in other cases, faith is not enough, but faith accompanied by good deeds is. What if someone leads a sinful life and then asks for forgiveness on their death- bed? Are they granted entrance? What if someone leads a perfectly moral and just life, but simply never attended service? What if they lived a wonderfully just life but never learned about God? And what happens to a child who dies at birth? Or dies after living a few weeks? A few months? And what happens to animals who die, especially intelligent ones?
To varying degrees, these are not easy questions to answer, but in one sense, they do not need to be answered by us within Christian dogma. In Western theism, God or Jesus will pass these judgements when one perishes, and then these questions will be settled. But is that satisfactory? I assert that though it is hardly Heaven’s death-knell, this ambiguity doesn’t lend as much assurance as it could and perhaps ought to. That absurdly strange question we hear about so often comes to mind: "Who are we to judge?" And yet how awkwardly this question hangs in the air; if we could not judge, or have no right to judge such things, why are we even talking about it at all? Such a reply is what I call pushing the "ejector seat" button in order to dissolve a philosophical conversation.
God and Jesus judge according to Christian doctrine, but so do humans. There’s no changing that. We may question one’s authority to judge based on the fact that they might know too little about a topic to gauge it very accurately; but we all judge and we’re all entitled to. Similarly we should be able to judge our position about our lives as to know with some degree of certainty whether we’re going to heaven or not. There needs to be some agreement about what criteria will be used. Like the issue of God itself, metaphysics will not help us, but pragmatically, a useful system can be outlined.
What still makes this difficult is the fact that the authority upon which to base this afterlife and the nature of gaining its entrance is also ambiguous. Should you follow exactly what the Bible says to do? Do you believe what your priest or minister says to do? Do you just believe your own opinion on the matter? And for whatever decision you will make, there will be somebody coming around to tell you that what you’re doing isn’t enough or isn’t right.
This does not deflate the notion of heaven, but it doesn’t help it either. I just want to make it clear that believing that heaven provides one with security in the face of death is not as simple as it sounds. For many of us, upon even a small amount of reflection, there are some ambiguities that make the issue much more than just black or white.
Let me offer another brief commentary about this ambiguity. For whatever answer you decide upon on how to get into heaven, there needs to be another answer for something else: how will you think of treat people who do not meet your criteria for entering heaven? Thinking of them as pitiable is clearly condescending, and treating them differently may be even worse. It would almost become a form of discrimination, and there is almost no form of discrimination I can think of that is conducive for cooperation among members of the human race. Cooperation and sometimes integration seem to invoke the greatest amount of practical benefit, not discrimination.
Trying to convert people to their religion is a natural feeling many people have, regardless of whether the Bible told them to spread the word or not. When something makes your life better, you want to let your loved ones know (or sometimes even strangers) so that maybe their lives can become better for it too. That is a generous intention. But how you react if and when they opt not to accept your ideas is crucial; the more zealous and insistent one gets, the more people feel that their choice is being disrespected.
The answers one may give to these questions, despite my cautions, may toll a heavy price. So it is a thin line one treads concerning the initiation into Heaven. Even if all this ambiguity can be resolved, it’s tough to get it pragmatically squared away in regards to people around you. But in all honesty, this belief is still not as grim as I may be making it seem. I just want people to really think about it before they adopt it.