The impact of bias on belief

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. – Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, Oxford University Press: 1997

Thomas Nagel is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, and a refreshingly transparent atheist. His public admission that he does not want there to be a God makes it quite likely, it seems to me, that he is not alone in preferring that God not exist. Surely there are others who similarly find that, if they’re honest with themselves, however unconvincing they may have found the evidence and arguments for God, there is another subtle but very strong reason for their rejection of him that has nothing to do with evidence.

Desires, emotions, self-interest and self-preservation shape our beliefs probably more than we realize. They’re powerful, hard to control forces that assert themselves on our will and fight with our intellect for dominance over the direction we take with our worldview. Consider these examples.

  • A child is raised by a father who is a pillar in his church but a tyrant at home. She grows to reject faith in God because she suffered abuse at the hands of one who represented him to her.
  • Conversely, a lonely outcast hears a message of unconditional, eternal love and puts his faith in God because he’s desperate for love and acceptance.
  • A young woman is divorced by her cheating husband and instead of supporting her in her pain and loss, her legalistic church ostracizes her. The compounding of her hurt from those who say they believe in God is enough to convince her that she does not want to be among them.
  • A tender-hearted man watches nonstop news coverage of efforts to rescue a little boy trapped in rubble from a massive earthquake. Several days of desperate and valiant attempts to free him alive end unsuccessfully and the man curses the God who didn’t save the boy and in whom he can no longer believe.

Many of us know people with stories like these, or maybe we have a similar one ourselves. But as real and worthy of consideration as our experiences may be, the impact they have on our belief in or against God is from something other than an intellectual assessment of evidence. Even the one revolting from a God who allows children to suffer is doing so from an emotional abhorrence, though he may argue that such a being who is also supposed to be all-loving and all-powerful is a logical impossibility.

As reasonable as these responses are, they are nevertheless not reasoned ones. Theists need to address the challenges they present with compassion and understanding, but non-theists need to be willing to identify and admit any subjective biases against belief in God if they’re really seeking after truth. Our desires and emotions are what allow us to enjoy life but they’re not very useful at discovering why we have life at all. For that we need an intellect guided by unimpassioned objectivity.