Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Desire to Serve God

Today, I want to bring up an important set of implications for some of the claims I made in yesterday’s post.

Yesterday, I mentioned that it is possible for a person to have a desire to realize a state of affairs that has intrinsic or inherent value, or a desire to do that which pleases God. Neither of these desires can be fulfilled because neither intrinsic values nor God exists. However, this does not prevent the desire from being any less real.

What I want to discuss today is what happens when a person with a particularly strong desire to (for example) please God confronts the possibility that God does not exist.

I want to suggest that because of the desire to serve God, arguments that God does not exist would be greeted in about the same way that a person would greet news that her child is missing and presumed dead in a war, or that he has cancer. The news threatens the strongest desires that a person may have, and that type of news is not going to be taken lightly.

Religious Denial

People often respond to news like this first with denial. It cannot be true. There must be some mistake. We need to get more information. There is a tendency to grasp on to whatever straw happens to float by that suggests that the horrible claim is not true – my child is alive, I do not have cancer, there is a God for me to serve.

I believe that people underestimate the true horror of coming to realize that desires which are of such importance to an individual cannot be fulfilled.

Meaninglessness, Emptiness

The point that I want to make in this post is that the standard view. That view focuses on the belief that a God does not exist, and asks why this belief does not succumb to reason as it should. There is some passive acknowledgement of an emotional investment in this belief, but little in the way of a full-face evaluation of what that emotional attachment is or what it entails.

For example, if a person is raised to have a particularly strong and stable desire to please God, then states of affairs that do not contain an element in which, “this pleases God” is true will have no value to that person. It is, in a word, ‘meaningless’. Those who say that the life of an atheist is meaningless are, at least in one sense, not mistaken. For these people, a life as an atheist – a life in which they are not bringing about a state in which ‘God is pleased’ is true – is truly meaningless. At least, they cannot find fulfillment in such a life.

So, we have theists who, once in a while, decide that they are going to look at the world as an atheist would look at it. They say that, just for a moment, they will entertain the idea that no God exists. What they discover is that this is very much like entertaining the idea that their child has gone missing in a war and is probably dead. It is very much like entertaining the thought that they have been just told that they have cancer. They are, in fact, entertaining the thought that the things they desire most can never come to pass. Having experienced that thought, they conclude the need to abandon atheism.

By the way, this has implications for a movement being proposed called, “The Great American God-Out.” Tell a person who desires to serve God to imagine no God exists, and he is going to find the situation absolutely terrifying. There may be no better way to ensure that he clutch the straws of belief even more tightly than before.

Anger

Grief counselors report that one of the important phases of grief is anger. When people discover that some strong desire of theirs is going to be thwarted, they look for somebody who they can claim is responsible for that cost, and they lash out. We lash out at inanimate objects (e.g., after stubbing our toe on the dining room chair). We lash out at people who had nothing to do with our injury. Religious people get angry at God.

So, one of the reactions we can expect from people when told that God does not exist – when those people not only have a belief that God exists but a particularly strong desire to serve God – is anger. They can be expected to lash out, to attack that which may prevent them from fulfilling their desire. Of course, the atheist is not preventing them from fulfilling their desire. The simple fact that no God exists prevents the fulfillment of this desire. However, the atheist is as much a suitable target for this wrath as the dining room table is when a stubbed toe is involved.

So, from the desire to serve God, some of the things we can expect to get from those who hear that no God exists is denial, a sense of meaninglessness or hopelessness, and anger. These do not come from the belief that God exists. They come from the desire to serve God. This is the true villain in these cases.

Preventing Bad Desires

This argument suggests that the specific wrong involved in teaching religion to children is not to be found in teaching children to believe in God. It is to be found in causing them to desire to serve God. This type of teaching is like teaching a child who, because of some medical problem, will never be able to have children that giving birth to a child is the only thing that can bring fulfillment to a woman’s life. It is like telling somebody who will grow up to be around five feet tall that self worth is essentially tied to being tall.

Of course, in teaching children to value serving God (as opposed to teaching them the value of having their own children or of being tall), the children know when they have succeeded or when they have failed to meet these standards. In the case of God, there is the option of living a lie – of thinking that one is serving God. However, this brings as much value to a person’s life as thinking that a doll one is carrying around is a real baby that one has given birth to, or thinking that one is a foot taller than one is in fact. All three of these people are living a lie, and their life has no more meaning than living a life can provide.

Some might see these points as supporting the idea that teaching religion to a child is a form of child abuse. I continue to hold that ‘abuse’ is not an appropriate term in this case, since the term requires some sort of malicious disregard for the well-being of others that simply is not present.

On the other hand, I have compared the act of teaching religion to a child to the act of taking thalidomide in the 1950s – before its harmful effects were widely known. These parents did terrible harm to their children. Yet, in spite of the fact, it would be a mistake to say that these parents abused their children.

The claim that taking thalidomide was not abuse does not imply that there was nothing wrong with it. It certainly does not imply that there was no reason to get the news out and to get pregnant mothers to quit taking the drug. In fact, it has the opposite implication. Its harmfulness argues for good people – people with desires that tend to fulfill other desires – should take action to prevent parents from feeding this poison to their children.

There is, of course, another significant difference between spiritual thalidomide and the chemical that some pregnant mothers took in the 1950s. Many brands of spiritual thalidomide cause the children who take this poison to grow up to be people who devote tremendous amounts of time, effort, and money into harming others. Some of them wield knives, guns and bombs.

There is, of course, another significant difference between spiritual thalidomide and the chemical that some pregnant mothers took in the 1950s. Many brands of spiritual thalidomide cause the children who take this poison to grow up to be people who devote tremendous amounts of time, effort, and money into harming others. Some of them wield knives, guns and bombs.

However, there are others who devote their time to harming others through legislation. It turns them into children who will work tirelessly to prevent researchers from coming up with cures that will prevent suffering, restore health, and prolong lives. It will turn some into people who will stop social practices that will prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. It will cause some of them to become people who will demand the execution of others for no reason other than that doing so is their way of pleasing God. It will cause some of them to grow to be adults who will ignore severe harms done to the Earth and its environment because the Rapture will happen long before humans will suffer the long-term consequences of this behavior.

We have to look to the desire to understand why people are motivated to behave in certain ways, and even to understand why they are motivated to believe in certain ways. The desire to serve God explains, at least in part, the denial, the anger, and the sense of meaninglessness that many theists feel in the face of atheism. These are the constant reactions we get from people whose greatest desires are threatened. Unfortunately, in many cases, this cultural thalidomide causes people to behave in ways harmful to others. Effectively reducing this harm means effectively understanding where it comes from. Motivation comes from desire, not from belief.

3 comments:

Miguel Picanco said...

Very nice and intriguing way of reinterpreting the danger of belief issue. Three questions:

1) How does your interpretation fare when looking at the moderately religious who may not have instilled the "sense of duty" desires that you give so much blame?

"Spiritual" people may not have a desire to please a god yet still find atheism to be meaningless. Responses of denial and anger doesn't only come from religious fundamentalists.

2) If the desire to serve god is so blatently viscious, why is the desire to confront such false beliefs (atheistic skepticism) not considered virtuous?

You've given many examples how such a desire would tend to thwart harmful desires. I guess this might boil down to whether it is can also be considered "good" to have a desire that tends to thwart "bad" desires (or those desires that either attempt to fulfill an imaginary divine desire or those that tend to thwart the desires of others.)

3) Can you come up with at least one hypothetical approach to address the problem as you've described?

It'd be nice to take this theory and run with it. You give a great explanation on why the current approaches to the problem fail to produce the desired results. Please tell me your ethical framework can also move outside the realm of hind-sight analyses.

I do understand that desires are most easily molded the earlier in life it is applied, but surely there is at least a few approaches we can take to help "good" people reduce their desire that is causing such harm.. or are we back in the realm of using reason to illustrate their harmful false belief that their actions are indeed causing harm without affecting their desire-as-ends to please god?

anticant said...

What theists usually do when asked to contemplate the possibility that there is no God is to fall back on a series of fallacies and non-sequiturs which usually boil down to the assertion that without God, there would be no solid basis for morality and life would be a hell on earth.

It never seems to occur to them that life is becoming a hell on earth primarily because of the beliefs and activities of religionists of various stripes....

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Miguel Picanco

1) How does your interpretation fare when looking at the moderately religious who may not have instilled the "sense of duty" desires that you give so much blame?

We have more than one desire, and I certainly did not mean to imply that there is only a desire to serve God.

There is also a desire to live forever that religion promises (falsely) to fulfill and atheism threatens - the promise that parents will be reunited with their children.

There is also the in-group loyalty; out-group hostility that I have argued is a basic (though not good) part of human psychology that and which, I have warned, will even infect atheists if they are not careful.

So, this is not suggested as a "theory of everything" but only a theory of some things.


If the desire to serve god is so blatently viscious, why is the desire to confront such false beliefs (atheistic skepticism) not considered virtuous?

Please note that you compared, "is blatently viscious" with "is considered virtuous."

Whereas a proper comparison would be between "is blatently viscious" to "is virtuous" or "Is considered blatently viscious" with "is considered virtuous."

So, you're question is actually asking about an apples-to-oranges comparison.


3) Can you come up with at least one hypothetical approach to address the problem as you've described?

Since desires are not acquired through reason, but through praise and condemnation, one important hypothetical approach is to make sure to warn parents of the dangers of giving their children cultural thalydomide.

Another is to praise reason and condemn duty to God in the presence of children - starting with the children you know, and inviting them to spead the word to their friends.