A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists

by David V. Johnson

UnamumoIn “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.

“The main thing,” San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, “is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all.”

When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them,” San Manuel tells him. “It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”

Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.

The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. (“I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …”) What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.

I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.

The question is why.

* * *

I like to follow the practice of philosopher Mark Johnston and label the Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris trinity and their followers the “undergraduate atheists.” And risking oversimplication, I would summarize their view with the following statement:

Humanity would be better off without religious belief.

This view — call it the Undergraduate Atheists' Thesis (UAT) — asks us to compare two different lines of human history, one in which the vast majority of human beings have held and continue to hold religious beliefs, and one in which they haven't and don't. Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario.

I am an atheist who was raised Catholic and, like Lazaro, I am also someone who frets about the public's general lack of scientific understanding. Yet I am deeply skeptical of UAT.

First, demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.

My impression of UAT advocates is that they think it obvious that human beings would be better off without religion. Their typical mode of argument suggests this. They tend to argue by piling up a litany of anecdotes that, in total, suggest such a massive sum of evil from religion that it tips the scales so strongly toward the negative that a more careful weighing is unnecessary. But I remain unconvinced. In fact, I suspect the scales might tip the other way.

Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno's. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence. This mental state is, I submit, so important to human happiness that people are willing to suffer and die for it, and do so gladly.

As someone who knows what it's like from the inside to be a believer, I suspect that I'm better able to appreciate this point than the undergraduate atheists, who perhaps never grew up as part of a faith. For them, the only thing worth calculating is the objective consequences of religious superstition. But that would represent a gross error.

Under the comparative scenario on which UAT rests, we are to imagine, as far as we are able, a course of human history without religious belief. This is exceedingly difficult to do, since religion is nearly universal across cultures. Yes, in this alternate universe, there would be no religious wars — but I suspect there would be wars. There would be no superstition — but I suspect there would be nonsense and folly all the same. But what this universe would lack is the ability of human beings to have religious faith and reap its subjective psychological benefits. I submit that this would be a huge net negative for humanity, even if we granted that the religious universe would have more war, more intolerance and more folly than the non-religious one — something I'm not willing to grant.

* * *

A related problem for this alternative scenario: Some researchers have suggested that there is a natural tendency in human beings, perhaps even grounded in their neuropsychology, that leads them to form religious beliefs. If this is true, the alternative scenario under UAT would have human beings like us — i.e. ones who have a tendency (dare I say a need?) for religious belief — who nevertheless lacked the resources to form such beliefs. That sounds to me like a recipe for mass misery.

Or suppose that in the alternative universe, human beings would not have this tendency towards religion. They would not be quite like us. Let us call them “Dawkinsians.” They would be like human beings in every respect, including their stupidity, impulsiveness and tribalism, but they would lack any tendency toward forming religious beliefs. They would certainly lack the psychological boon from religion, but they would also somehow not have the need for it. They couldn't all be like David Hume, meeting death without blinking — that would be unfair. (Of course humanity would be better off if everyone were like David Hume!) What would it be like, from the inside, to be a Dawkinsian in a world of fellow Dawkinsians? To be a human-like creature, but to be satisfied with the rational belief that there is no God, no ultimate meaning or goodness to the universe, no life after death, and so on. Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion. If they didn't, then Dawkinsians are a species that is so unlike ours that it's not a fair comparison.

Note that I do not need to secure agreement with the conclusion that humanity with religion is better off than without. All I need to put UAT in doubt is the consideration that a full investigation into its truth would require calculating not only all the good and bad objective consequences of religious belief versus the good and bad of a world without belief — wars, intolerance, violence, etc. — but also the subjective psychological consequences of human beings with religious belief versus humans without. If you believe that this is a hopelessly complicated task, you have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.

Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.