We can find rational explanations for believing in God (or any other esoteric phenomenon), like consolation or Pascal’s wager. Quite correctly various philosophical and theological thinkers pointed out that none of these can be a basis for individual belief-you either do or don’t. I am not looking for a benefit in my “non-believing.” I actually prefer Douglas Adams’ position, calling myself a “radical atheist” who is deeply convinced that there is no such thing as “God” except in the mind of people choosing the easy way to interpret the world.
When they ask, “But how can you live in a world you presume to be without a meaning, an aim,” they show that they cannot fathom to give meaning to their life themselves. Skepticism does have benefits in that people have to look at the world and decide for themselves, which means to be non-partisan and tolerant of others (until they threaten ones own tolerance and life).
First of all, for me, Pascal’s wager is a profoundly cynical and calculating approach to Christian belief. It’s basically a rational-choice, cost-benefit analysis of a conviction that comes to people-if you believe religious people-non-rationally.
What is more, Pascal’s Wager comes from a Christian perspective, which believes in the persistence of the personality in immaterial form after death, and reward or punishment for that immateriality. Pascal, after all, lived in a monolithically Catholic culture. From this cultural perspective, Pascal’s Wager makes sense because of the tacit, culturally conditioned acceptance of the possibility of eternal punishment in a hell. But when one understands that the existence of an immaterial “soul,” a “heaven,” and a “hell” are not self-evident, but merely culturally and historically contingent beliefs, the “rationality” of Pascal’s Wager disappears.
As to the second question, I find myself puzzled. If Christian faith can be shaken by rational examination of beliefs, then it is not really much of a faith. To charge atheist thinkers with destroying the faith of Christians insults Christians. Are the minds of Christians so weak that the merest whisper of rational enquiry can shatter their worldview, and rob the universe of its wonder? This, it seems to me, was formerly the position of Catholic cultures; therefore, free expression was suppressed.
We no longer live in a culturally or religiously monolithic culture. Christians must accept this, and expect to face challenges to their beliefs at every turn. Otherwise, they can choose to sequester themselves from the hurly burly of American public and academic life. But the impulse to suppress our society’s freedom of thought and expression in order to “safeguard” the religiously faithful is at the core of the dangers of fundamentalism, and from this danger springs a great deal of my repugnance for it, be that fundamentalism Christian or any other kind.
The benefit comes not so much from “not believing” itself but from the process that might lead one to nonbelief: discovering, through the proper study of history, nature, and human nature, the fundamental fact that we are all prone to latching on blindly to such dogmas, be they religious dogmas or political or social ones. It is not through atheism itself that one is freed from these shackles, for atheism can also be a kind of dogma, if embraced for cynical, ideological reasons as it often is.
It is rather through the methods and the intellectual honesty that comes from a true study of human history, reason, and science that one is best equipped to free oneself from all dogmas, and to embrace the challenge of discovering new mysteries for the sake of the inquiry itself, without concern about where the inquiry might lead, if anywhere at all. Finally, such a realization has broad applications in all aspects of life, including politics, business, social, and family life.
The courage to be wrong, an awareness of the frailties of our intuitions, and the willingness to accept mystery are always our best guides in life, and provide us with a deep strength in the humility inherent to such principles, as contrasted with the seductive sound-bites offered by religious doctrine which lead only to hubris.
You cannot think freely within the frameworks of religious faith anymore than you can judge fairly with the prejudices of a bigot. Loss or lack of faith opens up more questions than it answers, of course, but that is the point. What is the point of god other than to provide psychological comfort for those who do not need answers? I really don’t see its value to society.
The benefit of non-belief is a much larger, much more interesting world. As a non-believer I know that the consistent and reliable physical properties of matter control my existence, not an unpredictable deity whose actions and motivations can only be characterized as “mysterious.” I can study science and better understand how I affect and am affected by the world around me. Studying god, at best, allows me to understand the human process of rationalization.
I often wish that I could believe in a god, but alas, one cannot make oneself believe something when your logical mind cannot perceive any evidence to support it. It seems to me that it is (or should be) a high moral principle to always seek the truth. This is the only justification that I have for the value of my non-belief. The god story has no justification and panders to the strong feelings that humans have for purpose, life after death, and someone to watch over them (i.e. it is most convenient and emotionally attractive).
Nevertheless, I wish I could believe it and I would not want to convince others to abandon their faith. If it helps them get through life and doesn’t hurt anyone else, well, that’s good for them. (I feel the same way about drugs.) My only concern is when they begin to;
1. Violate my moral principle (Seek the Truth) by denying the knowledge that science has provided and attempting to convince others of the validity of conflicting religious interpretations of the physical world (e.g. Creationism),
2. Imposing their moral values on others (e.g. homophobia, dress codes, suppression of alternative views, censorship).
Otherwise, Let them enjoy their lovely delusion.