This is something of a follow-up to my last post, “The problem of evil as an opportunity for spiritual growth,” which I wrote way last March. The issue has once again been nagging at me for the last week or so.
The brief background is that I tend to think that a deep appreciation of the force of the problem of evil requires one to abandon the narrow self-interested perspective. Or perhaps this is better put in this way: the more we move away from self-centered-ness, the more we embrace the interests of others as our own, the more forceful the problem of evil will become for us. Furthermore, it seems to me that many of the world’s spiritual traditions assert that spiritual progress involves abandoning the narrow self-focused perspective. Isn’t this the essence of Jesus’ rather radical suggestion that we should love our neighbors as ourselves? Thus, a proper appreciation of the problem of evil involves spiritual development, and spiritual development thus leads to disbelief in God.
I have two thoughts connected to the issue. First, it seems that I am assuming that belief in God yields benefits even if God does not exist. And that thus there is a self-interested incentive to believe, an interest beyond the desire to believe the truth. I, as someone who currently does not believe that God exists, have a desire to believe the truth (that’s why I disbelieve, by the way). So if it can be shown that there is good reason to think that God does exist, then I have an interest in believing. But it seems to me that the reasons that people usually give in favor of belief in God go beyond epistemic reasons. Every theist that I know believes that believing in God carries with it benefits other than having one’s beliefs conform to the truth. There are many different accounts of what these benefts are, so let’s just focus on one: the Christian conception. According to Christianity, belief that Jesus is the son of God and that He died for the sins of humanity entails that one’s sins will be forgiven. (I am ignoring subtleties concerning whether there are additional requirements for salvation along with parallel concerns about the nature of belief and faith.) Added to this is the additional benefit of believing that one has achieved or will achieve salvation. Undoubtedly it is wanting this benefit that motivates many people to profess Christianity. Notice that this additional benefit does not require the existence of God and that, for many people, it will involve many other benefits involving, for example, increased self-esteem, feeling that life is meaningful and worth living, etc. Thus believing in the Christian God yields benefits even if God does not exist. Thus there is a self-interested incentive to believe in the Christian God. (Did I really need this whole paragraph to establish this?)
The other point I have been trying to get a handle on concerns the ethics of belief. I am willing to grant that the problem of evil (in whatever form) does not prove that God does not exist. My point is only that it gives us reason to doubt and that this doubt will be felt all the more strongly as we make spiritual progress by abandoning the self-centered perspective. I am at a bit of an impasse about how to formulate this. I am tempted to say that, in the face of the kind of doubt that the problem of evil generates, disbelief is more ethical than belief. The problem is that I doubt that this kind of principle holds in general.