No sooner do I post on the difference between principled and practical concerns than someone on my Twitter feed links to an article from Psychology Today that highlights the very issue at hand. It must be a miracle.
In a post entitled “When Belief in God is Rational,” Nathan Heflick suggests that the fear of death makes belief in God rational. And this is where I facepalm. Speaking of the solace that some people might gain from believing in God and an afterlife, Heflick writes, “Definitions of rationality vary. But I tend to think of rationality as being consistent. If death has such a sting, and if God gives people such comfort, then how is this irrational? It seems like a logical solution to the problem of death.”
If you’re left blinking in confusion at that quote, you’re not alone. There’s so much wrong here that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let me just point out a few things before I hit the big point. First, not just any god will get you a “solution to the problem of death.” You need a god that offers some kind of afterlife, and not all gods do. Further, you also need some way for things like us, people, to be able to have an afterlife, something like a soul. This goes beyond a belief in some god, and it’s important to note that. Also, most gods who lord over some kind of Heaven also have something like Hell. That means there might not be much solace in believing in any such entity. After all, you might go to Hell rather than Heaven, and that’s no fun for all eternity. Further, you don’t technically need a god here at all. If you’re just believing in something to get out of a fear of death, to get something like Heaven, why not drop the god-belief and just believe in Heaven alone? I don’t see where a god helps with the issue. Next, there is little reason to think that people who believe in this kind of stuff are actually rational in the sense of being consistent. That is, it is quite likely that they are inconsistent in applying whatever standard for belief they have. I can’t imagine that most people who believe in some god or Heaven typically accept things explicitly without good reason, on faith only, the way they do this special class of it-makes-me-happy beliefs. Rather, I think it’s a good bet that they typically require some kind of evidence as a ground for their beliefs, and I further bet that the more fantastic some claim, the more evidence they require. For example, if I were to tell most people that I had ET in my closet, they would demand something like seeing it before they would believe that such was, in fact, the case, and might very well demand more than that. Most theists share this demand for evidence in general. Clearly, then, there is little like consistency here, and if, as Heflick claims, consistency is the hallmark of rationality, these people are absolutely not rational.
All the above out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this claim, that it is rational to believe something that makes you happy. That’s absurd. Being as charitable as possible, Heflick is at best offering an argument that it is prudent, that it is practical, to believe in some god. After all, even using Heflick’s definition of consistency as what makes a belief rational, what does comfort have to do with that at all? What does happiness have to do with coherence? Nothing. What Heflick has done is mistake a practical concern for a principled one. He has made exactly the kind of error about which I wrote in my last post. It’s a goofy error, especially in the way Heflick makes the mistake. No amount of good feeling will ever make an argument or belief rational or consistent. Your feelings about something and the practical results of that belief simply have nothing to do with whether or not such is a rational belief to hold.