Redating a post on religion and motivation.
When I was in Cambridge, Gary Habermans told me that about the first question he asked Antony Flew as Flew got off the plane from England to engage in the famous (or infamous) "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead" debate with Habermas, was whether Flew thought that everyone wants for theism to be true, and that while theists engage in wishful thinking, nonbelievers are honestly facing the truth. Flew replied that he disagreed with people like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche in this; that he thought that both believers and unbelievers had non-rational motives for believing what they believed. Well, we know what eventually happened to Flew, but I think this is a profound recognition that people on all sides of these issues need to come to terms with. If you read Bertrand Russell's anti-religious writings, you find the following picture: believers believe for emotional reasons, such as the fear of death, the fear of hell, and the fear that the universe should be meaningless. Nonbelievers, on the other hand, have faced the fact that it is 70 years and out, they wouldn't believe unless the evidence pushed them their, since their position is so contrary to what we humans would like to be true.
Consider what how Russell defines free thought:
'The expression "Free Thought" is often used as if it meant merely opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy. But this is only a symptom of free thought, frequent, but invariable. "Free Thought" means thinking freely - as freely, at least, as is possible for a human being.
The person who is free in any respect is free from something; what is the Free Thinker free from? To be worthy of the name, he must be free of two things; the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passions. No one is completely free from either, but in the measure of a man’s emancipation he deserves to be called a Free Thinker.
A man is not to be denied this title because he happens, on some point, to agree with the theologians of his country. An Arab who, starting from the first principles of human reason, is able to deduce that the Koran was not created, but existed eternally in heaven, may be counted as a Free Thinker, provided he is willing to listen to counter arguments and subject his ratiocination to critical scrutiny.
What makes a Free Thinker is not his beliefs, but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought, he finds a balance of evidence in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.' - Bertrand Russell, "The Value of Free Thought"
Notice that while Russell thinks that the class of Christian freethinkers could have members, in fact he thinks the class of actual Christian freethinkers to be empty.
I was myself at one time officially concerned in the appointment of a philosophy
professor in an important American university; all the others agreed that of course he must be a good Christian. Practically all philosophers of any intellectual eminence are openly or secretly freethinkers; the insistence on orthodoxy therefore necessitated the appointment of a nonentity or a humbug.
Couldn't they have gotten one of those Christian freethinkers? Apparently, in actuality he thought there were none. All the irrational motives are on the side of belief, all the rational motives are on the side of nonbelief.
If you defending theism and talking to someone who believes this sort of thing, I can guarantee you that it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to get anywhere. Whatever reason you give them, they are automatically going to assume that whatever "reasons" you give for the hope that is in you are not the real reasons; the real reasons are that you are afraid of death, afraid of hell, afraid that the universe should be meaningless, or maybe afraid of sex (Russell forgot that one, I have no idea why). Now there are theists would talk the same way; they think people are afraid to submit to God and are looking for any possible excuse to avoid believing.
I think that if you are in dialogue about belief and unbelief this is what you ought to get cleared up before the discussion goes any further.
Consider the following passage from C. S. Lewis: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed” – perhaps the most reluctant convert in all of England ." Are you inclined to read this and say, naah, it couldn't be true. Lewis had to have really
wanted to believe, or he would never have been able to.
But what about unbeliever Thomas Nagel? Is he telling the truth when he says:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper - namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. (1997)
I think it's almost impossible to get anywhere in a discussion with someone who really thinks that all the irrational motivations are on the other side. But are they all on the side of the theists. Well, let's put it this way. We know that Bertrand Russell was committing adultery at the age of 80. Wouldn't coming to accept Christianity at any point in his adult life require some, well, massive lifestyle changes? Besides, is it very pleasant to believe that there is someone who in existence who has an absolute, non-negotiable right, power, and authority to issue commandments? Did Russell really think that there was only reason underlying his unbelief, and not some very powerful non-rational motives.
Now I'm perfectly happy to see the motive arguments cancel each other out. Then we can start talking about the pros and cons of these matters with a level playing field. But if you are arguing with someone who thinks that all the irrational motives are on the other side, then you are going to face a burden of proof that will be almost impossible to overcome, unless you address the motivational issue first.