In th final chapter of The Last Word, “Naturalism and the Fear of Religion,” he talks about the role the fear of religion plays in much thought today. In doing so he highlights some Platonistic elements in the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce, who, he maintains, is not the pragmatist that he is typically thought to be. He maintains that people have taken Peirce’s pragmatic theory of belief as central to his philosophy, when he actually maintained that belief (as defined somewhat idiosyncratically by Peirce, oriented around what we act on) had no place in science, which Peirce regarded as the pure pursuit of truth. What Peirce is presupposing, to which Nagel finds a great deal that is congenial, is the idea that there is an inherent sympathy between our minds and nature that permit us to know it. This involves something that is true of reason itself, and not merely about how we think. This, he believes, moves us toward rationalism as opposed to empiricism in epistemology, and to a position that has what he calls a quasi-religious ring to it. He writes.
I admit that this idea---that the capacity of the universe to generate organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe is itself somehow a fundamental feature of the universe---has a quasi-religious “ring” to it, something vaguely Spinozistic. Still, it is this idea, or something like it, which Peirce seems to endorse in the passages I have quoted. And I think one can admit such an enrichment of the fundamental elements of the natural order without going over to anything that should count literally as a religious belief. At no point does any of it imply the existence of a divine person, or a world soul.
Here the fear of religion plays a role. He admits that he, like many secular philosophers, has an aversion to accepting arguments that might lead to religious beliefs. While religious believers are often accused of drawing their conclusions because of wishful thinking and an unwillingness to give up their cherished religious beliefs, Nagel thinks that the desire to avoid religious conclusions drives many thinkers to accept reductionism and scientism without adequate justification. He writes:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean the entirely reasonable hostility to certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to association of many religious beliefs with superstition and acceptance of evident empirical false hoods. I am talking about something 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, I hope that I am right in my belief. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Nagel refers to these desires as the Cosmic Authority Problem.
Sometimes this passage in Nagel is used to as an admission of the irrationality of atheism, a position described by Randal Rauser as the Rebellion Thesis. I do not see this passage as an admission of irrationality. Many Christians hope that there is a God, and want the universe to be a theistic universe. This in and of itself doesn’t prove that they are irrational in believing in God. I hope my wife is faithful, and have excellent reason to believe that she is. However, some in the debate concerning theism maintain that only theists could possibly have ulterior motives for what they believe, while atheists could only deny God because the evidence leads them to do this, that no non-rational motives could possibly be operative in them. This is the “No Nonrational Motive Thesis,” a thesis often held by people who hold what I will call the Wish Fulfillment Thesis. According to the Wish Fulfillment thesis, religious beliefs are invariably held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary through the force of the wish on the part of believers that it be true. The idea behind the No Nonrational Motive Thesis is that the prospect of extinction when we die, and the absence of any given purpose for our existence, is so unhospitable to the human mind that only the absence of good evidence in its favor could possibly motivate anyone to reject religious beliefs. In my view, the Cosmic Authority Problem refutes this contention.
As opposed to the Wish Fulfillment Thesis and the Rebellion Thesis, I am inclined to accept the Cancellation Thesis, proposed by C. S. Lewis in “On Obstinacy of Belief.” He writes:
Thus instead of the one predicament on which our opponents sometimes concentrate there are in fact four. A man may be a Christian because he wants Christianity to be true. He may be an atheist because he wants atheism to be true. He may be an atheist be-cause he wants Christianity to be true. He may be a Christian because he Wants atheism to be true. Surely these possibilities cancel one another out? They may be of some use in analysing a particular instance of belief or disbelief, where we know the case history, but as a general explanation of either they will not help us. I do not think they overthrow the view that there is evidence both for and against the Christian propositions which fully rational minds, working honestly, can assess differently.
For Nagel, the Cosmic Authority Problem accounts for the “ludicrous overuse” of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. He thinks we should resist the intellectual effects of the fear of religion in much the same way that we should resist the wish to accept religion. However, he thinks that atheists can absorb a belief in irreducible mind-world relations just as one can accept the irreducibility of the laws of physics. Thus, while he thinks that this irreducibility doesn’t actually support theism, nevertheless the fear of religion leads many naturalistic thinkers to reject this kind of irreducibility.