Noah Smith: Go Ahead and Believe in God

I am delighted to host another religion post by Noah Smith, the second-most-frequently-appearing preacher on This one I don’t fully agree with; my comments appear after Noah’s post. Noah:

Facts are the enemy of truth!
— Miguel de Cervantes*

Suppose you had a chip in your brain that could let you believe, or disbelieve, anything you wanted to. Now look at the nearest wall. You probably believe that the wall exists - that it’s real, that it’s there, and that if you walked toward it, you’d eventually bump into it. But suppose that, with your awesome chip, you could make yourself disbelieve in the wall. Would you?

Well, it might be a bad idea to do so. Because then you’d be putting yourself in danger - if you walked into the wall, you would get hurt, whether you believed the wall was real or not. It’s simply convenient and useful to believe in the wall’s existence.

This idea is called "pragmatism”, and it gives us a handy answer to the old question of “What if none of this is real, and we’re all in the Matrix?” Pragmatism says that “real” is really just “real enough”. Walking into a wall in the Matrix hurts just as much as walking into a real wall would. It behooves you to believe in the wall.

So should you believe in God or not? Some atheists tell us that we shouldn’t believe in God because there’s no evidence of God’s existence. You may stub your toe on a wall, they say, but if the past is any guide, you will not stub your toe on God.

But these atheists are not thinking pragmatically. Even if they’re right that there’s no evidence of God, that does not necessarily mean that it’s a bad idea to believe in God.

Assuming that the atheists are right - that there is no evidence for or against God’s existence, and never will be - what will happen if you do believe in God? Well, there might be some positive consequences. You might feel better about the world. You might fear death less. You might have more of a reason to do good things for other people.

These consequences would be a lot more positive than, say, avoiding stubbing your toe on a wall.

Of course, atheists might point out that there could also be negative consequences of believing in God. You might become self-righteous. You might become violent against people of other religions. You might become lazy, believing that the next life matters more than the one you’re living now.

But there is a way to avoid these dangers: Don’t subscribe to a religious dogma. Pick and choose your religious beliefs. Yes, we are all born with the ability to do this - we don’t need any chip in our brain. Don’t believe that God tells you that you’re superior to other people. Don’t believe that God commands you to wage holy war against the infidel. Don’t believe that God trivializes the life you’re living now.

But for many people, believing in God can make their lives better. If you’re one of these people, then go for it. Believe in God. And believe in a God that tells you to do stuff that’s good for your life - to treat other people well, be happy, work hard, etc. Believe these things not because you have evidence for them, and not because you desire them to be true, but because it behooves you to believe them.

“OK,” you may say, “but I’m not a pragmatist. I’m a positivist. I believe only in things I have evidence for. I value objective truth.” Fine, Mr. Positivist. I will not denigrate your epistemology. Have fun wondering whether or not you live in the Matrix!

Miles: I am enough of a believer that it is a religious duty to believe the truth that I don’t don’t agree, but I will have to think deeply for some time for sound reasons why I don’t agree–that in any case you are on to something deep. Then I can do a religion post of my own sometime later giving my answer.

Of course, the beautiful irony is, by believing it is a religious duty to believe the truth, I am doing exactly the sort of thing Noah recommends!