Argument from Intellectualism

By Ian Huyett

August 24, 2016

Category: Theism

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A Neglected Argument for God’s Existence

Ian Huyett

          A plethora of large, demographically-controlled studies have now demonstrated that theists are happier, healthier, and live longer lives than atheists. We will soon review some of this research. For now, suffice it to say that committed atheists who have examined these studies – among them Louis Wolpert and Phil Zuckerman – have conceded the point.

Indeed, Wolpert, has tried to use the point to his advantage. During a debate with William Lane Craig, Wolpert claimed that, if you believe in theism, “you feel better. And that, I regret to tell you, is why you believe in it. And that really is the origin of religion. People who have religious beliefs are on the whole healthier – not much healthier, don’t get carried away by it. But you do do better on the whole.”[1]

Zuckerman’s attitude is rather more begrudging. He writes that –although he finds fault with some of the relevant research – “the fact still remains that a preponderance of studies do indicate that secular people don’t seem to fare as well as their religious peers when it comes to selected aspects of psychological well-being.”[2] Zuckerman also cites atheist writer Alain de Botton, who has urged atheists to bolster their well-being by emulating certain aspects of religious practice.[3]

Whether atheists can produce an apple without an apple tree will be considered during our review of the relevant research. It is significant, however, that some atheists recognize that they do not presently have the apple. The question at hand, therefore, is whether the apple is epistemologically desirable.

Theists themselves, tragically, continue to essentially ignore the wealth of data to which Wolpert and Zuckerman refer. Many assume that it has no bearing on the truth of theism. Others, accepting the frame in which Wolpert has tried to place the debate, go on the defensive, treating this research merely as a threat to be answered lest it “explain away” theistic belief. I submit, however, that Zuckerman is closer to the mark. Far from being a threat to theism, the benefits of theism amount to an epistemic marble quarry for the natural theologian: one from which we can derive several commanding arguments for God’s existence. I will propose one such argument here.

Consider, briefly, the human-centric account of morality which atheists typically espouse. Atheists often state that, on atheism, our moral duties are rooted in promoting human well-being, or “human flourishing.” This is the first premise in our argument.

Now, suppose we press an atheist with the evidence under discussion. In response, the cornered atheist will quickly espouse what the philosopher William James called “intellectualism”: the view that the benefits which a belief yields in practice are not relevant to its truth value.

Assuming that the pursuit of truth is one of our moral duties, an atheist who affirms these premises together has been brought to bay. In combination, the premises render atheism false and its negation true. In other words:

  1. If God does not exist, moral duties are rooted in promoting human well-being.

  2. We have a moral duty to pursue truth at the expense of human well-being.

  3. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is logically sound: we need only defend each premise in order to establish the truth of its conclusion. Let us begin by considering premise 2.

Although this premise sounds counterintuitive, I have found that it requires essentially no effort to induce an atheist to affirm it. Having presented several versions of this argument to a number of atheists, in fact, I have never seen an atheist fail to make a statement, or set of statements, which is logically equivalent to premise 2.

Notably, I am not myself an intellectualist: in fact, I am confident that premise 2 is false. Nor do I believe premise 1 is true. This is of no consequence, however, as the goal of the argument is to reveal that the atheist must revert to premises which together require the truth of theism. The argument can be made either by a non-intellectualist, like myself, or an intellectualist.

I recognize, of course, that an atheist can easily escape from both premises by affirming nihilism. Yet atheists, as a rule, are reluctant to paint themselves into so unappealing a corner. In rhetorical terms, moreover, an atheist who finds himself compelled to affirm nihilism has lost the debate. Let us therefore stipulate that a refutation of nihilism is beyond the scope of this essay.

A brief survey of some of the research under discussion is now necessary. In their 2006 paper “Deliver us from evil: Religion as insurance,” researchers Andrew Clark and Orsolya Lelkes considered data sets encompassing, in total, several thousand people. They concluded that those who believe in God are happier than those who do not. Their research showed that activities like praying and attending worship serve to bolster well-being – and that atheists suffer heightened psychological damage from divorce or the death of a partner. [4]

Additionally, a five-year study by David Campbell and Robert Putnam found that people who attend religious services are more inclined to be “neighborly” than those who don’t. Not only did the authors control for one’s number of friends, but they discovered that “While having more friends is, for civic purposes, better than having fewer friends, what matters most is having friends within a religious congregation.” The study showed that Americans who regularly attend worship services volunteer for the poor and elderly more than their less devout peers. It even found that religious Americans donate more to secular charities than do secular Americans. [5]

Finally, in a seven-year follow-up to the 1987 National Health Interview Survey, researchers controlled for education, income, marital status, number of friends, number of relatives, smoking, alcohol use, and broad indexes of health and behavior. They found that people who never attended religious services had an 87% higher risk of dying during the follow up period – giving the religious, on average, about seven additional years of life. [6]

An atheist who is told about this research may at first resist it. Briefly, this resistance is likely to take the form of two objections. First, atheists may posit that these benefits are not coming from theistic faith as such, but from some intermediary variable which theism happens to promote. Second, atheists may emphasize that some atheistic countries, like Sweden, earn impressive average scores on tests of subjective well-being.

The first objection ignores the fact that this research is demographically controlled. As Campbell and Putnam have noted, religious friendships are more beneficial than friendships in general. Religious people, then, are not more neighborly merely because they tend to have more friends than atheists. The data, therefore, suggests that one needs an apple tree to grow apples.

The second objection is curiously unscientific. The atheist who makes it is responding to carefully controlled research by insisting that we zoom out, so to speak, and control for fewer variables. To insist that we look at large and uncontrolled groups rather than like-to-like comparisons is to back away from the scientific method when it yields results one does not like.

Once these two objections have been answered, atheists will typically respond with something logically equivalent to premise 2. Even atheists who persist in offering these objections, moreover, will nonetheless volunteer premise 2, urging that atheism would survive even if their scientific objections were overcome.

Let us now consider premise 1. As I have indicated, I personally find this premise implausible and arbitrary. Why, on atheism, are moral duties rooted in the well-being of humans rather than insects? Supposing intelligence makes human life more inviolable than insect life, would not an artificial or alien entity with correspondingly greater intelligence possess correspondingly greater moral value? For our purposes, however, the upshot of this premise is that, if we have moral duties which are rooted in something other than promoting human well-being – or, if one prefers, the well-being of intelligent organisms – then God exists.

As already noted, an atheist may escape from this premise by affirming nihilism. One other method by which the atheist might escape from it is through atheism-Platonism, a view according to which God does not exist, but moral duties somehow issue forth from invisible transcendent “forms.”

This view appears to be common among contemporary atheist philosophers: an interesting trend, given that atheists often assail theism as evidentially inadequate. Christian philosophers, remarkably, rarely seem to make an issue of the epistemic hypocrisy of their atheist-Platonist colleagues. I suspect this phenomenon is the result of an “Emperor’s New Forms” effect: that is, atheism-Platonism possesses an aura of academic respectability despite the fact an ordinary person can plainly identify it as a rank contradiction when it is explained to him. Nonetheless, a Christian philosopher who is hesitant to penetrate this aura need not avoid my argument: the fact is that most atheists do not identify as Platonists, are unaware of the prevalence of Platonism among atheist philosophers, and are hesitant to affirm it when it is suggested.

Additionally, in order for an atheist to use Platonism to escape from this argument, he must espouse a very peculiar form of Platonism, whereby an invisible form somehow impels us to forfeit our health, happiness, and longevity in pursuit of intellectualist truth. This is especially problematic if one believes, as William James did, that intellectualism is “perverse abstraction-worship.” The atheist’s morbid Platonism brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s injunction to build one’s habitation “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.”[7] Notably, Russell later stated that “A Free Man’s Worship” – the essay in which he offered this injunction – was based “upon a metaphysic which is more platonic than that which I now believe in.”[8]

Not only do atheists commonly affirm premise 1, then, but the options for escaping premise 1 pose serious problems for the atheist. When confronted with the research under discussion, an atheist can be counted on to affirm premise 2. Together, these premises require that God exists.

[1] Wolpert, Lewis, and William Lane Craig. “Is God a Delusion?” Central Hall, Westminster, UK. Jan. 2009. Debate.

[2] Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” Sociology Compass 3.6 (2009): 949-71.

[3] Zuckerman, Phil. Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. New York: Penguin, 2014. 223. (“Alain de Botton recognized in his wonderful book Religion for Atheists that there is much in religion that is beautiful, touching, effective, and wise… Religious life is often full of music, food, festivity, tradition, and joy. Religion, both its theism as well as its communal dynamics, can often inspire altruism and charity, goodwill and humanity… As social psychologist Bob Altemeyer has acknowledged, ‘Believing intensely in a religion brings an enormous number of rewards.’”). See also de Botton, Alain. “Atheism 2.0.” TEDGlobal. 2011. Lecture.

[4] Clark, Andrew, and Orsolya Lelkes. “Deliver Us from Evil: Religion as Insurance.” Papers on Economics of Religion (2005): 1-36. See also Petre, Jonathan. “‘Believers Are Happier than Atheists'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 18 Mar. 2008.

[5] Campbell, David, and Robert Putnam. “Religious people are ‘better neighbors'” USA Today. 14 Nov. 2010.

[6] Hummer, Robert A., Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison. “Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality.” Demography 36.2 (1999): 273. See also University Of Colorado At Boulder. “Research Shows Religion Plays A Major Role In Health, Longevity.” Science Daily. 17 May 1999.

[7] Russell, Bertrand. “A Free Man’s Worship.” Why I Am Not a Christian. Philadelphia: R.P. Pryne, 2015.

[8] Id.