Three Paradoxes of Atheism
by Neil Shenvi
Historically, one of the most attractive features of atheism has been its claim to stark realism. No matter how unappealing a godless universe may turn out to be, atheists claim to be committed to adhering to the truth at all costs. However, in this essay I would like to show that at the very heart of atheism are several extremely unexpected paradoxes, areas in which atheism is shown to be in tension with a commitment to realism and a life consistent with truth. I’ll work out these paradoxes in three areas: truth-seeking, moral reflection, and moral motivation.
One of the most interesting paradoxes inherent to atheism involves the intrinsic value of truth-seeking. All of us seem naturally inclined as human beings to seek the truth for its own sake, not merely for what benefits the truth can provide. For instance, if someone told us “Believe this religion not because it is true, but because it will improve your marriage and help your career,” most of us would be revolted. And rightly so. But herein lies the first problem: it is very hard for atheists to explain why seeking the truth is intrinsically good or why we are obligated to seek it.
Most atheistic theories of morality appeal to human flourishing as the ultimate good. On this view, what is good is whatever leads to human flourishing. And while that definition does solve some problems, it leads to the very difficult conclusion that truth and truth-seeking are not ultimate goods. Indeed, if seeking the truth on any given subject would diminish human flourishing, then seeking that truth would be evil; we would be morally
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obligated to avoid or suppress knowledge of that truth. A simple example is an elderly Christian woman on her deathbed who faces death joyfully because she believes she is going to be with God and her dead loved ones. Assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek to know the truth of atheism? It would seem that the answer is no. Learning that atheism is true would only make her miserable without providing tangible good (i.e. flourishing) to anyone else. Moreover, it seems that if she were to accost a passing atheist with the question “Is atheism true after all?”, that atheist would be morally obligated either to lie to her or at least to steer her away from the truth of atheism, lest he lead her into misery.
Examples can be easily multiplied, but the essence of the problem is that no atheist can claim that truth-seeking is an intrinsic good or a moral obligation. As a Christian, I can affirm that truth is good and morally obligatory because God loves the truth and commands us to seek it. But if an atheist were to urge me to throw off my religious delusions and embrace the truth of atheism, I would respond “Why? I am happy as a Christian and Christianity has made me into a more loving, compassionate, and generous person. If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”