Meta-atheism, Death by Accident, and the Mysteries of Religious Experience

For some time I have been persuaded by Georges Rey’s account of meta-atheism. (Georges was one of my teachers at Maryland.) His claim is that many people who say they believe in God don’t really. It’s not that people are lying about what they really believe. It’s just that we’re often wrong about our own beliefs. (Our own beliefs are just another thing to have beliefs about, and we can get it wrong about our own beliefs just like we can get it wrong about anything else.)

This weekend, I had a thought which is a version of Georges’s point (6) in favor of meta-atheism. Here’s point (6):

(6) Betrayal by Reactions and Behavior People’s reactions and behavior (e.g. grief, mourning) do not seem seriously affected by their supposed “belief” in a Hereafter. Imagine a young “believing” couple. He is dying from a painful disease. Would she really rejoice at the prospect of his going to heaven, and of joining him herself when she dies, as though he’d just gone off for a great –eternal!- cure in a luxurious resort in Miami? I betcha she’d grieve and mourn “the loss” like anyone else. (Note that most all religious music and rituals surrounding death are deeply sad -seldom, if ever, joyous).

In a related vein, if people really believe in the efficacy of prayer, they should be willing to have the National Institute of Health do a controlled study of the effects of prayer, just as they would if they believed that soy beans cured cancer. (And why does no one expect prayer to cure wooden legs?)

Let it not be said that Georges is an ideal diplomat to the theistic community. Nevertheless, I believe his observations are sound.

In a fit of Beckerite rational choice reasoning, I decided that theists ought to have higher rates of death by accident. If I believe that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my maker. Suicide is a disqualification for paradise, but dying in a car accident isn’t. So, one should expect that theists who believe in perpetual Miami would take more risks than those who do not so believe, and that thus, death-by-accident ought to be higher among believer than non-believers.

My guess is that there is no difference in rates of death-by-accident among believers and non-believers. If my guess is correct, then there’s another reason to believe that many people don’t really believe in God, even though they think they do. Or, at least, there’s a reason for rational choice economists to believe meta-atheism.

All this was stimulated by a Ross Douthat post that touches on Orwell’s attitude toward a character in a Graham Greene novel. Orwell:

Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women . . .


If he really felt that adultery is a mortal sin, he would stop committing it. This is astonishingly obtuse, and something that could only be written by the most bloodless and Puritanical of Christians — or by a devout atheist like Orwell. For him, I suspect (and perhaps for Hitchens?), the always-upright Christian is fairly comprehensible: he has his dogmas and he lives by them, with the same lack of nuance, backsliding, and self-doubt that Orwell brought to his staunch unbelief. Whereas understanding the tormented Christian, the questing agnostic, the atheist who takes a gamble on God and the Catholic who commits suicide — the stock-in-trade of Greene’s great novels, in other words — requires an imaginative leap into religious experience that an atheistic critic is often ill-equipped to make.

The Orwell’s astonishing bit of obtuseness (“obtusity”?) is the core of Georges’ point (6) and my little Beckerite addendum. Is Georges obtuse on this point? Am I? Well, let’s concede the possibility of weakness of will. Discount rates won’t help here because no matter how sharply you discount infinite bliss, it’s still infinite. But if I truly believe the hype about my celestial reward, or my infernal punishment, how can I fail so utterly to align my actions with my incentives. Ross’s point makes it sound like it is obtuse to question the coherence of a character who truly and hosetly loves life, but flings himself from a rooftop anyway.

I submit that meta-atheism is the key to understanding the “nuance, backsliding, and self-doubt” that Ross sets out as central to the religious experience. Many of us believe that we believe because the social and psychological benefits of appearing to be a believer seem to us greater than the costs, and the most compelling way to appear a believer, but to avoid the behavioral costs of actual belief, is to earnestly but falsely believe that one believes.

Our “faith” is shaken when we find we cannot stop cheating on our wife, or whatever our transgression may be, because, on some level, we know that if we really believed what we believe we believed, cheating on our wife would be psychologically impossible — like peeling the skin off your screaming baby out of sheer boredom. Yet the general value of our self-deception is so high that we cast about looking to preserve it. If our religion is a good one, well-adapted to survive in the forbidding habitat of a human psyche, it will tell us that we are fundamentally and irremediably broken, flawed, and unsuited to virtue. And THAT explains why we can be so abjectly and arbitrarily irrational. So grateful are we for the explanation of the possibility of our misbehavior, and thus the possibility of retaining the deep benefits of religious conviction and a religious form of life, we redouble our faith in our faith, and our religion tightens it’s embrace on us we tighten our embrace on it.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center