Do WMDs Make Religion Too Risky?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

On his blog, philosopher Eric Kaplan posed a serious question (paraphrased here):

If our weapons can destroy all life on earth, can we still afford to believe in a God who plays favorites?

People sometimes claim that God is "... 'my guy (or lady) and definitely not yours.'"

A minister made that kind of claim to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War: "Mr. President, God is on our side."

Lincoln had the right response: "Let us pray simply that we are on His."

The belief that "God is on our side" is dangerous in a world of proliferating nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

But we shouldn't confuse the primitive idea of God with the more rational idea of a transcendent God who defines the moral framework of the universe. That confusion leads thoughtful people to reject the idea of God altogether. The argument goes like this:

  1. Belief in a transcendent God is unsupportable.
  2. Belief in a transcendent God causes war.
  3. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) make war too dangerous to risk.
  4. Therefore, belief in a transcendent God is too dangerous to risk.

Let's examine the argument. For simplicity, I'll define WMDs just as nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

Premise 1: Belief in God is unsupportable.

Premise 1 depends on what we mean by "support." On logical grounds, premise 1 is almost true by definition. If God is transcendent, then we can't understand anything positive about Him: an affirmation of faith amounts to "I believe in blank." Thinkers such as Maimonides have found no satisfying answers beyond what's called "negative theology:" we can't know what God is, but we can know what He isn't.1

However, if you take a wider view of "support," then belief in God is indeed supportable. Whatever it means, it can often:

  • Strengthen people's determination to act morally.
    If you think that God will hold you accountable for your actions, it's easier to do good and avoid doing harm. That's why Maimonides regarded such accountability as "a necessary belief."
  • Strengthen people's confidence in the value of life.
    If you are fearful or unhappy, belief in Divine love and justice can ease your suffering, reassure you, and help you move forward with your life.
  • Strengthen people's ability to form peaceful, stable, happy communities.
    Like lower animals, humans tend to trust, help, and cooperate with others who they perceive as their genetic kin. Unlike lower animals, humans unconsciously use other people's beliefs as a sign of kinship. A widely-shared belief in God can promote social harmony.

Theism amounts to a denial that only the physical universe exists.2 Believers claim to sense that there's "something more:" a moral and spiritual dimension. They can't explain it and they can't prove it -- any more than logical positivists could explain love or justice, both of which are quite real. Such things can neither be proven nor disproven in a scientific sense.

Premise 2: Belief in God causes wars.

Premise 2 observes that belief in God can also strengthen people's determination to act immorally. As physicist (and avowed atheist) Steven Weinberg argued:

"With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

He's 95 percent right. It's "the missing five percent" that's his blind spot.

What good people need to do evil things isn't religion: it's a belief that their actions are morally right. That belief might have nothing to do with religion. Countless wars, atrocities, and mass murders have been justified on secular and "scientific" grounds.

Nazis waged war and committed mass murder in the name of racial purity and Lebensraum. Communists waged war and committed mass murder to speed up what they saw as the inexorable progress of history. Wars occur even among lower primates such as chimps. Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky noted that:

"The male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own."

Sapolsky added:

"Is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into 'us' and 'them' and go to war over these categories?"

War is caused by human nature, not by belief in God. However, unlike lower animals, we are not enslaved by our aggressive impulses. Even if it's difficult, we can override them and resolve conflicts peacefully. Enlightened religious faith can help us do it.

Premise 3: WMDs make war too dangerous to risk.

In the 12th century, it was the crossbow that made war too dangerous to risk. Since then, people have made the same claim about many new weapons.

But in perspective, our era's "weapons of mass destruction" really are different. Earlier weapons could never have wiped out all life on earth. Our weapons might not do it either, but they could.

That said, nuclear weapons have been around for 75 years and haven't been used since 1945. We've had a few close calls, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis -- which was apparently a lot closer than people knew at the time. But we've survived.

At least since the late 1940s, thoughtful people have argued for the abolition of WMDs. It hasn't happened. I think that almost everyone wishes it would, but no one believes that it will.

Our best hope is that we can continue to manage an awful situation without killing ourselves. Belief in God is probably a neutral factor. If God exists, He might give us some help with the problem: Just a suggestion in case He reads this blog.

Conclusion (4): Therefore, belief in God is too risky.

By my count, premises 1 and 2 are false, and we can't do anything about premise 3. Therefore, the conclusion (4) is unsupported.

Whether or not belief in God is true, and in what sense, it is not too risky. It has both positive and negative effects. Which effects it will have is up to us.

Footnotes

  1. In Chapter 11 of Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things, I argue that beliefs about God have meaning by their connections to other beliefs about God and the transcendent. However, the meaning applies only within the network of connected theological beliefs.
  2. In ordinary practical reasoning, theists often use anthropomorphic ideas of God because it's efficient for their purpose. Cognitive scientist Jason Slone calls it "theological incorrectness."

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."