A certain popular writer speaks of a God delusion. This prompts the query whether there might be a 'No God' delusion. Is it perhaps the case that atheism is a delusion? Bruce Charlton, M. D. , returns an affirmative answer in Is Atheism Literally a Delusion? In this post I will try to understand his basic argument and see if I should accept it. The following is my reconstruction of the core of Charlton's argument:
1. A delusion is a false but powerfully held belief the holding of which is harmful to the believer.
"In psychiatry a delusion is a false but powerful belief held with strong conviction. More than this, a delusional belief is one having harmful consequences to the individual."
2. The practical criterion of falsehood is harmfulness.
3. Harmful beliefs are those that are maladaptive, those the holding of which is damaging to the believer.
4. "In strict biological terms a maladaptive trait or behaviour is one that reduces relative reproductive success."
5. It is an empirical fact that adherents of the three main monotheistic religions tend to have more children than secular people.
6. "Atheism is a highly maladaptive trait." "Atheism is a reproductively-damaging belief system, and this is enough to classify it – objectively - as maladaptive, hence a delusion." "In a nutshell my argument is that if it is accepted that devout Monotheism objectively leads to a more adaptive overall outcome than convinced Atheism (and this is the consensus of modern research), then Monotheism should be regarded are true-er than Atheism. I personally find this argument so convincing that it led me from cradle-Atheism to a personal belief in Monotheism followed later by conversion to Christianity.
Critique. Charlton's argument raises fascinating questions about the nature of truth (What is it for a belief to be true?), the criteria of truth (How do we judge whether or not a given belief is true?), and the relation of truth and human flourishing. The first question is ontological: what IS truth? The second is epistemological: How do we know truth? The third is axiological: Is believing/knowing the truth a value? Is believing/knowing the truth good for us? Is the true the good by way of belief as William James said? Or could it be that there is a 'disconnect' between truth and human flourishing as Nietzsche suggests? The ontological, epistemological, and axiological questions are distinct and it seems to me that theories that conflate one or more of them lead to trouble.
Suppose one answers the ontological question along the lines of:
D1. Belief B is true if and only if B benefits (in the long run) the one who holds it.
One can and should ask whether (D1) is true. But if one asks this question, one is presumably not asking whether believing that D1 benefits those who hold it. One is asking whether (D1) is true in a quite different sense, a sense approximated to in
D2. Belief B is true if and only if B corresponds to the way things are.
Now consider atheism. It may well be that atheism does not benefit (whether biologically or psychologically-socially) those who hold it. It actually harms them, as the evidence Charlton adduces suggests. It would then not be true in the pragmatic sense of (D1). But it might nonetheless be true in the correspondence sense of (D2).
Now here is my question for Charlton. He tells us that the above argument convinced him to abandon his "cradle-Atheism" for a "personal belief in Monotheism." But all his argument shows is that it is better for us to hold theistic beliefs than atheistic ones. I grant that. But unless he can show that pragmatic and correspondence truth coincide, the soundness of his argument is consistent with there being no God. How would Dr Charlton deal with a patient of his, a sincere atheist, who says, "I fully agree that I would be better off believing in God if only I could bring myself to believe in him; but the evidence seems to me to point toward his nonexistence. The mere fact that I and others would be benefited by theistic belief does not show that it is true."