A desperate argument

I’m working my way through past episodes of the excellent Philosophy Bites podcast. In June of 2009, the hosts interviewed Marylin McCord Adams, a philosopher of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She made a very odd argument for theism.

In a nutshell, she argues that if people take an optimistic view of the world, and they wish to do so rationally, they must consider the possibility of a supernatural deity. This is because, according to McCord, the world is really a pretty awful place full of horrendous suffering. It therefore only makes sense to be optimistic about the world if it is believed that some sort of otherworldly justice or reparation await those who have suffered.

As the host neatly pointed out, if McCord’s argument is correct then we, as atheists, should simply be more careful about being too optimistic about the world.

Another objection is that McCord’s argument concerns optimism about a very specific aspect of human nature, namely that which prompts us to cause serious, long-lasting suffering. She referred to things such as the Holocaust and the World Wars, and noted that, for example, man’s propensity for genocide does not seem to have abated over time.  To be optimistic about rising above such evil tendencies is rational, McCord suggests, only if one believes there is some higher power able to pull us in the right direction. But by focusing on this specific realm of optimism, McCord does not acknowledge that atheists can be legitimately optimistic about a whole host of other subjects, and therefore manage to be optimistic in a more general sense.

I’m not sure McCord is even right about the specific type of suffering she deals with. I would argue that the data do, indeed, give us some reasons for optimism in this regard. For example, Steven Pinker has shown that the level of violence in human societies has waned over time. This justifies a certain degree of optimism in its continued decline. Standards of living are rising around the world, democracy is slowly gaining popularity, and the network of international trade is becoming wider and better established. All three factors lead, albeit indirectly, to fewer tragic crimes of the sort that depress McCord.

More than anything, McCord’s argument simply gives us reason to ensure that our optimism is rational – it does not eschew optimism altogether. Her alternative is that we justify irrational optimism with an irrational belief. But even this premise fails. If optimism is irrational because it does not fit the data, we can’t simply make up new data (the existence of God) to balance the equations. That would be cooking the books.  I don’t think any rational person would sign up to that.

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