If God is your source of joy, peace, meaning, and all-around happiness, don't risk losing that in the name of "intellectual integrity." Unless he exists, you have no obligation to intellectual integrity over psychological well-being.
Without question, the number one reason given by those who have left their faith behind is that they no longer believe that it is true. Sometimes Christians can be insensitive to those wrestling with their faith and imply the reason why they are having a hard time maintaining belief must be because they just want to be free to live a life of sin. While that might be true in some cases, it's not reflective of the vast majority of those I have spoken to. For them, the issue was one of truth. In the end, Christianity no longer seemed true to them.
The underlying assumption of many individuals wrestling with their faith is that believing a claim should be done for one reason, and one reason only, that is whether or not the claim is true. They are convinced that they should follow the evidence wherever it leads out of an obligation to intellectual integrity. If a claim or an entire system is not true then it shouldn't be believed.
I want to take a look at the most basic of Christian beliefs, belief in the existence of God, and ask how it relates to our obligation to believe the truth. I focus on this one particular belief because it is the most fundamental belief in the set of essential Christian beliefs. Everything stands or falls within Christianity on whether God exists. Also, former Christians often point to the fact that it was their loss of belief in the existence of God that was the reason for their deconversion.
To be clear, the scope of my claim is limited. I am writing for the theist who receives a great deal of psychological benefits from believing in God, who wants to continue to believe in God and would experience great psychological distress if they lost their belief in God, but who has been presented with an argument for his nonexistence that has troubled them. Consequently, they feel a sense of obligation to investigate the claim so as to ensure they believe the truth (regardless of how psychologically damaging that may prove to be), rather than an existentially comforting falsehood.
I maintain that on the one hand, a theist who finds great psychological benefit from believing in the existence of God is under no moral obligation to investigate the truth of their belief in God's existence unless God does in fact exist. That is because only the existence of God can account for moral obligation. In other words, if the atheist argument is correct, the theist has no moral obligation to hold true beliefs about God's existence over psychologically beneficial falsehoods about God's existence. On the other hand, if God does exist and they do believe in him, then they have met the obligation to hold true beliefs over falsehoods, and no investigation into the atheist argument is warranted. Thus the theist can happily continue to believe in God and ignore the troubling argument.
Furthermore, if moral obligation does not exist, then it is difficult to see why investigating a claim that would result in holding a belief that is true (God's nonexistence) but produces psychological pain and suffering would be preferable to not investigating the claim and continuing to hold a false belief (God's existence) that provides great psychological benefit.
I think we all hold the pre-reflective assumption that we ought to believe claims that are true even if they are hurtful, over ones that are false but which make us happy. But when we say that we "ought" or "should" only believe true claims we are invoking a responsibility that we seem to think we have. In our everyday speech, obligation is cashed out by the words "should" and "ought." Whenever you hear those words they refer to obligation of one kind or another. There are two kinds of obligation, pragmatic and moral.
A pragmatic obligation is one that is tied directly to achieving a goal that an individual has. For example, if you want your son to play in the National Hockey League, you should or ought to start him skating at an early age. If you want to get an A on the exam, you should or ought to study hard. Notice that a pragmatic obligation is unique to each individual and goal specific. Furthermore, pragmatic obligations say "If you want to do X the best way to achieve that is by doing Y." Pragmatic obligations are prescriptive. By that I mean they prescribe or tell you a course of action that will bring about your goal.
A moral obligation however is quite different from a pragmatic obligation. A moral obligation is not person specific, nor is it related to accomplishing a goal. Rather, moral obligations entail we are beholden to act in accordance with a standard that is independent of us and which we cannot escape. A moral obligation is a demand with which we have a duty to comply. Moral obligations are not merely prescriptions or suggestions for accomplishing a goal. They are authoritative imperatives. For example, parents are obligated to care for their children. If a parent abandons their toddler in order to get drunk at the bar, they haven't just done something inadvisable, they have failed to perform their moral duty as a parent.
It's important to notice the difference between pragmatic and moral obligation. Intrinsic to moral obligation is that it is both inescapable and that it is authoritative. Moral obligation has the force of a law weighing down on us, demanding our obedience. Pragmatic obligation doesn't. In identifying the difference between pragmatic and moral obligations a question arises, which is, what accounts for the authoritative nature of moral obligation? What gives it the power or right to demand we act according to its dictates?
It seems to me that unless God exists, it is impossible to account for the authoritative aspect of moral obligation. And if that's true, you might wonder why, if atheism is true you have any real moral obligation to pursue your doubts about God in the name of intellectual integrity. Is it really so clear on atheism that having beliefs that are true should take precedence over views that are psychologically beneficial, especially if losing those beliefs would prove to be psychologically devastating?
Truth and Moral Obligation
Why is it so difficult to account for moral obligation without God? Philosopher William Lane Craig helps answer that important question.
Consider the nature of moral obligation. What makes certain actions right or wrong for us? What or who imposes moral duties upon us? Why is it that we ought to do certain things and ought not to do other things? Where does this 'ought' come from? Traditionally, our moral obligations were thought to be laid upon us by God's moral commands. But if we deny God's existence, then it is difficult to make sense of moral duty or right and wrong, as Richard Taylor explains,
A duty is something that is owed . . . . But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation . . . . The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough . . . . Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, and referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawmaker higher . . . . than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can . . . be understood as those that are imposed by God. This does give a clear sense to the claim that our moral obligations are more binding upon us than our political obligations . . . . But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of a moral obligation . . . still make sense? . . . . the concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain, but their meaning is gone. 1
It follows that moral obligations and right and wrong necessitate God's existence. And certainly we do have such obligations. Speaking recently on a Canadian University campus, I noticed a poster put up by the Sexual Assault & Information Center. It read: "Sexual Assault: No One Has the Right to Abuse a Child, Woman, or Man." Most of us recognize that that statement is evidently true. But the atheist can make no sense of a person's right not to be sexually abused by another. The best answer to the question as to the source of moral obligation is that moral rightness or wrongness consists in agreement or disagreement with the will or commands of a holy, loving God. 2
On the atheistic worldview, humans are nothing more than evolved animals with a herd instinct that has developed to help us survive and which we now mistake for real moral obligation. But that is not real moral obligation but rather only the feeling of obligation. It is important to note there is a difference between real obligation and a feeling of obligation. A man who is told by the woman he is having an affair with that he is the father of her unborn child is objectively obligated to care for the child, even if he feels no obligation to do so. Conversely, a man who is told he is the father of the child even though he is not - another man is - may feel obligated to care for the child, but he is not actually obligated to do so. Atheism, by way of evolution, may be able to account for the feeling of moral obligation (feeling moral obligation helped us survive) but it doesn't seem to be able to account for the fact of moral obligation.
I take it that the person who is struggling with the belief in God and feels obligated to investigate their doubts in the name of "truth" believe that they are actually morally obligated to do so, and not just deceived by some feeling of obligation that has been implanted in them by natural selection.
Although the most important claim in my argument is that "moral obligation requires the existence of God" I do not have the space here to fully make that case. Much more could and needs to be said. A number of robust arguments have been made by others that moral obligation is incompatible with atheism. Rather than make that case here, I will direct you to the footnotes where you will find sources that will help you connect more of the dots. But for now, it is sufficient to say that on atheism there is good reason to question whether you are morally obligated to investigate your doubts about the existence of God since a good case can be made that moral obligation only exists if God does. 3
Truth & Pragmatic Obligation
It could be argued that despite not being a moral obligation, seeking the truth is a pragmatic obligation we have because seeking the truth is beneficial for our survival and well-being. And survival and well-being just are what humans should be seeking. Why? Because it just seems that on a personal level, it is self-evident that living is better than dying and that thriving is better than languishing and holding true beliefs increases the odds of that. I agree that we are pragmatically obligated to ourselves to seek the truth in many cases. For example, we should seek the truth when crossing the street, not what makes us feel good. Also, we should seek the truth in terms of medical treatment. We ought to follow the evidence where it leads and adopt a form of treatment that heals us even if it is unpleasant over a treatment that gives us pleasure but whose efficacy isn't supported by good evidence. Examples could be multiplied almost without end. So, yes, in many instances believing the truth is a rational obligation we have to ourselves.
But what about in circumstances when believing the truth is not a matter of survival and when doing so would dramatically decrease our well-being? Why, in an atheistic universe should we be pragmatically obligated to believe truths that would significantly detract from our psychological well-being, over falsehoods that serve as the source of our psychological well-being?
To answer that we need to be clear about what truth is. Typically, truth is understood to be the correspondence between a belief a person possesses and a fact of reality. A belief is defined as a positive attitude toward a claim. So, for example, if I believe that the Kansas City Chiefs are the 2023 Superbowl champions and in fact, they are the 2023 Superbowl champions, then I have a true belief. My belief corresponds to a fact of reality.
Now that we're clear on what the definition of truth is, let's return to our question. If God doesn't exist but I think he does and that belief gives my life meaning, hope, purpose, community, identity, and satisfaction, then why am I pragmatically obligated to believe the truth about his nonexistence if doing so steals all my joys?
I suppose there are a few ways one could respond.
First, one could respond by arguing that living according to the truth - no matter what the truth turns out to be - is of great value because truth is a good in itself that should be pursued above all other goods. But that claim isn't at all obvious. Why does having a positive attitude toward a claim that corresponds to a fact of reality deserve priority over a positive attitude toward a claim that doesn't correspond to a fact of reality but provides me with meaning, hope, purpose, community, and satisfaction? It's not self-evident why, if God doesn't exist, thinking correct thoughts is more important than having an enjoyable life.
Second, perhaps someone might respond that holding true beliefs increases the likelihood that we will have an enjoyable life. After all, if we live according to the truth shouldn't that make our lives better? Not necessarily. In fact, that assumption is not just a dubious claim, it's a demonstrably false claim.
It's not hard to imagine scenarios where believing the truth over believing a falsehood makes our life less enjoyable. Consider just one such scenario. Suppose I think that my son is a noble, upstanding member of the community when in reality he's a sleazy drug dealer wanted by the police. My delusion regarding my son gives me great pleasure. I feel good about the person I believe he is and the job I did raising him. I get great joy when I think about him. But finding out the truth about who he really is would destroy me. I would feel shame, worry, regret, and maybe even remorse that I brought him into the world. Clearly, knowing the truth in this situation doesn't contribute to my having an enjoyable life. On the contrary, it destroys that possibility. As applied to God, the question then becomes,
if there are no moral or pragmatic obligations tied to holding a correct view about God, why then should I investigate my doubts about God just so I can possess a positive mental attitude that matches up with an inert fact of reality if doing so might result in a net negative impact on my well-being in the form of severe psychological discomfort?
A belief that corresponds to an abstract fact of reality hardly seems like something worth sacrificing an enjoyable life for unless there are compelling reasons to do so. But it doesn't seem like atheism can provide those.
The third response is that unless we live in accordance with the truth, we're likely to suffer significant consequences to our very life. Well, I suppose that's true in some cases. If we hold false beliefs about cyanide being healthy in large amounts then we'll die. If we are wrong about the speed of oncoming cars, we are likely to get hit as we try and cross the road. So yes, in some, maybe many cases, believing falsehoods can be detrimental. But believing falsehoods can also be beneficial in some cases too. Imagine a person, Dave, who desires to pet a poisonous snake but believes every snake he sees isn't a poisonous one, so instead of trying to pet it, he chooses to keep looking. Is his belief wrong? Yes, very wrong. Some of the snakes he encounters are poisonous. But in this case, having a belief that is false is actually good for Dave. I realize this is a silly example, but it makes the point; believing the truth isn't always better for our well-being/survival than believing a falsehood. As it applies to God it seems that a person like Dave who believes in God and is wrong about that belief could just as easily avoid significant consequences given his false belief. Believing in God may keep him from engaging in risky behavior that would increase the likelihood of him living longer.
In the end, if God doesn't exist it appears we have no moral or pragmatic obligation to believe the truth about his nonexistence if believing in God provides us with significant psychological well-being, and losing that belief would be detrimental to our well-being. In an atheistic universe if believing the false claim "God exists", brings me great pleasure, and does not put me in serious danger, then I am not morally obligated to investigate my doubts about that claim, since on atheism, no such obligation exists.
Furthermore, I may have a pragmatic obligation to myself not to investigate it. Consider the following line of thought.
If I have a pragmatic obligation to advance my survival and well-being
And if belief in God advances my psychological well-being,
And if an investigation led me to conclude God does not exist,
Resulting in me suffering irreparable damage to my psychological well-being,
Then I am pragmatically obligated not to investigate the objection!
If you find the above argument to be persuasive, but still feel the pull to seek the truth when it comes to your doubts about God, then I suggest you should at the very least consider that "pull" as evidence for his existence. Because if what I have said is correct and you believe you are morally obligated to pursue the truth about God's existence, your obligation to do so already presupposes that God exists. And since you already believe that, what reason do you have to risk losing the psychological benefit that belief provides you by investigating the objection if it may result in you changing your mind and losing your meaning, joy, peace, community, and identity? I don't see one.
2. Breitenbach, Z (2020) A Proposal to Augment William Lane Craig's Deductive Moral Argument
3. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 194.
4. Baggett and Baggett, (2018) The Morals of the Story, (IVP, Downers Grove, IL)