The Order of Importance
I had a very interesting question put to me by one of my atheist friends on Twitter. It seemed a simple query at first, but turned out to be much trickier than I realized.
@roso_creative OK. How would you rank these in order of importance;
You believing him to be true
Him actually being true
— cadmeister (@thecadmeister) December 3, 2016
The conversation continued:
Me: “I couldn’t have one without the other. If I became convinced God did not exist, I would renounce my faith.”
Cadmeister: “No problem, you can have both, I’m not asking you to choose between them but which would you rank as more important?”
Me: “I’m saying they have equal priority/importance. Faith without God is delusional. God without Faith is pointless.”
At that point I had to sign-off to tend to real life matters, but the original question stuck with me throughout the day. If for some reason I had to rank them in order of importance, which one would get top billing?
The first thing I’d want to understand is Cadmeister’s intended referent. Does he mean “important” in relation to me personally? Or does he mean objectively important, with regard to reality? Because my believing God to be true is a statement of personal faith and either I’m wrong or I’m right. God actually being true is a factual matter; either He is or He isn’t. And this is a fact that presents us with a cosmic fork in the road because whichever path we take— whether God is true or not true—a nearly infinite number of contingent facts will necessarily follow.
Phrased in the abstract, Cadmeister’s question is really asking, “Which is more important, one’s opinion about reality, or the actual state of reality?” And therein lies the knot at the core of the question; the answer not only depends on what reality actually is, it can only be answered from within the framework of one’s belief about reality. Because the importance of one believing God to be true is a lot different if God is true than if He is not, and vice versa. That’s why the Christian and the atheist each hear this question in entirely different ways.
To consider how a Christian would hear it we could ask the same question of a fact everyone accepts as a true. How important is it that the earth exists? How does one even answer that question? My first thought was, “It’s pretty important to me personally because if the earth didn’t exist I’d be floating in outer space right now!” But in reality, if the earth didn’t exist I wouldn’t exist and the question wouldn’t matter.
To consider how an atheist might hear this question we could ask it in the negative of something everyone accepts as false. How important is it that unicorns do not exist? Again, how does one even answer that? The question is absurd in that it is asking us to rate the importance of reality being the way it is versus reality being a different way. This absurdity can be seen when we replace God with something else in the original question:
How would you rank these in order of importance;
1. You believing your wife loves you (opinion)
2. Your wife actually loving you (fact)
The answer, of course, depends on whether or not your wife actually loves you. The importance one places on the opinion (#1) depends entirely on the truth of the fact (#2). The importance one places on the fact (#2) is meaningless because that fact is either true or false. In fact, one placing a “rating of importance” on the fact is really just another way of expressing an opinion (#1) about the fact (#2), so it all becomes circular.
But let’s look at the original question from a different angle;
How would you rank these in order of importance;
You believing God to be true
God actually being true
Setting aside the logical difficulties I laid out above, maybe what Cadmeister is actually asking is, “Is having faith in God more important to you than whether or not it’s true?” If that’s the question then my answer is no; it’s more important to me that He exists and my faith is placed in Someone real, than it is for me to live in a happy bubble of denial with my faith placed in a false myth.
Technically speaking, the existence of God can neither be proven nor disproven. Therefore, ironically, both the Christian and the atheist are required to make a leap of faith in the adoption of their respective world views. Each can claim to “know”, of course. But in reality, while Christians are of the opinion that God exists and they base their lives on that belief, in the end they cannot prove it. Likewise, atheists are of the opinion that God does not exist and they base their life on that belief but, in the end, they cannot prove it.
This brings to mind Pascal’s Wager, wherein the famous mathematician, physicist and philosopher uses the following logic
- God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
- You must wager (it is not optional).
- Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
(Excerpts from Pensées, part III, §233. Emphasis mine.)
In other words, if we choose to believe God exists, live our lives accordingly, and in the end discover we were wrong, we’ve lost nothing. Conversely, if we choose to believe there is no God, live our lives accordingly, and in the end discover we were wrong, we’ve lost everything.