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A Pragmatical Analysis of Religious Beliefs

Are belief and pragmatism opposites?
A Pragmatical Analysis of Religious Beliefs

I. An Unusual Thought Experiment
II. The Immortality of the Soul
III. The Shape of Time
IV. God
V. Faith, Fanaticism, and Hypothetical Religions

Part One: An Unusual Thought Experiment

We normally conceive of religious belief and pragmatism as opposites. To adopt a religion out of pragmatism, we assume, is a mark of insincerity and poor character. But what would happen if we did analyze religious beliefs in terms of their present-day, pragmatical value?

That's precisely what this thought-experiment proposes to do. Our question here will be, “What is it most pragmatical to believe?” not “What is true?” nor “What am I obligated to believe?” Our guiding question doesn't imply that we should change our religious beliefs to match our conclusions. But it's a novel and interesting perspective that allows us to look at familiar beliefs with fresh eyes.

Why use the word “pragmatical” instead of simply “pragmatic?” Well, it sounds rather 18thcentury, a bit silly, and a bit fun, and I'd like to remind you not to take this analysis too seriously. In a moment we'll give the word a definition suitable for our purposes here.

I'll point out in advance that your religion—whatever it may be—is almost certain to meet a basic standard of pragmatism. All religions of long standing do, since otherwise they would have vanished well before the present day. In the course of history there have arisen religions promoting mass suicide, as well as religions requiring celibacy for all adherents. Naturally, these died out in short order. And when we consider the historical record, agnosticism and irreligiosity do not appear as durable as faith.

The meaning of “pragmatical.”

For our purposes here, pragmatical will mean “good for you during this life.” But it's very important to note that I mean “good” in a very broad sense. A good belief should, as far as possible, enable a happy and fulfilling life. But it should also conform to basic human moral intuitions and aspirations. For instance, to believe oneself a god who has no obligations to other humans might enable the maximum amount of hedonism. But such a view is strongly opposed to our moral intuitions. So, to be clear from the start, “pragmatical” does not mean hedonistic nor self-interested.

A pragmatical belief also shouldn't be too hard to hold. Beliefs that contradict established science, observation, or even contradict themselves, are psychologically difficult to maintain, and entail a loss of probity that irks our moral intuitions. In our analysis, beliefs with these flaws will be considered inherently less pragmatical.

A note on science.

Science and religion are different realms of belief. They need not and should not conflict. Science consists in predictions that can be derived from the observation of repeatable experiments, as well as from our innate sense of logical certitude. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, derive from faith and intuition, and concern fundamental uncertainties that can neither be proven nor disproven by science. Religious beliefs that contradict observable reality are called superstitions. Scientific theories that reach beyond experimental predictions to make metaphysical claims are described as scientistic. Both forms of excess are errors.

First up.

With these preliminaries behind us, our first installment in this series of pragmatical analyses will consider the most famous religious issue of all: the mortality or immortality of the soul. I will be addressing this question, like the others, on an abstract and topical basis that makes minimum reference to established religions. I am not trying to “prove” that one existing religion is better or worse than the others—this is not that kind of analysis.

So, let's begin the thought-experiment.

Part Two: The Immortality of the Soul

Nearly all religions claim that the spirit persists after the death of the body. Understandably so, since death is both the most troubling and the most inevitable fact of life.

The unbelieving materialist view is that consciousness is an “emergent” property that arises only when matter is in a particular configuration. If that configuration breaks, it's destroyed utterly. Bodily death is simply the end.

Religious views about life after death are more varied, and include the following:

  • The disembodied spirit lingers in this world.
  • The disembodied spirit persists in some other world.
  • The spirit is transferred to a newly born body.
  • The spirit loses its individual identity and is absorbed into God.
  • The material body is resurrected, and the spirit along with it.
  • The material body is resurrected without the spirit (zombie apocalypse).

We'll compare these different religious views on life after death in a future post. But for the moment we're simply going to consider “mortality” and “immortality” in the broadest possible terms to determine which view is more pragmatical, and not worry too much about the details.

Pragmatical advantages of belief.

What are the advantages of believing in the immortality of the soul?

We all feel despair at the deaths of our loved ones, and we usually feel despair at the thought of our own death as well. When death approaches, a belief in the immortality of the soul therefore encourages a happier and more balanced state of mind than disbelief.

Believers also avoid subtler psychological troubles that can afflict non-believers late in life. Some functions of the human mind are fundamentally oriented toward the future. If we have no future to look forward to, our better motivations might wane, shortsighted hedonism and immorality might become more appealing, and depression and dysfunction might become more likely. If tomorrow I'll be weaker and frailer than today, and so on until oblivion, it's difficult to live with enthusiasm. This is true even for those who have accomplished great things in their younger days—and perhaps doubly true.

But for believers, the end of life is not so different from the beginning. The future is always there, they will not disappear, nor will their connections to others. Old age is only a transitional state to a new existence—a temporary weakening.

The dangers of belief.

Taken on its own, belief in the immortality of the soul is not only problematic, it's outright dangerous. Believing yourself immortal, with infinite time on your hands, you might adopt a lazy, procrastinating attitude. Far worse than that, you might behave with a casual disregard for your own life. Why worry if you can't really die? In fact, why preserve the lives of others if they can't really die? You might as well kill them! Needless to say, these attitudes are highly unpragmatical.

The cognitive difficulty of believing is also a problem. When someone dies, we see that they're dead and gone without the need for any leap of faith. Their purported immortality is invisible to us, and not easily differentiated from wishful thinking. Faith in immortality thus requires more mental effort than doubt.

Faith to shore up faith.

The dangers of belief are so great that you might wonder how it could ever be more pragmatical than disbelief. The reduction in end-of-life despair clearly isn't beneficial enough to justify indifference toward the lives of ourselves and others.

But not so fast. What our analysis actually shows is that immortality fails as a standalone belief. In practice, every major religion incorporates supplementary beliefs or commandments that counteract the unpragmatical side-effects of raw belief in the immortality of the soul. These supplementary beliefs usually boil down to the claim that good conduct in this life is a prerequisite for a good afterlife. Or, they simply prescribe good conduct in this life regardless of the outcome, which does the same trick nearly as well. One could more cynically summarize them as "Death isn't really the end, but you should still act as if it is."

It's questionable whether these supplementary beliefs can generate the same visceral motivation to preserve, enhance, and extend this life that an unbeliever will feel. An interesting test case is a potential medical cure for aging. Would faith in immortality demotivate our search for such a cure? It would certainly seem that way, but the right supplementary beliefs could plug the hole.

So the problems we discussed in the preceding section can be solved reasonably well, but at a cost. If we are to believe in the immortality of the soul, we are also obligated to take additional beliefs on faith, and these additional beliefs need to be very carefully engineered to patch up problems without introducing any harmful bugs. Since it's pragmatical to minimize the unsubstantiated beliefs we hold, this need for supplementation does amount to a real defect.

Mental tricks of the unbelievers.

Unbelievers too try to compensate for the weaknesses of their views—not with additional axioms, but with platitudes and mental tricks intended to reduce their despair.

For instance, unbelievers often claim that they'll live on in memory, or in their descendants, which amounts to a kind of immortality. But this is a platitude, and wrong several times over. Memory disappears very quickly. Some people are unable to leave descendants, others have descendants who fail to continue the family line, and even in the best case, after five or ten generations our descendants will resemble the average person in our breeding group more than they resemble us. On a longer time scale, as evolution continues, our descendants will be shaped by their own environment, and gradually lose meaningful similarities to any people of the present day. They might not even qualify as homo sapiens! That's assuming that the entire human race doesn't go extinct for one reason or another.

Actually, “you'll live on in your descendants” is little more than a tricksy version of the most common unbeliever's mental trick: “Ignore it.” Some people are fairly successful at ignoring their oncoming death—especially when it arrives prematurely and without warning. But no one is really successful at ignoring the deaths of their loved ones.

A more sophisticated non-believing approach is to embrace the finitude of life and aestheticize it in the form of tragedy. By making it beautiful, pain can become pleasant. This is essentially a psychological trick that allows us to experience something definitely bad as if it were something good. It's difficult to objectively determine its pragmatical value, but in my view, to keep seeing death through this aesthetically heightened tragic lens we would need to engage in perpetual histrionics, pushing our emotions into a strained state that is ruinous to our health, magnifies our character flaws, and encourages poor choices. A life lived in this way would be further tainted by the artificiality of this self-inflicted psychological distortion, and by the self-deception required to continually interpret our lives as tragic plots. Death usually isn't tragic: it's just bad. So I'm not persuaded that “embrace tragedy” is a pragmatical response to death.

In sum, the tricks of the unbelievers don't work very well, and some of them are dishonest. It's better to have faith in an unknown than to believe a demonstrable lie.

Middle paths.

There's a middle position that splits the difference between disbelief and belief in “full” immortality. If only part of us survives into the afterlife (e.g. because some of our personal characteristics die with the body), then our losses in exiting this life are real and substantial, but not total. I'll call this “partial immortality.” Partial immortality motivates us to care for and extend this unique and irreplaceable life, without giving into despair at its eventual cessation. While it doesn't completely eliminate despair, it also doesn't require support from supplementary beliefs. It's therefore both easier to believe and more logically satisfying than full immortality.

Another type of middle position is that our persistence after death is likely, but not certain. I'll call this “optimistic agnosticism.” (Regular agnosticism is in practice little different from pure disbelief, so I won't bother to discuss it.) Not many people preach this view publicly, but lukewarm religious believers might think this way in private. Optimistic agnosticism brings with it a serious disadvantage: if faith is fickle and understood as merely “likely,” it's vulnerable to mood fluctuations, and may desert us in times of need. It's a very unreliable position.

Final results.

Let's sum up these analyses. Disbelief is easier and better supported by our direct observations, but leaves us with no honest way to ward off despair, and terminal unhappiness is the likely result. Belief in full immortality reduces our despair, but requires faith, and further supplementary beliefs as well. Partial immortality is a compromise position that's more intellectually elegant, but also somewhat less effective.

In the final balance, belief does seem more pragmatical than disbelief. It reduces the despair in our lives at the relatively low price of faith in a set of uncertain but harmless claims—a net gain. But whether it's preferable to believe in partial or full immortality is a harder question. Ultimately this depends on whether you're willing to put your trust in the larger patchwork of beliefs necessary to make full immortality work. For some these may feel too artificial to swallow.

That's my objective cost-benefit analysis. Now you, dear readers, will have to make up your own minds.

Part Three: The Shape of Time

Winter returns to spring and the cycle of seasons begins again. When we set the timer on an oven, it counts down for a finite period of time and then ends, and our roast is done. When a factory produces a new car, the next serial number is always higher than the current one.

These are examples of different temporal narratives, which we can represent in simplified terms as circular or linear, finite or infinite. I'm going to refer to them as time shapes, for simplicity's sake. Time shapes are a characteristic of anything that unfolds in time: natural events, practical projects, myths, fiction, history, human life, and even the universe as a whole. What's important for our purposes is that different time shapes engender different attitudes, moods, ethics, and aesthetics. They influence how we feel and what choices we make.

For instance, suppose you're ordered to dig a hole, and informed that once you're done, you'll never have to dig again. You'll probably get through the work fairly efficiently, not terribly bothered by how unpleasant it is. It's only once, after all. But suppose instead that you're condemned to dig and fill in the same hole every day, over and over, forever. The work is exactly the same, but your attitude is completely different, even on the first day. There's simply no reason to make sacrifices and strive to finish faster, and the pointlessness of doing and undoing the same task causes horror and depression. Same task, but different attitudes—because the time shapes are different.

Since the nature of the afterlife is a religious matter, the time shape of our human narrative is perforce a religious matter as well. Resurrection, reincarnation, and total oblivion each imply different shapes. The time shape of the universe as a whole seems like a scientific question, but in practice it's not one that science can answer with any confidence. There's no way to know what came before the big bang; the end of the universe is in doubt as well, with several viable theses put forward. How, for that matter, can we be certain that the laws of physics will remain the same unimaginably far into the future? The “big slurp” theory proposes that physical constants could change in the future; perhaps physical laws could change as well. These scientific limitations and uncertainties open the door to speculation of a more religious character.

In what follows we're going to continue our method of pragmatical analysis, and ask which time shape we should believe in if we want to maximally benefit our lives here and now. Once again our treatment is schematic, and not intended to present the exact views of any particular religion.

Point time.

Yes, there is such a thing as one-dimensional time. According to this view, continuity is an illusion and the present moment is what really matters. This attitude is conducive to a particular type of meditation, and also to extremes of human experience where the blinding intensity of the present moment makes the past and future seem insignificant.

The philosophical argument for point time—that any change refutes the existence of persistent entities—isn't very convincing. Far worse than that, if we took point time seriously, it would cause us to fall apart, because a sense of continuity between past, present, and future is fundamental to the operation of our minds.

Point time is appealing to people who like extreme experiences. But in practice the promoters of point time don't behave as if they really believe their own arguments. If they lived entirely in the moment they'd be unable to plan ahead, unable to go to work, unable to escape the mildest addictions, and so on. Point time is the least pragmatical of all shapes.

Parabolic time.

The typical unbeliever's perspective on time is already an improvement over point time. I'll call it parabolic time—it's the time shape of a biological, material organism. There is birth, growth, and then decay, followed by death. The universe too might follow an analogous cycle—the big bang, expansion, then entropy and heat death.

This view is pragmatical insofar as it accurately describes the life history of the human body: the concrete biological basis makes it the easiest shape to believe in. It also encourages us to enjoy the present and make the most of our short lives, since they only come once—certainly a pragmatical attitude.

On the other hand, the same criticisms we leveled at disbelief in the immortality of the soul apply here, and to an even greater degree. In the later stages of life, parabolic time leaves us nothing to look forward to. Despair becomes stronger and stronger, and the only defense against it is to ignore both our approaching end and our continual decay. If we believe the entire universe follows the same time shape, our despair increases still further. True, the death of the universe is far away and has no relevance to us now; but it's hardly encouraging to believe the whole thing will come to such an uninspiring end. The thought contributes, in some small way, to our despair.

Because of these clear negatives, parabolic time is overall a rather unpragmatic viewpoint.

Linear time.

Next let's consider linear time: we start from a definite beginning, then progress toward a goal, and then, after we achieve that goal, we rest, or arrive at some form of relative stasis. This is how we conceive of most tasks in life—like doing the dishes or building a house. But we could also apply it to ourselves. We are born, we struggle through the test of life, then we arrive in paradise, where we enjoy eternity. Or to the universe: it's born, develops, after a fixed period of time there is an apocalypse, and then everything is transfigured into some kind of divine form, where it remains forever.

Having a goal and a better world to look forward to is heartening, especially in tough times. Goal orientation gives us the inspiration and energy to struggle onward and get the job done, and our present distress doesn't really matter when we compare it to the eternal bliss to come. When faced with addictions or great challenges, linear time gives us the best chance of success. All of these are pragmatical advantages.

On the other hand, if we believe the future we're struggling for is superior to the present, the here and now will seem relatively pale and unimportant. We'll be less capable of enjoying it, and also less inclined to do so. Goal orientation has a similar effect. It causes us to value the present world as a means of achieving the future world, and not for its own sake. If earthly life is finite and heavenly life is infinite, we'll naturally be willing to sacrifice the present for a brighter future. But in our pragmatical analysis here we're not permitted to consider the bliss to come in our calculation, but only the effect that belief in this bliss to come will have on us here and now. That turns earthly sacrifice for otherworldly gains into a straight negative. All of these consequences are distinctly unpragmatical, though of course the extent of the earthly sacrifice will depend on the details of the ethical architecture.

So, is linear time pragmatical or not? It depends on your situation in life, and on your personality. In dire circumstances where it's impossible to enjoy the present, linear time is the most pragmatical belief of all, because hope for a blissful future gives you power and inspiration to keep going, and brightens your mood despite the gloom around you. If you have a dour personality and find it difficult to enjoy life, linear time may also be a good option. In pleasant circumstances, or even neutral ones, the net pragmatical value of linear time is more questionable, and I'm not familiar with any patch-up beliefs that can really help. But whatever the case, by reducing our despair at death it still retains a notable advantage over parabolic time.

Circular time.

Circular time is simple: life is an infinitely repeating sequence, like a spinning wheel. Our current life will be followed by another similar or perhaps even identical life. The history of the universe will repeat—big bang, expansion, big crunch, then big bang again. At first glance circular time seems the most dire shape of all. Since everything we do will be undone, it's ultimately futile. Of course it will be redone again too, which is rather confusing. One wonders if the heavens ran out of space for landfills (if it can happen in Australia, it can happen anywhere!), so God was forced to recycle.

However, on closer examination, circular time does indeed have pragmatical benefits. Our analysis here is the inverse of the one we just gave for linear time: if everything done will be undone, then goal orientation loses its significance. That means the present reclaims its full value, and isn't sacrificed to achieve salvation, or diminished in comparison to a future in paradise. Of course, goals aren't banished entirely, but they're reduced to a secondary significance, meaningful mainly for how they affect the present.

The price for these pragmatical advantages is a reduction of our motivation to make genuine progress. If the future is just repetition, why try to create a better one? Such a fatalistic attitude is demotivating, and if we want to satisfy our basic moral intuitions by encouraging positive efforts to improve the world, we're obliged to bring in supplementary commandments that patch the hole by directly instructing believers to improve the world. Another disadvantage is reduced hope for the future compared to linear time: when life is grim, the thought of repetition is also grim.

So just like linear time, circular time is a mixed bag. But because it doesn't demand sacrifices for gains that are only realized in the afterlife, it's likely to be more pragmatical for those who are in a position to enjoy the present. The rejection of goal orientation has particular advantages for meditative and aestheticizing moods. And it's certainly more pragmatical than parabolic time, because if we'll live again, we needn't despair so much at the thought of death and decay.

Now, an interesting objection may have occurred to you. Isn't it likely, you might wonder, that linear time would consistently rank above circular time on a larger, social scale—because the lower time preferences resulting from a collective embrace of earthly self-sacrifice would speed the rate of progress, and thereby generate material advantages that are perceptible within a few generations or less, and which outweigh the immediate pragmatical disadvantages of such self-sacrifice? Perhaps. But as I indicated in the opening post, our analysis is confined for the moment to the effect on the individual, not the collective. We'll reserve putative social effects for discussion at a later date.

A middle path: helical time.

Helical time is the term I'll use for a shape that advances infinitely and without end, but which also exhibits cyclical effects. The seasons will repeat, but next year will be a new year, different from this year. Imagine an endless spiral staircase: the X and Z coordinates make a repetitive circle, but the Y coordinate is continually increasing. Of course, helical time isn't actually as regular as a true geometrical helix. Instead it's a complex looping motion whose overall direction is upward, toward greater complexity, novelty, variety, and beauty, but with many temporary reversals and repetitions.

On a universal level, helical time means endless development; on an individual level it means endless reincarnation into more complex forms, in strict parallel with the material development of life. Since this is a good characterization of material evolution, you could also think of helical time as “evolutionary time”—coincidentally mirroring the shape of DNA.

Helical time fuses linear and circular time, but the pragmatical consequences are quite different from either. As we've already observed, if we suppose time is a line that leads to a final, superior endpoint (paradise), the present loses its luster in comparison, and it's reduced to a resource to be mined for the sake of reaching that endpoint, or to a trial to be endured, or at best to a waiting room on a fairly nondescript landing of the stairway to heaven. If we suppose instead that time is an endless circle, our motivation to improve the world is reduced; our larger projects seem futile. But helical time posits neither a circle nor a final destination, only infinite development. This eliminates the unpragmatic consequences of both circular and linear time. On an infinite road, we can enjoy the journey at whatever pace feels appropriate, sometimes striving forward and other times slowing down to take in the view.

Does this mean helical time is the most pragmatical shape of all? Not necessarily. On a logical level, helical time does solve the problems with linear and circular time, and it accurately describes the evolution of life as a whole. However, in an individual life, only one loop of the spiral is visible. A significant fraction of our existence is spent in stasis or decay, and our ability to personally participate in evolution is limited. Although positing reincarnation remedies this drawback by establishing continuity between the individual and the evolving whole, the experiential discrepancy remains somewhat unsatisfying.

So, in theory helical time might indeed be the most pragmatical belief of all, but in practice I'm not sure; it's an issue that would benefit from a more thorough examination.

Eschatological and aesthetic correspondences.

Each time shape implies its own vision of the afterlife. Parabolic time implies that we live once and death is the end. Linear time implies that we live once, and salvation comes after death. Circular time implies that we reincarnate endlessly and repetitively. Helical time also implies reincarnation, but into continually evolving forms of consciousness. And for point time, the existence or non-existence of an afterlife is irrelevant; the end of each passing moment can be seen as a death.

Just as each time shape implies a particular vision of the afterlife, they each also bring a particular aesthetic coloration to our view of the world. Try to adopt, just for a moment, faith in circular time. You might find that present perceptions immediately become more vivid, and you're inclined toward a more meditative attitude. This is the consequence of goal-orientation losing some of its influence on your thinking, freeing the present to be perceived for its own sake.

On the other hand, if you recall times in your life when you've been extremely focused on accomplishing a goal—perhaps in the midst of a sports match, or devoted to some important project, or even just looking forward to a joyfully anticipated event—you will notice a special, hopeful energy that carried you through the difficulties. This energy is characteristic of linear time.

Helical time combines some features of linear and circular time, but encourages an entirely different mood, which I would describe as luminous and expansive.

Your perceptions, emotions, and life attitudes will take on the aesthetic tint of whichever time shape you hold to, so it's worth thinking about which of these moods you find more compelling.

Final results.

All things considered, which shape is really the most pragmatical? Point time comes in last place, followed by parabolic time. But between the remaining options, the choice is quite difficult, and I'm not sure I'll add any value to this post by giving a one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, according to our analysis, the best time shape might actually depend on individual circumstances and personality.

  • For those living hard lives, those faced with great challenges, those who find little enjoyment in life on earth, or those who are innately self-sacrificing and goal-oriented, linear time is likely to be the most pragmatical.
  • For meditative, idle, aesthetic, or epicurean personalities who relish the present, circular time is likely to be the most pragmatical. Patch-up commandments can help to expand the appeal of circular time to others as well.
  • For those with a broad-minded and optimistic personality, and whose lives afford them good opportunities for growth and development, helical time is likely to be the most pragmatical.

Part Four: God

Is it pragmatical to believe in God? That depends, in the first place, on what we mean by “God.” Various religious doctrines might bandy about this same word, but they give it quite different meanings.

In this post I'll offer a pragmatical analysis of the main theories involving the word “God”: atheism, unlimited monotheism, limited monotheism, animism, polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism. These theories are susceptible to a multitude of subtle variations, but for our purposes here it should suffice to consider their simplest and most salient forms.

Before we continue let me recall once again that we're not discussing which beliefs are true or false, nor am I telling you what to believe. We are only analyzing the raw pragmaticality of these theories.

Unlimited monotheism

Unlimited monotheism holds that an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, and conscious entity exists apart from this world and is responsible for its creation. Belief in such a God can grant deep satisfaction and elevated feelings, give us strength in the face of adversity, and support our innate moral impulses. All these effects are highly pragmatical.

Unfortunately, unlimited monotheism has a very big problem. Namely, the problem of evil. If we observe evil in the world, it's logically impossible for there to be an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, for such a God would ensure that evil doesn't exist.

There are several commonly cited but ineffective responses to this apparent contradiction. For instance, we could assign responsibility for evil to humans, whom God has purportedly granted free will. Or we could deem evil “educational”: God creates painful challenges because they give us an opportunity for growth. These responses don't survive even a cursory examination. Natural evils like earthquakes and tsunamis do harm at random, to the the old, young, and newborn, to the bad and the good alike. Plagues aren't caused by human free will (well, at least not always), and they inflict suffering and death without creating any opportunity for personal growth.

The only solution to the problem of evil that really works is skepticism: “We, with our limited human intelligence, can't understand God's motivations for creating the kind of world that He did, and we just need to accept that His reasons are incomprehensible. There's some hidden reason for God to allow volcanoes to incinerate newborns, etc.”

Such hyperbolic skepticism contains no contradiction, but it's still a significant barrier to embracing unlimited monotheism. It requires us to stop trusting our own good sense. It's not only necessary to have faith in God, it's also necessary to have faith that our own well-supported conclusion—that the world could quite easily be better than it is—is mistaken. For some this level of skepticism will seem a step too far, and a slippery slope toward irrationality and superstition.

So, unlimited monotheism provides us with great benefits, but they come at a significant cost. From a pragmatical perspective, is it a net gain, or a net loss? I'll leave it for you to decide, dear reader.

Limited monotheism

Limited monotheism is the term I'll use for belief in a God who is lacking some or all of the characteristics attributed to the God of unlimited monotheism. In other words, a God who is not omnipotent, or not omniscient, or not benevolent. By removing any one of these terms we can solve the problem of evil without resorting to hyperbolic skepticism.

It's hard to see how we can remove God's omniscience without also cancelling His omnipotence, since the latter seems to imply the former. And it's hard to see how we can remove His benevolence and still have a God that humans would look on benevolently—though admittedly this does remain a logical possibility. So here we'll just consider the remaining option: God is omniscient and benevolent, but not omnipotent.

According to the strictest version of limited monotheism, God is an omniscient consciousness that exists separately from the world, but did not create it, and has limited influence over it. He knows everything that has happened and is happening, and perhaps even everything that will happen. But He's only able to influence it by appearing as an idea or a vision calling us toward our best possibilities and highest goals. We know Him only through our human intuitions. In other words, the limited God is a cheerleader who offers us inspiration, watches and remembers everything we do in every game we play, sympathizes with our wins and losses, but can't directly interfere with the course of events.

Limited monotheism preserves some of the elevated feelings and inspirations of unlimited monotheism without forcing us to deny our own observation that the world could be better than it is. However, the God of limited monotheism is extremely feeble in comparison to the God of unlimited monotheism. He can't even move a cup across a table—so how could He create a happy afterlife? At best he might be able to recycle dead souls back into the existing world by connecting them with fresh bodies.

The cost of believing in a limited God is quite low, but whether it's worth paying depends on whether you consider such a God worth believing in.


In its strictest, materialist form, atheism is the belief that there exists no creator, no omniscient, omnipotent consciousness, and indeed no superhuman and supernatural entity of any kind. There might still be good and bad, right and wrong; but nothing is divine, sacred, or holy. Any intuitions we have of divinity are only hallucinations, whose fundamental reality is a physical configuration located in the brain.

Atheism is easy to believe and contains no logical contradiction. (No obvious logical contradiction, at any rate; such strict materialism might create some philosophical difficulties.) But a world without God or gods, with nothing sacred or holy, where profound experiences are dismissed as mere hallucinations, is a disenchanted, poorer world. Atheists will typically admit these defects, but point out that there are many other things in life to enjoy. A sunset, for instance, is still beautiful whether it's sacred or not. Right and wrong don't necessarily depend on God.

So atheism pays nothing and receives nothing in return. From a pragmatical perspective the math is easy: zero plus zero equals zero.

Primitive animism and polytheism

When primitive man was faced with phenomena beyond his ken, which he couldn't understand through material cause—things like the bubbling up of a spring, or the shining of the sun—he attempted to explain them on the basis of motivation, the form of cause and effect he already innately used to understand human actions. This compelled him to postulate a multitude of personalities, from gods to ghosts, behind complex natural events.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to understand these complex material phenomena on the basis of personalities and motivations, and whoever insists on it is indulging in mere superstition. We can forgive primitive men for these beliefs, but today they're beyond the bounds of reason, and would create all sorts of trouble for a believer. Animism is certainly not pragmatical.

Happily, pantheism can preserve the beauties of animism and primitive polytheism without the superstitions.

Pantheism, or sophisticated animism and polytheism

Pantheism is the belief that everything is God. You, this screen, your terrier's toenail clippings, the sun and moon and stars—everything. But what could that possibly mean?

The natural objection to pantheism is that it's nonsense. While someone can put together sentences that seem to explain why your terrier's toenail clippings are God, or part of God, these sentences can't be translated into clear and distinct language whose meaning we all understand and agree on.

However, I'm not going to argue that pantheism is empty. To the contrary. The problem is rather in the name, which gives rise to needless confusion. The “God” (theos) of pantheism bears little resemblance to the God of monotheism. The real meaning of “pantheism” is something like omnipresent sacredness or holiness, not the omnipresence of the monotheistic God.

According to pantheism, the site of sacredness isn't a Creator who exists apart from the world. Sacredness exists right here in the world itself. Even your terrier's toenail clippings can be seen as fragments of the greater miracle of existence. Usually, however, pantheism directs our attention not toward such humble concatenations of keratin, but toward places, things, and ideas that inspire elevated feelings and create an impression of sacredness or divine presence. For some, contemplating the stars and the laws of physics may suffice. Others may feel a divine presence when entering a temple, listening to music, or visiting a sacred grove where a goddess is said to frolic.

For our pragmatical analysis here, we'll consider only the most philosophical version of pantheism. According to this philosophical pantheism, gods and goddesses and other less anthropomorphic intuitions of divinity aren't concretely real, but exist in the same sense that poems or mathematical theorems do: namely, as ideas. Ideas, of course, can and do change the course of events—not through direct material interference, but through their influence on our decisions. Their power is indirect.

Monotheists will still claim that this form of pantheism isn't truly theistic. That's a reasonable claim, but philosophical pantheism is still distinct from materialist atheism that sees all experiences of divinity as empty hallucinations whose true reality is physical configurations in the brain. For pantheists, the divinities may be only ideas, but they're meaningful ideas and genuine aspects of our world—more meaningful than many material phenomena.

All these sources of sacredness can enhance our lives, providing us with happiness and aesthetic enjoyment. And they can provide moral guidance and encouragement as well. So pantheism would appear to be a pragmatical belief.

However, there's a potential problem with so much holiness. If we really start to see divinity everywhere, even in cows and plants and rocks, we might become paralyzed—unable to mow the lawn for fear of cutting short sacred little lives or crushing innocent pebbles. We might be opposed to scientific and economic progress, which often require us to break some eggs, or break some atoms. We might succumb to vegetarianism and other sins against pragmaticality that are almost as grave. Too much input from too many sources might confuse our moral sense. This paralysis and confusion is problematic, to say the least. So for pantheism to be pragmatical, it requires a supplementary moral doctrine which clearly rejects the idea that everything, or even all life, is equally sacred, and establishes instead a functional hierarchy of value. This additional burden makes pantheism less pragmatical than it might otherwise be.


“Panentheism” ostensibly means that everything is in God. Like “pantheism,” the word itself is nonsense. What could it mean for everything to be “in” God? Is God some kind of giant airplane hangar in the sky?

However, the confusing word “panentheism” is referring to a real possibility. Pantheism and monotheism are only mutually exclusive if the God of monotheism denies the existence and bans the worship of all other divinities or semi-divinities by means of commandments. He often seems to do just that, but it isn't a logical requirement of unlimited monotheism. So we're free to imagine a hybrid of pantheism and monotheism where everything in the universe is considered divine, but there's also a God, in the usual sense of the word, that exists apart from the universe.

It's easy to calculate the pragmaticality of such a combination: simply add the pragmaticality of pantheism to that of unlimited or limited monotheism.

Conclusion: do the math.

Which theory of God is ultimately the most pragmatical? Let's look over the balance sheet.

  • For atheism the equation is simple: zero plus zero equals zero. Atheist materialists make no effort to believe, and they live in a disenchanted world with no supernatural psychological support.
  • Limited monotheism offers us some inspirational feelings and moral support, and requires only a modest effort to maintain faith, since it doesn't imply any contradictions. Perhaps a net positive; but whether this positive is big enough to be meaningful depends on whether you find such a limited God compelling.
  • Pantheism surrounds us with sources of sacredness and inspiration, but it entails a risk we might become tree-hugging luddites, or even outright vegetarians. Nevertheless, pantheism is a net positive provided we supplement the theology with a well-designed hierarchy of value.
  • Unlimited monotheism gives us inspirational feelings and moral support, but from this quite considerable positive we need to subtract the effort required to maintain a hyperbolic skepticism regarding our own powers of reason and observation. It's hard to determine the result of this equation because it involves two large and uncertain numbers that vary from person to person.

Now you do the math, dear readers—remember to show your work!

Part Five: Faith, Fanaticism, and Hypothetical Religions

Religion is often accused of sacrificing the present world for uncertainties and speculations of dubious value. But the evidence we've presented above shows that some religious beliefs can improve our lives here and now. Of course, we all know there are also religious beliefs that do harm to our lives here and now, and entail needless or even outright foolish sacrifices. For instance, mass suicide to catch a ride when a UFO passes overhead.

From a pragmatical perspective we can define these positive and negative beliefs as faith and fanaticism respectively. Pragmatical faith is belief in unverifiable claims whose effect is positive with respect to our earthly existence. Pragmatical fanaticism, on the other hand, is belief in unverifiable claims whose effect is negative with respect to our earthly existence. And agnosticism is a refusal to believe unverifiable claims regardless of what effect they would have on our earthly existence.

Pragmatical fanaticism is usually the result of harmful commandments that lean on more fundamental religious concepts like God. The logic is: God says you should do X. When X is dumb or crazy, atheists blame theism for the fault. But there's nothing inherent in God that implies the commandment. The fault is in the "says X," not in "God." Any commandments and claims that "God says you should do X" do indeed need to be scrutinized very carefully.

A minimalist religion, or "metaphysical optimism"

An agnostic might read all of this and reply: “I can see very well that my life would be better if I held certain religious beliefs. But I feel a strong instinctive desire to reject any beliefs that are unverifiable, and the evidence for these religious beliefs looks weak at best.” This aversion gives rise to the question: what is the minimum of faith that can still capture the most important pragmatical benefits?

The following principles are a generalization of our conclusions in the preceding sections, leaving out any unnecessary specifics and any beliefs that don't have a definite and substantial pragmatical advantage.

  • At least some part of ourselves and our loved ones will survive the death of the body. However, this life is precious and we should trust our natural instinct to cherish and extend it.
  • Whatever the shape of time may be, the universe isn't going to perish or fall into permanent decline.
  • The world isn't just inert matter, but imbued with divine meaningfulness. The whole panoply of religious imagery, narratives, ceremonies, etc., whether real or purely ideal, can help us to access this divine meaningfulness and discover ethical and aesthetic truths.
  • Further religious speculations are no better than guesses, so we shouldn't waste precious time worrying about them.

I call this viewpoint “Minimalism,” but it could also be described in terms more attractive to agnostics as “metaphysical optimism.” After all, agnostics, by definition, already admit that the above principles might be true; the gap between faith and simple optimism is therefore very small indeed. They might ask themselves if it's worth foregoing the advantages of belief just to maintain a pessimistic and unpragmatical default hypothesis that is, itself, uncertain.

Minimalism is easily mocked as a variety of lightweight postmodernist-universalist relativism (also known as "eclecticism") which, too weak-willed to make any decisions, take any sides, or stand on any principles, simply declares that every religion is right, whether they contradict each other or not. But that criticism isn't accurate, and no contradictions are being affirmed. Minimalism is rather a refusal to accept detailed cosmological and metaphysical specifications that are both poorly supported and of little use. Instead of asserting that every religion is true, a Minimalist asserts that every religion has succumbed to the temptation to embroider theories that are already uncertain, albeit of considerable value, with further claims of a distinctly flimsy character—adding crenellations to castles in the sky. In other words, a Minimalist affirms certain basic religious views, but dismisses the remainder as idle speculation of no more than allegorical value.

Helicalism, an evolutionary religion

Naturally we can piece together several sets of beliefs from our analysis that are more elaborate than Minimalism. Some of these closely match existing religions. But there are also possible combinations that don't exactly correspond to any existing religion. For instance, consider this pragmatical but nonexistent belief set, which I'll call “Helicalism.”

  • To create the world, God divides from himself fragments of consciousness that evolve in time. In a certain sense, we chose to be born; and our lives are part of a larger divine mission: we participate in the ongoing process of creation. God is prior to and beyond human morality, and therefore the problem of evil doesn't arise.
  • After death, each consciousness separates from material world to rejoin God, and later descends again to a new body. While the individual, personal characteristics from its past life are preserved in God or a fragment thereof, they do not reincarnate. Instead, each new life is determined according to an approximate principle of nearness and continuity with the previous life. Thus we have partial immortality without the need to propose a soul that interferes with the biology of the brain or Darwinian evolution.
  • Time is evolutionary and helical in shape, whence the name. The world is generally improving, but with many repetitions, reversals, and loops.

This hypothetical religion resembles some existing religions, but the match isn't perfect, and Helicalism as such has no adherents. That doesn't change the fact that if it did have any adherents, they would reap pragmatical benefits from their beliefs.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that any of my devout readers should give up their current religion for Minimalism or Helicalism. This article was only a long thought experiment, for your amusement and mine. Instead, why not do your own pragmatical analysis of your religious beliefs? You might be surprised by what you find.

Coda: the pragmatical dilemma

This article makes no attempt to answer the profound “pragmatical dilemma” that looms in the background. Faced with certain fundamental uncertainties whose answers are of considerable importance, is it best that we:

  1. Choose our beliefs based on personal intuition, regardless of their pragmatical or scientific value
  2. Believe only answers within the limits of established scientific knowledge, even if they do us harm
  3. Adopt a minimum of nonspecific beliefs that provide us with pragmatical benefits, or
  4. Adopt the most pragmatical belief set, even if it includes many fancifully detailed specifications

The question above is, in fact, especially challenging for Darwinist materialists. Darwinism proposes that the process of natural selection gradually optimizes life forms for success in their environment. But this means that if we are purely biological organisms with a natural, evolutionary origin, our cognitive faculties aren't set up to find the absolute truth. Instead, we've evolved, and are still evolving, to believe what it's best for us to believe. If we function better with blinders on, then we'll evolve to have built-in cognitive blinders. In other words, the logic of evolution implies that our cognitive apparatus generates effective, pragmatical beliefs—not true ones! So those who accept the second answer above have very weak grounds to distinguish themselves from those who accept answers three or four.

I think the pragmatical dilemma is quite fascinating, and worthy of consideration for believers and unbelievers alike. I'll leave it for you to think over, dear readers!

Other writing by J. Sanilac

Memoirs of an Evil Vizier

Essays and Articles