Back when I was an evangelical Christian, I sometimes asked myself, “If I were wrong, would I want to know?” My answer was always yes, which is what most people would say, but it’s not that simple. Oftentimes we think we want to know if we’re wrong, but when we learn the truth we wish we could go back to not knowing.
For example, a few years ago a friend of mine got food poisoning at a restaurant. When I asked him which restaurant, he said…
“You don’t want to know.”
“Yes I do. What restaurant?”
“No, you like this place. If I tell you, it will ruin it for you.”
“Oh come on,” I said. “Was it Sidelines Grill? Deep Dish Diner?”
“I’m not telling you. Like I said, you don’t want to know.”
“Yes I do! It wasn’t The Beer Bunker, was it? Just tell me.”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine, it was The Beer Bunker.”
“No! Damnit, I love that place. Why did you tell me?”
“You said you wanted to know.”
“Yea, but I didn’t know that I didn’t want to know.”
It seems like a contradiction. How could someone want to know and not want to know at the same time? It’s simple: You can’t know whether you want to know something until you already know it. So although it’s easy to say, “I would want to know if I were wrong,” you have to think about the implications of being wrong.
To illustrate this, I’m going to tell you about a man named Paul. He’s been the pastor of a small church for over twenty years. His best friends are deacons, his children are in the youth group, and his wife sings for the praise band. This man’s entire life revolves around his church.
One day while studying an old book on philosophy, he comes across a passage that proves, without a doubt, that god does not exist (there is no such proof, this is just a story). Naturally, he is horrified. He reads the passage over and over, but each time he only becomes more certain: there is no god. His entire career was built on a lie. And not just his career–his whole life. The people he befriended, the kind of marriage he had, the way he raised his children… All of it was based on something that isn’t even true.
You could argue that as long as Paul has lived a happy life, it doesn’t matter. Fair enough. But the question is: what should he do now? Emotionally, it would be very difficult to keep this to himself and go on pretending nothing has changed. How could he write sermons, pray with his wife, or teach his children about Jesus knowing none of it is true?
After a few weeks, he finally decides he can’t keep it to himself any longer, so he shows the philosophy book to his wife. To his surprise, the passage doesn’t convince her. “But this is absolute proof that there is no god,” he says. She shrugs and replies, “I don’t care. It must be a mistake.” And then she looks at him as if he’s been diagnosed with a terminal disease. “Are you saying you don’t believe in god anymore?”
Suddenly the situation becomes clear: The proof that god does not exist has ruined his life. What will happen to his marriage? What will his friends at church say? He can’t continue his career as a pastor, but he doesn’t have any other skills. How can he possibly pay his mortgage with the wages of an entry level job? His wife will have to go back to work, which means they won’t be able to home-school the kids. And speaking of the kids, what are they going to tell them?
Paul looks into his wife’s big brown eyes, the eyes he spend so much time looking at while falling in love, and he thinks to himself, “I wish I never found out there is no god.” Can you blame him? I certainly don’t. Finding out you were wrong about god isn’t as simple as finding out you were wrong about your favorite restaurant. It changes everything, and in some cases it can completely ruin your life.
So before you ask, “If I were wrong, would I want to know?”, you should ask, “If I found out I were wrong, how would it affect my life?” If it would have a negative impact on your life, then you’ve discovered an emotional bias in your thinking. How can you possibly be objective about a belief if changing your position on it could cost you your career and/or marriage? Psychologically, your brain is going to do everything it can to convince you you’re right, whether you’re trying to be objective or not.
Of course, there’s not really any proof that god does not exist, and there never will be because it’s an unfalsifiable claim. However, there’s no proof that god does exist, either. So in reality, Paul would never find a book that proves there’s no god. Rather, he might find a book that points out there’s no evidence for god(s) and that humans are notorious for inventing them. If billions of people have been wrong about their gods, how can he be sure he’s not wrong about his?
How Paul reacts to this thought depends on what is more important to him: the truth, or his beliefs. If the truth is more important to him, he’ll continue to question his beliefs and investigate the matter by studying both Christian and secular books. But if his beliefs are more important to him, he’ll shrug off his doubts and eagerly embrace any books or articles that claim to have evidence for god’s existence. The higher the social cost of changing his beliefs, the more likely he is to keep them.
This is why religions manage to keep so many adherents. It’s not because the ideas are good or because there’s any real evidence; it’s because humans are social animals that usually prefer to stay with their group. And if that group contains people they love and care about, they’ll convince themselves there are rational reasons to keep believing the same things as the rest of the group. These people do not want to know if they’re wrong, despite what they might say.
Of course, atheists can also be biased. But I think it’s safe to say they’re usually not as biased as Christians. After all, Christians believe they have a personal relationship with the king of the universe. They actively love and worship this being, and many of them talk to him throughout the day. They believe this being has saved them and their families from Hell and that they’re going to live in happiness with him for all of eternity. Not only are they biased; they’re proud of it. And if they found out they were wrong, they would be devastated.
Atheists, on the other hand, do not have a personal relationship with their lack of belief in god. They don’t sing with joy about how they’re not Christians, and they don’t count on their atheism to save their families from eternal torture. And they certainly don’t expect their atheism to give them everlasting joy. So clearly, the psychological cost of finding out there’s a god doesn’t even compare to the psychological of cost of realizing there probably isn’t.
Still, I’m always on the lookout for biases in my thinking. I often wonder how finding out I’m wrong would affect my life and if I would be objective enough to admit it. I hope so. As Matt Dillahunty once said, “I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.” For me, the truth is more important than my beliefs, and that’s why I’m an atheist.