Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Utility of Ignorance

The moment I knew philosophy was my cup of tea was during my introduction class, freshman year at George Fox.  Mark McLeod posed a question aimed at helping us think about happiness and utility in a different way.  The question was phrased as a choice.

Fact:  Your spouse is cheating on you.

Fact:  Despite your spouse cheating on you, your marriage is fantastic.


You have two choices.

Choice 1:  Learn the truth about your spouse’s infidelity, and deal with the consequences.

Choice 2:  Never learn about your spouse’s infidelity, and live the rest of your days within a fantastic marriage.


Nearly the entire class, myself included, raised our hands saying it was more important to know the truth than to be ignorant and happy.  One dissenter, Josh, resident skeptic (and the first atheist I ever met), disagreed.  It would be better to be happy, he claimed.  In this case, what was true was not necessarily better than remaining ignorant of the truth.  I’ve come to agree with this perspective.  What difference does it make to me to know this truth if all it does is make my life worse?

This example is quite relevant to my open question on the existence of God.  Atheists will often ridicule the argument that religion is useful, arguing that the truth is more important.  Since there’s no reason to believe in any gods, it’s a waste of time to be a part of religion.  I’m conflicted on this point.  While Pascal’s wager is a poor expression of utility, there seems to be something within it that makes sense.  If atheism is correct, but theism produces more happiness, is that not an argument for theism?

It’s more complicated than this, of course.  A person can’t simply choose to believe or disbelieve.  But over time, I think a person could intentionally be less skeptical, and more open to at least a basic notion of God that might provide more reason for optimism.  Conversely, for the believer, should it become apparent that one's belief system has at minimum some substantial errors, should this discovery be pursued?   Which is better?  To be right and miserable, or wrong and happy?


**For the purpose of this article, I’m intentionally ignoring issues regarding the truth of value of the existence of hell, which adds a different dimension to the question.  I’m also ignoring the entirely real possibility of being a content atheist.


  1. Through the magic of Google I found your blog looking for the OPB radio show on OneGeorgeFox and Common Ground. Glad I did; I've really appreciated reading your honest reflections and thoughts. I wish these type of discussions/questions were more frequent within church ... without defensive reactions.

    I eventually refound my faith, but I remember the process of losing it and being an atheist as if it were yesterday. I wish I had this blog then; I hope others who are questioning/are atheist find can be a lonely process.

    Heh. Even now the once-Baptist part of me thinks, "That's such a Bad-Not-Christian thing to hope." Ah, the church: so influential, and so rarely careful enough with that responsibility.

  2. Thanks for your comment! If I can accomplish anything by writing stuff down, I hope it's that atheists and thoughtful believers can understand each other, and treat each other better.