In my previous post I contemplated what I would do if I was wrong about God and religion.
I’m frequently asked “what if you died and met [my particular version of] God?” My reply was that I would be sincerely surprised, however, I would not get angry, rebel, or hate this God, instead I would quietly sit down next to him and ask him some questions. A God who is good and loving, who knows fully the openness of my heart and willingness to be humble, couldn’t possibly hate me or torture without end..
If I’m wrong, then I would be open to changing my mind, I would be willing to believe that God exists, I would be willing to accept God’s dominion. I trust that any good omniscient being would know my intentions have always been pure and would treat me fairly. So I’m not at all terrified of torture.
What about the traditional Christian (or Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, etc) believer? Let’s ask you the same question:
What if you are wrong? What have you to risk?
THE USUAL REPLY TO “WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?”
I have encountered this quote by the rapper Lecrae many times, in each case, it was the reply given by kind religious folk when asked this question. They say something along the lines of: “If I’m wrong then I wasted my life. If you’re wrong about [my] God then you wasted eternity.”
Lecrae is by no means the first person to come to such a conclusion, this idea has been around for hundreds of years. It was best articulated by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who ordered it as follows:
“Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.” (Pascals Wager)
But is this really the case? It is a profitable gamble? Many philosophers and thinkers have considered Pascals Wager and discovered numerous errors; lets briefly survey a few of these.
PROBLEM #1 – IGNORES OTHER FAITHS
Here is how the average believer imagines the situation. You have before you the option to (a) believe or (b) withhold belief. One of these options has the possibility of an infinite reward with no loss, the other a possibility of infinite loss with no possible reward. Believers of any particular religion who employ this kind of thinking use binary logic, because they only see their religion as an option.
The reality of the situation is that there are dozens of contemporary religious options with millions of followers that present the same wager. Instead of standing before one statement with a 50/50 chance, we are have before us a few dozen religious claims, each with their own afterlives, heavens, and hells. This drastically reduces the odds of being right, it’s no longer a true or false question that yields 50% odds, but rather it’s a multiple choice question, and there are dozens of choices. Instead of having “nothing to lose” if we are wrong, by choosing God A instead of God B, we open ourselves to go to B’s version hell. Instead of odds that are 50/50, we are looking at 1/50.
PROBLEM #2 – ITS A SELFISH LOTTERY
The second big problem with this wager is that most faiths require that a believer profess faith out of the genuineness of their heart. According to the theological teachings of major theistic religions, adherents are called to have a selfless faith, utmost respect, careful obedience, and authentic love towards God. Yet, Pascals wager calls people to make decisions with a calculated interest in self-preservation. One must consider his odds of playing the “afterlife lottery” and use his selfish desire to roll the dice.
It is a decision grounded in the natural desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure, it’s a choice that stems from our simple carnal urge to run from the horrors of hell and seek the lavishness of heaven. By the definition of most religions, especially the top three monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism, & Islam, this faithless act of picking the option that is most likely to save your skin disqualifies one from the salvation found in that religion.
Believing in God only because you have something to gain, or because you fear punishment is not a noble selfless sacrifice, it is selfish self preservation.
PROBLEM #3 – ASSUMING NO RISK
As part of the argument it is commonly asserted that a believer who is wrong about (their) God loses nothing. (This is a standard line of thinking in Pascals wager, though Lecrae’s version does admit one “loses” his life.) Traditionally, it’s presupposed that a life which is finite or temporary cannot be meaningful and must automatically be a waste. Yet there is no good argument to justify this assertion. Is a finite donut less tasty because it doesn’t last forever? Is a short trip to Disneyland less meaningful because it’s not eternal? Surely no. It seems fallacious to simply assert that a temporary life has no meaning, and even worse to make the baseless claim that if your life was eighty, not a trillion years long, then it must be a wasted life.
In any sense, lets say you decide to play the selfish afterlife lottery, what do you stand to lose?
1. You risk displeasing the God(s) of every other religion, known and unknown to us
As Homer Simpson put it “but Marge, what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we’re just making God madder and madder!” The reality is, unless you are absolutely and positively sure that your particular version of faith is the true one, you may be incurring the wrath of God(s) upon yourself. And yes, I know that as the believer of one religion you think all those other religions are so obviously silly and wrong that you cannot take them seriously, and yet, that is exactly what the adherents of those other religions think of your faith. Believing something simply because of a wager is a problem not only with different religions, but even within the same religion. What if you take Pascals Wager and simply jump into Pentecostalism, but the real truth ends up being Catholicism. You will be worshiping the right God, in the wrong way and rejecting his emissaries to this earth, and while you may end up barely making it to heaven, you are surely risking some kind of punishment or chastisement by carelessly making a leap of faith without thoughtfully exploring the options.
2. You risk the only moments of existence you will ever get
Sure when you compare eighty years to a trillion years, the eighty obviously pales in comparison. And if we knew for a fact there were infinite years to be had, only a complete fool would choose eternal torture for those infinite years (which begs the question, is such an insane person even eligible to receive punishment, we don’t imprison the mentally ill, so why should God torture them in hell?). Yet, all we do know for a fact is that we have a few decades in this vast cosmic arena, this life is certain, the rest is merely an ethereal possibility. If this short life is 100% of your existence, it is still a huge tragedy to simply gamble it away, even if that is less a tragedy than gambling away 100% of eternal existence. In some ways, it can be said that wasting 100% of your money is even more sad when you have a small wallet rather than an infinite bank account.
3. You risk your only chance to embrace the truth of reality
What if you only have one opportunity to embrace and understand the sublime grandeur of the universe? By throwing it away on a gamble, you risk your only chance to learn and understand reality. Just pause for one second, are you really saying that if the answer to the greatest puzzle of existence isn’t the one you think it is, you don’t want to know the real answer? You don’t even want to try? There could be untold wonders in this universe, perhaps the ultimate answers of reality are infinitely more fascinating and wonderful than what the traditional religions have given us? Perhaps these religions have only grasped at a tiny drop in a vast ocean of beautiful wonder? And you would rather lose what may be your only opportunity to learn about it? Just because you only want the answer that you already picked to be true?
4. (In some traditions) you risk the ability to live a happy life
Fortunately we all live in a peaceful time in history and many of us belong to healthy religious traditions, but at the same time, others do not. There were the millions of people who lived in difficult historical periods, and used the thinking behind Pascals wager to live unhappy lives. There were many stoic and ascetic believers who intentionally harmed their health, happiness, and lives as a sacrifice for God(s). There were millions who lived in repressive religious cultures that prevented women from having freedom, caused men to spend thousands of hours on their in repetitive prayers, groveling in shame, or hunted “heretics,” burning them on pyres. Today there are still religious traditions that prevent many from obtaining joy by shame and physical repression, others prevent adherents from enjoying life, beauty, sex, culture, and etc. This doesn’t apply to all, for indeed many religious traditions offer a good sense of community and meaning, but millions of people have thoughtlessly risked their happiness on religious traditions that don’t.
5. (In some traditions) you risk holding back the entire human race
There are indeed brilliant scientists who are religious believers, yet historically they tend to be at odds with sizable portions of theologians/religious leaders in their tradition. On top of that, the majority of scientists today grow up in non-religious homes. Sociologist Elaine H. Ecklund has found that “When compared to the general population, a larger proportion of scientists are raised in non-religious homes.” (Again, not all religious people hinder science, nor all traditions, but a significant number of historically and today do that it’s worth mentioning). If you simply use Pascals wager to select one of these religious traditions, you are hindering all of humanity. If you pick a religion that discriminates against a race, sex, or sexual orientation, your wager is harmful towards those people. If you simply hate evolution or stem cell research perhaps your impulsive wager will negatively millions of other people..
6. You risk teaching others that the fear of death/punishment is stronger than intellectual honesty
Life is filled with many grand riddles, and whatever the final solution may be, if you simply pick a “safe” answer that you think will save you from some ethereal torture, or will shield you from contemplating the sobering reality of death, you are advocating intellectual cowardice. Rather than investigating the truth with courage and integrity, with the aim of accepting it regardless of its conclusions, you would act impulsively on the basis of fear. If you simply pick the answer that appears to be less frightening, then is not a brave intellectual honesty that motivates your decisions, but simple cowardice. When you act this way you are teaching others that fear is stronger than the truth.
7. You risk teaching others that selfishness is more important than intellectual honesty
On the same note, if you primarily consider the possibility of personal reward, or that if there is no reward at least you have lived a happy life by thinking there is one, you are selling your soul. Rather than pursuing the truth, to whatever conclusion it may lead, you prefer to make the selfish choices that offer you a reward, or at least the hope of one. You opt to make a calculated decision based on how much personal benefit you can reap, not on the truthfulness a claim. And by doing this you teach others around you that the value of selfish desires is more important than a courageous quest for truth.
Does this mean you should change sides?
Am I saying you should change your religious views? No, not necessarily (though if you have a good reason, then yes). My goal is to urge you to stop using these careless cop-out answers, stop living a life where you merely make impulsive decisions grounded in fear, selfishness, or indoctrination instead of careful and considerate thinking. I want you to stop assuming this topic requires little or no consideration but just blind faith. Whatever choices you make, please understand all of them are of utmost importance and require care and attention.
If your religion is the right one, it will affect all of your existence, so make that decision carefully and thoughtfully; don’t make silly wagers based on irrational fears and hopes of rewards.
If your religion is not the right one, it will affect all of your existence, so be willing to examine your beliefs, don’t run away from this by using wagers with a calculated self-interest.
Whatever the answers are, be courageous in exploring them and be honest in accepting them.