Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why Take the Risk?

            It’s a question that comes up all the time. Actually, for many Christians (and Muslims), it’s the go-to when conversing with atheists; considering you’re risking an eternity in hell, isn’t it safer to believe? Why would you risk that? You must be really sure!

            It’s also called Pascal’s Wager, and it’s possibly the surest way to make an atheist roll their eyes in frustration. And believe me, that’s not frustration born from it being some deeply insightful question without an answer. It comes from hearing it all the time, despite it being a really, really bad argument.

            The name “Pascal’s Wager” comes from the mathematician Blaise Pascal, who made the most famous form of the argument. The basic logic is that if God exists, then belief brings infinite reward and nonbelief brings infinite punishment. Whereas if God doesn’t exist, belief results in only finite loss and nonbelief results in only finite gain. Since infinite things are always greater than finite things, you’re always better off betting on belief.

            This is a crap argument.

            The first and most obvious problem is one that Pascal recognized himself: betting the odds is not really the same as believing. Pascal acknowledged this problem, and his solution was “fake it ‘til you make it.” He recommended that even if you don’t really believe it, you should go ahead and act as if you do as rigorously as possible for as long as it takes to develop a believer’s habits of thought, and perhaps sheer repetition turns the rote behavior into actual belief.

            Can you imagine a more cynical and dishonest approach to belief? Why would you worship a god that is fooled by it? I would think anyone who values truth at all would reject the argument, and even believers ought to find the idea kind of insulting. It implies that the belief has little or no truth value, and is simply a matter of will motivated by pure self-interest.

            But there are other problems that Pascal never addressed. One example is the false dichotomy. See, it’s not merely a question of whether you accept God or not. Humanity has worshipped literally thousands of gods in its history, and the Wager offers little guidance on which of them you ought to believe in. At best, Pascal’s Wager suggests that you ought to believe in the god whose religion threatens you with the worst punishment, which is obviously not a path the truth at all. What if your personal idea of what constitutes the “worst” is different from someone else’s? And what if the god you choose ends up being the wrong one, and you’re ensuring your damnation in the eyes of the real god? Everyone who believes in any god is taking that risk, whether they admit to the possibility or not. There’s no way to avoid it.

            I also disagree with the idea that what the believer gives up, if a god doesn’t exist, is finite and therefore trivial. This is the only life we know for certain we’re ever going to get. This life may well be literally everything we will ever have the chance to know or experience. As finite as it may be, to the individual experiencing it this life is everything. And, depending what version of a god you happen to believe in, your entire life may very well be what they demand. This idea - that giving up your everything in support of what appear to be unproven and unprovable impossibilities could possibly be a trivial demand - is absurd.

            But really, all dry philosophical stuff aside, maybe it would help to look at it this way. Do you really think you’re risking anything by going to bed every night without taking precautions against the monster under your bed? I mean, if you’re wrong, one of these nights you’re gonna be monster chow. Or your kids will be. Bed monsters love children, after all. Why take the risk? Even if you believe in God… what if your kids secretly don’t believe and the bed monsters get them before they come around? And don’t go thinking God will protect children from bed monsters; he doesn’t protect them from tigers, or bears, or childhood leukemia, so why make special dispensation for bed monsters? Letting your child go to sleep in a bed is risking not only their life, but their immortal soul!

            Well, not really. I’m guessing you don’t believe in the monster under the bed. There’s no reason to believe in it, and the idea that monsters really exist who magically appear in the dark space under the bed when you could clearly see they weren’t there in the light of day is just patently ridiculous. Neither you nor I think it’s worth spending one iota of effort protecting ourselves and our children from the monster under the bed, because it’s a fantasy made up of our own fears of the dark and the unknown. That’s how I feel about the risk that I’m going to be sent to hell for not believing in anyone’s god.

            I’m not saying this in an effort to insult anyone or their beliefs, or the seriousness with which they take them. I’m not comparing gods to monsters under the bed purely for the sake of dismissing anyone’s faith as childhood superstition. Rather, I offer the comparison as a window to why Pascal’s Wager is not convincing to myself or to many other atheists. It is a dodge – an end run around any effort to find or illuminate truth in order to appeal directly to fear – and we recognize it as such. Believers should too, and not resort to it.