Saturday, September 8, 2007
Gambling on God
Here's a little story:
An Atheist was walking down the street when a man approached him. "Do you believe in Jesus?," the man asked? "Well, it's hard to have faith in Jesus when you don't think there's a God," the Atheist replied. "Don't even believe in God, you say? Even though I have no proof for you that God exists, I have a compelling reason to believe based on self-interest." "Go on," the Atheist replies, curious about what the man has to say, because most responses to, "I don't think there is a God," are met with, "You're going to hell! You don't want to go to hell, do you?"
"There are two possibilities, God exists, or God does not exist, right? If you believe in God, and follow his commandments, you get eternal life. If God doesn't exist, you've wasted some time in church, and benefited from the comfort of belief. Sure, you may miss out on some pleasures in life, but that doesn't matter much when you're dead. But, if God does exist, you get eternal life."
"If you don't believe in God, and God doesn't exist, you'll lead a full life, free and easy, without the comfort of the divine watching over you, but easy and free, then you die. However, if you don't believe in God, and God does exist, well, it's straight to hell with you."
"Here we go again," thought the Atheist. "So, you see, if you believe in God, and you're wrong, you lose nothing, except for some wasted time in church, but if you don't believe in God, and you're wrong, you're punished for eternity. If you believe in God, and you're right, you get eternal bliss, and if you don't believe in God, and you're right, you die just like everyone else. So, you can see, by just self-interest, it's much safer to believe in God, even if he doesn't exist, because the rewards are so great, and the negatives just aren't there. But if you don't believe in God, and God does exist, then watch out! You've made a major eternal mistake!"
Is this gamble convincing to you? It is to many people who may not attend church services, but get their children baptized, maybe attend church on important holidays, and attend religious funerals. It's better to believe in God and be wrong, then to not believe in God and be wrong.
This wager works if there is only one God, a fundamentalist God, who is quick to punish non-believers, and quick to reward the obedient. But, human religion is not that simple. Just to believe in God, and follow commandments is simple enough when only considering one God. But, humankind has created many Gods. If you believe in a God, but don't believe that Jesus Christ is your savior, Evangelical Christians believe that you go to hell. So, if you take the wager, but happen to believe in the wrong God, you're damned anyway, the same as the Atheist.
Maybe you think to yourself, God's a pretty nice guy and all, I'm sure he wouldn't damn people who led good lives, and happened to worship the wrong God. If that's the case with this all-loving deity, wouldn't Atheists be safe from the lapping flames from hell as well?
Couldn't God see into the farthest reaches of your soul anyway, and not be swayed by belief that is so self-interested? If you are practicing your faith "just in case," wouldn't God be able to tell you weren't serious?
So, this wager is really between believing in a particular punishing, vengeful God who demands you only follow his fundamentalist religion, and no others, or believing that there is no God, or if a God does exist, he's not so egotistical that he won't give you a chance to save yourself when the time comes. This can be a trap as well, because there are many fundamentalist religions to choose from, and many nasty Gods to follow who will be quite angry if you choose the wrong God.
This little scenario is based on Blaise Pascal's Pensees, published in 1669, a collection of his letters and other writings. Pensees means "thoughts," and can be a good source of philosophical problems dealing with religion.
There is an Atheist's Wager which responds to Pascal's Wager. What do you think? Is Pascal convincing? Or, is there a better method?