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?


Chris Schommer said...

This wager (as well as the response) are both agreed upon one point: the fundamentalist view is the authoritative view on religion. i.e. 'if you don't believe in X god you are going to hell.'

But even the Catholic church, as conservative and monolithic as it is, wrote Vatican II in 1965 that radically changed how it recognized world religions. The fundamentalists hated it, and still do, but it still stands and people are still debating it to this day. I googled this section on other religions, and personally found it very interesting. Perhaps they will go farther in Vatican III. It is one of the reasons I did not abandon being a Catholic, because a large part of their teaching is "we don't know." Things are open to discussion. There are rebels who think every one (no matter what) is going to heaven, as well as the fundamentalists still speaking only latin.

So, I think that any honest debate about religion must take these complex views of faith into account instead of narrowing in on simple fundamentalist principles of heaven and hell.

Bjorn said...

Jeannette and I attended a discussion on political and social effects of religion, with Stephen Prothero, and Sam Harris. Both seem to focus in on fundamentals, Prothero with strong study of the Bible, and Harris with defining religion by it's scripture. I had argued that it's important to look at religion in practice, because while each faith used the same scriptures, the application is different. The the trouble becomes, if you know the Bible inside and out, and are trying to convince someone that their interpretation of scripture is wrong, that can be as difficult as convincing a Christian that they should live their lives according to the Koran. On one hand, it's dishonest to generalize adherents of any faith, because religion is practiced very locally, but on the other, you do have a large percentage of people who believe that Israel is land promised to the Jews by God, homosexuality is immoral, Intelligent Design should be taught exclusively in schools, and condom use is wicked and sinful. So, how can you change public policy when decisions are made on religious grounds?

Chris Schommer said...

You can only change public policy by beating the fundies out of office as best you can. You can never convert them or reason with them. They will always hate gays, always think the rapture is right around the corner, and so on and have irrefutable proof by quoting such and such and saying god said so. But they are not all there is in this larger religious debate you are so vigorously involved in.

Picking on the fundies (google that btw and PNSFW) is just too easy because their beliefs are so rigid and yet based on something that is so flexible that it renders them silly looking. All the interesting religious discussions I have had are with articulate people with very open religious beliefs. The fundies would call them heretics but hey, when was the last time they were right about anything! And why should any one listen to them?

So I guess my point is, I don't talk to intolerant stupid people because they waste my time and don't give me anything in return.


Chris Schommer said...

BTW, you can't spell fundies with out FUN!!

Bjorn said...

Fundies, the atheist bloggers will get a kick out of that!

Bjorn said...

I should clarify that most of the people who do have these nut job ideas probably wouldn't be defined as fundamentalists, but evangelicals. I've heard it like this, fundamentalists hate modernity, and evangelicals use it to their advantage.

Sam Harris, in a talk he gave in 2005, does advocate for more religious debate, because after dialog, there will be some kind of common humanity that will shape morality, and the world will be better off. I do think that there is this silent majority of people who don't quite know how to frame the debate simply enough to be compelling. For example, on homosexuality, there are many Christians who have no problem with homosexuality, and that may have more to do with a progressive set of ethics, then anything biblically derived, and it's difficult to be convincing to a group of people who can cite scripture on homosexuality to say point blank, it's wrong. I think that's why they've been so successful, even given "modern times" with our technology, science, reason, global communication, the message is in a sound bite. While it may appear hopeless to convert anyone, or convince them otherwise, their membership is growing, which means at least a portion of these people didn't hold these beliefs before. Is it because the message is so simple? Are the leaders so charismatic? Is America doomed anyway if the debate has to be framed so simple as to fit on a protest sign? I.E. "God Hates Fags" or even "No Blood For Oil?"

Chris Schommer said...

"'s difficult to be convincing to a group of people who can cite scripture on homosexuality to say point blank, it's wrong."

But that's if you are playing by their rules and thinking you have to quote the bible back to them. I just would point out how you have to be flexible in your beliefs because everything before you has changed and will change again after you are gone. And so on.

I also think that these large cultural shifts have about nothing to do with any particular thought I have, but to bigger shifts in society. America has a large population who believe the rapture is coming soon and the bible (their version) is the literal word of god written in english. But that percentage is much smaller than it was years ago, and certainly have become the minority.

Their ranks are doomed to shrink because they have made them selves be so ridged - like "intelligent design" pitting the bible vs. science in the classroom. Well duh science is going to beat you you idiots! Its science's game, rules, ball, and refs. All they bring is their fans and expect to win the game by cheering. Its as absurd to me as going to a wedding and having them read a bio-psych text on how these two people are attracted to each other via chemicals so they can mingle their gametes and produce more little self replicating DNA carriers.

A side note, whats the deal with Sam Harris on torture? I googled him and he thinks he is freaking Jack Bauer. I appreciate his idea on collateral damage v. torture but if I hear the 'you-have-10-min-to-stop-the-bomb-what-do-you-do' line one more time as if it were an original idea and not a sub-plot... Kurt Vonnegut wrote that fiction is the most dangerous thing we do because it makes us believe in our own stories. Case in point.

I was also reading via Sam Harris's wiki page a debate between him and Andrew Sullivan on belief net. Its a huge dialogue and quite good, even if I think Andrew Sullivan is quite often a mixed bag at best.

Bjorn said...

Sam Harris has drown himself in the waters of his atheist fame.

chris mkango said...

I just realized I am hopping on an old thread. I found your thread researching USI wireless. Pascal's wager might be weighted a little differently depending where one lives. If you live in the USA you could say you would be giving up some time on Sundays and such and such. If you were Christian in Sudan you would be giving up much more and possibly your life. I think Pascal would still make the argument that this is temporary vs. eternal. I thought I would point out it isn't so convenient for everyone.