Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I'll Take That Bet, Blaise

Perhaps you were raised Christian, but are starting to doubt the truth of what you've been taught to believe. If you're honest enough to admit that to yourself, you've already gone farther than many of your coreligionists. Still, Christianity might be true, and if you reject it and you're wrong, endless torment awaits in hell after you die. Better to play it safe and remain a believer, just in case.

This line of reasoning is known as Pascal's wager, named after French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), who apparently was the first person of any prominence to write it down. I suspect that it is actually nearly as old as Christianity itself, as thoughts along the lines of Pascal's wager are inevitable in anyone who has been exposed to the idea of hell as a punishment for nonbelief. Indeed, many wavering Christians, most of whom would not know Pascal from a pastel, remain at least nominally in the fold due to the threat of hell. In high school, a friend once told me that although he did not believe in God, he considered himself a Christian and continued to go to church as "fire insurance".

Viewed from the outside, Pascal's wager is absurd. Christians seem to lose little sleep over whether they are in danger of ending up in hell for their unbelief in Islam, or over whether they will be reincarnated as something undesireable for their unbelief in Hinduism or Buddhism. Furthermore, as an atheist, I cannot will myself to believe in God. I could attend a Christian church, go through the motions, and profess belief, but an omniscient God would not be fooled. Would he not prefer honest disbelief to disingenuous bet-hedging? At any rate, why should we accept the idea that God regards belief as paramount? Is he a megalomaniac? Perhaps there is a God, but he only rewards those who have the intellectual courage to be atheists, given the paucity of evidence.

Pascal's wager is nevertheless effective because it is usually viewed from the inside, not the outside. Most people are indoctrinated into religion as children, and thus they are believers by the time they are old enough to subject their faith to critical examination. When doubts start to surface, believers do not immediately abandon their religion; rather, they enter the vast continuum that exists between complete belief and complete nonbelief. It is in this region that Pascal's wager is effective. If the concept of hell seems at least plausible, then the threat of hell can be truly terrifying.

Some Christian clergy may protest that they would never stoop so low as to maintain their congregations through the threat of hell, or any other threat. Some do not even believe in a literal hell, while others do believe but never bring it up. It makes very little difference. Anyone growing up in the United States (or any country where Christianity or Islam is common) cannot reasonably be expected to be sheltered from the idea of hell. If he/she does not learn of it from church, it might instead be from family, friends, media, literature, etc. Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to refer to an idea that is prevalent in a society and spreads from person to person like a virus. The meme of hell is simply unavoidable. Some clergy may be loathe to admit it, but that meme does much of their dirty work. Without it, their congregations would be much smaller.

Ultimately, Pascal's wager is an example of the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad baculum (argument with a cudgel) in that it is not a logical argument at all, but rather a threat masquerading as one. Raise your consciousness to what hell really is -- a morally bankrupt attempt to intimidate into submission.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An Honest Conversation

When is the last time you had a truly honest conversation about religion, in which no topic was off limits and the existence of God was not regarded as axiomatic? For most Americans, the only truthful answer that can be given is "never". Politics and religion are the two things we are not to discuss in polite company, and we are much more likely to relax that "rule" with politics than with religion. Our discourse on religion tends to range from nonexistent to highly stunted, and for this we are paying an unacceptable price. We have unwittingly given rise to the conditions under which fundamentalism thrives, and a healthy dose of consciousness raising is in order.

For the most part, the adverse effects of religion, which I touched on in my Introduction, are the result of fundamentalism. Most moderate (and liberal) believers would agree that fundamentalism is a bad thing, but by failing to discus religion in an open and honest way, moderates shelter fundamentalists from any serious intellectual challenge and give them relatively free reign. This is not surprising, as moderate believers have already acquiesced to the foundational pillars of fundamentalism -- in the case of fundamentalist Christianity, that there is a singular God, the Bible is his word, and faith in God is a virtue1. Once those ideas are accepted, the only additional element that fundamentalism requires is the belief that the Bible means what it says. Moderate Christianity is an intellectually bankrupt position that cannot survive contact with the first few pages of the Bible2. This gives rise to deep (though probably subconscious) insecurities; thus moderates don't want to talk about their beliefs, lest their insecurities be exposed. Moreover, moderates hold a weak hand with which to challenge any religious claim to which they do not subscribe, as those who live in glass houses ought not throw stones. Their way out is to discourage skeptical inquiry, promulgate the idea that it is uncivil to challenge religious beliefs, and console themselves with wishful thinking about fundamentalism being rare and impotent3.

I understand that honest conversations about religion are difficult. In many circles, to broach the subject is to break a taboo. Thus I suggest starting by having the conversation with yourself. If you are a believer, raise your consciousness to the real reasons why your identify with your particular religion. If you are an agnostic, raise your consciousness to the reasons why you continue to hedge your bets. Chances are, they have little to do with truth.

I have already touched on two reasons why we believe, profess to believe, or at least fail to fully disbelieve. First, most of us are taught, from as soon as we are old enough to understand the concept, that God is a fact, and many of us never closely examine that alleged fact. Second, we fear the possible adverse consequences of rejecting our religion. We may fear the loss or weakening of family ties and friendships, social ostracization, loss of self-esteem, and a crisis of identity. We may be reluctant to give up the comforting feeling that a higher power is looking out for us. We may not want to face the fact that a deceased loved one is really gone forever, nor want to come to terms with our own mortality. We may fear that without religion, society would collapse into chaos. It should go without saying that whether or not these fears are well-founded, they do not give the slightest reason to believe that any religion is true.

1Similarly, agnostics contribute to the problem by dignifying those positions as reasonable, even if they do not personally hold them.

2Here, I am assuming a moderate who believes in the scientific story of the development of the universe (beginning with the Big Bang and segueing into evolutionary biology) but believes that God was ultimately behind it all. I am aware that apologists have put forth various attempts to square the circle with the highly discrepant account given in the Book of Genesis. They amount to nothing more than pathetic rationalizations, as I explore in The Senseless Center.

3Polls tend to show that about half of American Christians are fundamentalists, or about 40% of the overall population. For example, a 2001 Barna Research Group poll reported that "41% of adults strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches", which meets my definition of fundamentalism. See