I recently cross-posted A Look at Liberal Christianity over at the De-Conversion blog. I do that occasionally, when I think a post might generate some interest among the readers of that blog. Some of those readers come here occasionally, but, by and large, the blogs have two different sets of readers. Anyway, the post generated quite a lot of interest over there and several liberal Christians have been engaged in an extended dialog with several of De-Conversion’s regular crowd. It was only a matter of time – comment 105, to be exact – before someone would toss Pascal’s Wager into the mix. What follows is my response:
Ding! Ding! Ding!
Chris said: I give up, what bad thing will happen to me if God isn’t real? And then, what bad thing will happen to you if he is?
It took awhile, but someone finally played Pascal’s Wager.
Okay, rather than just poking fun (in case you don’t realize it, Chris, Pascal’s Wager is so familiar to us de-converts that it’s really a joke among us and not taken at all seriously), I’ll answer the questions.
Question #1: What bad thing will happen to you if God isn’t real?
Probably nothing much, as long as you don’t consider a lifetime spent worshiping a non-existent being, a lifetime trying to please said being, a lifetime giving your time, energy and money to maintain the institution that perpetuates belief in and obedience to said deity and his spokespersons as wasted time. And I realize, with utter respect and sincerity, that you may honestly disagree with me about this. I realize that you may simply take lots of pleasure in all of these activities regardless of whether the beliefs and commitments that underpin them are founded. I realize that you may simply enjoy the fellowship and company of other believers so much that the truth values of the Christian ties that bind you together are not as important to you as the ties themselves. I disagree with such positions, and they may not be yours at all (or anyone’s, for that matter). I’m just saying, that, from your point of view as a believer, there seems to be little to lose by believing – so long as you consider the life you hope is to come to be more important than the life that you have now.
Question #2: What bad thing will happen to me if God is real?
If the God in whom you believe is real, then, I’m toast – forever. Badly burnt and miserable, at that.
Here’s the problem with this wager. It assumes a dichotomy: your God (YHWH) or no God. That’s a false dichotomy because people have believed in thousands of gods over the years. Moreover, those people have all believed that their beliefs were as well-founded as you believe your beliefs are. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not the only religions that have had complex oral and written traditions about their gods, traditions that have been preserved and expanded for thousands of years. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not the only religions to have been preserved, passed on and presided over by priests of one sort or another. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not the only religions that have ever bound people together in cohesive, caring (and, unfortunately, sometimes manipulative and abusive) communities. In short, Christianity just isn’t as unique and special as Christians often think it is.
I know you think that the Bible is qualitatively different from the Quran, or the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Vita. But, that simply isn’t true. The Christian scriptures have lots of factual, as well as simple scribal, errors. The Christian scriptures have lots of contradictory passages that can’t be reconciled without putting one’s brain into overdrive on the illogical setting. Perhaps the most damning point is that the Christian scriptures provide incoherent portraits of God. In fact, some early Christians believed that the god of the Old Testament couldn’t possibly be the same god as that of the New Testament – they were acutely aware of the inconsistencies of character across both sets of writings.
So, to get back to your question, Pascal’s Wager is no more dangerous for me than it is for you. The highest probabilities are either a) there is no god, or b) we’re both wrong and whatever god exists, is nothing like you believe he/she/it is.
I should have added that, if the answer is b), we both had better hope that the deity is either indifferent to humankind, or benevolent towards us. Otherwise, we could all end up being toast or worse. I’m pretty sure the answer is a), though, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over the issue.
— the chaplain