In yesterday’s post, I offered an argument for the things lost in making the ‘bet’ by opting for belief over unbelief if wrong, and said that I would also point out that believers are unlikely to gain even if they are correct in assuming two facts to be the case — let’s just assume two things true for the sake of argument:
that souls exist, are both immortal and require salvation, and…
…that a God or gods exist to do the saving
First, there is a potentially infinite number of possible ‘god concepts’ only limited according to the following and of course the fertile imaginations of humanity regarding gods known and yet to be known-
Potential god concepts – Unknown god concepts = Actual god concepts
Despite the logical inconsistency between the claim of Mr. Pascal that no knowledge about the mind of God is possible, and his own assumption in his Wager of knowledge of the mind of God — that God wants to be believed in — there are a few other problems with the assumptions going into it.
For instance, there’s the implicit (sometimes explicit) assumption that the God in question would necessarily have to be Pascal’s, specifically that of Christianity, just going by Pascal’s own writings on the subject.
But which sect of Christianity? As mentioned in yesterday’s post, each one claims a monopoly on the truth for itself, at least tacitly.
For thousands of years, every human civilization made the same assumption, that their gods were the true and right gods to appease and worship, from the religions throughout the prehistoric and ancient worlds, through the Middle Ages, to the present day religions.
Even the ancient gods are still worshiped by small groups of modern Neo-Pagans, so they continue even today, and let’s not even go into the real-life worshipers of Cthulhu…
My point is that the Wager can be applied to any god — Odin, Zeus, Ra, Serapis, Amaterasu, Shango, Azathoth, the Flying Spaghetti Monster — and that no logically necessary reason exists why “the” God has to be one that anyone currently worships, for there are gods yet to be imagined and worshiped. A little history of comparative religion shows that we tend to create God in whatever our own image happens to be at the time.
Assuming that SOME God or gods exist, could you pick and choose just any god? How will you know (besides the bias introduced from being born in a particular family, time and part of the world) objectively which is the correct choice to make out of a potentially infinite number of knowable deities? The likelihood of selecting just the right one is infinitesimal, and since many gods are notoriously jealous, you’re almost certain to anger at least one other god, perhaps multitudes of them, by picking any of them.
So if any God were real and did want to be worshiped, even in believing in some God, your chances of securing a safe bet are not good at all — I’d say infinitely close to zero. Even in the event that some God existed, the chances of it being the very one who you were born and raised to believe in are next to nil. All supreme gods can’t be real, because they are all of them mutually inconsistent. And that’s only dealing with conceivable gods, let alone known ones and not even considering the unimaginable ones that could exist unbeknownst to us.
And there’s no logical reason why any conceivable god would necessarily want to be worshiped. None. That’s just something we project onto our gods — we imagine them to be suspiciously like us in thought and habits.
Never mind blind, idiot, alien gods like Lovecraft’s Azathoth who care nothing for worship, and who are in fact said to be annoyed by it.
What if the world was set up the way it is with all it beauty and horrors to test rationality and critical thinking? — Why not? It’s just as likely as any other theological idea…
…what if God favors reason over faith? Skepticism over credulity? Again, why necessarily not?
What if it is actually those who question, who doubt, who think and infer, who accept what evidence, measurement, and logic tell them, who allow themselves to be lead by the data and sound argument toward more likely conclusions, who reject the need for non-mathematical certainty and the supernatural in their thinking, who don’t seek salvation who will nonetheless pass the test and achieve it?
Why not? There’s no good reason why that can’t be the case, and it strikes me as more honest and less ultimately self-serving than many currently accepted theological notions.
And who cares if few people actually believe that, if any do? — the argument ad populum is a fallacy even in this case — 50 million Frenchmen, and billions of current-day believers, CAN be wrong. Grossly wrong.
What if God’s annoyed by silly people claiming to know what He wants or thinks? What if Pascal is roasting in Hell for mercenary presumption in formulating his Wager? Maybe, as suggested by musician and comic artist Voltaire, “God prefers an atheist…”
Even if an unbeliever is wrong, a truly just, unconditionally loving God would accept them for themselves, as they are, for their actions and deeds, not merely for the creed affirmed or not.
And if right, an unbeliever can live this life for all it’s worth, living on in the memories and records of those after them who their deeds and works have touched. Either way, right or wrong, we avoid anyone’s pet concept of damnation.
My point is this: Given the realities of human belief and the facts of world religious history, logic, and our inferences of prehistoric practices, the Wager only looks like a knock-down argument if you ignore all this and all of the counterarguments to it. This post only barely scratches the surface of a vast body of literature and thought on the subject.
As with the post prior to this one, nonbelievers are no more likely to suffer (except at the hands of believers) for their nonbelief, and belief is problematic at best even if right, while almost certain to cause no small loss if wrong.
It’s common for those who defend religious belief with Pascal’s Wager to claim that if they believe and are wrong, they lose nothing, and that if disbelieving and wrong they endanger their souls. Maybe, but there are a number of facts not in evidence assumed here:
- That immaterial and possibly immortal souls exist. (unproven as yet)
- That these souls require salvation. (not with all religions)
- That a God exists and is needed for salvation. (not all religions have savior gods)
For the record, I do not deny that these things are true, but I refrain from believing because no good reasons exist for me to do so. The neurological model of mind and consciousness, in which the human personality is dependent on the activity of the physical substrate of the brain is perfectly sufficient for my needs.
It both conforms to and to an extent explains the data of human psychology and neuroscience without the need to posit anything non-material or spiritual.
I try to base my beliefs on good reasons and evidence, beliefs that are more likely to be true and thus with more reliably effective outcomes when I act upon them.
Beliefs are not trivial, nor always innocent, nor necessarily harmless, for they motivate and define our values, desires, intent, behavior and actions.
While it is true that souls, ensoulment and gods aren’t conclusively proven not to exist, that’s not the point, because the burden of proof lies always with those making the claim that they do, and religions have had thousands of years of opportunity to fulfill that burden by proving their claims, yet have consistently failed or refused to do so.
It is not the skeptics who must prove the claims of religion false.
Bear in mind though that the rejection of a belief in no way entails accepting its denial — lack of belief and active denial are logically very different things — I err on the side of lacking belief, not in believing in or claiming to know of a lack of something.
But do believers really lose nothing if wrong, other than hurt pride for feeling silly?
I suspect that no, they do not.
In fact, they lose quite a bit if they are wrong, and I’ll also argue that they lose even if they are right, given what is known of human history, particularly that of religions over the millennia.
Believers lose money, often large sums of it, to tithes, donations, and special fees charged by clergy, and of course, if you’re Christian, the church service collection plate. Religion is big business in the developed world, and the heads of large churches can become quite wealthy, often in the millions of dollars or even in the billions with world-spanning religious organizations like the Roman Catholic Church.
Believers can lose objectivity and the ability to evaluate belief systems impartially, their own religion, and others’ as well. They often lose the ability or the willingness to step back from their doctrines and dogmas and assess them critically, without a vested interest or emotional stake in them.
They risk losing the ability to deal honestly with religious critics or skeptics, in extremis even vilifying and demonizing them as enemies, condescending or dehumanizing them as somehow morally or spiritually inferior, pathetic, defective, sick, or evil.
Thus, believers risk losing their intellectual integrity, in developing a cavalier attitude toward what is likely to be true in favor of what feels good or comforting. They become more likely to deceive themselves, which can lead to piously deceiving others in the service of one’s God. In Christian circles, it’s known as “lying for Jesus.”
And if there is a God, if I’m wrong?
I still don’t lose anything, because if God were infinitely good, loving, just, and morally superior, it would be a logical impossibility for that same God to create a place of eternal torture for unbelievers out of a petty and vain need to be worshiped. My soul, even if it were to exist, would be in no danger if claims of God’s omnibenevolence are to be credible and logically consistent.
Now, you could special plead that God is somehow outside the very laws of logic themselves, and that they do not apply, but that doesn’t work, because then you can’t use logic to establish that God’s existence, and that would put apologists out of work.
There would be no more amusing debates between atheists and theists to watch on YouTube, and wouldn’t that just be a b*tch?
I’m often asked by theists I meet, particularly evangelicals proselytizing at the local library I visit, why I’m not a theist, or more specifically, why I’m not a Christian. There are several reasons for this, but a few stand out:
First, like Bertrand Russell, I simply have learned too much to find any of the Christian dogmas credible, particularly the fundamentalist notion of Biblical inerrancy — I’m quite aware that the Bible has been repeatedly edited, reedited, censored, and “updated” many times over the centuries by theological and political opportunists, which would not be the case if the book were truly a perfect work written or inspired (whatever that’s supposed to mean) by an all-knowing God who you think could write a book, well, perfectly.
Second, even considering Christianity alone, some sources have estimated the existence some 30,000 Christian sects, churches and denominations, many of which do not even consider others to be Christian! Each claims the Truth™ for itself, at least implicitly, and there’s no objective way to tell which one is correct, which one to choose. After all, no matter which one is chosen, you still go to hell according to the devout believers of all the others for choosing the “wrong” religion.
Third, being “saved” does not interest me — WHAT MADNESS IS THIS????? — because I know just enough about psychology and neuroscience to strongly suspect that souls and ensoulment do not actually exist or occur. Couple that with a strong suspicion of the nonexistence of any divine agency to do the saving, from hell or whatever, and I have what I consider good reasons indeed not to engage in theism.
Non-Christian religions, as interesting as they are, aren’t much better, and no religion has ever had a plausible way of convincingly showing it’s claims true to a critical and knowledgeable nonbeliever, causing further problems for the credibility of any religious belief system or invocations of Pascal’s wager.
This is why I’m a nontheist, and will likely remain one of full conviction to my deathbed, though I could be wrong…
One of the most well-considered critiques of the reasoning of Pascal’s wager I’ve yet seen, for those who still think it sound argument.
With today’s entry, I’m posting a video of one of the most eloquently and cogently argued answers to Pascal’s Wager I’ve ever heard, and far better put than I’ve argued myself in the past.
A big hat-tip for this goes to One Furious Llama, on whose blog I first saw this…
Granted, I’d rather people believe things based on good reasons and evidence, since I do not consider faith to be a ‘way of knowing,’ but only a way of believing…
…but for my part, as a former religious believer (I haven’t been ‘of the faith’ for many years now, with no intention of returning to it.), I find the Wager inadequate as a justification for belief, not to mention insulting and demeaning to many who do believe because it degrades faith as a way of sincere belief without selfish motives…
It devalues faith to a mere economic decision based solely on “What will hurt me the least, and benefit me the most if I’m right or wrong in believing or not,” or “What’s the best deal I can get out of this?” It promotes a sterile, self-serving motivation for belief empty of any authenticity and genuine meaning.
A good model of sincere, authentic theistic belief? Two words: Martin Gardner — a giant among skeptics who considered himself a philosophical theist, not a practitioner of any religious tradition, and in his own words, a fideist.
There are other issues with the Wager, but that’s what stands out to me the most, and keeps it from being a credible justification for belief to me.
But, regardless, if you examine it, it’s not really an argument for any god’s existence, nor for unsullied faith, but only for religious adherence and practice…
What are your thoughts on this?
Would you, do you, find the Wager acceptable or not?
Why or why not?
If not, what problems with it come quickest to your own attention?
MNQ is a question that I pose to you, my readers, and is posted each Monday at 12:00 PM. Do feel free to comment, and don’t worry yerselves overmuch… I’m not an ogre and I don’t bite…much.