Yep, I've been "Pascalled" again! This started as a comment on Caroline Smith's A Reasonable Faith blog, but it grew. And grew. And, well, it kinda grew. So I changed it so it read like a post instead of a comment and … erm … posted it.
Good ol' Pascal! We all know his wager. It basically says that the consequences are worse for not believing in a god who is there than for believing in a god who isn't there. Or, as normally expressed by Christian commenters, "What if you're wrong?"
Well there's a few problems with it.
It presupposes that the god of the commenter is the correct choice.
It supposes that we can convince ourselves to believe without seeing evidence in support of the existence of the object of the hoped-for belief.
It supposes (in the case of the god of Abraham) that an allegedly all-knowing god is not all-knowing enough to know that "belief" gained in such a fashion is mere self-serving lip-service.
And—to get to the point I want to discuss—it supposes that the consequences of the gamble are limited to the gambler. Which, if belief or unbelief were the only in-this-life "actions" taken by the gambler, would be true.
But they all too often aren't.
True, if she decides that unbelief is the way to go, then the gambler risks harm to nobody but herself. If she's wrong, and there is a god who punishes unbelief, then she's …erm … damned. If she gambles on belief though, and somehow manages to become an actual, rather than lip-service, believer, then her belief has knock-on effects which affect both her and other people in this life. Which gives us, Gentle Reader, quite a few possible negative consequences in the only life she'll ever have, should she turn out to be wrong, along with many other people who might be affected by her beliefs; or at least by actions she may take because of those beliefs.
[And now a hastily added parenthetical paragraph designed to lessen the impact of a sudden change of grammatical person. Think of it as an intermission. (UK readers who are old enough to remember it might wish to hum the Pearl & Dean music whilst reading.) A pimply young oik will be along to sell you an overpriced, half melted ice cream very shortly. Anyway, the change of person… no, I don't know why I wrote it this way, starting with third person and then breaking the fourth wall, as it were, to speak directly to the believer. Thing is, I can't be bothered to edit it out, either. You'll have to live with it, I'm afraid.]
Try to imagine, Dear Believer (hypothetically, for the sake of argument), that you're wrong. That there is no god who has wishes and gives commandments, who demands that we act in certain ways and punishes us if we don't. Try to imagine (for the sake of argument) that the years we have in this life are the only moments of consciousness we'll ever get. Try to take it (for the sake, of course, of argument) as a given, just for a few minutes, that you're wrong, and consider the following:
How many sins, whose only "harm" lies in the fact that you believe your god commands against them, have you wasted precious moments of your life feeling guilty about?
How many things which you might have enjoyed have you declined the opportunity to try, based on the same premise?
How much of your life have you spent worrying—maybe even agonising—about whether whatever you're doing is good or bad in the eyes of your god?
But that's just you, and you might argue that those consequences are still outweighed by the much worse possibility of hell for non-belief. Okay…
How about that gay kid you heard about? The teenager who committed suicide because his religious family couldn't reconcile his homosexuality with their religion? Or maybe the lesbian lass who did the same because of her own religious feelings toward her sexuality? Tragic, yeah? Of course it was. But what if all the heartache which led to those suicides was based on an entirely false premise; that there's a god somewhere who cares about whether we sleep with, love and marry people of the same sex as ourselves? Not only does the thought that there might not be negate even the basis for the idea that same-sex attraction is wrong, but the non-existence of an afterlife means that those poor kids have lost maybe eighty or ninety years of their one and only chance at existence. And all because they and/or their families were more worried about the consequences to their souls in an afterlife which doesn't even exist than they were about hurt and heartache given or received in this, which might be our only, life. Wouldn't you say that that, if the suicides weren't tragedy enough, would make them even more tragic?
I could go on. I could list lots and lots of aspects of religion which directly affect people other than the believer. In fact, I've already done it. But I won't. (Read the linked post, if you want more examples.) Suffice to say that you ought to realise that your beliefs may affect those around you, and possibly society at large, in many ways. Whether you're trying to get your religious tenets enshrined in the secular law of your land, trying to convert others to your faith or merely trying to persuade others to do, or not to do, certain things, based merely on an idea of your god's wishes; you're directly affecting the lives—often to their detriment, in this life at least—of many people, based only on the premise that a hardship in this life is as nought to a reward or punishment which might not be forthcoming, in a next life which might be equally non-existent.
Yes, us atheists hear it often enough; "What if you're wrong?" Well if I'm wrong, then I, and only I, will suffer the consequences.
But I have to ask, Dear Believer, what if you're wrong?
A word of warning to any reader who feels like addressing Caroline's points on her own blog. She appears to moderate heavily for tone and politeness. Her blog, her rules.
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