Sunday Evening Sermon - Inverse Pascal

I was sitting and thinking earlier today - it's a dangerous hobby, and I try not to do it too often, but sometimes I can't resist - and found my thoughts drifting toward the topic of Pascal's Wager. As some of you probably know, Pascal suggested that it is always a better bet to believe in God than to disbelieve, because if you believe in God but are wrong, you won't ever really know it, but if you don't believe and are wrong you stand to lose a hell of a lot more.

I've never been particularly impressed with that argument, mostly because I've never been able to conceive of a deity that wouldn't be pissed off at someone consciously practicing that. (I suspect that there are an enormous number of people who subconsciously practice it, but that's a different topic.) What I was suddenly struck by today was the thought of just how much good could be accomplished if more people accepted Pascal's Wager, but in reverse - living as if they did not believe in God or an afterlife.

I know, I know, atheism is supposed to lead to a total breakdown of morality and civility, but let's face facts: if you know more than a couple of atheists, you know that's total bullshit. On the whole, the godless seem to trend heavily towards the touchy-feely-pinko-meathead side of the political spectrum. Moreso, certainly, than the Christian Right does. To many (most of whom are religious), this seems to be a bit of a contradiction. After all, if there is no afterlife, no eternal reward or punishment, what motivation is there to do good, and what foundation is there to know what is good?

The Bible sums this attitude up well: "If the dead are not raised, then "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (1 Corinthians 15:32)

There are any number of ways that someone could respond to this as a nonbeliever, but none is better than the response given by Thomas Henry Huxley, in a letter he wrote to a clergyman friend shortly after the death of his young son:

Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

The same applies to our understanding of what is and is not good; what is and is not fair; what is and is not right. We do not need divine revalation to know those things. I don't think we need it to do them, either.

In fact, I think that there are some very popular variants on religion that do more to keep people from doing what is good and right than they do to encourage it. In particular, I would point here to the Calvinist-rooted forms of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. Under this belief system, eternal life is granted to those (and only those) who believe the right thing. Faith in Jesus is, for those folks, the only thing that can bring about a good post-death result. Good works are entirely irrelevant, and once someone is "saved," they are always saved. Many of those in this group also tend to believe that the end of the world is coming soon, and that this will be a good thing for them. All in all, that's not a set of beliefs that's particularly conducive to encouraging people to make this world a better place.

Other forms of Christianity do a little bit better when it comes to encouraging people to do good - if only through the liberal application of guilt. Some do quite a good job in this regard. So do many of the non-western faiths. Even the best of them, however, still have this whole belief in something after this life thing going on. In some cases, it's based on a belief in divine forgiveness of sins and eternal rewards. In others, there's the hope for reincarnation. Regardless of the specifics, it boils down to the hope for a second chance.

But what if there is no hope for an afterlife? What if we don't get a second chance somewhere down the road? What if this world is the only one we get, and this lifetime the only chance we have to make any kind of a mark for ourselves?

To me, that seems to be even more of a motivator to try and get things right than the hope of an afterlife. It's certainly much more of a motivator to work to make sure that our children have a reasonable hope of a secure future. If we die dead, is there any better, more lasting legacy that we can leave than to make sure that the world we leave is, if only in some small way, a better place than the one we entered? If the only form of immortality we can hope for is to be remembered, wouldn't all of us want to be remembered as someone who did good while they were here?

Personally, I think that if more people thought like that, we might have a better chance at having a better world. I certainly think the chances would be better with people making Pascal's Wager in reverse than happens with people who believe that they can eat, drink, and be merry, because they're still going to go to heaven when they die.

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An interesting thought, and one I seem to remember Richard Dawkins making once, saying it was kind of a cop-out - you can believe in Santa or the tooth fairy because you can't prove they exist. Of course, this argument will degenerate into the reasons to believe in intelligent design, if we're not careful. For my part, I always pictured a God more amused by what he saw than what we professed; believe, don't believe, what does it really matter to an omnipotent being? I just like the traditional wager because I lack faith in people and would be very uneasy in a world filled with atheists and Bush's Court's view of the second amendment.

By Chris Dunford (not verified) on 14 Aug 2006 #permalink

Calvinist-rooted forms of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. Under this belief system, eternal life is granted to those (and only those) who believe the right thing. Faith in Jesus is, for those folks, the only thing that can bring about a good post-death result. Good works are entirely irrelevant, and once someone is "saved," they are always saved.

Are you maybe running together two different forms of Christianity? Don't Calvinist beliefs focus on predestination, the idea that God alone makes the decision of who goes to heaven and who to hell, so that when a person is born his/her fate is already decided?

I think the next time we see someone asking why, if this life is all there is, we shouldn't be out there drinkin' and stealin' and murderin' and rapin' and litterin' and all them other things that would put us on the Group W bench, then we should ask them something in turn: "Do you, personally, think that course of action would provide you with the greatest chance to optimize your happiness and satisfaction with your life?" Because that's the hidden assumption in their question, it seems to me.