Saturday, June 2, 2012

At Least Pascal was Good at Math

Pascal’s Wager is one of the most convincing arguments in favor of religion that I know of, and it was one of the primary reasons that I hung onto Christianity throughout high school and college. It essentially states the following:

OK, so we can all agree that there may or may not be a God, and this whole Christianity thing may or may not be correct. At the end of your life, there are four possible states:
You Believed in God
You Did NOT Believe in God
God is Real1. Congratulations! You get to go to Heaven! Eternal bliss! Hooray!2. You are going to Hell. This is bad. You are going to deeply regret this. Sucks to be you.
God is Imaginary3. Well, that’s too bad, huh?  I guess you were wrong, but at least you’ll never know that you were wrong due to that whole “lack of sentience” thing. On the bright side, by living a good Christian life, chances are you made the world a better place by adhering to the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, so at least there’s that.4. Uh...congrats? I guess? You can now say “I told you so” to all those weenies who spent their Sunday mornings in church, and you get the satisfaction of being right. Except for the fact that you’re dead, of course. So you can’t actually rub it in anyone’s face, and you’ll never even get the confirmation that you’re right because that would require still having some kind of sentience, but you’re dead and now there’s nothing. Again, congrats. I’m sure you made your parents proud.

States 1 and 2 make really really really really strong cases for being a Christian. We are, after all, talking about eternity. State 3 makes the argument that even if you’re wrong for being a Christian, there’s very minimal downside (as opposed to the massive downside of state 2). State 4 provides you with next to no tangible benefit (especially compared to the benefit of state 1). Given that you have a choice between believing and not believing...WHY ON EARTH WOULD ANY RATIONAL PERSON EVER CHOOSE DISBELIEF???  Choosing Christianity wins the risk/reward battle in a landslide. And here you were considering whether or not you should believe. What an idiot.

Oh, if only life was that simple--we could all just agree that it makes sense to believe in God and move on with our lives, and I could go play video games. Instead, here I am spending hours writing about all the aspects of religion that are patently absurd. So why can’t I just take Pascal’s Wager at face value and get back to shooting aliens?

The most important reason is that it’s an oversimplification of life. In order to go to Heaven, I would have to believe in a god. On top of that, I would have to believe in the right god, the right prophets, the right book, and the right directives of how to spend my life on Earth. In other words, I would have to look through all the available religions and figure out which one of them really had it all figured out (or take a page from Joseph Smith and start up my own religion). That alone is hard enough to do, but that alone is not enough. Once I’ve picked a religion, I must then truly believe in it and live my life by it in order to make it to Heaven. Therein lies the problem: believing.

While I can choose to practice whatever religion I like and choose to make all my life decisions based on that religion (i.e. going to church every week, tithing, reading the Bible every day, praying every night, not coveting my neighbor’s possessions, etc.), I don’t really get to choose what I believe. My beliefs are determined by my experiences, knowledge, and cognition (which I am using here to mean “the thought process used to process information”). This is not to say that no choices or free will are involved in the process of forming beliefs--if I didn’t choose to acquire more knowledge about religion and spend a lot of time thinking about it, I wouldn’t have come to believe that there is no god. However, I am saying that I cannot simply “choose” to believe that there is a god. I also can’t choose to believe that the Easter Bunny exists or that the Cleveland Browns are a good football team. In order to believe those things, I would have to be convinced through some kind of evidence. It could come in the form of a personal observation (watching the Browns actually play well), information from a source that I have deemed worthwhile (Peter King writing about how much they’ve improved), or pure data (win-loss record, offensive and defensive ranks). I would then have to mentally weigh this evidence against my previously held belief (the Browns suck) and determine if that evidence is enough to change what I believe. At no point do I get to choose whether or not I believe that the Browns are good. I can choose to say that I think they’re good, just like I can choose to say that I believe in God, but that doesn’t make it true.

And thus, Pascal’s Wager becomes a moot point. Believing in God is not a choice. If I want to believe in God, there are things I can do to push myself in that direction. I can go to church, read CS Lewis books, listen to Christian music, hang out with Christian friends, and join a Bible study (although I would argue that actually “studying the Bible” would cause one to drift further away from God, so be careful with that one if you would prefer to remain strong in your faith. As I covered previously, that book is ridiculous). However, wanting to believe in something has absolutely no effect on whether or not it’s a valid belief. I might want to believe in God because I want to go to Heaven rather than Hell in case He exists; this would not make believing in God any more legitimate. My desires do not affect reality. It might make me happy to believe that the Browns are a good football team, but I would only be fooling myself. Believing that they are good does not change the fact that Pat Shurmur enjoys calling plays to gain 5 yards on 3rd-and-7, or the fact that they scored more than 20 points a total of one time last year. Sometimes the truth hurts. That doesn’t make it any less true.

Pretending to believe doesn’t help, either. If I were to buy into the idea that God is omniscient, then I should behave as though He knows what I really think. Again, while believing in God might be the prudent thing to do, there is no benefit to be gained if I only pretend to believe, and that’s the best that I can do at the moment. Logic simply precludes me from believing in a higher power. I don’t believe in any gods, and no matter how often I go to church or how much time I spend praying, I’m not going to fool anyone who is omniscient. Pascal’s Wager ultimately comes down to what I believe, not what I want or what I choose. This makes it entirely meaningless as an argument for believing in God.

However, this does not stop many people from “choosing” to believe in God because it’s the prudent thing to do. It’s incredible how much of an effect the reasoning behind Pascal’s Wager has on people, as I would argue that a large portion of people who call themselves Christian aren’t really Christians. They will claim to believe (especially if you ask them), but when it comes down to whether they want to do things like spend an hour every week in church (which consequently interferes with Saturday night plans and/or sleep schedules), reading the Bible every day, tithing, praying every night, etc....there’s a fair number of “Christians” who won’t really put the effort in. They do want to go to Heaven, and they don’t want to go to Hell, so they will consciously claim that Jesus is their homeboy...but religion is not a driving force in their lives. In reality, they care more about going out and getting drunk (or watching movies or playing video games or whatever their vice of choice is) on Saturday night than they do about getting up early on Sunday to go sing some songs about how great God is and listen to someone spend 20 minutes on the “true meaning” of some verses in Galatians. I certainly can’t blame them--I would much rather stay up late and drink than get up early and pretend to pay attention to someone who claims to understand an omniscient being. Furthermore, many of the people who do bother to show up will be thinking about whether or not they set their fantasy football lineup for that day (or simply fidgeting in their seat in an effort to stay awake) while their pastor is droning on. But, hey, they’ll get credit for attendance, right?

The fact is, God (or the idea of God) does not have a strong effect on the lives of many people who identify as Christians. Eternity is a long long long long long long time. It is unimaginably long. It is even longer than the title drought in Cleveland, if you can believe that (although there’s a good chance that drought will never end, so perhaps that’s a good metaphor for eternity). Regardless of whether or not we’re living in an age of immediate gratification and short attention spans, if people truly, truly believed that the fate of their eternal soul was determined by their adherence to the edicts of God, they would carve out the time to praise him on a regular basis. They wouldn’t take God’s name in vain on a regular basis. They wouldn’t worship other things before God (work, significant others, video games, etc.). They would spread the word of God. In short, they would live their lives by the Bible.

I have an uncle who can be counted on to complain about two things every time our family gets together: the eternal inability of Cleveland sports teams to win (regardless of whether or not they do things like put up the best record in the league two years in a row or not), and the length of church services. If a service lasts longer than 60 minutes, he will unfailingly complain about it. In his mind, church should last one hour. Period. One would think that if the fate of his eternal soul was at stake, he could spare an extra 10 or 15 minutes a week for the Big Guy, but that’s apparently too much to ask.

To be fair, I know a number of people who do take their religion very seriously. While I vehemently disagree with their beliefs, I respect the fact that they’re serious about them. They’re not just covering their asses in case God happens to be real; they actually believe that their eternal salvation is tied to their actions on Earth and they live their lives accordingly. I still think these people are delusional, and I still think all religions are completely ridiculous, but if you’re going to be on the side that has a 99% chance of being wrong you might as well make sure you reap the benefits on the 1% chance that you happen to be right (although 1% is a pretty generous figure). As my dad would say, “Shit or get off the pot.”  Some people choose shit. I got off the pot.


  1. Even before I finish reading this post, I have to say it's pretty strange that you use the Browns to illustrate your lack of belief considering how much time you spend tailgating and wearing Browns gear each fall. Your lived experience self-destructs the point you are trying to make.

    1. I fail to see how using my beliefs about the Browns as a metaphor for my beliefs about religion in any way diminishes my point about not being able to choose what we believe. I freely admitted that they suck and have no delusions that they have simply been unlucky or something. I believe that they're a bad team, and they are.

      Are there some parallels that can be drawn between being a Browns fan and being a Christian? Absolutely! I invest plenty of time into what is essentially a relationship of unrequited love. I get nothing tangible in return from rooting for the Browns. However, I do get the occasional emotional satisfaction from a victory (much like prayer) which keeps me coming back in hopes of more (much like prayer). More often than not, though, things don't go the way I want (you get the idea).

      The only reason I'm a fan of the Browns is because I was born in an area where they're popular. Had I been born in Indiana instead, I would have an irrational attachment to the Colts instead. Sometimes during games, things happen as though they had a supernatural cause. I have no doubt that more thought would lead to more parallels, and if anyone reading this has any other ideas I'd love to hear them.

      On the other hand, when I get up early on Sunday mornings, I do so to go have myself a grand ol' time amongst friends, Gennessee Cream Ale, Bud Light, breakfast sandwiches, go-karts, flying bean bags, and cups in need of flipping. Much like watching the games themselves, this is all done purely for the sake of fun and entertainment. I'm a fan simply because it's fun (although also frustrating at times).

      Being a fan is a choice, and you can certainly construe that as irrational if you'd like. But what I BELIEVE about the Browns is not a choice, which was the point of the metaphor. I still think the team sucks. If they're 6-2 in the middle of the season, I'll gladly change my mind, just like I would gladly change my mind if there were any good evidence for God. Until then, I don't believe that the Browns are a good football team, and I don't believe that God exists.

  2. I will grant that many Christians do not live lives that show their commitment, and that many churches persist in holding boring services I wouldn't attend, either. When Christendom took hold in the US, and Christianity became entwined with patriotism, the character of Christianity was much diluted. As Christendom dies its slow death, the older folks lament society going to hell in a hand basket, while the younger folks make conscious choices about religion that their elders didn't.

    You might find it interesting to know there are other suppositions out there for what hell is other than Dante's Inferno. Then again, probably not.