}

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Unexpected wager

As we get older, it often becomes rarer for truly new experiences to pop up. However, today brought a first, and one even more unsusual because it related to religious belief, not a topic I encounter very often these days. It was… unexpected.

I was reading comments on a Facebook post (always a risky thing to do…) and there was a comment by a conservative Christian preachifying to other commentators. Several comments in, and the person offered Pascal's Wager as a reason to accept their preachifying. They didn’t call it by name, but it was their argument for why others should go along with admonitions to believe that made up most of the preachifying.

This was the first time in my life I've ever seen anyone use Pascal's Wager for real, and until today I always thought doing so was largely mythical, that no one actually used it.

Pascal's Wager basically says that if somone believes in a god (usually the Christian one), but it turns out the god doesn’t exist, nothing much is lost. But if one doesn’t believe in such a god and it turns out to be real, then they’re screwed for not acting as if they believed in it. So, the wager goes, it’s better to act as if you believe, just in case.

There are a LOT of obvious problems with this, starting with the lack of honesty and integrity that’s being advocated. Theologically, it’s unsound because it presumes that the god in question is utterly incapable of being able to tell the difference between real belief and faked belief, which doens’t sound plausible: If they’re a god, surely they know the difference?

Another problem is more doctrinal: Most Mainline Protestants believe that a person who leads a good life but is not a believer won’t be automatically damned merely because of their non-belief (and Mainline Protestants’ concept of “hell” is often completely different to that of fundamentalist Protestants, too). Instead, a non-believer who is a good person is actually similar to a person who never heard of the god in the first place. That means, adherents say, that their god won’t damn someone merely for honestly disbelieving if they otherwise lead a good life—though that doesn’t guarantee “forgiveness” of that non-belief, and so, “salvation” isn't automatic.

Obviously no one alive knows for sure who’s right and who’s wrong, because unless the god they’re talking about is a sort of Schrödinger's God, it can’t both exist and not exist. So, we can’t know whether honesty and integrity really matter more than pretending and pretense, but all things being equal, being honest and living with integrity must be the better option.

It’s not about whether the lack of proof that any of earth’s thousands of gods and goddesses did or do exist is a good reason for lack belief. Instead, it’s that, for some, proof is irrelevant, and those who don’t accept belief based on faith alone must be punished in this life. It’s what leads to repressive regimes, the oppression of those with different beliefs, forced conversions (in which the victims are really making a Pascal's Wager, since personal safety is the motivation for their newly professed belief), and genocide.

In a perfect world, people would believe or not, and that would be the end of the story. But after centuries of religion-based wars and pogroms—and those were just between different kinds of believers!—this problem seems unlikely to ever go away. How we feel about and react to these divisions probably says more about us than the quality of our beliefs, whatever they are.

Personally, I’d rather a person be an honest believer or non-believer. I can respect honesty and integrity even when I don’t share the beliefs, but I’d find it very difficult to trust someone whose professed beliefs are based on a silly “better safe than sorry” bet. Trouble is, how can we be sure of the sincerity and honesty of someone’s beliefs unless they tell us?

Most of the time, a person would never actually tell us their religious beliefs are based on a Pascal’s Wager. Today, for the first time in my life, I saw someone use that as an argument that others should adhere to the same religious beliefs as that person making the argument. I doubt it persuaded anyone, but it sure destroyed that person’s credibility in a hurry, and seeing that happen in that way was definitely unexpected.

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