Walkabout podcast – Bigger stakes than that
Pascal’s Wager is a well-known argument among atheists, and for that matter among evangelists too, even though it appears a lower percentage of those know it by name. It’s a line of superficial reasoning that makes an attempt to logically support theism. In essence, if you believe in a god (most especially one that wields perpetual punishment) but are wrong, and no such being exists, then being wrong has no consequences. But if you don’t believe in such a being and it does exist, you’re screwed six ways from Sunday (especially if such a being frowns on terrible word games.) So, you might as well believe.
This has been torn to shreds before, including my own take, but I now see something that I regrettably missed. And so we return to the argument, and with it even get to see how changing decisions into abstract equations doesn’t give us the functionality we might have been led to believe.
The second biggest flaw in the reasoning (the first being that it assumes a factor that has no support) is that religion is being treated solely as a personal matter; the only person who suffers the consequences is the individual. This kind of two-faced bullshit is wielded all the time, mostly by religious folk whining that their personal rights are being violated every time they’re denied the ability to legislate or control others. There’s little personal about religion; from the simple idea that the devout are urged to “spread the word of god” to the extensive efforts to produce new laws or eradicate old ones, religious motivations likely outnumber all other forms of activism combined, at least in this country, and most assuredly in theocratic regimes like half of the middle east. So the consequences of being wrong do not revolve solely around personal salvation, but the effect on everyone who has ever been influenced by religious concepts.
So, I ask the faithful, what if you’re wrong? What exactly does this mean?
1. That you have spent some (probably large) portion of your life judging actions on a meaningless concept, including all stress over what god might disapprove of and how to conduct yourself in any given situation;
2. That all confidence in divine authority and even mankind’s exalted status was entirely misplaced, a huge delusion. Any and all preaching and advice and suggestions and even disapproving looks stemmed only from ego, as did all beliefs in human importance in the cosmos;
3. That the pressures placed upon everyone who engaged in behavior not approved by faith were all pointless. This includes everyone from the masturbating youth to the unwed pregnant teen to the family of a suicide victim, who not only had to consider that their loved one was in perpetual torment, but that their own failures may have contributed;
4. That every instance of gay beatings, and verbal assaults outside abortion clinics, and even every last guilt trip over the right people to marry and the right way to raise kids, was all stupid;
5. That a significant portion of the money donated to churches went to self-perpetuating scams rather than anyplace it might have made a real difference; you know, achieving good results;
6. That every politician who garnered support by playing the religious card was only trolling the rubes, when they could have been concentrating on campaign efforts that would produce positive change;
7. That everyone who died from AIDS and STDs and unplanned pregnancies, solely because they were told condoms were bad, never had to die;
8. That everyone who has died in a holy war, or witch hunt, or religious suicide attack, or even over medical restrictions and withheld care due to “faith,” also died for no reason whatsoever. Life being so sacred to religious folk, you know…;
9. That every terrorist cell and fanatical regime which recruited followers based on ideas of destiny and ultimate rewards would have had to find another way of convincing the pawns. Speculation over the relative usefulness of other motivations is left as an exercise.
I’ll be kind and stop here, but I suspect it’s effectively demonstrated that this could go on for pages. Reducing the entire concept down to the idea of a single point of consequence shows that Pascal (and everyone who resorts to the wager) didn’t understand how flawed it is to try and apply binary decisions to real world consequences. Though it’s possible that he actually did, and formed the conditions of his wager because it produced the answer he wanted to arrive at…
There are undoubtedly those who would argue that their faith really is private, and that they engage in a “live and let live” attitude towards others, avoiding preaching and advising and even internal judging – that gets one off the hook for the worst of it, but not the personal consequences of spending one’s life in pursuit of unfulfillable goals. Not to mention that this probably accounts for less than 0.5% of religious folk. Yet, even this fails to establish innocence, since it remains a self-centered defense; claiming that I did not commit any crimes doesn’t absolve me of criminal negligence when I witness crime and do nothing about it. Simply by admitting to some form of faith, anyone has given their tacit support of that faith, lending a legitimacy to the entire ideology, and this is worsened when they fail to correct any of the bad practices by others. The christian who favors loving everyone as brothers and the christian who gives money to legislate against homosexuality are basing their decisions not just on the same book, but the same concept; that their authority is both beyond evidence and completely rational, the curious double-standard of religious devotion (actually, it’s more likely just opportunistic indulgence of personal desires, but that’s another post…) While there is never a shortage of muslims who claim islam is not about violence, every time there’s a violent act in the name of islam, somehow the violence goes on – we don’t see any corrective actions, just protests of innocence. I can tell you, if I find myself bleeding my life out from an attack by a religious fanatic, knowing that my attacker wasn’t truly religious will make it all much better, I’m sure.
Now, can we effectively weigh the two original potentials of the wager against one another? We have the religious view, which promises eternal torment if one is wrong, and the secular view, which produces a variable (yet vast) collection of social ills. Did you catch the subtle change in wording there? I hope so, because the idea of god’s retribution comes solely from scripture that is wildly inaccurate about known facts, repeatedly self-contradictory, and doesn’t even make sense by any logical process – eternal punishment is a threat, not a practice that could achieve a damn thing at all (thank you, I’m here all week.) Confidence in any claims made by scripture doesn’t come from the accuracy demonstrated – it’s entirely wishful. While the consequences of acting on religious authority are plainly visible and easily measured – literally, infinitely more demonstrated than any metaphysical claim. And they remain detrimental regardless of whether any god exists or not. Trying to compare these as if they had an equal standing is dishonest to a pathological level.
Worse, the truly ugly aspect of all this is that religion is widely, repeatedly claimed to be a force for good, yet that list up there doesn’t really demonstrate it at all, does it? In fact, more good would have been accomplished without the interference of religion in most of those cases – I’m weird this way, but I find it hard to look favorably on anyone pursuing their personal salvation at the expense of others. So we can see that “right or wrong” is not really a productive strategy, when one could substitute “good or bad” and receive real, useful guidance on how to make worthwhile decisions and contributions – ones that anyone would have every right to feel proud of as well. This does, of course, mean that someone would have to know a functional method of determining good, such as the incredibly difficult task of equating it with benefit.
I can’t ignore the argument that faith is solely about belief, and with faith comes salvation – this means that good acts don’t really matter because it’s not about how one acts, just how they think. Yes, this really is claimed, surprisingly often, apparently by people who have somehow failed to notice that scripture is brimming with long lists of proscribed actions, as well as the often-bloodthirsty consequences of violating them. Ignoring for the moment the neurosis of an omnipotent being who demands ego-stroking on penalty of torture, the implication is that even the most heinous crimes don’t count if one’s heart is in the right place, which takes religion very distinctly out of the discussion whenever morality is brought up, since morality deals solely with how one treats others. And even if we accept this pathetic argument, it would mean that the faithful have no purpose nor provocation to try and affect others in any way – their efforts to promote their beliefs and authority have nothing whatsoever to do with personal faith as a goal. Obviously, not a whole lot of religious folk are devoted to that argument even when promoting it.
It’s hard to argue that we as a species do not need a little more clarity in purpose, some method of reducing the selfish, defensive tendencies we are prone to – in other words, some stronger moral guidance. I have little doubt that not only was this the intention of every last person who resorted to the “ultimate authority” angle that eventually became every religion on earth, it’s the underlying goal of many who use it now (I was going to say “nearly everyone” before I realized that no small percentage of people use religion entirely for manipulation.) But as was just demonstrated above, good intentions don’t justify harmful actions in anyone’s sense of community, and the ridiculous machinations of religion open the door for countless forms of abuse and self-indulgent selectivity – producing exactly the opposite effect in too many cases. This becomes absolutely astounding when one realizes that morality is not a hard concept to grasp, certainly in no need of idiotic stories about original sin and following false idols. Even in those few circumstances where determining the best action is hard or subjective, one can easily realize that inaction is much better than any kind of detrimental undertaking. And this demonstrates far more logical thought than any hackneyed “wager,” which serves only to justify a pre-existing standpoint. So why wager when we already have a sure thing to pursue?