But what if I’m wrong?

Yeah, we’re back on the subject of debating religion, but at least I’m warning you ahead of time, and providing other topics you can go to as well. I’m that kind of guy ;-)

Among the many common debates that arise is a simple question, posed by religious folk to atheists: “What if you’re wrong?” And initially, it often seems like a valid question. While I suspect many people come to it independently, it’s best known as Pascal’s Wager, after the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who is as known for this as he is for inventing a computer language that did not achieve popularity until 340 years or so after his death – unlike George Cobol, who was never known for his programming language and instead garnered his fame through Hollywood Squares. Anyway, Pascal’s Wager basically says, “If you believe in a god but you’re wrong, nothing is lost, but if you don’t believe in a god and you’re wrong, you burn in hell for eternity, so you’re better off believing, ya know?”

Richard Dawkins was posed this question at a talk, and while the audience seemed pleased with his answer, I feel it really lacks something:

His point is a common one, and one that I addressed before: there are an awful lot of gods out there, so this wager isn’t a heads or tails thing – the odds are badly stacked against anyone in any particular religion having the “right” one.

But that actually answers a question with a question, and from knowing Dawkins, this isn’t how he chose the path of atheism, any more than I did. It’s also an example of falling for a common tactic in any form of debate, that of answering a loaded or leading question. “What if you’re wrong?” is a question that poses an imaginary circumstance, not one that asks for useful information. Try using it for other questions, such as, “What if we’re wrong about electromagnetism?” or “What if we’re wrong about geological strata?” Do the questions even make sense? So suppose we rephrase it instead to, “How do you know you’re not wrong?”

Ah, okay, now we’ve got something to work with! In the scientific realm of understanding, we feel very comfortable that we’re right about electromagnetism and geology because we’ve examined them in detail. They have numerous traits and qualities that are self-evident, and present us with things that are testable and repeatable. Geologic strata doesn’t suddenly have different traits in Papua New Guinea; electromagnetism didn’t change and stop communication with satellites and probes once they left atmosphere. We have so much information about these that we can quantify and predict with them, and they stand on their own. We examined them, and know, as well as we possibly can, that they’re right.

This is going to irk the shit out of no small number of religious folk, but I feel exactly the same with atheism. The fact that I’m as confident in my view as they are in theirs, if not more so, gets me branded as “arrogant” all the time, something that apparently doesn’t apply to religious folk – go figure. Yet I’ve done the legwork, and what more can you actually ask? There are countless factors that led me to this point, from the abundance of natural laws and properties of the examined universe that show no signs of external influence or manipulation, to the plethora of competing religions throughout the world, throughout history, that have no common factors among them that could not be determined through human nature and observation (“Don’t kill,” yeah, thanks for that wisdom from on high,) to the logical fallacies and inconsistencies in every religion I’ve ever come across. It’s not a matter of bias, assertion, or wishful thinking; there is no distinct evidence for a god of any kind. Those items that are commonly proposed can’t even hold up against other religions, much less critical examination.

The bald face of it is, I don’t feel I’m wrong because I made (and still make) the concerted and deliberate effort not to be. If, despite all this, I actually turn out to be wrong, and stand in front of a creator who wants to know why I failed to believe, I have every good reason to put forth. We can fool ourselves too easily, and human beings are exceptionally loaded with deceit – it behooves us to examine both others and ourselves judiciously. Using the brains that I have and examining the world as it stands before me, I can only come to the conclusion that I have. If I am to be blamed for that, well, so be it. It can only be because that was exactly the way the creator wanted it to be. If that then means that I deserve punishment, I still won’t praise or revere such a being for that kind of bullshit game.

Consider, too, the idea of belief, or faith, through the threat of (meta)physical consequences. Someone “believes” because it’s most likely to keep god from punishing them? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that coercion? Does anyone honestly think that any kind of supreme being is happy with obeisance through intimidation?

Even that is neither here nor there. Everything about a creator fails to fit into our body of knowledge, and our examination of the natural world. Judgment, and most especially eternal punishment, are ridiculous concepts, as is any kind of eternal existence – what’s the point? Omnipotence and omniscience are mutually exclusive traits (if you know everything, you know everything that will be, which means you have no power to do anything other than what will be, so you are actually unable to exert any kind of willful influence – that’s a far cry from omnipotence.) There’s also the self-defeating arguments that are always put forth, such as, “Everything had to start somewhere.” No, we haven’t actually determined that this is a fact at all, and quite frankly, we can change matter into energy, but we cannot eradicate it – we can only change its form. This is a strong indication that matter/energy might actually be eternal, or as close to it as we can observe. But this ignores the true failure of the argument, in that the starting force, the supreme being, either has to be eternal (breaking the very rule that calls for its existence,) or has to have its own start someplace, requiring an infinite line of creators of creators. It also suffers from the point that, even if proven, there’s nothing that establishes that such a starting force be directed, deliberate, and intelligent – it could simply be another natural law like the weak atomic force.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s the known histories of religious texts, in many cases plagiarizing, adopting, and warping previously held religious beliefs. Not to mention the known cases of transcription errors and deliberate editing, and the distinctive personal influences of the various scribes. There’s the gross incoherence of many scriptural stories, and their radical disagreements with what we have established through careful observations about the formation of planets, stars, and life – oddly enough, scriptural accounts provide no information that a mere mortal of that time period would not have known or speculated on.

In fact, that brings us to the opposing question that Dawkins posed: What if you’re wrong? And as I touched on before, this certainly must account for the majority of the world’s population, because there are far too many conflicts among various religions for them to be right. So, reason tells us that most of the world is wrong, and thus most of religious scripture, belief, and practices are wrong. What has anyone done to ensure that they themselves are right? And how do they then explain the number of religions that are wrong? Does it then mean that humans are not only capable, but prone, to believing in something that doesn’t exist? Does it mean that it’s actually very easy to rely on, justify, and promote false idolatry? It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it?

So we come to the idea that religion, as a practice, is actually a grand delusion for most of the world, and for those that have it “right,” there is no way to differentiate them? Yeah, well, I went that extra step. They’re all delusions – that’s why they can’t be differentiated. Regardless of how much anyone may not want to hear this, the possibility that it’s all simply bullshit remains to be considered, if we’re honest about our world and our knowledge.

We even have plenty of reason to believe that this is so. Our studies of human nature, psychology, neural function, cultures, societies, and history tell us time and time again that we are prone to fantasy, delusion, wishful thinking, mythology, confirmation bias, suggestion, peer reliance, misinterpretation, and many other such traits. In fact, it is only through careful examination of what we do, and the recognition that we’re prone to mistakes, that we can rid ourselves of this. This is exactly why I promote critical thinking, and not just for the topic of religion, but everything else as well. We buy the advertising, we fall for the scams, we believe the pickup lines, we vote for the politicians, we react to the media hype… unless we remain on guard and critical of all of it.

I was in middle school when the Jim Jones Guyana tragedy took place. If you’re not familiar with it, it was a religious organization that, convinced that the “end times” were near, committed mass suicide/murder, mostly among the followers, that resulted in the death of over 900 people, among them entire families with children. Almost invariably, the word used to describe the organization is “cult,” but the ugly thing is, there is no distinctive way to differentiate a cult from any number of current religious organizations. The people who died were not all psychotic and delusional, despite the impression that we want to have – they were just normal people who found that the promises and arguments were compelling, and allowed themselves to get caught up in it all as it became a runaway train. Many situations run so far afield because they proceed in small increments, each of which is acceptable to the people within because the change is so minimal at any one time, and they’ve never set a particular line that shouldn’t be crossed. Think about this the next time you hear the argument, “This many people can’t be wrong.” Yes, they most certainly can – the failure is actually believing such a proverb in the first place, which enables mass behavior. It is even well known that people, having committed themselves to a course of action, are typically very reluctant to abandon it and admit that they were wrong, so the damage continues. They will tell themselves that others won’t allow crazy things to go on without stopping it, so it must be under control. How many times have you seen any of these from your friends, or you yourself?

Given all that above, kindly don’t get the impression I’ve just laid out my entire case – I could go on for days, I think. And before you decide you want to argue, make sure you have rebuttals to all of the above points first. Until then, I’ll answer the question, “How do you know you’re not wrong?” with the very direct answer, “Because I try really hard not to be.” The criteria that I use are as free from special circumstances and rules as I can make them, but I even welcome someone pointing out where I missed something. Anyone can be wrong, but we’re much better armed if we recognize this and make the effort to avoid it. I wish I could feel confident that most of the religious (and alt-med, and conspiracy theory, and alien visitation) people that I debate have made the same efforts.