I gave blood today. I won’t say that it’s entirely altruistic. I believe our bodies accumulate too many heavy elements, iron is one of them, and an occasional bloodletting helps keep those levels down. I like that – doing a good deed that’s good for me too!
As you know if you have donated blood, the process takes a bit of time – paperwork, interview, vitals, then the actual bloodgiving itself takes a moment or two. I had my Kindle with me, but my bloodtaker was chatty, so once I saw where the conversation was going, I put my Kindle aside, and, as a captive audience, and taking a deep draw from the well of patience, I engaged in the 398th version of this conversation.
It started with a question about my tattoo. When I don’t have time to engage in a protracted conversation, I say that I got my tattoo as a celebration of completing my Ironman (partially true). When I have time and the situation lends itself to conversation, I give the more accurate answer: that it’s a symbol of my embracing science and reason over faith and religion as a guide for life.
Because I’ve had this conversation so many times, I know how the rest of the conversation will unfold. A little more back and forth about what that means, a little personal history, and then realization on the part of my companion that I am serious about my unbelief.
And then it comes. They look into my eyes, and with an earnestness that I know comes from fear, because I had it myself, they say it.
“What if you’re wrong?”
I gather my patience (I may have explained it several hundred times, but they haven’t heard it, ever). I explain who Pascal was, and what the entire premise of their question is:
If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).
So I go through my explanation, like thousands of my fellow atheists have through the years.
1. I cannot simply will myself to believe in something for which there is no evidence. If I told you I had a magic cricket in my purse that talks to me and advises me, that you can’t see, or hear, could you WILL yourself to believe that?
2. If your belief is based only on gambling against a loss, how do you know you’ve picked the right god? How do you know you’re not offending the REAL one by throwing in with this one? There are THOUSANDS of gods in thousands of religion, all with some variation on hell and heaven and eternal punishment. And wouldn’t believing in the WRONG one be even worse than not believing in ANY?
3. If I’m just believing as an exit strategy for this world, with god’s omnipotence and omniscience, would he not see that I’m faking it? Would that not be MORE offensive that being honest about my disbelief?
In this particular version of this oft-repeated scenario, my kind bloodtaker listened while I talked it through, nodded her head as I explained my position, then concluded with, what else: “I’ll pray for you, Gayle. By name.” Alrighty, then.
As I got my sticker and bottle of water (I passed on the cookies and crackers), I was already writing this post in my head, and this is what I want to say:
“Christian, what if you’re wrong?”
What if you’re wrong about spending your life waiting for guidance, not acting for lack of divine message, missing an opportunity to experience something or someone?
What if you’re wrong about how to invest your time and money in alleviating suffering in the world, not based on what the bible says about that, but on real, genuine, compassion for the hurting, the hungry, the homeless?
What if you’re wrong about how we are to treat the earth, not as something over which we have dominion, but as something we are to respect and care for?
What if you’re wrong about your role in judging the decisions other people make about who they love and who they want to marry?
What if you’re wrong about heaven and hell, and about how fast and fleeting this life is, and about what you should say to those you love, and how you resolve struggles in relationships?
What if you’re wrong about the importance of science, wrong about denying evolution, wrong about using prayer instead of medicine?
What if you’re wrong about assuming it is god’s plan that people suffer and die from disease, hunger, war, famine?
What if you’re wrong about how you’ve spent your limited funds giving to a church to pay electric bills and staff salaries, instead of investing in your family’s future, improving education, raising the quality of life for everyone in your community?
What if you’re wrong about spending your Sundays getting up early, getting your children up early to spend the day inside a building convincing yourself to believe something for which there is no evidence, convincing others to believe something for which there is no evidence?
What if you’re wrong about what you’ve taught your children about values and compassion and humanity?
What if you’re wrong about what sin is, about what is okay to enjoy and with whom to enjoy it?
What if you’re wrong about the usefulness of prayer, and about how you can truly help someone who is in a bad place, or at a bad time, or in a bad set of circumstances?
What if you’re wrong about thinking you are a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure, of salvation?
What if you’re wrong about thinking anyone who doesn’t believe as you is a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure?
What if you’re wrong about believing that because you’ve followed the rules and have experienced good fortune, that those who experience misfortune have obviously fallen short of being worthy of god’s blessings?
What if you are wrong about endorsing a book full of misogyny, divine murder, ethnic dominion that has tremendous potential to be interpreted as literal, applicable, and appropriate for THIS time and THIS place?
What if you’re wrong about using your feelings about what an invisible, undetectable being might be telling you about how to treat yourself, your spouse, your parents, your children, your money, your neighbor, your world?
So. believer, please understand what Pascal’s wager is before you ask us that question. Understand that’s it’s a weak position in the first place; an admission that there really is no good evidence upon which to base your beliefs. Understand that it’s one of the first things we had to deal with when we began to doubt our faith, and in fact, kept a good many of us in the faith for a great long time. Understand that we have a response to it, a reasonable, practical, rational response.
Then turn it around and ask it of yourself. And answer it.
Thanks for reading.