As I continued my progress through The God Delusion, I came across a little concept called Pascal’s Wager. It was the first time I’d heard the term, but the concept was intimately familiar to me, and likely would be to anyone who was raised Evangelical Fundamentalist and ever, even for a second, considered second-guessing their religion.
I’m going to describe the concept as it occurred to me when I was young, not precisely how Pascal phrased it, because this is my blog, not Pascal’s. The basic idea goes like this: If you’re trying to decide whether or not to be a Christian, you should just consider the consequences of picking wrong.
If you’re a Christian when you die, and God isn’t real, your soul disappears forever (if you ever even had one) and you have no idea what happened because you’ve been obliterated.
If you’re not a Christian when you die, and God is real, you burn in hell for all eternity.
It was always obvious to me where the bigger consequence lay. And yes, while I realize now that there are a number of permutations to this analysis, such as picking the wrong God, none of those occurred to me when I was young because you couldn’t get much starker contrast than the one between these two options. In one, you basically have no harm, no foul. In the other, you are fucking screwed.
When I read this again in Dawkin’s book, it took me straight back to the constant self-derision and terror of my religious childhood. But with the advantage of my current perspective, I finally realized that there a number of problems with the logic.
Wikipedia has an atheist answer to this argument called the Atheist’s Wager, and it’s interesting, but it’s not what occurred to me when I read about Pascal. I’m not claiming that my response was necessarily totally original, but it was original for me, and I want to share it.
The main fallacy with Pascal’s Wager as I understood it as a child is that it completely discounts the value of the human life you are living right at this moment. The answers are both predicated on the idea that you need to decide what the best afterlife would be, and base your decision on that. But the atheist most likely doesn’t believe in an afterlife. I can best demonstrate what I’m trying to get at here by phrasing the answers from the opposite perspective.
If you’re an atheist when you die, and God is real, you’ll burn in hell for all eternity.
If you’re an Evangelical Fundamentalist when you die, and God isn‘t real, you had one shot at life – one cosmically unlikely, incredibly lucky, never-to-be-repeated chance to experience the universe – and you spent the whole thing wanting it to be over and haunted by your guilt. For nothing.
Essentially, you had x many years to cram in as much experience as you could, x many years in the entire billions of the universe, and you completely blew it.
One result is bad because of how vast it is. The other is bad because of how valuable what you’ve lost is.
This is what I immediately thought when I read about Pascal’s Wager as an adult. I feel like I’m just now starting to appreciate life, to really understand how valuable it is. The horrible thing about Fundamentalism as I used to live it is that you spend all your time wishing your life were over and you were with God. Life is a trial, it is a challenge, it is a thing you have to get through to prove that you’re good enough to live beyond it. Just imagine living your whole life that way, and then dying, and there’s nothing else.
What a waste.