10/20/2007                                                                                       View Comments

A couple of comments on Pascal’s Wager and the Hellfire and damnation factor

Sent in by Bob B

I hope readers will forgive me if these arguments have already been beaten to death on this site. I am new to this venue and have not had the time or the inclination to read every post. That said I will just jump in on the issue in question here.

I have always regarded Pascal’s Wager as an inherently fraudulent argument. It is invariably trotted out by the Theists with the false confidence that it somehow ultimately trumps any argument that can be thrown against it. First of all, PW is an argument of accommodation not logic. What if God is real and we have renounced him? Isn’t it better to hedge our bets that we should believe, against our better judgment, just in case there is a Heavenly reward and Hellish punishment?

I would hope this argument would be as repugnant to “people of faith” as it is to atheists. If I were a loving God, who also has conditional restraints on this love (if that in itself is not inherently contradictory) I would reserve a hot little place in Hell for Monsieur Pascal and all his proponents. Gamblers who base their belief solely upon a kind of attempt to manipulate a hypothesized Divine Judge with a “saved if it is/saved if it ain’t” strategy are, to me, more repellent than the most ardent sinner and denier. At least the sinner and the denier has a truth, an integrity and a realistic justification for their sincere beliefs and perhaps even their non artful conduct. I cannot see a loving God or even a god of justice condemning someone who sincerely followed the dictates of conscience and reason, even though that reason resulted in denial of that god.

On a more personal note, I have found the precepts of Buddhism in far greater harmony with my beliefs in reason, science, skepticism and even my belief in the need for a loving and ethical code of conduct. I think of myself as atheistic. Now my definition of that term is somewhat of my own crafting, as it does not fit with the way a lot of others define it. Most, especially the Christian theists, insist that if you are an atheist, you have reached the unshakable conclusion (faith?) that there is NO God, no higher power, no Creator/preserver/destroyer, transcendent or imminent. Atheism is always contrasted and compared with agnosticism, the doubting of the existence of God without reaching the unshakable conclusion the atheists arrive at. It seems that this, once again, offers up a false dichotomy for those of us who see much of religion as a mere mindless pandering to superstition.

I prefer to think of my A theism as neither a belief in the existence of or the non existence of God (or whatever you prefer to call Him Her or It.) It is interesting that some accounts of the Buddha find him counseling the abstinence from all metaphysical assertions of Heavenly realms. gods and God. His dictate, like Christ’s (after His admonition to love God) was simply that you have compassion for your fellows. I believe the Buddha was A theistic, that is, the whole issue of theism is best avoided as a tangled morass that can only distract one from spiritual and ethical responsibilities. Think of the “a” here in the sense of “amoral” simply a state independent of either morality or immorality. An amoral person does not recognize the whole province of moral codes as opposed to both the moral and the immoral person. Classifying an amoral person as immoral is as technically incorrect as (according to my usage) classifying my atheism as a confirmed disbelief.

Another point is of interest here. Some have asserted that, as a singularly strange piece of evolutionary survival strategy, we may be neurologically hardwired to believe in a personal deity or deities. Any anthropologists, primateologists or neuroscientists out there who have real credentials in this area will have to cut me a little slack here as I make no claims for expertise in this area.

I have been reading lately from material written by proponents of the school of Terror Management Theory. Some of the intriguing and disturbing points that this theory touches on are highlighted in this review of Jerry S. Piven’s The Psychology of Death in Fantasy and History:

“This volume investigates the impact of death consideration on such phenomena as Buddhist cosmology, the poetry of Rilke, cults and apocalyptic dreams, Japanese mythology, creativity, and even psychotherapy.

Death is seen as a critical motivation for the genesis of artistic creations and monuments, of belief systems, fantasies, delusions and numerous pathological syndromes. Culture itself may be understood as the innumerable ways that societies defend themselves against helplessness and annihilation, how they mould and recreate the world in accordance with their wishes and anxieties, the social mechanisms employed to deny annihilation and death. Whether one speaks of the construction of massive burial tombs, magical transformations of death into eternal life, afterlives or resurrections, the need to cope with death and deny its terror and effect are the sine qua non of religion, culture, ideology, and belief systems in general.”

Terror Management Theory has studied, as one of its most fruitful areas of inquiry, the sometimes violent and irrational behavior people will employ when their ideas concerning immortality are threatened. It goes a long way toward explaining many of the more pernicious aspects of the varieties of Christian religious experience, from the tears of Tammy Faye to the Crusades.

For an extensive overview of TMT check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terror_management_theory.

I think that the work being done in this area is perhaps one of the most fascinating and beneficial fields of inquiry that psychology has spun off. I think it represents a wholly new area of research that may finally give some new authentication to “the children at the gate who will not go away and cannot pray.”


SteveP said...

If someone is taking that approach, then they had better cover their bet for every ancient mythology.

How could someone logically cover one and not the others, if it's nothing more than a gamble anyway? Gotta cover 'em all, or forget about it.

That's just gonna keep ya too damn busy.

SpaceMonk said...

It also assumes we don't know whether christianity is true or not, hence the need to wager.
Yet since we do know for sure that christianity is false there is no wager to be had.

Ricky said...

As for Pascal's Wager, everything you and the commentors have said is correct. Besides that, I see it this way. Here is my wager.

I wager my soul that either A) there is no god or B) that if there is a god, he's not such a prick as to send me and the billions of other people who do not believe in the Christian god to burn in a lake of fire forever.

If I'm right, then either A) I will just lose consciousness and decompose over time or B) be rewarded for my actions, and not punished via lake of fire merely for using the logic I was born with.

If I'm wrong, then this God is infinitely worse than Hitler and does not deserve worship from me.

As for the Atheist-Agnostic thing, it's like this. Atheists can just lack belief in a god. They don't need to prove via logic that god is 100% impossible. If you don't believe that there is a tiny, flying invisible unicorn that you can't hear or smell or touch silently buzzing around your head right now, then you are a "tiny invisible flying unicorn 'atheist'". This doesn't mean that there is no way that this tiny invisible flying unicorn exists, but it's just that you lack belief because it cannot be sensed or detected scientifically.

If you don't see an invisible unicorn in front of you right now, then would you conclude that the chances for its existence are around 50%? I think not. The chances are probably less than one-in-a-quadrillion. And that is merely what atheists think. So yes, I am an agnostic actually, but I'm not afraid to say that I'm an atheist, too, because I have no confusion about the issue or think that both sides have merit. At the end of the day, calling yourself an agnostic instead of an atheist, I think, is more of a defense mechanism, as it shields you from much of the hate that is directed towards out-of-the-closet atheists.