And so I take the position of agnostic atheism. But what if I’m wrong?
The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal was tormented by doubts on both sides of the question of the existence of God. He said, “It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist.” He concluded the matter could not be settled by reason. The existence of God to Pascal was a coin toss.
Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Others who’ve so concluded have opted for agnosticism. But agnosticism was not an option for Pascal. Like most religionists who tackle the question, Pascal tackled it from the starting point of his own religion, Christianity. He saw only two options: the god of Christianity, Jahweh, could exist, or no god at all could exist. Yahweh, if he exists, demands faith. Yahweh rewards such faith with an eternity of bliss, and punishes disbelief with an eternity of suffering. He sentences agnostics to Hell right along with the atheists.
To those who might say the true course is not to wager at all, Pascal replies, “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?”
Good gamblers know you can’t just look at the odds, you’ve also got to look at the stakes:
|He exists||He doesn’t exist|
|I worship him||Infinite reward||No major harm done|
|I don’t worship him||Infinite punishment||No major harm done|
When you consider that belief in Yahweh offers infinite reward if it turns out Yahweh exists, and does no major harm if he doesn’t, but disbelief results in infinite punishment if Yahweh exists, and at best finite rewards if he doesn’t, then it seems clear belief is the better bet.
But if reason cannot be applied to the question of Yahweh’s existence, then how do you overcome your doubts and convince yourself Yahweh exists? Pascal’s answer, which philosophers in his day and since have found deeply unsatisfying, is that you do what every other thinking person of faith does: you fake it. Pascal thought that eventually your self-deception would settle into real belief.
Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.
Pascal’s contemporary Voltaire argued that the benefits of a belief don’t make the belief true. (This argument might be considered a central tenet in New Atheism, to the degree New Atheism can be said to have tenets.)
This is correct, and people who value truth in and of itself shouldn’t be swayed by an argument like Pascal’s. In Pascal’s defense, though, he never made the claim that benefit equals truth, and only suggested basing belief on benefit after deciding the truth of the matter was impossible to ascertain.
An old argument against Pascal’s Wager, and in my view a convincing one, is called the Argument from Inconsistent Revelations. Why should we privilege Yahweh over the gods of other religions or, for that matter, over other mythical creatures? We can conceive of countless supernatural beings and make up all sorts of consequences of belief or disbelief in them. For all we know the one true deity might so despise the imposter Yahweh that you’re better off dying as an atheist than as a Christian. Yahweh’s infinitude of rivals erases the mathematical advantage of belief in him.
The threat of eternal damnation is not reason to adopt a belief in a particular god, but reason to stand against it. Hell was obviously designed to compel belief in Yahweh through fear. We should deeply resent the manipulation, not take the bait like Pascal did.
We should all have the humility to admit we might be wrong, and consider the consequences if this turns out to be the case. Let’s admit that it’s possible that God exists. How do agnostic atheists respond to that possibility?
I respond with a wager of my own.
I wager that if there is a God, this being couldn’t possibly be as wrathful, petty, cruel, and irrational as the Yahweh described in the Bible. I wager that if a supernatural being gave me a rational mind and a conscience, this being won’t fault me for using either, even if they lead me away from religion and away from belief in the supernatural.
I wager that a deity secure in herself wouldn’t need to be worshipped, and a truly benevolent deity wouldn’t devise cruel everlasting punishments for her creations.
I wager that those who stand for sexism, racism, or any other form of bigotry, and do so in the name of God, are really just representing themselves; and that those who stand for kindness, compassion, and acceptance, though they may not do so in the name of any deity, always have the true God standing with them, if there is one.