Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Deadly Sin #3

As I said before, when I made my post entitled "Deadly Sin #1", I had not originally intended it to be the first of a series. However, once the thought occurred to me, it quickly became clear that indeed there was something to be said for just about all the "Seven Deadly Sins" in connection with religious motivation. (The exception, so far, is Gluttony. Though I now do intend to write a full series consisting of a post on each of the deadly sins, I haven't figured out what I'm going to write about when I get to Gluttony yet. Well, it'll be a while before I get to it anyway.)

Today, I'd like to write about Sloth.

Like Pride and Wrath, Sloth is something that I agree can easily lead to undesireable results, and is in general to be avoided. Heck, I've got a bit of a problem with it myself; I'd get a lot more done if I weren't so prone to procrastination. So, sure, let's go ahead and call it a "sin", whatever that may mean.

But, also like Pride and Wrath, it's a sin that goes down to the foundations of religion. Sloth is a big motivator for religious belief.

How so? Well, in at least two ways. First, the firm believer is freed from the necessity of deciding on matters for himself. He knows the Truth because God said so. He doesn't need any evidence, and he certainly doesn't need to strain his mind trying to figure out for himself what's right and what's wrong.

That doesn't stop said firm believers from coming up with justifications for their beliefs. The Intelligent Design movement desperately tries to come up with grounds for claiming that divine creation has scientific evidence behind it. Opponents of gay marriage make weird assertions that allowing it would undermine the "sanctity of marriage", or come up with even more contrived and distasteful arguments against it. And, of course, just today George W. Bush was obliging enough to give me another convenient example to cite in this post by vetoing a bill that would have funded embryonic stem cell research on the bizarre pretext that using clumps of cells for medical research that were going to be disposed of anyway would somehow equate to "the taking of innocent human life".

Why do they feel the need to try to justify what they think are mandates from God? Well, I have my ideas as to that, but they'll wait till I get to writing about Envy (that's the next Deadly Sin on my list). But couldn't one argue that if they're going to such lengths to conconct often byzantine rationalizations for their beliefs, that can't very well be considered an indication of Sloth? Well, no. I think it is. Because, while they might devote a lot of thought toward how to make their beliefs sound as reasonable as possible, they're still never questioning their premise. Coming up with arguments to try to support a conclusion you've already decided on is a lot easier than actually really examining the arguments on both sides and making a decision. They may be performing some mental gymnastics to support their position, but it's an empty and, yes, lazy exercise if they're never considering even the possibility that there might be some validity to another point of view.

(As an aside, I want to once again stress two points about these posts. First, when I refer to religion in these posts, I mean mostly Christianity, since that's what I'm most familiar with--some of what I say may apply to other religions as well, but I don't pretend to be sure that it all applies to all of them. Second, I'm certainly not saying that every religious person, or even every Christian, acts all the time in the way I'm describing. I'm speaking primarily of the most closed-minded fundamentalists--who, however, are the ones who are seriously trying now to dominate U.S. politics. This concludes the disclaimers; we now return to our regularly scheduled post.)

The Sloth of letting "God" make your decisions for you takes two aspects, both of which are represented in the examples above. There's trusting religion for matters of fact--e.g., ID--and trusting religion for matters of morality--e.g., anti-gay-rights. Now, sometimes there's talk of keeping science and religion separate by letting the former handle matters of fact and the latter matters of morality. Stephen Jay Gould called this the NOMA principle, for "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", and claimed it "follows a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike"--which, as much as I respect Gould and enjoy his writing in general, I have to say is utter rubbish. He cites Pope John Paul II as a prominent ecclesiastical supporter of NOMA, based on the fact that he proclaimed that there were allegorical elements to the Biblical creation story and that the theory of evolution was not incompatible with Catholic doctrine. But it's one thing to say that a particular story is partly or wholly metaphorical; it's quite another thing to disavow all historical or factual claims in one's religious doctrine, and John Paul II certainly didn't do the latter--I'm pretty sure that he still would have asserted, if asked, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that saints hear prayers, that the Eucharist in some meaningful sense transforms into the flesh and blood of Christ, et cetera. Religion deals in matters of fact. The existence or non-existence of God is a fact. Whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead is a fact. These are not claims that can be lightly tossed aside; they're central to Christianity, and without them it becomes nothing more than a vague philosophy. It is perhaps regrettable but nevertheless inescapable that the magisteria of science and religion do indeed overlap. This was obvious to me even I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, and it remains obvious to me now that I've come to terms with my unbelief.

But all that aside, is it really a good idea to let people rely on religious dogma for their ideas of morality? One thing that I've been surprised about in the blogs I've been reading lately is the repeated claims by the religious that atheists have no basis for morality, that without God there's no reason to be a good person, and no way to distinguish between right and wrong. I had heard these arguments before, when I still considered myself a believer, but I had no idea they were as widespread as they apparently are. But even when I did consider me a believer, they struck me as absurd. Whether or not you believe in God, you've got a conscience, fer cryin' out loud. Now, one can debate the reason behind one's conscience, and how it may have arisen through evolution, but regardless of why it's there I think it's pretty obvious to anyone with even a shred of introspection that they generally know some actions are right and some actions are wrong without having to look up what God said about the matter. The "Golden Rule", after all, long predates Christianity, and I don't think it's something atheists are any less likely to subscribe to than Christians, even if they may not formulate it in the same terms. If atheists don't generally go around robbing and murdering--and, of course, they don't--it's not just because they're afraid of being caught and punished. It's because they're perfectly aware that robbing and murdering are wrong, and they don't need God to tell them so. And they don't want to go around robbing and murdering, any more than Christians do.

But not only is it not necessary to rely on God for morality, rather than thinking for yourself, it could even be dangerous. First, because religions can ossify outdated practices into supposed "moral issues" with no real moral basis. Why, for example, is homosexuality supposedly "morally wrong"? Sure, as mentioned above, the believers come up with post hoc rationalizations, but what it all comes down to is because the Bible says it's wrong (and/or, in the case of the LDS Church, the prophet and "modern revelation"), and as far as they're concerned that settles the matter--and so they fight to deprive homosexuals of certain rights on the basis of their own divinely decreed "morality", without giving any serious consideration to the question of whether there might not really be anything morally wrong in what they're fighting in the first place.

I suppose it may be to my credit that I can cite at least one instance, even when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, of my refusing to go along with a command by a church leader that didn't feel right to me. One day, when I was an undergraduate, the bishop of the student ward I was a member of asked me to call around and remind ward members to go out and vote against a proposed state bill allowing gay marriage. I told the bishop I was very busy with schoolwork, and didn't have time to make all those phone calls over the next few days--but the truth was, I didn't want to do it because I didn't really feel comfortable with the idea. The church may have come out firmly against gay marriage, but I wasn't sure how I felt about the matter myself, and I guess even back then, even though I wasn't quite ready to face up to the fact that I didn't really have any good reason to believe in the church, I wasn't willing to let the church do all my thinking for me, either. I know there are other people out there like I was, who may follow a religion but do think for themselves about its precepts, and do on occasion find themselves in disagreement with the church's dictates. Unfortunately, there also seem to be a lot of people out there--or at least a few very visible ones--who go along unquestioningly with everything their church decrees, and never seem to make any attempt to come to their own conclusions about anything...

I'll have more to say on this subject when I get to Lust--for the moment, on to the other problem with letting God mandate your morality: If you don't really have a sense for yourself of something being wrong, it's far too easy to make justifications of why it isn't, of why, even though there's a commandment against it, well, this time is an exception. So if you're relying on God for all your moral decisions, and never think matters through for yourself, if you never develop your own moral compass, or if you let it atrophy, well then, pretty soon you may end up going against what God supposedly says, too, because if you want to do something badly enough, and you don't yourself have any qualms against it, it's not hard to come up with rationales for why this time God would be okay with it, because this time it's different.

Let's take the most obvious example. Murder. The Bible's pretty clear on this--well, the New Testament is, anyway; there's an awful lot in the Old Testament of what looks not too different from murder to me; but let's let that pass for now. Christianity, anyway, certainly comes out against murder--most all religions do, after all, just as most all religions preach some form of the Golden Rule (and ditto non-psychopathic unbelievers). Yet there have been many times throughout history that Christians have wantonly slaughtered other people, Christian and otherwise. The Crusades, the Inquisition--heck, in the modern era, the murderous KKK has claimed to be a Christian organization. (Of course this happens in other religions as well--Muslim terrorists being an obvious contemporary example--but, again, I'm mostly discussing Christianity here because it's the religion I'm most familiar with. And obviously I'm not denying that atheists have done terrible things too, but that doesn't really have any bearing on the subject under discussion.) Now, I'm not going to go so far, as many antireligionists do, as to say that every one of those incidents of murder was caused by religion. Some of them were, no doubt, but many of them were committed for other reasons, and the religious justification was just an excuse. Still, even if they weren't actually caused by religion, they weren't prevented by religion, either. The perpetrators have found ways to reconcile these particular murders with their Christian beliefs, to justify to themselves that this time murder was okay, and even divinely ordained. Now, murder being probably the direst sin in most Christian theologies, if people can get away with rationalizing committing it and still telling themselves they're being faithful to God's will, it should be even easier to handwave away lesser sins.

Heck, I can cite an example from my own experience again. Mormons who have been through an "endowment ceremony" in the temple are supposed to wear special garments under their clothing constantly. This doesn't mean while showering, swimming, working out, or in any other such impractical circumstances, but any time in which it would be reasonable to wear ordinary underwear. The garments comprise an undershirt and shorts that end just above the knee, and, well, I never much liked wearing the danged things. So eventually, I got out of the habit of wearing them at home. I still wore them when I went out in public, but at home alone I'd take them off, even though I knew I wasn't supposed to. But I'd justify it to myself--after all, it wasn't that there was anything physically gained by wearing the garments; it was just symbolic, and as long as I understood and kept in mind the symbolism God wouldn't really care if I wore them or not, right? Oh, sure, he may constantly say, through the prophets, that we're supposed to wear them at all times, but he's just saying that for the benefit of the people who don't understand the real meaning; once you've figured that one, you're free to ignore it. That's what I told myself, anyway, because I didn't want to wear the garments, and because, although it was supposedly a commandment, it wasn't something I had any personal moral scruples about. I had church doctrine telling me I was supposed to wear the garments at all times, but I had no personal feeling that I ought to do so, so it wasn't hard to come up with reasons why the commandment didn't apply to me. Now, the other commandments I did have at least some personal scruples about, or at least I didn't have such personal motivation not to follow them (I just really hated wearing the garments), and this is the only one I rationalized away--but the point is that I did rationalize it away, and if you don't want to follow a commandment that isn't backed up by your own personal morality, that's not hard to do.

The fact is that religious commandment is not necessarily a barrier to performing an evil act unless you also believe for yourself, deep down, that the act in question is wrong. Fortunately, most people, religious and otherwise, do have that feeling deep down; I'm pretty sure even most Christians who say that God is the basis for all morality have enough of a conscience to know for themselves that murder is wrong, whether or not they're consciously aware of it. I wonder, though, how long that conscience will last if it's never exercised, if a person never bothers to look to his own moral principles and just blindly trusts his church for all his decisions. I suspect that a conscience thus ignored may lose its strength, to the point that eventually a person may have no moral principles of his own...and then, again, it'll become all too easy for him to rationalize away a "sin" that he finds convenient. Again, I'm not saying this is something that's likely to happen to most Christians, because I think most Christians do pay some attention to their own conscience--maybe not as much as they should, but I don't think most Christians actually go so far as to let their church do all their thinking for them. But those who do...well, they may be an extreme case, but they may also be very dangerous.

Anyway. That's about all I'll say for now on the first aspect of Sloth in religion, the Sloth of relying on the church unquestioningly for all one's beliefs. But there's another aspect of Sloth that I think has some subconscious appeal to the believer, as well, when he does go astray. After all, nobody's perfect, and even a person who does have a firm moral compass and knows what's right and wrong may make the occasional misstep. Fortunately for him, if he's religious he can count on the help of his good old imaginary friend.

No, not God. His other imaginary friend. The Devil.

The Devil, the Deceiver, the Adversary...the ultimate scapegoat. The Devil serves the marvelous purpose of, if not absolving a sinner of guilt entirely, at least mitigating its effects. It's not entirely my fault I did that. The Devil made me do it. If the believer has an idea or desire that at some level he considers abhorrent, he doesn't have to conclude that that unpleasant thought was his own doing, that it originated in his own brain. No, the Devil put it there. He was being tempted. And that, yes, is another manifestation of Sloth. The believer isn't taking responsibility for his own actions. He's taking the easy way out; he's saying that what he did was really, at least in part, someone else's fault.

The Devil is blamed not only for wrongdoing, but sometimes for failures in other spheres than the moral as well. Last month, a Utah congressional candidate said the Devil was behind the financial difficulties that had stopped him from running an effective campaign. See, it wasn't his fault he was having so much trouble with his campaign. The Devil didn't want him to win. Of course, this serves the dual purpose of also implying that he should win--clearly, if the Devil is working against him, he must be in the right! But I think the Sloth of wanting to evade responsibility plays a role here as well.

Still, it's more usually in the context of moral failings that the Devil gets invoked. He's much more often blamed for a sin than he is a business failure. Either way, though, blaming some unseen entity for one's failings isn't really a constructive thing to do.

So, yeah. That's why I think Sloth has a role in the underpinnings of Christianity. Because Christian dogma lets people avoid thinking things through and making decisions for themselves, and when they do manage to screw up they have a convenient scapegoat to pin the blame on.

"For my yoke is easy," Christ supposedly said, "and my burden is light."

Yes. Yes it is. Which is part of what makes it so gosh-darned appealing.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

United We Fall

As I said in previous posts, my anonymity on this blog is mostly because in my off-the-net life, I'm still playing the part for now of a faithful Mormon, and not letting on that I don't believe in the church. Among other things, I'm still going to church on Sundays. (Well, most Sundays--I've been more lax about missing some weeks than I used to be.)

This week, in the priesthood meeting, the lesson was on unity, on how believers are supposed to be "of one heart and mind". Near the end of the lesson, the teacher brought up the analogy of the Tacoma Narrows bridge. The designers of the bridge, he said, forgot to take into account wind turbulence, so when the winds got high, the bridge collapsed--the parts weren't built to hold together in unity.

I was really tempted to say something about this, but I refrained. I can't help but think, though, that if the teacher had known what actually caused the Tacoma Narrows bridge to collapse, he wouldn't have used that analogy.

See, the thing is, it's not just wind turbulence that brought the bridge down. It's resonance. A system has a particular resonant frequency at which further impetus to the system will cumulatively increase its motion. Think of a child being pushed on a swing--if someone just gives a push to the child at random times, not much is going to happen, but if the child is given a shove forward each cycle just as it starts to swing forward anyway, the amplitude of the swing will keep increasing--the child will keep swinging higher and higher. It's a similar principle; if something is vibrating at its resonant frequency, further impulses at that frequency are going to give it positive feedback and get it vibrating more and more strongly.

Not every object or system has a single resonant frequency at which this happens. It could be that one part of an object has a different resonant frequency than another, and that the whole thing tends, on balance, to cancel out. That wasn't the case with the Tacoma Narrows bridge, though, and that's what was wrong with it--due to the design of the bridge, the bridge as a whole had a very strong resonant frequency, and vibrations at this frequency yielded positive feedback and tended to keep increasing indefinitely--or until the vibration got too strong and something broke, which, eventually, something did.

In other words, what was wrong with the Tacoma Narrows bridge wasn't a lack of unity. It was just the opposite. What was wrong with the Tacoma Narrows bridge was that it was too united--or rather, maybe, it was united in the wrong way. Its parts were united in such a way that they would, roughly speaking, all overreact together to certain inputs, and keep moving together, more and more strongly, until...well, until it was just too much for the bridge to take.

So if there is some moral to be gained from the Tacoma Narrows bridge, it's not that disunity leads to collapse. It's that unity can lead to collapse, if it's the wrong kind of unity. This isn't to say that people shouldn't work together, of course, or that arguments and infighting are good things. But it's important to be united in the right ways and for the right reasons--and to know when it might not be a good idea for everyone to go in the same direction. Sometimes it's better not to be completely united--it's better to examine what you're being asked to go along with, and consider whether it's really a good idea for everyone to follow it, or whether if everyone keeps moving that way it's ultimately going to end in disaster. You have to make sure you're united to the right cause.

Eh. I'm not sure I'm making a lot of sense here, and maybe I'm stretching the analogy too far. The point is, though, that the teacher tried to get across the importance of unity by bringing up a disaster that was, in a sense, caused by unity. And if we're going to use the Tacoma Narrows bridge as an analogy for religion, I think it works much better as an analogy for a very different point than the one the teacher was trying to make. Religions want their members to be united; they want all their faithful to follow the same rules, and to work in the same direction. Most, if not all, Christian denominations ultimately ask the believer to suppress his own individuality in favor of God's will, to become one in purpose and in method with God and the rest of the faithful. But it may be worth examining whether the directions the faithful are asked to move in are really the best ones for them all to take, or whether such single-minded unity could end up, like the resonant vibrations of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, in disaster...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Deadly Sin #2

When I made my post about pride, I wasn't really intending it to be the first of a series. But since I'd happened to entitle the post "Deadly Sin #1", this got me thinking about some of the other supposed "deadly sins", and how they relate to the relationship between religion and atheism. So, even though it wasn't what I'd originally planned, I decided to go ahead and make a series of it anyway. Which brings us to today's post, Deadly Sin #2: Wrath.

As I said in the post on pride, my numbering of the deadly sins is arbitrary, being some combination of a decreasing order of what I feel is their importance, and just the order in which I feel like writing about them. Still, wrath is certainly responsible for a lot of evil in this world. And, once again, it's a "sin" that lies at the foundation of religion more than most religious people would like to admit.

After all, that's what Hell is all about.

When the non-religious talk about the concept of "Hell", they usually dismiss it--in my experience--as a scare tactic. The purpose of "Hell" is to frighten people into following the church's laws, because if they don't they're going to suffer in fire and brimstone forever. There may be something to that, but I don't think that's the only purpose Hell serves for the churches that preach of it, and I'm not even sure it's the most important one. In fact, the most self-righteous and closed-minded Christians don't find Hell scary at all--after all, they're sure they're not going there. No, many of them find the concept of Hell actually appealing.

Why? Because they're not going there, but their opponents are. If you don't listen to them when they tell you to accept Christ, if you oppose their attempts to impose their religious views on the legal system, if you don't agree with every nicety of their belief...well, then, you're going to Hell. And that's just fine with them.

I don't claim that all Christians are that way. (And yes, when I talk about "religions" here, I'm again talking mostly about Christianity, since that's the religion I'm most familiar with...though I'm sure that at least some other religions internalize wrath in their own way.) There are those who don't take such satisfaction in others getting what they feel to be their just deserts. There was, coincidentally, just yesterday in the comments to a post on Pharyngula a running debate between a fire-and-brimstone Christian, "M Petersen", who insisted that yes, Hell was a place of eternal torment that those who failed to follow Christ would be subjected to, and a more moderate Christian, "Chance", who found utterly abhorrent the idea that anyone would ever be subjected to everlasting suffering. (I say "coincidentally" because I'd already started writing this entry before that post was made, furnishing those fortuitous examples.)

Now, even M Petersen didn't exult in the prospect of the sinners and the faithless going to Hell--he just saw it as a fact of life, or rather of afterlife. Or at least, if he was internally exulting about the matter, he wasn't obvious about it. But there are Christians who do seem to find a vicious glee in the thought of the people who disagree with them being bound for an eternity of torture. They may be in the minority, but they're very visible, and they're becoming increasingly prominent, as the radical fundamentalists continue along the path to try to dominate American discourse.

Now, it's tempting to argue that maybe this glorying in the prospect of Hell is a new take on the matter, and that "wrath" had nothing to do with the original purpose of the doctrine--but I don't think that's true. The whole basis of the idea of Hell is founded in wrath. Why would God send anyone to Hell? The standard Christian answer is that he must satisfy some kind of fundamental principle of justice. There's a common analogy made in the Mormon church--and I gather from some of M Petersen's comments in the aforementioned Pharyngula posts that something similar, if not the exact same parable, is current in other churches as well--about sin as a debt, and man as a debtor unable to pay, and begging for his creditor to have mercy and forgive the debt rather than throw him in jail. The creditor refuses--without payment, there can be no justice. Mercy cannot rob justice. Then Christ comes and pays off the man's debt for him, so that both mercy and justice can be satisfied. The implication of the analogy--one of the implications, anyway--is clear. Christ's sacrifice was necessary, man's sins had to be atoned for, because justice is an eternal principle, one that cannot go unsatisfied.

Now, there are some logical difficulties here--why would God be constrained to follow some principle of justice? If God's imposing the principle of justice Himself, well, that mainly boils down to God punishing people just because He wants to, which doesn't seem particularly benevolent. Which is probably why it's usually implied that justice is an eternal principle external to God, one that even He is beholden to--but then what does that mean? So is God not omnipotent after all? And why this particular, bizarrely arbitrary, limitation to His omnipotence?

But never mind that; that's not the point for the moment. The point is that in this context, "justice"--whether it's ordained by God or whether it's a principle He's somehow forced to satisfy--is really just a euphemism for "revenge". There's no purpose for it, other than hurting people who did something God didn't like (or that the people who developed the tenets of the religion didn't like). Justice on Earth, in the sense of punishment of criminals, certainly has its purposes. The prospect of punishment acts to discourage people from committing crime. The time they spend in jail prevents them from committing more crime at least while they're there. And ideally, there may even be a rehabilitory component to the imprisonment--however poorly that may often work out in practice. It's hard to see how any good purpose is really served by "justice" in the sense of God's sending people to Hell. If punishment in Hell is eternal, there's certainly no rehabilitation taking place, is there? If an omnipotent being is interested in preventing people from further sins, He'd certainly have much more humane means of doing so than keeping them in constant torment. There is, again, probably something to the discouragement part--as I mentioned above, that seems to be the most common motive the non-religious ascribe to the idea of Hell, scaring people into staying on the straight and narrow--but that's clearly not what's meant by "justice"; that doesn't fit in with the idea of justice as a principle God is required to abide by. No, saying that God has to punish people to satisfy some standard of "justice" implies that, in some way, those people deserve their punishment. Which, incidentally, could also be interpreted to mean that faithful Christians can feel justified in being happy about that punishment. All this talk about "justice" clearly shows that Hell isn't just a way of scaring people into toeing the line; it's also a way of allowing them to take pleasure in the thought of dire eternal fates for their enemies.

(I may as well note here, by the way, that the LDS Church has a rather different outlook on Hell than most Christian churches. Mormons don't believe that anyone is literally going to suffer forever; the afterlife will consist of three "kingdoms", and a person's faithfulness and righteousness will determine which of the three he goes to, but even the lowest of the kingdoms will be better than life on Earth. There is also an "Outer Darkness", a much worse place, but even that isn't literally about fire and brimstone and physical torture; its biggest drawback is a complete separation from God--and anyway, the criteria for getting sent to Outer Darkness are pretty stringent; you have to know for a fact that God exists--as in, for example, actually having seen Him--and yet publically deny it (or rather, "deny the Holy Ghost", though the distinction isn't really clear). There may still be a bit of satisfying schadenfreude for wrathful Mormons in believing that their foes won't make it into the highest kingdom, or may have a period of temporary suffering before the Final Judgment, but it's not the same magnitude; it seems to me Mormonism isn't nearly as steeped in Wrath as most other Christian religions. 'Course, it's still got the Pride going for it that I wrote about last time, and I'll have something to say about Mormonism when I get to Envy...)

Now, there may be something in the human psyche that makes us want enemies. Schools have rivalries, for example, that have no other particular basis behind them except to give them a focus for their antipathy. People want something to oppose. Maybe because it seems to give them more meaning to be fighting against something. We have, apparently, some innate desire for Wrath, in a way, and like to find outlets for it.

That may be another reason for the idea of Hell, for the characterizing of those who fail to follow one's religious tenets as sinners and evildoers. It gives the "righteous" ready enemies. And Christians have never been shy about setting up enemies to fight--not since the Middle Ages, at least, and historical records of the Christian church before that are too sketchy, as far as I know, for us to really know the situation all that well back then. But anyway, in the Middle Ages, one of the biggest enemies was the Jews. Antisemitism was rampant in medieval literature, from Grimm's Fairy Tales to the Prioress's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Jew made a convenient enemy, one that, in medieval fiction, did horrible things, ranging from simple cheating to human sacrifice, and generally met horrible ends--and Christian readers were delighted by these stories, and by seeing the fictional Jews get what was coming to them. It was an outlet for their Wrath--a wrath that was less checked by rationality and introspection than most people's nowadays. After all, most college students probably recognize at some level how arbitrary their college rivalries are, and don't wish students at their rival colleges dead. Medieval Christians had no such reservations about the Jews. Not, of course, that the conflict between Christians and Jews was anything so simple as a college rivalry; it was much more complex, more deep, and more dangerous--but I think the antipathy may have been founded in part on a similar drive for finding something to oppose.

Nowadays, of course, antisemitism still exists, but fortunately it's no longer so widespread or so generally accepted. But the fundamentalist Christians have no end of enemies to oppose. They've expanded the list of enemies--at least, the most radical fundamentalists have--to include basically anyone who's not them. Jews, atheists, agnostics...homosexuals, and anyone who speaks in their favor...certainly anyone who dares to condone something as heretical as separation of church and state...all of these are enemies of God, and therefore enemies of those fundamentalists as well. All of them are going to Hell.

Modern fundamentalists, it seems, have a nearly unprecedented amount of Wrath to go around...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Betting Against Blaise

You know, I'd probably post more often if I didn't have this compulsion to make such long posts when I did. Maybe I should work on trying to come up with things to post about that I don't feel like going on about at such length...

Anyway, this particular post was belatedly inspired by a certain month-old post at Pooflingers Anonymous, and certain comments thereto. Essentially, I feel like writing something about Pascal's Wager.

Probably everyone reading this has heard of Pascal's Wager. In its original form, in Pascal's Pensées, it went as follows:

"If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is ... you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."

Pascal's Wager has since cropped up over and over again in different clothing (the Pooflingers post I linked to above, for instance, was basically about a variation on Pascal's Wager), but it all boils down to the same essential argument. Basically, either God exists or he doesn't. If you believe in God, then you have infinite gain if He exists, and lose nothing if He doesn't. If you don't believe in God, then you still lose nothing if He doesn't exist, but if He does exist, you don't gain anything either. So it's clearly to one's benefit to choose to believe in God.

As I said, everyone reading this has probably already heard of Pascal's Wager, and I doubt there's anything really new I can bring to the table on the subject. Still, though, I guess there's no harm in posting my feelings about the Wager. And my feelings are, in summary, that the arguments most often marshalled against Pascal's Wager don't really hold a lot of water--but there are other, much stronger, arguments that don't get raised as often, and that deserve more attention than they get.

(Actually, though, arguing against Pascal's Wager may be a bit pointless, in that I don't know that anyone really believes it to begin with. I doubt anyone truly holds to religious beliefs solely because of Pascal's Wager--including Pascal himself, who I'd bet already believed firmly in God before concocting this "wager" as a post hoc rationalization. Still, the human capacity for tortuousness of thought can be astounding, and I've been surprised before by discovering that people actually believed things I'd assuming nobody remotely sane could really give any credence to, so who knows?)

One of the most common objections to Pascal's Wager is that it would apply just as well to other religions besides Christianity. What if it's not the Christian god that exists and is doing the judging, but the Muslim god, or the Jewish god, or a Hindu god, or, heck, Ratu-mai-mbula, and choosing to believe in the Christian god gains you nothing at all? For that matter, what about the different Christian denominations, many of which believe that only members of their particular denomination of Christianity will be saved, and all others are going to hell? This objection, though, seems to me to be beside the point. Pascal's wager doesn't depend on the chances of Christianity--or any specific sect within Christianity--being true being precisely 50%, or any other particular value. Provided you accept the premises, and accept that there's some finite chance, however small, of the Christian God existing, it holds just as well if there are a number of other gods and potential valid belief systems out there. Of course, Pascal's Wager would give no guidance in choosing which god to believe in, but it would still seem to imply that choosing to worship some god is better than choosing atheism, even if you choose your god at random.

Then there's the objection that a belief based on a pragmatic argument like Pascal's Wager isn't true faith, and may not be sufficient for salvation. Closely related is the objection that you can't really believe in something by just deciding to do so. These, too, though, are rather beside the point. They require the assumption that God cares why you claim to believe in Him. That may seem like a reasonable assumption, but it's clearly not one that Pascal made--in fact, for Pascal's Wager to make any sense, one has to assume that he assumed just the opposite, that God doesn't care why you claim to believe in Him, as long as you do. If you want, you can easily make this assumption explicit--just replace "God" in the statement of the Wager with "a God who rewards those who profess belief in him, regardless of their motivations for doing so". There you go. A version of Pascal's Wager that's completely airtight--at least against these specific objections.

The fact is, it seems to me that if you accept the premises, Pascal's Wager is actually a pretty good argument.

I don't accept the premises.

For one thing, there's the implicit premise that the probability that God exists is finite--and not just any God, but the kind of God required for Pascal's Wager to work. Certainly that premise could be argued against; one could say that since there are infinitely many other equally unfounded possibilities out there, the probability could in fact better be regarded as infinitesimal. This argument could, perhaps, be countered by claiming that the possibility of the Christian God existing is stronger than that of some other arbitrary being, because after all some people claim to have had visions of the Christian God, and there's no such testimony regarding most of the rest of this infinite array of possibilities. The chain of counterarguments could be followed farther--or we could dismiss the whole business with the assertion that trying to define a probability for the existence of God is meaningless in the first place, which I'm not at all sure isn't true--, but I don't see a point in dwelling on this; the implicit premise of a finite probability for the existence of Pascal's God may have its weaknesses, but the two explicit premises are weaker.

"If you gain, you gain all." All what? What does this mean? Pascal himself went on later in the Pensées to define "all" as "an eternity of life and happiness," and as "an infinity of an infinite life to gain". But that's a bit misleading. The implication seems to be that an infinite existence of bliss is, well, infinitely longer than a mere earthly life, and therefore worth infinitely more. So the value of what you potentially get by belief in God is literally infinite. But that only makes any sense if unbelievers get only their earthly life, and nothing beyond it. Even then, one could argue that there's a point of diminishing returns, that an infinitely long existence isn't really infinitely better than a few decades, just as someone with an infinite supply of money wouldn't be infinitely better off than someone who earns ten thousand dollars a year--he'd be much better off, sure, but there's not really any functional difference between having as much money as you want and having, say, five quadrillion dollars. I'm not sure I'm convinced that there is such a point of diminshing returns in regards to length of existence, but in any case it doesn't matter, because that's not what most religions really believe anyway. The Jehovah's Witnesses may say that only believers will be resurrected, and that infidels will be left to death and oblivion, but as far as I know they're pretty much alone in their belief. Most Christian denominations, certainly including the Catholicism Pascal followed, believe that everyone, believer and unbeliever, will live forever, as a spirit if not in the flesh--but that the former will live in Heaven and the latter in Hell. Most people might agree that living in bliss in Heaven would be better than eternal torment in Hell (though there are always the wags who insist that they'd prefer the company in the latter establishment). But even if Heaven is far better than Hell, is it really infinitely better? Is that even a meaningful question?

Still, regardless of how much or how little one might have to gain by believing in God, Pascal's Wager would still work as long as there was anything to potentially gain--as long as you accept his other premise that you don't have anything to lose.

That premise is the one I have the biggest problems with.

We lose nothing by believing in God? Well, maybe not, if all "believing in God" means is saying "I believe in God", and thereafter living your life however you want to. Heck, I can do that now. Look: "I believe in God." Woo hoo! I'm saved!

But I don't think that's what Pascal really meant by "wagering that God is", and it's certainly not what modern proponents of Pascal's Wager have in mind. Some of the utterances of the more evangelical branches of Christianity may seem to imply that all you have to do is say some special prayer to verbally accept Jesus Christ and that's that, but in general I'm pretty sure the kind of belief in God most Wager proponents have in mind involves a little more than that. It involves acting according to your belief. Going to church. Living your religion's commandments. Following the dictates of your ecclesiastical leaders.

And that can certainly mean a lot of loss. Loss of time, in attending pointless religious meetings. Loss of opportunity, in things and circumstances avoided solely because of religious dictates, that might have led to pleasureable and/or valuable experiences. Loss of personal growth and progress in directions forbidden by the church but with no other good reason to avoid. I certainly don't consider all that "nothing".

Now, to be fair, sometimes Pascal's Wager is stated in less absolute terms, and it's admitted that one may have something to lose by believing in a nonexistent God--it's just asserted that the small amount a mistaken believer loses is far outweighed by what a justified believer gains. But losing a little isn't good enough. For Pascal's Wager to work, either what we have to win must be infinite, or what we have to lose must be nothing. Otherwise, if the probability of God existing is small enough, it completely washes out the greater magnitude of the potential reward versus potential loss for believers--and, with all the other religions out there, and the lack of evidence for any of them, let alone one that happens to include a God who rewards people just for professing belief in him regardless of their motives, there are good grounds for regarding that probability as really, really small. Besides, I'm not so sure that what's lost is all that little. If we only get one chance at life, and we're throwing away some of what we could do with that one chance, and losing those possibilities forever...well, I'd say that's a pretty big loss after all. In fact, if we're really willing to talk about infinite gains for justified believers, it could arguably be just as valid to refer to the waste of a unique lifetime as an infinite loss--which would be enough to offset even that infinite gain, especially since the gain seems to have a much lower probability of coming about.

Hmm...I said earlier in this post that if one accepts the premises, Pascal's Wager is a good argument, and that the existence of other possibilities besides those of the Christian God or no god doesn't really matter much. Actually, now that I think about it, that's not quite true. The existence of other religions, and the potential existence of other gods (that is, if one concedes the potential existence of the Christian god), really doesn't matter, but there is another possibility that wreaks havoc with the Wager. What if God exists, but he punishes believers and rewards disbelievers?

Again, this isn't something I claim to be wholly original; I have seen this possibility raised before, but only briefly and apparently as a joke. I think it deserves more attention, though, because it really does demolish Pascal's Wager, even if you accept the premises. If there's a God that punishes the believers and rewards unbelievers--let's call him Cranky God--then Pascal's Wager falls apart entirely. Because then the unbelievers have the same potential gain as the believers, and unbelievers have a chance of "gaining all" just as the believers do.

But Cranky God is silly. Nobody really believes in Cranky God, do they? Well, no, of course they don't. So what? We have exactly as much evidence for Cranky God as we do the God of Christianity. If one accepts that there's a chance the Christian God might exist, there's no reason not to accept that there's a chance Cranky God exists. Even if one insists that the Christian God is more likely to exist than Cranky God, as far as the raw expectation values of reward go it doesn't really matter. As long as both probabilities are finite, either believing in Christian God or believing in no god (and thus being potentially rewarded by Cranky God) gives you an infinite expectation value for a reward, since infinity times any finite number is infinity.

And heck, disbelief gives a chance of reward from Cranky God without all the losses that belief in Pascal's God would accrue. Sounds to me like that's the better deal.

So there you go. All hail Cranky God!

No, wait, don't. After all, He'll punish you if you do.

Blaise, ol' buddy, you may have been a brilliant mathematician, and you deserve a lot of credit for your pioneering contributions to probability theory and all that...but I don't think I'll be taking your wager.

Nothing personal.