What if you’re wrong?

“What if you’re wrong? Atheists encounter this question from time to time – some more than others, depending on the extent to which they’re prepared to suffer the slings and arrows of internet theists.

It’s the simple form of and often a precursor to Pascal’s Wager – a seemingly clever intellectual exercise which makes belief in God the only logical option. Basically, the wager goes like this: believe in God and, if he exists, you’ll go to heaven when you die. Don’t believe in God and, if he exists, you’ll go to hell. If he doesn’t exist you will have lost nothing regardless of whether you were a believer (except some time spent on your knees when you could have been doing something fun or interesting). When all is said done, apparently you’re better off being a believer.

What Pascal missed here, by a long way, is the obvious followup: what if you, the believer, are wrong? What if God indeed exists but isn’t actually the god you think he is? Belief in the wrong god can put you in hell just as quickly as if you didn’t believe in any god – Christian theology tells us that much. What if you’re spending your life worshipping a god who isn’t there and what if this behaviour is destined to earn you eternal damnation at the hands of the real god? Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician, seemingly overlooked a key component of philosophical (and mathematical) discussion: the prior definition of terms. Which particular god are we discussing here and how do we know he (a) actually exists and (b) has the qualities attributed to him. Further, even if you can show (a) and (b), how is it you know that it’s your particular denomination that has the True story of your religion? If it’s your god we’re betting on, how do you know you’re not a heretic in his eyes? What if you’re wrong, Pascal? Soft, wishy-washy “there is some kind of god somewhere” deism isn’t going to cut it if the real god wants to be recognised and worshipped in a specific way. Even the most highly specific religious practices will get you roasted if you’re unlucky enough to be raised by people of the wrong sect.

I’d now like to broaden that question to every religious person currently alive: what if you are wrong?

The odds are that your religion is completely, utterly wrong and everything your holy men have told is equally false, mistaken, mendacious and un-freaking-true are actually pretty good. I’m not saying that from a purely atheist perspective; I’m looking at it from the perspective of any religious person. Look around you at the different religions in the world. Look at all the tribal animism, sun worship, pantheons and other systems of belief that have dominated over the years, only to fall under the trampling feet of human progress. Look at all the odd little cults that spring up here and there, flare up and take peoples’ money and sometimes their lives & then vanish as soon as law enforcement or mass suicide spoils the party. Can they all have been right? No, you say, because noone worships David Koresh or Jim Jones or Thor or Zeus or Jupiter anymore. Those religions were shown to be false and their leaders liars. As if there’s a giant bearded man living on top of Mt Olympus who can throw thunderbolts! As if aurora borealis is Thor’s campfire! Jim Jones was clearly a criminal madman!

Well, obviously, extinct religions and insane cultists are an easy target. So, let’s concentrate on the sons of Abraham: Judaism, Islam, Christianity. They’ve sprung from the same well, branched off and made something of themselves in different parts of the world. They have launched brutal wars against each other in defense or furtherance of their Truths. This is because, despite being directed toward the same god, they are diametrically opposed in spirit and in purpose and brook no disagreement. If Jesus was the messiah & son of God, the Jews are all wrong and they’re wasting their time. Every last one & every last second. If Jesus was not who he said he was, the Jews might be right and the messiah may still be on his way, except of course if Mohammed was God’s last true prophet, in which case the Jews lose again. But what if Mohammed was just an illiterate warlord with a taste for jailbait and delusions of grandeur? Does that automatically make Christianity the real deal? If it does, which kind of Christians will go to heaven? Well, all these questions have made people torture and kill each other countless times over the years and I could on at length about that, but I won’t. I’m going to look just at Christianity.

Christianity. There are more branches of this particular Abrahamic faith than there are of Islam and Judaism combined (though there have been and still are brutal schisms within those brotherhoods). Hundreds, maybe thousands of denominations have sprung up since Augustine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (accept no substitutes!) in the 5th century CE. Several of these sects claim their brothers in Christ are actually destined for hell despite sharing the same core belief – that Jesus was the son of the one true God and was allowed to be executed by Rome to spare us all from Hell, as long we believe that’s the case and thank him very much for it, frequently. The sibling rivalry between Catholics and Protestants is legendary in its length and ferocity. Evangelicals and moderate Christians clash at the drop of a hint and there are many sects that behave in ways that would make presumably Jesus blush, clear his throat and back out of the room, muttering “Ah, no, they didn’t come with me … “

So, back to the question: what if you’re wrong? And what if the odds of you being wrong are so astronomical that it would be a ridiculous waste of time to even be religious at all, let alone place all your eggs in a particular basket case? Let’s leave aside what could happen if you’re a Jew when it’s actually Allah calling the shots, or if you’re a Muslim and Jesus is actually waiting to kick your arse to hell after you die. You might think you’re safe being a liberal, moderate, wishy-washy Christian who doesn’t go to church or pray much, supports secular government, gives lots to charity and doesn’t drink too much – but what if the God of your New Testament is actually more like the God of your Old Testament? What if Yahweh is a bloodthirsty bastard like he was when he drowned the world, destroyed Sodom & Gomorrah or ordered Moses and his band of thugs to kill every Midianite man, woman and child except for the virgin girls, who were to be enslaved? What if the Westboro Baptist Clown College is the only church on Earth to have its shit together?

Every religion on Earth may have some “truth” at its core, as so many religious apologists are fond of asserting. Things like being nice to each other, helping the poor and taking a day or two off work. But most religions on Earth make other, more specific claims which more often than not flatly contradict each other. This invalidates the “religion in general is a good thing” trope that some moderates use. Many religions will tell you that being nice and charitable and neighbourly isn’t enough; if you don’t worship the right god in the right way on the right day, it’s curtains. Eternal curtains! How is it, apart from being raised in a particular religious environment by people of a particular religious bent, can you know your particular version of your religion is the right one? Faith? In what? Scripture? But the people in the church across the street do different things with the same scripture and they think they’re the ones with the key. Faith in the people who raised you and taught you this religion? You can’t have faith in people, especially if they’ve been doing it all wrong, like the guys across the street say they have been. Faith in your own understanding of what the scripture says? But it’s highly likely you’ve never sat down and read the whole thing and asked honest questions, let alone looked anyone else’s – the people across town have a completely different scripture, rules, ways into heaven and hellish punishments. What are you meant to think? How can you make an honest, free rational choice to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim? Back to faith again? How can you have any faith in any single set of rules when noone in your own brotherhood can even agree which ones are the right ones?

In short: just look at how many different religions there are in the world. Look at the things they claim. Compare them to the claims of your religion. Look at the differences within that single religion then look at the differences within your own. Consider the different points of view held by people within your very own church. One guaranteed result of such observation is that these people/sects/religions can’t all be right. Leave aside your strongly-held conviction that yours is – they can’t all be. What is it about your religion & sect that makes it more compelling than that of your neighbour? The standard of evidence? Surely your neighbour is as convinced of the Truth of their beliefs as you are of yours and on the basis of similar evidence. There really is only one conclusion you can draw from this, and that is that despite the strength of your faith and your convictions, your religion has an equal chance of being the wrong one as your neighbour’s does. If you think he’s going to Hell, there’s an equal chance he thinks you are. How can you even begin to know who’s right? Faith? In what – the sacred texts or the people propagating them? You’re essentially playing Pascal’s Wager against each other with no good reason to believe you’ll win, but you each have an equally strong conviction that you will. But you can’t both win – unless of course your god isn’t particularly fussed how he gets his props, or if he gets them at all – in which case you’re both wasting your time. Go read a book! No, not that book. A different book. Something fun. Or at least useful.

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