What if you are wrong (Part I)?

Whenever the subject of one's skepticism towards the existence of a god and the efficacy or desirability of religion arises in more than a passing fashion the posing of this question seems inevitable. Although it is just a restatement of Pascal's Wager, which has been addressed in any number of ways over the years, I would like to share a few additional, and I hope fresh, thoughts.

The first (and most obvious) implication is that I am a fool to not conform to the questioner’s religious beliefs – in essence, the question is really an assertion that while no possible harm could come from such conformance, any outcome would for me be either positive (eternal life) or neutral (no different than if I had stuck with unbelief).

This strikes me as both a weak and a selfish argument. It is weak with regards to the power it holds to convince someone holding any but than the most cursory objections. It is normally employed as a last-ditch effort when all other means have been tried and failed. It offers no compelling reason; in short, it is a childish, playground-style challenge.

The deeper objection I have to this position stems from its oft-ignored selfish implications. In order to see this clearly, it is necessary to consider our moral framework.

Morality at its most essential is the mutually agreed-upon set of norms governing the interrelation-ships among individuals. It has to do with the bonds and tensions we share as a society and as cultural beings. In much the same way that we could not be what we understand as “human beings” without shared culture, morality could not exist without a society; in this sense, society is a place where individuals’ (and clustered groups') self-interests clash with those of others. The resolution of such conflicts over time by negotiation, mutual cooperation, discussion, and all the other means at our disposal are what bring about, define, and sustain morals. Without such interchanges there is neither place for nor need of the concept of morality. Pure self-interest, and action based on such as the only consideration, emerges as the antithesis of true morality when considered in this way.

The motivations behind our actions therefore speak to their morality. An act must be judged thus in part by the presence or absence of consideration for the concerns of those other than the actor, not just by whether its consequences are beneficial to only others, and not just by the balance of beneficence and maleficence in its consequences. An inattentive and careless man that accidentally bumps into a bystander and thus prevents her from mistakenly stepping into the path of an oncoming truck is not committing an act that we could call moral, nor would we label as strictly immoral the same act if it resulted in her death – he clearly has neither benign nor ill intent outright. Only actions taken where it is fully and correctly realized that there are no consequences beyond the self are truly amoral actions, and only actions taken with full knowledge and intent of (or with callous disregard for) pernicious effects on others with no attempt at mitigation can be completely immoral actions. An act that one knows will affect others, for better or worse, can be called a moral act or an act with moral implications.

Intentions, though, are only part of what defines the quality of moral actions; changes in the relationship of oneself to the rest of society or to individual elements existing within it carry significant weight in this regard. For example, if an ostensibly altruistic act changes the relationship, the nature of that change speaks to the moral caliber of the act on an equal footing with its intent. If I were to throw myself in the path of a bullet to save the life of a stranger's child, this would certainly be considered altruistic, but such claims would likely ring hollow for my own children, my wife, my extended family, and close friends. No doubt many who commit suicide do so in the belief that they are somehow “helping” society but instead end up causing enormous despair and suffering in those to whom they were closest. In both cases intentions may be noble but the consequences can be devastating.

We understand that an act which alleviates suffering appears higher on the moral scale proportional to the amount of suffering it alleviates. We can also talk similarly of acts that elevate the human condition in general, where human condition refers to the ability of individuals to plan, direct, and lead productive, beneficial, fulfilling, and happy lives of their own.

If we believe in a shared moral code that in any way obligates us to help those in need, then clearly we should target our efforts first at those we are able to help whose need is greatest, and we should measure out our assistance proportional to the amount of need. All other considerations are secondary to these aspects of the moral imperative, and any actions that counter or impede them are to some degree immoral, or at best serve to diminish what can be imagined as the “optimal good.”

So, what if I am wrong?
Since a decision to conform with the questioner’s wishes merely by the force of the questioner's statement (the “challenge”) would be made on the basis of a completely self-centered concern, such a decision is not moral (in the sense of a “good” moral act) – it is amoral at best, but I contend that it would be in effect an immoral one – that is, the quality of such a decision can and should be evaluated using the moral framework and by this measure comes out to the negative.

Now without claiming that I am a paragon of charitable virtue, I can state with confidence that were I to suddenly agree with the questioner and conform, there would be some subset of my current efforts that would be redirected towards my new-found religious endeavors. This subset could be a small or a substantial portion of my total output, and if we assume that at least some of those efforts are beneficial in their present form to society at large, without prejudice or preference, it becomes obvious that a decision to conform would in all probability be a moral decision – that is, it would fall within the sphere of judgment as either moral or immoral. A simple example would be if I joined a church that expected me to tithe 10% of my income, whereas before I had donated 4% of my income to Doctors Without Borders (which the tithe makes me unable to afford any longer). I might also have volunteered at the local public school, but now, due to obligations at church, I can no longer devote time to this service for the school.

Consider also how plain it is to any observer that the demands imposed by the religious camps of the most vociferous and persistent questioners are typically much higher than the demands coming from those who are driven by lower urgency. That is to say, religious concerns take the largest amount of effort and devotion from the lives of those who proselytize the most vigorously. Those who are less motivated (and thus less pressing in their urging of others to conform) come from traditions that have fewer demands on their adherents.

If I were to agree to accept the challenge, I would therefore redirect some portion of my efforts, on a scale that would likely be proportional to the effort put forth towards pressing my conformance, away from the benefit of society at large and instead towards religious observance.

An objection may be raised here which points to the charitable work done by religious institutions; it might even be suggested that I may be so motivated by my new-found faith that I would engage in a larger amount of charitable work through my religious ties.  Historically, however, churches have proven the least efficient means for delivering charity1. They are inefficient both in the percentage of what is taken-in that comes-out as true charity, and in the scope or reach of that charitable output. While it is true that there may be many very effective faith-based charitable organizations, none of those objectively recognized as efficient is a church in and of itself.  Furthermore, religious institutions tend strongly to filter their charitable works to exclude as recipients those whom they see as unlikely to accept their teachings. Nearly all connect proselytizing with charity, which is thinly disguised and re-branded as mission work.

Churches painstakingly count all of this in the ledger under “charity” both as a claim to moral high ground (a retort offered in the face of even the most casual challenge) and for tax purposes.  If true charity is indeed a “good” moral imperative, it is plain to see that a large share of the “charity” arrogated by religious institutions is perched on the thinnest moral ice.

It is obvious that any redirection of charitable efforts on my part away from modes that are blind to ancillary attributes of recipients and towards those that restrict or attach conditions to the recipients (other than unmitigated need) is an immoral one, clearly going beyond the sense that it adds elements of pure self-interest to the decision process. This latter of course gets folded in if the charitable work I am performing is not done in an effort to elevate the human condition in general but is instead done to elevate my own condition (either in this world or in a promised hereafter).

If people perform charitable work as part of their church’s activities we may still inquire regarding their underlying motivation. If that motivation is driven by the purely self-interested desire to please a deity or to ensure a place in a desirable hereafter, then we must judge the motive to be amoral as it takes no heed of concerns that are not self-directed, and this diminishes the overall good in what may in other ways be morally positive acts. If the charitable acts themselves direct resources away from what the wider society has identified as the most-needy or most-deserving recipients and towards a more select group, then to the extent that they do so the acts themselves are to be judged as immoral.
As was stated at the beginning of this section, if I change my belief system to conform to the questioner’s desires, I would at best be doing so for reasons that are divorced from any semblance of true morality and that would have implications which are upon reflection seen to be immoral.

I have noticed that those who ask this question of others absolutely never ask it of themselves, so I would like to briefly explore this important possibility, followed later by a third form, in Part II.

1“Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States” [http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=fi&page=cragun_32_4]

What if you are wrong (Part II)?

In Part I, we looked at some of the basic principles underlying our moral framework and saw how those principles conflict with conformance to Pascal's Wager.  Here in Part II, we turn the question around and examine the consequences if instead it is the believer who is wrong.   I leave it up to the reader to judge which case has the worst outcome for the individual and indeed for humanity.

If the questioner is wrong and I am not, then results with far-reaching consequences can be seen just by examining material conditions as they exist now.  Assuming my questioner is from one of the established religious traditions, we need but look at the physical holdings possessed by the establishment comprising that tradition: church buildings, vehicles, tracts of land, decorative items, artwork, and so forth.  Also, if the deity is fictitious, the resources devoted to its worship can be seen as a ridiculous and nearly complete waste of effort and material, well past the point of absurd tragedy when opportunity cost is taken into account. For example, most church buildings remain unused and empty for 85-90% of the time1, and even when they are used, the vast majority of that use-time is devoted exclusively to members of the congregation – imagine how that space could be used to house the less-fortunate or to prepare regular meals for the hungry. How many coats and shoes could be bought for the price of the statues and various accoutrements in the average Christian church’s sanctuary, or even for the cost of the fancy paneling and wall-coverings?   How many textbooks are displaced by the cost of a church van that gets used perhaps once every two to three weeks?  Could that van instead be used as general transportation for those lacking it, or to reduce the overall use of limited and dirty resources?

Many churches near my house (and there are indeed very many) have more than one outbuilding that functions as a fellowship hall, gymnasium, or Sunday-school facility; the utilization rate of these buildings is even less than that of the typical church’s worship hall, as can be observed with random drives through the neighborhood.  Church establishments take in money as charitable contributions and use that money to construct, heat, furnish, and maintain these largely unused structures.  Not only do goods and services given and used for such purposes exist outside the bounds of true charity (in the sense of a moral good), they displace charity that could be of far greater benefit elsewhere.  Yet the fact remains that nearly every penny devoted to these endeavors is claimed as a charitable contribution, which of course reduces the amount that would otherwise be available (through tax revenue, for example) to serve the wider public good.

If the questioner is wrong, it is also true that the basis under which she is operating is immoral and has led her to commit immoral acts – that is, her acts do not seek to maximize the common good but instead target a select and specifically limited subgroup of society. The acts are justifiable only on grounds stemming from self-interest. In anticipation of an objection that believers are convinced that their actions work to the expansion of the common good, I would suggest that if such is their claim then a heavy burden of proof lies with them.  Their case is not an easy one to make, for as we all know the same argument is used to justify suicide bombings – these zealots are just as (and most likely far more) convinced of the righteousness of their cause and of the benefits to mankind should their efforts succeed overall.

The best retort the questioner can possibly make is that she causes no overt or “extra” harm, but this merely places her actions in the realm of amoral, and I doubt the average believer would find such a label any more palatable than immoral.

If the questioner is wrong it is also instructive to look at effects of belief in a god or gods (and all that entails) on the engine of human progress, especially (but certainly not limited to) intellectual and moral development. It is well documented that religious institutions have resisted progress in scientific thought at every turn, often with violence. The execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600 for heresy is a telling example, but consider also that modern opponents of abortion are able to base their beliefs on sacred religious texts yet simultaneously commit utterly ruthless acts of intimidation, humiliation, and even terrorism (all while criticism from religious institutions is muted or completely absent).  The teaching of evolution through natural selection is vehemently opposed by many in the United States to this day prompted by the cheer-leading of the dogmatists even as the rest of the civilized world furrows its collective brow in puzzlement.  It is also plain from just a cursory examination of history that believers in god(s) have opposed every advance in moral ideals, no matter how well reasoned or argued, that clashed with established dogma; ideals that have overcome this immense barrier have inevitably proven themselves over time to be beneficial to the human condition overall, and many have become so ingrained as to be reflexive or thought of as self-evident.  The practice of slavery, for example, was staunchly defended by virtually every religious institution for thousands of years, even after the forces of secular reason had recognized it as barbarism.  Adolph Hitler and his “final solution” had the tacit support of the Catholic Church from his early ascendancy throughout the times of most of his heinous acts.  In fact, I have yet to discover any single moral advance humans have made whose cause has been led by a religious institution.  Recent examples including the abolition of slavery, woman's suffrage, and the struggle for minority civil rights have all been originated and championed by secular as opposed to religious efforts.  To be sure, there have been folks self-identified as religious who participated in and in some cases headed these endeavors, but none has been lead, initiated, or even proposed, by a religious body or institution per se.
This is indeed a poor track record and is in stark contrast with one of the chief (and loudest) claims of religion which states that we derive our moral basis from it.  At best, the reverse would seem to be the case, although the term theft might be more apt.

A defining feature of the convicted religious adherent is the certainty possessed with regards to the absolute and unquestionable rightness of the system.  Such certainty by definition leaves no room for compromise or even discussion.  This means that there is no “engine of human progress” of which to speak, and that our moral and intellectual development is frozen at the moment of inception of the adherent's religion.  If such certainty were to have prevailed we would still exist in the Stone, Bronze, or Iron Age.   Thank goodness the failings of religious dogma are both inherent and obvious to free-thinking persons.   It is depressing, however, to imagine how much earlier we would have enlightened ourselves and how much further along we would now be were it not for the staunch resistance of the hard-headed, stone-faced zealots who, oblivious to the irony of their self-proclaimed modesty, crown themselves as the righteous.

What if you are right?
Since saying that I am wrong does not carry the same implication as saying that you are right, this is the final permutation. If we ignore the vast majority of the history of all religious traditions and look only on, say, the last thirty to fifty years, most of us would agree that the focus of much of today’s religious discourse (and the carrot which is frequently used in conjunction with the titular question of this essay) is that the ultimate practical, immediate outcome of universal religious observance is a harmonious and peaceful human existence. In such a society, no human being would be hungry or want for any of the basic necessities of life, no wars would be fought, and all would have the opportunity to pursue what many think of as nobler ambitions. This stems from the very modern concept of a god as chiefly a being of love and compassion with equal concern for all human life, who wishes us to emulate those same ways and attitudes. This modern concept of a god is a union or aggregation of the reflected goodness inherent in each of us and in our better social establishments: in short, what modern spiritually-minded people imagine as “godly.” In the dual-spirit of both brevity and levity I will hereafter refer to these Major Attributes of a God OGoodness as Magog.

It is easy to see how out of sync the majority of religious establishments are with Magog. This might stem from, in the case of Christians, the incompatibility of the jealous, tribal god of the old-testament with the only slightly more enlightened god of the new-testament. There are simply too many contradictions among them for any one system to encapsulate them both consistently; the result is a bewildering myriad of sects, each of which picks and chooses from the bible’s long menu to suit their tastes. A topic for a longer essay might consist of an exploration of the reasons underlying Magog's rise and what that says about the deficits of organized religion in general.

A being of boundless love and compassion is by necessity one that can encompass no hubris whatsoever.  By this standard the practice of our adoration and worship must be utterly repugnant to Magog. Enlightened humans understand that we do not show love and compassion to one another through worship; we instead prove it through our feelings of empathy, expressions of sympathy, and acts of kindness.  Overt worship, and all the baggage that comes with it, is more than a mere waste of time, it is a diversion of resources that Magog wishes us to put to better use.  We should expect such a being to place lowest on the list those who spend their time in fawning adoration instead of expressing, through thoughts and actions, concern for all fellow human beings. Who among use does not rightly despise the sycophantic tag-along who gets the job promotion ahead of us merely due to acts of flattery?  Is this any different than prostrating oneself before Magog in an effort to be first in line for the hereafter?

A being that has equal concern for all human life does not judiciously choose those on whom to bestow blessings or good will.  If unconditional concern for all human life is a feature of Magog’s that we ought to emulate, then the filtering of recipients of our good will based on any criteria other than need is incongruous with the will of Magog.

Furthermore, if the questioner is right this would of course mean that all other religious traditions are wrong (in addition to the mere absence of religious conviction), which is an assertion to which all major religions hold fast.  Since no religious tradition can come close to claiming a majority of the human population in its following, this means that the vast preponderance of humans that now exist (and that have ever existed) are wrong.  Most religions assert that such non-followers are permanently excluded from the presence of their god; a fair number of traditions with which I'm sure the reader is familiar go infinitely further and condemn nonbelievers (and indeed all different-believers) to an eternity of torment.  The very idea that a being with any similarity whatsoever to Magog could condemn one to an eternity of the most abominable torture imaginable merely for the transgression of being wrong, ignorant, or even willfully skeptical flies in the face of all that we know of both compassion and reason.  If one were to believe in the existence of pure evil, such a lopsided sentence would surely be the very definition were it to be the product of deliberate intent.

Clearly, such a question as stated in the title can only be asked by those with little to no capacity for introspection, or at least only by those who have omitted sober reflection from their lives.  They fail to perceive the self-directed and exclusionary nature of their beliefs, much less any of the deleterious effects on humankind brought by them.  And that is precisely what is wrong with such a question and also with those that ask it.

1This assumes for example that the church is used for a full 16 hours out of a 168 hour week, perhaps a generous estimate.