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]