One of the most common arguments I hear against the nonreligious, humanistic lifestance is the claim that belief in God is the "safe" approach. The tenets of traditional religion may seem implausible in the modern world, the argument goes, but better safe than sorry.
This argument is essentially a modern manifestation of what’s known as Pascal’s Wager. The seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal explained his wager by considering which party, the believer or nonbeliever, risks more in the grand scheme. If the believer is wrong and the atheist is right, Pascal argued, then after death the believer is in no worse a position than the atheist. But if the atheist is wrong, eternal damnation awaits. Thus, better to believe, just to be safe.
There are numerous problems this “just to be safe” position, several of which were raised even by Pascal’s contemporaries. As we’ll see, however, in today’s world Pascal’s position is even harder to defend.
A key problem, acknowledged even by Pascal, is that one cannot force oneself to believe. That is, Disbelief Is Not a Choice. If one thinks religious doctrines are false, it’s hard to imagine that pretending to believe them will dupe an all-powerful, all-knowing God. To this, Pascal and his defenders urge the nonbeliever to at least try to believe. “Endeavor then to convince yourself,” he advised the skeptic.
Even taking this advice, however, one still must ask: Which religion should I believe? Are the Christians right, or is it the Muslims? Or should I convert to Judaism? Or Hinduism, Buddhism or something else? And the questions don’t stop there, since exclusive sectarian differences within these religions narrow the likelihood of selecting the “right” belief even further. Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox? Calvinist or Lutheran? Sunni or Shia? What if, of all the conflicting religious doctrines out there, the one verse that is right is Revelation 7:4, which says that only 144,000 people will enter heaven? The odds aren't good for any of us.
This may seem like a quagmire, and it is, but if considered fully the exercise actually points to a conclusion that, using Pascal’s own logic, is a compelling argument for atheism: Isn't it just as possible that God will reward the atheists?
To understand this, consider that the underlying assumption in the “just to be safe” position is that there might be a God who judges us after death. As implausible as this seems to a skeptic, let’s just accept it for the sake of discussion. So, if we must assume that there is a judging deity, what are this God's criteria for judging us? More to the point, why should we assume that the path to salvation can be found among one of the numerous ancient belief systems, when it is just as possible that God would reward those who, thinking critically and utilizing their God-given reason, reject those ancient doctrines and hold out for more evidence? That is, the very existence of implausible dogmas might be God’s way of tempting us, of seeing which of us has fortitude and independence of mind. Eternal bliss awaits the critical thinker!
Or not. As a humanist, of course, I think the idea of a God rewarding my secularity after death is preposterous, but no more absurd than the notion that an omnipotent and omniscient God will be rewarding Newt Gingrich and Jerry Falwell.
Ultimately, belief or disbelief is a personal matter, and people can find peace of mind in a wide variety of ways. But Pascal's Wager should not be seen as a rational, logical means of validating theism, because clearly it is no argument against the atheist or agnostic position. If one is inclined toward disbelief, one can breathe easy knowing that her odds of eternal bliss are just as strong as any believer’s. The nonbeliever can be true to herself without pretending to accept something that she rejects inside. Perhaps more importantly in the modern world, she has no reason to outwardly embrace and validate institutions and belief systems that, in her heart, deserve no loyalty and in fact often stand as obstacles to a better world.