Of all the questions I hate being asked, few are as annoying as “Do you believe in God?” For one thing, it’s a very overrated question: what difference does it make whether any particular individual possesses such a conviction? Will God disappear in a whiff of smoke if He doesn’t maintain a quota of devotees?
Though they may not realize it, people who exalt this query to a position of prominence are indulging in a form of gambling. They are participating in what has come to be called Pascal’s Wager, after a rumination by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).
Pascal was a brilliant thinker who penned some very stimulating discussions of some very significant ideas. This is not one of them. It’s quite ironic that the one utterance for which such a great thinker is most often remembered is in fact one of the most inept oddities of illogic ever to creep into the textbooks. Treating the existence of God as a gambling proposition, he concludes:
Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.
This expresses what gamblers call an overlay, meaning that the potential gain for a positive outcome exceeds the sum of potential losses for all possible negative outcomes. Though such a situation is, as you might expect, difficult to find in the gambling world, Pascal is convinced he has a sure thing. But there are at least three major flaws to his proposition:
1. Belief is not a button.
The first problem is that, as Pascal himself observes only a couple of sentences later, faith isn’t exactly something that you can just turn on or off.
But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.
How exactly should those who “cannot believe” try to “convince themselves”? If he’s going to urge people to attempt the impossible, he might at least offer a couple of pointers.
It’s conceivable that we ultimately have no choice in whether we are believers or skeptics, even when we convert from one to the other. It may be that such options are the inevitable product of how we process and react to information; and that those details are determined by biological/ biographical factors over which we have little or no volition.
From all appearances, however, we do have at least some control in the matter. And assuming that we do, the choice to believe is in some ways more of a voluntary commitment than the choice to doubt. If you decide to believe, for instance, that the earth is 6000 years old or that vaccines cause autism, you must exercise an ongoing effort to single out factoids that seem to support your conclusion and steer clear of the mountain of evidence that contradicts it.
A commitment to skepticism, on the other hand, is more general and open-minded. Even assuming that the decision to be skeptical (which I highly recommend, by the way) is made totally of your own free will, the thing is that it comprises a broad resolution to demand that extraordinary claims be backed up by extraordinary proof.
Once you become entrenched in this mindset, skepticism comes naturally, and you’re quite receptive to all kinds of information, since you have no dogma to be threatened. You automatically challenge any extraordinary claim — of which the concept of a supreme being is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. (Note, however, that some avowed “skeptics” are not truly skeptical at all; climate science deniers, for instance, may peg themselves as skeptics but in reality they’ve simply chosen to believe that scientists are incompetent and/or dishonest — a premise that a true skeptic would question thoroughly.)
2. Bait and switch
Pascal begins by talking about God, and the next thing you know he’s talking about eternal happiness. How did he get from Point A to Point B? Clearly, in his mind there’s a link between the two. And that link unquestionably is Christian dogma. For those who believe the “right” things, dogmatists tell us, endless bliss awaits in the afterlife; for those who don’t, it’s an eternity of agony (at least as far as fundamentalists are concerned.)
Religion, by the way, is itself highly overrated; for many people it’s the most important thing in the whole world. For some, it’s just about the only thing that really matters. For my own part, I can hardly think of anything I’d consider less important than religion. But it isn’t for personal reasons that I call it overrated; it’s because many religious people are quite oblivious to the fact that religion isn’t for everyone.
Whatever its degree of importance, it certainly has been injected into American public life to an excessive degree. More to the point, the supposed validity of religious doctrines is an entirely separate matter from the supposed existence of a divine being.
Pascal treats the two as if they were interchangeable, or at least inseparable. But there are many people who believe in God, yet are not religious. For that matter, there are many religious people who consider themselves atheists – including some ministers. Of course, they are very discreet about it, because many of their flock consider atheism the ultimate evil.
3. Say what?
But the main reason I find the Overrated Question so annoying — and so overrated — is that it is in itself quite meaningless. If you tell me that you believe in God, what exactly have you told me? Nothing, without some clarification. I could tell you today that I do too, then tell you tomorrow that I don’t — and be perfectly accurate and honest in both instances. It all depends on how I happened to define my terms at the moment.
And this is where many great philosophers dropped the ball. They considered it important to “prove” the existence of God, sometimes with elaborate logical constructs modeled after geometric proofs. But they were rather negligent in explaining exactly what it was they were trying to prove the existence of. The word God means different things to different people, ranging from (to quote a humorous recording from the Sixties) “hairy thunderer” to “cosmic muffin”.
For some people God is literally an anthropomorphic entity up there somewhere over the rainbow, using the earth for a footstool. For others, He is a being of an unimaginable nature, with or without a humanoid personality. For others, He/ It is a more abstract spirit underlying all of nature. (“PANTHEISM, n. The doctrine that everything is God, in contradistinction to the doctrine that God is everything.” — Ambrose Bierce.) Some think of God in a fashion quite similar to The Force from Star Wars. Others might simply say that God is a name for that which has no other name or explanation. (This philosophy prompted one noted skeptic to observe that since we are learning more and more every day, God is shrinking every day.)
If that isn’t complicated enough, there are also different levels of belief. You can believe something literally or figuratively. You can believe something with all your heart, mind and soul to the point that you’re willing to stake your life (and afterlife) on it. You can believe that something is probably true, but hedge your bets. You can believe that something may be true, but be unwilling to commit to assuming it is. You can believe it’s reasonable for other people to believe that something is true, but not really believe it yourself. You can believe that something is true on some planes of reality, but not the one you happen to inhabit. You can offer a tenet a kind of meta-belief, as one might believe in Santa Claus or Batman.
In short, The Overrated Question is one that cannot be adequately answered with a simple yes or no. But that is exactly the kind of response the questioners almost invariably expect, so they can pigeonhole you and — quite often — condemn you if you answer the wrong way.
A few years ago, I was having a stimulating conversation with a relative who was suffering from a terminal illness when he posed the question point blank. I was uncomfortable as I always am when somebody does that; knowing that his side of the family was fiercely Catholic, I didn’t think I could offer a response that he would find acceptable. But since he’d been straight with me, I was straight with him.
“Depends on what you mean by God”, I said. I figured this would throw him off balance and he’d drop it. But as it turns out, I was the one thrown off balance.
“The spirit of universal love”, he replied.
Now this is a rather nebulous concept itself, but it still narrows the field considerably in comparison to God. And it was not a concept that I felt I could reject.
I regret to say that since then, this relative has passed on to the next level, if there is one. Unlike most people, I don’t claim to know whether he really has had a chance to experience God at close range. But I do know that when it comes to figuring out what kind of God he was expecting to encounter, he was (unlike a great many people) on the right track.