What if you’re wrong?

This is a common question that believers will ask nonbelievers. It seems to be gaining some popularity recently, possibly because it’s quick, simple, to the point, and appears to cut right through every possible atheist argument.

It’s really a very simplified version of Pascal’s Wager, the idea that you should live life as if there is a god, because the outcome is better either way. In other words, if you believe in a god and there is one, you go to heaven – if there isn’t, there is no loss.  If you don’t believe there’s a god and there is one, you go to hell – if there isn’t, there is no loss. The odds favor the believer.

There’s a lot wrong here.

First, the question of which god I’m wrong about isn’t addressed. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a book on my desk of over 2,500 gods that have been recorded in one way or another through history. This question applies equally to all of them. Should I evaluate each of these gods asking this same question?

What if I’m wrong about Mara, the evil Buddhist deity who puts obstacles in the way of the Buddha? Or Vulcanus, the Roman god of fire and the forge? Or Isa, the Nigerian river goddess? Mah, the Persian moon goddess? Amaethon, the Celtic god of agriculture? Tien Mu, the Chinese goddess of lightning?

Each of these gods may have penalties for nonbelief – or they may not care one way or the other. Should I research which gods have the worst penalties, create a new pantheon out of them, and worship all of them, just to play it safe? Some of these gods don’t get along with each other. Some of them wouldn’t even approve of me reading about the others, or mentioning their names (Yahweh mentions this in Exodus 23:13, for example – by the way, this gets interesting when you note that the planets of our solar system and days of the week are all named after non-Christian gods!)

The other pressing issue here is that of “tricking” a god into not punishing me by believing in them. Turning it into a wager, or just believing in something to make sure that I’m not wrong, simply doesn’t work. An all-powerful god who demands sincere belief would see right through it, and reject my pitiful attempt at sneaking through the back door of paradise.

Considering all of the above, my answer to this question is simple: I’ll take my chances.


4 Responses to “What if you’re wrong?”

  1. December 3, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    You make a great point. The believer or nonbeliever could be wrong. If a believer is wrong, they pretty much wasted their life believing in something that was wrong. Imagine spending your life following rules, praying, fasting, etc, and then blink out of existence because there is no afterlife. Likewise, if a nonbeliever spends their life doing whatever they want, then he or she finds out that there is an afterlife, his or her life could have been wasted as well.

    I suppose you don’t have to evaluate each god, just each belief system.

  2. 2 DigitalSecularist
    April 9, 2011 at 1:19 am

    You forgot the fact that Pascals wager is also a false dichotomy. The wager is for a single, specific, god. It does not account for the fact that there have been thousands of “gods” worshiped by man, so to ask “What if you’re wrong” doesn’t mean much.. Any one of the countless gods could be the real one, in which case, 99.9999% of all humanity will place the wrong bet. Pascals wager also assumes that following any one specific god costs nothing, when the reality is that following any one of many religions is VERY costly, both in terms of economics (Mormons give 10% of all income to the church), but also in human suffering (Everything from the Crusades to Sharia law).

  3. June 21, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Pascal’s wager is pretty lame, of course, but let me put a loosely related question to you:

    Though they’re probably in the minority among believers, history has provided quite a few theists whom most people would describe as rigorously intelligent and thoroughgoing in the self-exploration of their beliefs. I would even say that given the majority theist historical record, people of this description probably outnumber all atheists, both knee-jerk and thoughtful, by a notable margin. Accordingly, with the caveat that veracity isn’t a numbers game, of course, do you ever question siding with the historical extreme minority of critical thinkers?

    • July 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      First, I apologize for taking so long to approve your comment and give you a reply. I usually try to do this as soon as I can, but the last couple weeks have been very busy for me.

      Now, to your statements and question:

      First, I don’t accept your claim about critical thinking theists outnumbering all atheists throughout history. But for the sake of a brieft reply, I’ll put that aside.

      The simple answer to the question is no. There was probably a time when I questioned my opinions and beliefs whenever they seemed to be in the minority, but that was before I became an atheist, and I haven’t really let it bother me since.

      Critical thinking is something that can be easily compartmentalized. It is very simple for someone to consider themselves a critical thinker, but make mental exceptions for certain subjects that they want to cling to. And that’s the sort of thing that happens when a critical thinker rejects the 1500 or so deities that have been worshipped through history, yet sets one preferred deity outside of the same scrutiny.

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I am an atheist, a person who does not believe in the existence of any gods.

Many people don't know a lot about atheists, and have questions about them. In this blog, I do my best to answer them, to help build an understanding between atheists and theists.

Do you have a question? You can post it in the comments to any of my blog entries, and I will do my best to answer it in a new entry.


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