By November 1, 2016 0 Comments

Challenging Religious Beliefs – Pascal’s Wager and Assumptions of Belief

Workshop #2
September 24th, 2016

Facilitator: Tom Cara, Director FFRFMCC

The FFRFMCC held its second discussion workshop on “Challenging Religious Beliefs.” The purpose of these events is for non-theists to socialize and learn from each other’s experiences in dealing with talking points from those of religious faith. Each workshop focuses on two specific questions/topics. The following presents those topics and a summary of input received from participants on addressing these issues.

Topic #1

So you don’t believe in God? What happens if you’re wrong?

This topic is an attempt to deconstruct Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century mathematician and Christian philosopher who concluded that a person risks much less by simply believing in God.
The discussion was prefaced by asking if the religious have an argumentative advantage over non-believers due to the fact that if believers are correct in their assertion in an afterlife, they would be able to prove it to non-believers once we are gone. But if non-believers are correct in their assertion that nothing happens to us after we die, they would have no way of proving this and thus not have the luxury of saying, “I told you so.” So, can non-believers actually accomplish anything by arguing against Pascal’s Wager?

The notion of forced belief seems contradictory

Participants were concerned with how Pascal’s conclusion could be acceptable in a system where belief should be sincere. The following presents comments from the group addressing this:

  • “If someone cannot rationalize a belief in God, it would not likely do that person any good to force themselves to believe something they don’t believe. Acting like a hypocrite would not work, because if God is as intelligent of a force that theists presume him to be, he would see through any hypocrisy of insincere belief. In other words, he would know we are just saying we believe in him just to save our own skins. Belief in a god is not really a choice for many people. Is it possible some people are more genetically prone to believe or disbelieve?”
  • “Many non-theists came from a religious background or childhood indoctrination, and tried very hard to “find Jesus” in their heart once they began questioning their faith. Some even resorted to prayer but just realized they were talking to themselves. So again, many people cannot force themselves to believe something even when they’ve tried. Should God consider this to be their fault and thus punish them for not believing in something without evidence? As Bertrand Russell was quoted as saying, ‘You should believe something because it’s true, not because it’s convenient.’”
  • “When talking to someone of religious faith who knows you well and has considered you a good a decent person throughout your life, ask them if they truly believe you will be going to hell for not believing. They would then either have to admit that God condemns good people to hell, or that non-believers go to heaven. If the former, then we can quote Mark Twain who said: ‘Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.’ If the latter, then Pascal’s conclusion lacks any substance whatsoever.”
  • “If God is real, then why he didn’t give everyone the ability to feel him in their heart. Since many non-theists have tried very hard during their lives to find God in their heart, but just can’t rationalize his existence, should God punish people for making those people the way he did?”

False Dichotomy

Others were concerned with the wager as a false dichotomy. To wager an “either or,” one must first reasonably show that it is truly a dichotomy. There are many ways to arrive at Pascal’s conclusion and still not have all the information one would need to ensure their desired salvation.

  • “What if a person believes in the wrong God? How do they know they’ve selected the right one? Are people who were raised to believe in other gods such as Mithras, Zeus, Osirus or Dionysus now in hell because they didn’t believe in the correct god? For example, should someone be punished simply because they had never heard of the Abrahamic god, and thus never had an opportunity to worship that god?”
  • When addressing the question of what happens if atheists are wrong, it should be pointed out that many Christians today like to advocate their religion as being one of “forgiveness” and “Tolerance.” Therefore, if Jesus died to wipe out all our sins, wouldn’t the “sin” of atheism also be forgiven? So does the concept of “Hell” no longer even come into play in the Christian religion?
  • “The question of, ‘What if you’re wrong by not believing in God’ could also be turned around on those of religious faith by asking, ‘How do you know you’ve done all the right things to create favor with God that will get you into heaven? And how do you know that your particular denomination of Christianity is the right one? Are there different heavens for Catholics and Protestants?’”
  • “The odds of ‘making the grade’ to get into heaven and getting it wrong are immeasurable. For example, if one of the qualifications for getting into heaven is to learn Esperanto (an artificial language from the 19th century) or Aramaic for example, and we don’t learn that before we die, then we are destined to an eternity of not being able to communicate. So one can never be sure what all of God’s requirements are for gaining entry to heaven.”
  • “Why does God make the question of who he is so obscure? How do we know that some small tribe in Africa doesn’t have the true answer of who God is? When posed with the question of what a non-believer would say to God if confronted by him, the response should be, ‘You gave me a brain. What was I supposed to do with it?’”
  • “What if God only wants people in heaven who spent their lives fearlessly and honestly questioning his existence, and were emotionally strong enough not to be coerced into believing in something just to secure their own salvation out of purely selfish reasons? What if God is more interested in people who are genuinely altruistic, rather than those who are just insincere conformists?”

What do you mean by Heaven?

Another concern was that ideas held about heaven and hell contradict other dogmas and suggest that the wager is on weak ground when it relies on such ill-defined ideas.

It is important to ask the believer to describe heaven and hell. Most people have their own ideas of what heaven and hell are, and it behooves the non-believer to ask where they got those descriptions. Since there is actually very little in the bible to describe what happens to us in an afterlife, we must ask the believer if their notions of an afterlife come from something they’ve read or heard somewhere other than the bible? Is it something they’ve conjured up in their own head? And if it’s not learned from the bible, why should a believer consider it to be true?

Is Pascal basing his conclusion on the idea that being immoral to is permissible to achieve salvation?
What appeared to most bother the participants about Pascal’s Wager is how it favors a selfish desire for just the possibility of a reward over more immediate and more certain moral choices.

  • “If we don’t believe in a life after death, that should motivate us to make the most of the life we have, and work to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren.”
  • “Believing in God wastes your time praying and sitting in church, when you could be using that time to be doing something more constructive or helpful. Should spending time believing in God for personal salvation be considered selfish and greedy, when time spent toward devotion could be put to better use by helping others?”
  • “If the only criteria for entry into heaven is believing in God, and not the deeds we have done on Earth, then a truly moral person would be more likely to fight that god rather than serve him.”
  • “If God wants to force us to believe in him and love him, then that is not a true act of love. It is enslavement. I would rather be true to myself, and if God does not respect that, then he is a god I would rather not spend eternity with.”
  • “Is it a poor example of morality for God to punish his children to eternal damnation just because we didn’t honor him. Humanity does not act in this way. We would not cast our own children to an eternal, fiery hell for choosing not to honor or obey us. So if God acts in this way, does that mean humans are more moral that God?”
  • “It should not matter what happens to us after we die. We should look at life and death as a natural process. And when we die, we are simply making room for others to live. And as long as we have lived productive lives, that is all that is important. If God wants to punish us for living helpful and productive lives, then there is really nothing we can do about it.”

Topic #1 Conclusion

When Pascal’s Wager is analyzed critically, it is nothing but a contradictory premise. The bottom line being that if God is truly merciful as those of religious faith want us to believe, then he would forgive us even for not believing in him. That in itself makes Pascal’s Wager completely baseless.

Topic #2

Should Non-Theists Challenge the All-Too-Common Presumption of Faith in our Society?

The question was posed as to how or if non-believers should respond or deal with situations where others presume a shared belief in God? We have all been recipients of religious language such as “God bless you,” and “Merry Christmas,” which can be easy enough to simply shrug off. But there are certainly more extreme examples of religious imposition that put non-theists in a very uncomfortable position.
In cases which are more extreme, should non-theists speak out and reject an imposed presumption of faith by others, and use that as an opportunity to “come out” as an atheist? Or should they ignore such presumption and just conform, worrying more about not hurting someone’s feelings?

“I’m actually an atheist.”

As an example, Moore, Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, while interviewed on national television by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, was asked if she should “Thank the Lord” for the fact she survived the catastrophe. Her brave response was, “I’m actually an atheist.”
Was her response enough to educate Wolf Blitzer and others from ever making such an assumption again?

In the case of Rebecca Vitsmun, it was agreed by the group that what she said was indeed courageous and certainly put Mr. Blitzer on the spot. However, it was probably not enough to prevent him from making the same mistake in the future. While it was considered a learning moment for Blitzer, the following suggestions regarding what more could have been said were provided:

  • “As an addendum to identifying as an atheist, (Ms. Vitsmun) could have also asked why he would assume that, causing him to consider the fact that not everyone he interviews shares a belief in God.”
  • “We should also define for people exactly what atheism is, as this would help to further educate them (e.g., ‘I’m an atheist, which means I don’t believe in any interventions by higher powers. I believe only in humanity working together to help one another.’)”
  • “We should turn the conversation to focusing on our own personal efforts that brought us out of harm’s way, or thank others who helped us. (i.e., take the credit away from God).”
  • “Perhaps it would be more advantageous to not identify as an atheist, but as a non-believer. Because that term is more representative of the growing number of non-religious people in the country.

The Awkward Thanksgiving Prayer

What if you are at a family gathering such as a Thanksgiving dinner and are asked to participate in group prayer? Or what if you are asked to join a group prayer in your place of work?

  • “In the interest of family peace, I would hold hands with the people next to me during a dinner prayer, but not bow my head. I would then look around to see if anyone else is doing the same thing.”
  • “If it’s disruptive to the environment of a family get together, I too would hold hands and not bow. But If the situation were to take place in a public setting, I would refuse to hold hands and tell them ‘I will not participate in your religious ritual just because you decide that I have to.’”
  • “(At a family dinner), I would add an addendum once the prayer was finished, thanking everyone who was responsible for the meal – the farmers who grew the food, the people who delivered the food – just giving thanks to those we should be thankful to and ignoring any spiritual references.”
  • “There have been occasions in my work environment when co-workers have called for prayer for someone or something. When I step aside and don’t participate, others who are uncomfortable with the idea of communal prayer in the workplace look at my non-participation as an opportunity to exclude themselves as well. This usually sends a message to the ones calling for the prayer that it’s not a good idea in a public setting.”

“So help me God.”

The example of taking an oath in court was raised. Should a non-believer, when confronted with the more common sectarian process of putting a hand on a bible and affirming with “So help me God, conform to the standard ritual or show their willingness to ask for a secular affirmation?

  • “Once in court, when asked “So help me God?”, I responded with “No.” The oath was then repeated without that phrase, and I then responded, “Yes.”
  • “During jury duty, when I was asked to take an oath, I responded with, ‘Yes, but not the God part! With that, people chuckled and we then moved on.’”

Facilitator’s Note: “It is especially important in situations where religious imposition is taking place during proceedings within in government institutions, that non-theists make the effort to remove religious references in order to preserve state/church separation. There is nothing that requires someone to take a sectarian oath from our government. Every citizen has the right to ask for a secular affirmation.”

Good grief. No God, please.

The issue of dealing with religious comfort during times of grief was then discussed. Examples of such “comforting” thoughts were then provided by the group, and included:

‒ “God has a plan for all of us and maybe we’re just not meant to understand his ways.”
‒ “God needed another angel in heaven.”
‒ “He/She (the deceased) is waiting for you in heaven.”
‒ “He/She (the deceased) is watching over you from heaven and keeping you safe.”

Should these religious words of comfort bother us? And if so, what can we do to educate people to the fact it is inconsiderate to impose their religious beliefs and assume such language will be helpful to us? The group provided the following responses:

  • “It bothers me that people presume that because I don’t go around presuming everyone else doesn’t believe.”
  • “How I would respond to religious language offered as words of comfort is to say, “Thank you, but I’m not superstitious.”
  • “We as non-believers have to balance being polite and not insulting, but firm in our position. We shouldn’t have to deny our non-belief, but do it in a way that is not hostile or offensive to people”
  • “I offer words of comfort to someone who is grieving in the form of ‘Good thoughts in lieu of prayers.’”
  • “I respond to people who offer religious comfort by saying, ‘Thank you, but I do not deal with grief in that way.’”
  • “I would want people to consider the fact they would not likely want me to impose non-theistic ideological comfort on them, such as, ‘Since there is no God or an afterlife, it’s important that you just take comfort in all the wonderful memories you have of them (the deceased).’ They must understand that imposing their religious beliefs on me, which I don’t share, does not help me any more than imposing my non-belief would help them.”
  • “I think it’s important that non-theists set an example of how non-religious comfort can be more effective. For example, instead of offering a grieving person prayers, or superstitious fairy tales, we should offer ourselves – telling people we are here for them if they need someone to talk to, or just have dinner or coffee, or help them in their daily routines, or just offer a fond remembrance of the deceased – as a way of helping them through their grief.”
  • “I would respond to someone offering a thought such as death being ‘part of God’s plan’ with, ‘Thank you, but I would have preferred if God could have planned this out in a way that didn’t involve breaking my heart.’”
  • “If someone offers prayers for my grief, I would inform them they are welcome to do so. But there is no need to tell me they’re praying for me, since that won’t really fix anything.”

Topic #2 Conclusion

Facilitator Tom Cara closed the discussion by providing the following thoughts on dealing with presumption of faith in our society:

“Many non-theists are simply more comfortable with not addressing presumption of faith when  confronted with it. But ignoring presumption of faith can be problematic for our society. Because  religion so dominates our culture, allowing that presumption to go unchallenged only allows religion to take greater hold of the fabric of our society, and ultimately more control of our government institutions. And that, as we know, can be not only detrimental but dangerous to human progress. It is also harmful to non-theists as individuals. There is probably not one atheist who at least one time in their life has  been confronted by a person of religious faith who presumed a shared belief, and then later regretted not having enlightened them about their non-belief, politely educating them to the fact that no one should make such an assumption. Side-stepping the issue is not good for our psyche, or our mental well-being. If a non-theist were a strong supporter of gay rights, same-sex marriage, racial and gender equality, or a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, and came across someone who had opposing views expressed in a manner that presumed a shared point-of-view, they would likely jump to the defense of their positions. Of equal importance, non-theists should not hesitate as well to act in the same way when it comes to their opinions regarding a lack of religious faith.

By refusing to openly offer a counter position regarding religious beliefs, non-theists do nothing but enable people of faith to act as representatives for their thoughts, thus giving the false impression of a shared way of thinking – one which they don’t actually agree with. They then succumb to a form of self-induced intellectual slavery, waiving their right to be a true freethinker.”

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