You’ve heard the argument. You ought to accept Jesus as your savior from Hell because its the only rational thing to do since, even though the evidence for Hell is hard to come by, the horrible pain and anguish should there be a Hell out-weights any other consideration.
I’d like to take a closer look at this argument often called Pascal’s Wager.
Consider the chart below. Note the dynamics between the strength of the evidence for a claim and the strength of the pain or pleasure contingent on the truth of the claim. It is true that, for some decisions in life, Pascal’s Wager has utility. However, when the source of the ontology is incoherent or illogical, the entire process of weighing the evidence against the severity of the possible implications is unwarranted.
I’d like to first examine the proper application of Pascal’s Wager, then explain why this argument is impotent when invoked by religionists in their attempts to herd the fearful into their narrow pen of small-mindedness.
Applying Pascal’s Wager at situational points A-G on the chart is entirely appropriate. Let’s look at hypothetical instantiations of these variables.
- A: Several friends with very white teeth claim that a certain brand of toothpaste is able to make my teeth also very white. Though the evidence is quite persuasive, I decide that it is still too anecdotal and continue to use my current brand.
(Much evidence : Few implications)
- B: In additions to my friends’ claims about the toothpaste, I read what seems to be a reputable study giving the chemical mechanism for the whitening effect of the toothpaste.
(Much and sufficient evidence : Few implications)
I decide to change my brand of toothpaste.
- C: A friend tells me that I should stop eating at KFC to avoid suffering from various health problems. However, the pleasure of chomping extra-crispy is what I live for.
(Moderate evidence : Moderate implications)
- D: My doctor says that, if I don’t stop eating at KFC, I’m likely to have a heart-attack within a year.
(Moderate, yet sufficient evidence : Moderate, yet sufficient implications)
I decide to ignore the evil Colonel whenever he beckons.
- E: A drunk dude at a beach party claims that there is a tsunami headed towards us, and that we should leave the beach. As he passes out at my feet, I don’t even give the sea a glance.
(Insufficient marginal evidence : Severe implications)
- F: I encounter twenty people running away from the beach with terrified looks on their faces. Someone yells “Tsunami!”
(Sufficient though perhaps marginal evidence : Severe implications)
I decide to move my arse to higher ground.
- G: Japanese claim that holding cut roses up-side-down prevents them from wilting. Americans, however, maintain that they should be held upright. The evidence is ambiguous, and I don’t care much either way since all cut roses end up wilting at some point.
(Little and insufficient evidence : Few and insufficient implications)
So we see that in situations B, D, and F the evidence and the implications converged at a point above the threshold that would warrant a decision of change.
However, we have violated the proper way to assess a claim. There is a step prior to assessing the evidence and the implications; the logicality of the claim and its sources. If there is even a single illogical component of the argument necessary for the claim, we can unequivocally dismiss the claim with no second-step consideration of the evidence or implications. If the argument or source of the argument is logically incoherent, it warrants not even a cursory contemplation of the evidence or implications. It is disqualified from any meaningful participation in the evidence/implications step. It can be dismissed along with the fear it attempts to evoke.
Here it is clear why the claim of Hell or any other nonempirical notion derived from the world’s most popular religious texts deserve no more than our scorn. The source must exhibit logical coherency. Let me instantiate H-K with classes and examples of illogicality exhibited in these religious texts, particularly the Bible.
- H: Contextual contradictions of an “consistent” source.
If the source claims divine inspiration, then that source must be internally consistent. If there is even a single inconsistency, the entire religious text is invalidated. No further consideration is warranted.
- It should be noted that the many inconsistencies that are pointed out by skeptics of the Bible are dismissed by Christians who explain that the passages in question have been misunderstood. They then, though hermeneutic gymnastics, tell us what God really meant to say. When you ask for the necessary hermeneutic standard that generated their exegeses, you’ll discover them empty-handed. If they ever do offer a single hermeneutic standard by which we could consistently interpret the Bible, you’ll quickly uncover their own violations of their standard. This theoretical hermeneutic standard does not exist! This means that exegeses is, more often than not, the result of beginning with a theological notion, then quote-mining passages that support that notion. And other times exegeses is merely a function of an emotional affinity with a particular outcome. For example, sample any single denomination on the issue of drinking alcohol or what constitutes a justification for divorce, and you will find contradictory opinions on these issues, and each side tossing out what they claim are clear verses supporting their view. In many cases, the denomination or even single church will splinter into even more doctrinally divided sects so as to be able to redefine themselves as the “real” Christians. Just look at the number of various churches in a phone book. The only reason for this multitude of churches is doctrinal disagreement. If there were a single hermeneutic standard, this would not be the case. If there were a Holy Spirit as was promised to lead Christians “into all truth”, this would not be the case. This is, however, the case. The Bible is inconsistent/incoherent, and its ontic and be dismissed with prejudice.
Step 1 dismissal based on doctrinal inconsistencies or incoherency stemming from a lack of a single hermeneutic standard.
- I: Failed promises of an “trustworthy” source.
Statistics have brought the Biblical promises to Christians under the scrutiny of science. The Biblical promises that could theoretically be scientifically/statistically assessed include intercessory prayer as quantified by hospital studies, the power of the Holy Spirit as quantified by incarceration, obesity and divorce rates, the “unity of the Holy Spirit” as quantified by the degree of ecclesiastical sectarianism. This is interesting since one would think that Christians would warmly welcome any opportunity to validate the fulfillment of these promises. Why then are they scrambling to do one or all of the following?
- Redefine “true” Christians to a group small enough to make a statistical analysis difficult (the “no true Scotsman” fallacy).
- With “creative” exegesis, redefine the Biblical promises to impotency (which itself is incoherent).
- Claim that “God cannot be tested”, and so imply that any results of a statistical study that seem to counter Biblical promises have been doctored by God so as to confound the godless and strengthen the faith of Christians (since evidence would eliminate the need for faith).
- Claim that the science of statistics is flawed (which incredibly is often invoked!).
This ideal opportunity for Christians to strut their stuff oddly has them running the other way. But there is good reason. The most rigorous studies that have been conducted on intercessory prayer have shown zero or even negative results. Comparing divorce and incarceration rates of Evangelicals to groups or countries highly godless is especially damaging as these are salient disconfirming counter-examples to Biblical promises.
Step 1 dismissal based on statistical studies or analyses that run counter to Biblical promises.
- J: Sanctioned immorality from a “moral” source.
One does not need to read very far into the Bible before encountering a divine commandment or instructions on what most would today consider to be immoral. Is it ever moral to dash a child’s brains out? Is slavery ever right? Should a raped woman be forced to marry her rapist? Subscribing to a “moral” God that condones these immoral acts is incoherent.
See Numbers 5:15-22; 31:18, and Psalm 137:9.
Step 1 dismissal based on moral incoherence/absurdity.
- K: Injustice administered by a “just” source.
Hell is usually (see “H”) defined as God’s eternal punishment for sinners who reject Jesus. However, because this is God we’re talking about, he seems to be immune from logical coherence. Infinite pain for a finite number of transgressions would not go over well in any society were a human father to similarly punish his children. And this punishment is dealt by a God that is said to be omnibenevolent. There is also the problem that the majority of the world’s population dies without having really heard the “gospel”. Yet, they are without excuse according to Romans chapter one since God’s eternal power and deity are clearly seen in the sky. Notice that this passage says nothing about Jesus. However, this is in opposition to John 3:36’s parameters for condemnation which unequivocally states “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Call in the exegetical gymnasts!
Step 1 dismissal based on the incoherency of divine injustice.
If someone’s ontic source for the positing of a choice with possible implications includes any of H-K, they have posited nothing. There is no choice to be made. Don’t let fear-mongers pretend they are saying anything coherent. Call them on their immoral attempts to paralyze lives with fairy-tale ontologies that they attempt to propagate solely on the basis of the horrors they have conjured up. They do so from a position of illogicality.
Why did Pascal not consider the evidence for and the potential implications of accepting or rejecting Islam when assessing which world view he would adopt? I’m guessing it was because he, for some reason, considered the Islamic faith to be illogical on one or more points. In this, Pascal rightly felt no obligation to consider Islam’s notion of Heaven and Hell. Did Pascal consistently apply this first step of assessing the logical status of an ideology also to Christianity?
The sad thing is that many of the victims of this fear-mongering are children. I was one such child who fell under the fearful spell of the concept of Hell, and, to my shame, I grew up to continue the cycle. Fear is a powerful emotion. And once it has been psychologically entrenched over time, it is a difficult thing to escape. I’d be happy to discuss this further with any open-minded readers. If you’re not open-minded and are encouraging the closure of minds with this manner of incoherent fear-mongering, don’t bother. Your drunken religious stupor deserves no respect.