Unbelievable

Today I want to talk about belief, and in particular, the moral consequences of belief.

One of the characteristics of an enlightened, modern person is that they have the capacity to change their mind in the face of compelling evidence that they were wrong. In fact, what we do when we discover our error is one of the things that defines our character.

At the same time, deeply-held beliefs are not changed lightly, nor should they be. As Carl Sagan so famously said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

And what if the belief in question is a moral one, or one that has moral consequences?

Suppose you are an atheist, like myself. And suppose in a moment of desperation — perhaps you are are on the verge of becoming homeless, or have a critically ill relative — you decide to pray to God for a miracle.

And then suppose a week later, you win the lottery.

What do you do now?

Does this mean you suddenly start believing in God? Some people might. People who are already on the fence about the existence of God, or whose beliefs were rooted in mere preference rather than cold logic might decide to take the correlation between their prayer and the subsequent winning as proof or at least strong evidence. The very fact that you engaged in prayer to begin with is evidence that your beliefs weren’t absolute.

But consider: winning the lottery isn’t a supernatural or even unprecedented event. People do, in fact, occasionally win lotteries. They also get struck by lightning, but this is generally not taken as evidence of divine disfavor, even when the unlucky victim is particularly sinful or blasphemous.

But we’re not talking merely about winning the lottery are we? We’re talking about two extremely rare events: (a) an atheist praying for the first time in decades and (b) that same person winning the lottery, both occurring in a narrow time span. Isn’t that enough to at least generate some doubt?

Before I get to the more interesting aspect of the discussion, let’s take a moment to consider the more mundane statistical analysis. Let’s look at the relative probabilities — what is the more likely explanation, that what happened was mere chance, or the will of God?

Let’s say that the chance of winning the lottery is a million-to-one. What are the chances that (a) God exists and (b) He decided to create a miracle specifically in answer to your prayer? (When it’s clear that such miracles are denied to the many other suffering people on this earth, many more deserving than you.)

There’s no credible scientific evidence for the existence of God (although there are many facts that can be misinterpreted to support such a claim.) It’s clear that if God does exist, He has been careful not to leave any incontrovertible proof lying around!

Unfortunately, the concept of “God” is defined in such a way as can never be disproved either. We can’t use science to prove or disprove the existence of God either way.

However, science cannot absolutely rule out the existence of fairies, ghosts, UFOs, or any number of other imaginary entities either. But as a rule of thumb, it’s a useful policy to assign a very low probability to any theory which has no positive evidence going for it.

So if it were me, I would assign the probability of the existence of God — that is, a being that predates the universe and is responsible for everything in it — at 100 to 1, and that’s being generous. (Back to Dr. Sagan and “extraordinary claims”).

And the chance of getting a tailor-made miracle? Well, how many people are on this planet, and what percentage of them get miracles? We know of none, but it’s possible that miracles happen without the rest of us knowing about it. If a thousand people a year get miracles, that still makes the chance of any individual getting a miracle ten million to one.

So you can see that winning the lottery, by chance, is far more likely.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about.

Let’s say that you do, in fact, accept the fact of your winning the lottery as evidence that God exists.

Now what do you do?

What if have legitimate reasons for not believing in God that have nothing to do with science?

As to what I mean by that, let me give you some of my own history.

I was raised in a Catholic family, and while my parents were not especially devout, the grade school they sent me to was very traditional. I went to school at San Juan Capistrano Mission (you may have heard the song “when the swallows…come back…to Capistrano…”), taught by nuns, went to mass in an adobe church every day, and so on. So I know quite a bit about Catholicism.

One of the things that they taught me in catechism class is that you can’t convert someone to your religion using logic. Any logical argument will have a counter-argument, and you simply get into an intellectual debate with no one actually changing their minds.

My life experience bears this out — people are willing to change their minds based on argument and evidence, but only when the topic doesn’t involve basic identity or tribal allegiance. You can’t convince a Republican to become a Democrat by showing them facts, because their membership on the Republican “team” is far more important than any argument. “Motivated reasoning” is the intellectual tool that people use to dismiss arguments they don’t want to hear, and it works quite well — in fact, the smarter the person is, the better they are at deflecting truth.

However, even at a young age, I knew that there was something fishy about the Bible stories I was taught. Things just didn’t add up.

I think the thing that bothered me first was the idea that Heaven and Hell are eternal, but a human lifespan is finite. What sense does it make to punish someone for 10o billion years in a lake of fire, if they can only commit 80 or so years worth of sin?

(Of course, a lot of Christians today will say “that’s not what hell really is”, and give a much kinder/gentler version of hell than the one I was taught. But [a] infinity is still infinity, and [b] I don’t regard those people as any more authoritative than my Catechism teachers. See also Scott McCloud’s Meadow of the Damned.)

And what about two brothers who lived almost identical lives, but one was just barely more sinful than the other, and so went to hell while the other went to Heaven/Limbo? What’s with this dualistic thinking anyway?

And there’s lots more: The story about changing water into wine seems remarkably…petty. Why such a pedestrian miracle, one that saved someone a trip to the local wine-mart, and conveniently leaves no permanent evidence?

Why is the story of the loaves and fishes so light on detail?

And the whole idea of sacrifice on the cross doesn’t add up for me. Yes, I can understand that if a man jumps in front of a bus to save a child, and loses his life in the process, we rightly honor his sacrifice and name him a hero. But in the case of Jesus Christ there’s no bus other than the one God himself has put in place!

And don’t get me started on the book of Revelation, that nightmare of cruelty and contempt for humanity.

My teachers kept telling me “God is love”, but in fact what they described was the behavior of a bully. I always thought it strange that people who were devout were called “God-fearing”, and this was supposed to be a good thing?

As a child I suffered many anxieties and fears about going to hell. Because I was told by my teachers “if you reject any part of this, it is as if you reject all of it.” And I knew in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t accept it all, that it just didn’t make sense, and that I was doomed to an eternity of torment.

I remember the day in 1976, I was 18 years old, about three weeks after I had finished boot camp in the U.S. Air Force. Earlier that week I had overslept (I always had problems staying awake on watch) and missed the regular Catholic service that day and went to the Protestant service instead. My first reaction was, “Wow, these guys seem to have a lot more fun.”

And then a few days later, it hit me: what if this is all just a story?

I cannot describe the wave of relief that came over me. Maybe I wasn’t going to hell after all.

And as I have thought about this more and more over the years, and learned more about the history of Christianity and other religions, the idea that it’s “just a story” makes more and more sense.

You see, history has a certain logic to it (or sometimes a lack of logic). Stories, on the other hand, have a different kind of logic, “story logic”. Stories and history feel very differently from one another.

And religious stories feel like, well, stories. Those stories from the Bible that caused me so much grief? Viewed as stories they make perfect sense. Of course he changed the water into wine. Of course the story about the loaves and fishes defies logic, that’s the point. And the story about the crucifixion is engineered to appeal to our sympathy, because sacrifice is a powerful story that tugs on our emotions — it doesn’t have to make sense in order to work.

And by story-logic, Heaven and Hell have to be absolutes, just as Sauron has to be the absolute of evil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

So back to our hypothetical situation: you pray, and are granted what might be a miracle?

Except that all of your life you’ve considered the Christian God to be a bully. A being who doesn’t deserve to be worshiped.

Do you cave? Do you fall down on your knees and say, “God, I don’t like you and I don’t agree with you, and think you are cruel, but I’m going to praise you anyway?” To me that would be sinful — maybe my definition of “sin” is different than yours, but for me, taking moral guidance from a monster lacks personal integrity and courage.

And given that any prayers you might give would be insincere, would they even work?

Or do you stand up and say “I know I’m going to Hell, but I can’t knuckle under to a bully.” That’s a no-win situation — if Hell is truly infinite, then no Earthly logic or reward can compete with it, that’s kind of the point.

Or do you say to yourself, “Naw, it was just a coincidence.”

There’s a better solution to all of this: don’t pray in the first place.

No matter how desperate you are, if you really think that believing in a God is immoral, then praying to that same God is also immoral. Or if you have to pray, find a God or Goddess that you can pray to that doesn’t involve moral qualms.

For me, it’s even simpler: I value the truth, and I don’t want to be fooled. Praying to God for a miracle sets me up so that I will either be (a) disappointed, or (b) fooled. That’s way more important to me than a million dollars!

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