The Bigger Picture
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The Bigger Picture

On Faith and Games of Chance

(Blaise Pascal, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Growing up Catholic, I expected to go to hell. I remember when stern Father Fancelli warned my catechism class that thinking impure thoughts was a mortal sin. Just thinking them, I wondered but was afraid to ask. “Yes,” he repeated, reading my mind in God-like fashion. For Probverbs 23:7 warns that as man thinks, so is he. Given such dire consequences, it’s no wonder that Catholics do so little thinking.

I knew that I was doomed because impure thoughts constantly snuck up on me. One minute I’d be thinking about safe, normal things like toenails or rubber bands, then just like that, my mental trajectory spun into visions of turds in the holy water basin. I never knew what I was going to think until I’d thought it, and by then it was already a sin worthy of eternal damnation.

I couldn’t confess fast enough to keep ahead of my thought sins. Once, during confession no less, the notion popped into my head that while I was spilling out my guts to Father Fancelli, he was jerking off behind the screen. Although that was quite possibly true, I sinned by supposing so. Since I’d already confessed to having impure thoughts, I was reluctant to admit that I’d already had another. So, I lied by confessing to a lie, and hoped that God would work it all out in the end. “Have mercy!” Father Fancelli gasped, mopping his brow.

I eventually gave up trying. My adolescence was a phantasmagoria of continuous sexual fantasy, such that I was in a state of breathless sin nearly every waking moment, and, best of all, many dreaming ones, too. Sometimes I’d worry about burning in hell for eternity, but my worries conflated with my obsessions, and soon I was fantasizing about having sex in hell. I was weirdly encouraged that in hell I’d be among people who earned their place there from having illicit sex, rather than just thinking about it. Maybe in hell I’d meet a nice harlot willing to have sex with me. That seemed like the only way I’d ever lose my virginity. Once you’re in hell anyway, what did it matter if you sin some more? I presumed that sex in hell might feel like being pressed in a hot waffle iron, but it’d be sooooo worth it.

If you’re doomed to perdition, you might as well make the best of it.

In college, I took a course in philosophy of religion that changed my whole life. I learned that if God is truly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then he’d also have to be a major dick to banish souls to fiery, eternal hell for doing what He knew they were going to do anyway. Either that, or God is dead, and hell is just a myth perpetrated by the ruling class to oppress the masses. That stuff was fun to think about. But what really changed my life about that course was that I met a girl in class and, well, let’s just say that my prayers were finally answered. Maybe there was a God, after all.

I was so motivated by my experience in that class that I decided to major in religious studies. I don’t often admit this. I usually tell people that I majored in philosophy, and that fib has served me well because most people admire philosophers, even if they don’t understand a single word of what they say. In fact, the less people understand about philosophy, the more they admire philosophers.

However, those same folks feel nervous around religious studies majors, as if we have been spying on them. Nobody likes to think of their true religion as being something that can be studied the same way as somebody else’s false one. Their mythology is divine revelation, while everybody else’s consists of folklore, fairy tales and fish stories. If you, point out any inconsistencies in their faith, believers tend to get insulted. It’s like calling their mother a whore. Many bloody wars have been fought over a lesser slight.

Why, then, would anybody major in religious studies? Most people assume that the only reason is that you intend to go into some ministerial profession. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Actually, most students in my cohort group of religious studies majors were hardcore atheists. Many of them didn’t start out that way, but the objective study of various religions suggests skepticism and heresy as operational hypotheses. Becoming an atheist is thus a genuine conversion experience.

Especially for ex-Catholics, who make the angriest, most militant atheists. All that pent up guilt and shame has to go somewhere. They are the kind of atheists that camp out at the church doors and heckle folks on the way to Sunday mass with calls of “Church is for pussies” and “God thinks you’re an idiot.”

I am constitutionally wishy washy, though. Even after graduation, I still hadn’t decided if I did or did not believe in God. I wanted to. All things being equal, I certainly preferred the promise of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die to the bleak prospect of infinite nothingness. Even hell sounded better than that — at least it was something. There’s a reason that every human society since our species ceased dragging its knuckles has practiced some manner of religion. Nobody likes the alternative.

Still, inevitably, the more you do comparative study of religions, the more you disbelieve in them. Every single one, from Roman Catholicism to Druidism to the Micronesian cargo cults, requires you to believe something that not only lacks evidence, but defies common sense. Most religions require you to accept their doctrine based on faith. That’s where my bad habit of having impure thoughts gets in my way. Faith is often indistinguishable from wishful thinking. Wanting something to be true is usually a good reason for believing it isn’t.

However, if you convince enough people to have faith in something — anything — you can be a success in religious enterprise. I suspect that most of my religious studies classmates today work somewhere in the corporate religion and spiritualism industry. I imagine them dispensing advice via psychic hotlines, channeling messages from departed loved ones to wealthy clients, developing glitzy ad campaigns for New Age mega churches, or starting their very own religions, the way L. Ron Hubbard did, with eclectic theologies and names like “Sanctuary of Auras,” or “Temple of Astral Enlightenment.”

I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling.

The main difference between successful entrepreneurs in ministry and those disheveled preachers thumping their Bibles on street corners is that the latter actually believe what they’re selling. To profit from the faith of others, it helps if your only faith is in the bottom line. No other business promises a higher return on investment. Faith creates an inexhaustible cash cow. Unlike any conventional service or product, faith is immaterial, unquantifiable, and imperceptible — ergo, from a transactional perspective, it delivers money for nothing. It’s kind of like therapy in that way.

The biggest question in the study of religion is — does God exist? Nobody knows. Case closed. But nobody wants to hear that, not even atheists.

Faith means never questioning. That leaves a lot of room for unscrupulous people to contrive all sorts of crazy answers, though. To me, the biggest unanswered question is this: Is there anything so absurd, so outrageous, so over-the-top preposterous and laugh-out-loud nonsensical that somebody won’t accept it as an article of religious faith. The answer appears to be “well, duh.”

For example, you might think that when a prophet explicitly predicts a date and time on which the End of Days will occur, and that deadline passes without so much as a strong wind, then this prophet’s credibility would be shot. Quite the opposite is true, however. It isn’t that the prophet misinterpreted the signs or that God didn’t get the message. Rather, the failure of Armageddon to materialize was the fault of the believers themselves. They didn’t believe hard enough or in the right way, so the best that God could do was give them a rain check. Meanwhile, keep those checks coming.

My personal favorite example of this phenomenon is from the early 19th century. Shawnee Indian Prophet, Tenskwatawa, whose name meant “The Open Door,” assured his warriors that if they attacked the Americans at Tippecanoe, victory was certain because their enemies’ bullets would dissipate like puffballs. To their chagrin, the bullets did not, in fact, go poof, thus laying waste to their entire battle plan. Afterwards, when asked to account for the massacre, Tenskwatawa hazarded that during his prayers, his wife had entered the room, and unbeknownst to him, she was in her menstrual impurity, which of course nullified the spell. I don’t imagine his wife was thrilled; from that day forward, she became “The Closed Door” to him.

Although history is filled with examples of the terrible consequences of misplaced faith, religious leaders honor it as the greatest virtue. That’s because without it, they’d be out of business. So, faith is extolled as the ultimate measure of character, the rewards of which are sublime, bountiful, and guaranteed… but just not, you know, provable. So, when you get down to it, faith is just an opinion.

That’s where theology comes in. I like reading theology because it employs exquisite rhetoric and esoteric reasoning to create utter nonsense. Theologians never heard of the null hypothesis. Instead, they begin every discourse already begging the disputed point that God exists. With that as their premise, they work backwards to contrive reasons to support what they already believe. It isn’t as easy as you think.

To me, the most compelling argument for the existence of God isn’t, literally, a proof at all, but more like a proposition. It’s called “Pascal’s Wager,” and, of course, it was put forth by a Catholic, Blaise Pascal, who embraced religion after nearly dying from a lightning strike. Did he see a shining path and loved ones welcoming him into heaven? Apparently not. But his brush with death did leave him with a renewed appreciation of the odds.

Pascal’s wager goes like this: You must make a bet. You can bet that God doesn’t exist and live any way you want. In the end, then, if you were right, congratulations, but you’re still dead. If you’re wrong, though, God exiles your soul to eternal suffering in hell. Alternately, you can bet that God does exist and live like you’re told. If when you die you were wrong, you’re no worse off than the atheist. But if you’re right, you’ve punched your ticket on the bliss express to heaven.

You don’t have to be Jimmy the Greek to see which option has the greater up-side. I like this argument because it doesn’t necessarily presume vice or virtue in either proposition. It is all a matter of cost/benefit analysis. It should be taught in business schools.

But Pascal’s Wager never inspired a cult, not even among gamblers. Most religiously inclined people are risk averse. They want to believe in a sure thing. That’s how faith works. With faith, you can never be proven wrong. Without it, you can never be proven right.

What’s your wager? Just believe this: the house always wins.

Gregg Sapp is the author of the Holidazed series of satirical novels. See for more information.



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Gregg Sapp, a native Ohioan, is an award winning author of the “Holidazed” satires, each of which is set in Ohio and centered around a different holiday.