ExCommunications
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ExCommunications

Blaise Pascal studying the cycloid, 1785, Louvre

Rejecting the Pascal’s Wager

Here is the story of how I became an atheist and stopped fearing God. My transformation occurred through exposure to three philosophical ideas over several years. The first idea was that I could rely on my mind rather than on a say-so of experts. The second idea was that arbitrary claims do not require proof. And, the third idea was that one should hold his knowledge at certainty rather than at 99% probability. I have learned all three from Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff.

I have considered myself to be an atheist even before this transformation. I grew up in a non-religious Jewish family in which we did not celebrate any religious Jewish holidays. If I truly believed in God, I thought, I would follow all restrictions that the Old Testament imposes. For instance, I would not allow myself to work on a Saturday. But since I disregarded all such restrictions, that made me an atheist.

However, I was not an atheist for several reasons. For one, I believed in superstitions. For one, I believed that it is a safer bet not to disregard a superstition. Growing up, I had to be aware and follow a plethora of superstitions. Whistling in a house was not allowed since it meant bad financial luck to the host. Walking in socks without slippers was “bad luck” and someone could die. If a black cat crossed our path we had to turn around and find a new one. There were more sinister superstitions, such as the overarching threat of an evil eye which could damage one during a commute around town.

There were special superstitions related to travel safety. On the day of a trip involving a flight we could not throw out garbage; it had to be done the day before. Just before leaving the house, we had to “sit down for the road” for a few minutes. Failure to do so was bad luck for the flight.

My situation was not an isolated case. These and other superstitions are held by most people from the former USSR, who ironically self-identify as atheists. Just like them, I have considered myself to be an atheist, but that merely meant that I rejected all religions. I thought that there may be a higher power, colloquially denoted by “God,” which could be upset if I did something wrong or even dared to think against it. This particularly included blaspheming or making ultimatums in thought or action.

Little did I know that my view was a non-Christian variant of Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a prominent mathematician of the 17th century whose legacy includes Pascal’s Triangle in mathematics and Pascal’s Law in physics. He also worked on probability theory and gambling, and in this connection, he formulated the idea that it’s a good bet to assume that God exists. He thought that it is a safer bet to play by the Christian rules, in order not to end up in Hell if the biblical claims indeed turn out to be true.

What Pascal’s Wager does demonstrate is the fact that people who excel in the sciences can still make naive philosophical mistakes. I was one of such people, and just like Pascal, I thought that it is safer to constrain myself with the restrictions imposed by God.

What restrictions did I think God places on people? Whatever it was, I thought, it would perceive people the way we perceive ants. It would not bother with giving us a book to follow. But if God does not communicate with us, how would we know right from wrong? My view was that it is obvious in most situations. In any conflict of interest, I should take the safer losing side, as long as the damage to me was tolerable. After all, it is not good to be selfish. So while I have rejected religion, I did accept its basic evil tenet: altruism. Altruism is the expectation that I must sacrifice my interests in favor of the interests of others. I have corrected my view only after I had read the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Atlas Shrugged also helped me reject the idea of God. One of the novel’s characters states that one should not be afraid to rely on his mind and that it is better to make one’s own error instead of blindly accepting some expert’s proclamations.

Do not say that you’re afraid to trust your mind because you know so little… Live and act within the limit of your knowledge and keep expanding it to the limit of your life… Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience — that your mind is fallible — that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. — Atlas Shrugged [emphasis mine]

This idea gave me the ammunition to be braver about my own convictions, but I did not tie it to the “existence of God” issue. The next step in the transformation was Ayn Rand’s response to a question asked in an interview about it. She said that “one is never called upon to prove a negative.” I was unsure what “negative” meant but coming from a mathematics background I thought that any proposition can be either proved or disproved. For instance, if the proposition is “2+2=4,” then the negative would be “2+2 ≠ 4.” Which one is negative, which one is positive, and which one according to Ayn Rand I should not attempt to prove? Isn’t each of them a negative of the other?

I have resolved this puzzle a few years later upon listening to a Q&A with the philosopher Leonard Peikoff, an associate of Ayn Rand. The questioner asked something about different kinds of propositions and Peikoff explained that there are two kinds of claims: claims which can be proved or disproved, and arbitrary claims which can not be proved or disproved. Peikoff’s example was that you could arbitrarily accuse a random person of committing a murder. If he offers an alibi then you could accuse him of hiring someone to commit the murder on his behalf. Without presenting any evidence you can keep accusing him of having committed the murder, no matter what he says. Here I understood what Ayn Rand meant about “proving a negative.” The negative case is when you demand someone to prove that he did not commit murder. The positive case would be that you must prove that he did commit a murder. (In law, this is called presumption of innocence.) The requirement that only a positive assertion requires proof puts to rest the argument given by agnostics that you can not prove that God does not exist.

Yet, I still was not able to free myself from the fear of God. I held the widespread skeptic view that I can not be certain about anything. The “straw which broke the camel” was a lecture by Peikoff on the principle of certainty, in which he explained that one should hold knowledge with certainty and amend it only once a new observation is observed that conflicts with it. Otherwise, if you thought that there exists a 1% chance that you are wrong in your convictions, then a conflicting observation would not seem to be something out of the ordinary and would not cause you to rethink your ideas. Instead, you would classify any conflicting observation as the 1% unlikely possibility and keep holding on to your current views.

Peikoff offered the following example. A few hundred years ago people did not know that there are different types of blood. When a wounded soldier lost blood he received an infusion of someone else’s blood and recovered. At some point, however, a soldier was recovering, but died after receiving a blood transfusion. If a doctor thought that blood is compatible with any other blood only at 99% certainty, then if a soldier died from a blood transfusion it would not be surprising. But if he held his view with certainty and a blood transfusion has killed his patient, then he would be surprised. He would be curious to understand what went wrong and eventually he would expand his knowledge to the fact that there are different types of blood (A, B, AB, and O).

In other words, it is because you do not know what you do not know, you must hold what you do know with certainty. This is the only way not to miss a fact of which you did not know when it presents itself. To a skeptic, new facts only shift his level of certainty but do not cause him to throw away erroneous ideas altogether.

Understanding that I am justified to be certain of my views was the last “nail in the coffin” in which I buried my fear of God. I am certain that there is nothing out there watching me and caring what I do. I am certain of it because no evidence was ever presented and because the claim that God exists is arbitrary. It’s not up to me to prove that he does not exist. So long as no one is able to prove it, or even present an iota of evidence, I know that God does not exist.

Furthermore, I know that God can not possibly exist and that no evidence for it would ever be presented. Another idea I got from reading Atlas Shrugged is that contradictions can not exist in reality. Because the “God” idea is contradictory, God simply can not be. You’ve heard the argument that God can not be both all-knowing and all-powerful, because these abilities contradict each other. Another argument concerns the issue of Free Will. Because humans have Free Will they are unpredictable in principle. Thus, a God which knows everything would deny Free Will. The irony is that only religion today defends Free Will, while most atheists reject it in favor of determinism (a wrong idea, See “The Illusion of Determinism” by Edwin Locke). But, in fact, it is religion that is incompatible with Free Will.

So that’s my story. I became an atheist primarily through the works of philosophers who never explicitly wrote on atheism. Instead, they defended reason as the only means of knowledge and explained that I can be certain about my convictions.

In closing, I will share the following rebuttal of Pascal’s Wager by the philosopher Harry Binswanger, another associate of Ayn Rand. The safer bet in Pascal’s setup is to be an atheist. If God exists, he would want you to disbelieve in him, because he has not presented any evidence of himself. Thus, an unyielding respect for reason would get you to Heaven, but accepting something on faith would mean a denial of reason and a denial of your essence as a human being. For that God surely would send you to Hell.

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Stories from people who have questioned their beliefs, left their faith, navigated doubt, and changed their minds about religion. Some are atheists, some agnostic, and some embrace a different kind of belief. All of them are recovering from religion.

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Boris Reitman

Boris Reitman

The course of history is determined by the spreading of ideas. I’m spreading the good ones.

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