Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pascal was a Sissy

     I had intended to get away from the philosophical discussions of religion and faith, but I had several conversations yesterday with people who have been reading the blog which has led me to understand that there is more interest in this than I had gauged. So we tread ahead.

      I began this blog with a very strong commitment to the power of doubt, to the notion that true intellectual honesty can only be had by regularly holding one's own dear beliefs and perceptions up to criticism, both internal and external. Then I spent the next dozen or so posts making a pretty impassioned case for a particular world-view. So the question is; do I hold myself to the same standards? Do I regularly check my convictions against the facts? Well, the short answer is, I try to, but like anyone else, I think what I think because I think it is right. (Amazingly, some people have trouble with that. They say, "You always think you're right!" Well, of course I do, don't you? I mean, do you consciously hold beliefs that you think are false?)

       But do I ever stop and wonder: What if I'm wrong about this whole god thing, and I'm doomed to eternal torment for my lack of faith? Honestly, the thought does cross my mind from time to time, but I tend to dismiss it pretty quickly, though with what I feel are good reasons, which I intend to elucidate here. Another response to this dilemma was given by French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal; and is known as Pascal's Wager. In short, he argued that even if one lacked faith, one should live as if one did, because one had nothing to lose and everything to gain. While this was historically significant, as it was one of the first attempts to justify religious faith from a rational perspective, I think that while the argument behind it has some small degree of merit, the motivation is essentially one of fear, which I do not believe is a compelling reason to alter one's convictions. In other words, as the title suggests, I think Pascal was a wuss.

      My other posts have argued for a faith-free existence, primarily from a naturalistic perspective. But to someone of deep religious conviction, things like evolution, carbon-dating, the scientific explanation for the origin of the universe, the lack of any kind of evidence for a soul, etc. mean very little. The bible contains the truth and that's it, no more questions to ask. So what I want to do here is discuss what I see as the very significant theological and logical failings of the christian narrative, and how even if they were true, I find good cause to reject them.

     So let us start there, with an assumption that the entire christian narrative is true. I am going to focus here on the three most significant parts of that story, original sin, christ's sacrifice on the cross, and the judgment and resurrection. I think each piece of this narrative not only fails to give us a compelling reason to accept the accompanying faith, they each give us cause to reject it outright. So... In the beginning...
Original Sin

       The theological basis of christianity is that Eve's taking of the apple from the tree of knowledge left us all in a permanently fallen state that could only be redeemed through christ's sacrifice, which allows us all to be resurrected at the final judgment and granted eternal life, if we simply believe in him. But there is, what I feel, a significant fault in the logic of the narrative of the original sin. It takes kind of a round-about discussion to get there, but it becomes pretty apparent when viewed this way.

     Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden for the sin of disobedience. God told them never to taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because it would make them more like him (he's a pretty jealous guy, remember.) There is already here a blatant foolishness which we are going to set aside, but should be noted; if he really didn't want them to eat it, WHY DID HE PUT IT THERE? Why make creatures who you know are weak, expose them to temptation, which being all-knowing you know they are going to succumb to, and then be angry and disappointed when they do? This is like leaving a rasher of bacon on the floor near your dog's water dish and going out for the day. No matter how much that dog loves you, no matter how much he knows he is not supposed to, he is going to eat it. If you come home and start kicking him, whose fault is it really?

      But that isn't even the most ridiculous part. The whole point of the story is that before eating of the Tree, Adam and Eve were in a state of pure innocence, and didn't know the difference between right and wrong. So when Eve transgresses (after being tempted by the most powerful and cunning creature in existence, beside god himself, which is yet another reason not to take it out on them for only being as weak as he decided to make them, but even this isn't relevant here) she was disobeying, which god sees as wrong, but she couldn't really have known that even disobedience was wrong since she didn't know the difference between right and wrong yet! So, what we really have here is a god who makes his creation weak, doesn't give them the faculty to do as he wishes, puts the ultimate temptation in front of them, lets them be seduced by the ultimate tempter, then gets furious with them for succumbing, takes away their innocence and eternal life, and that of all of their descendants. Really? And we are supposed to worship this guy? Of course, "god works in mysterious" and this was all part of his plan to show his infinite love through the sacrifice of his son, but really? Was the soap opera necessary? This is like a kidnapper who then tries to win the affection of his victim by showering them with gifts. How about you just don't screw with them in the first place? Wouldn't that be easier?

      This narrative also ignores the inherent injustice of god's love and mercy being withheld from all the intervening generations who lived before christ, or in a part of the world where is message hadn't reached yet. He gave some revelation to a particular nomadic tribe, but this wasn't universal, since it only applied to the descendants of Abraham. But this is also an unnecessary diversion, so let's continue our project by accepting the explanation that this was necessary so he could demonstrate his infinite love through his (though really someone else's) sacrifice. Let's move on to jesus.

 Christ's "Ultimate" Sacrifice

     The most significant moment in the christian narrative is that god came down to earth, but as his son, and sacrificed himself by dying on the cross to atone for all of our sins, and for Eve and Adam's original sin. For this we are supposed to be eternally grateful. Now again, we are ignoring the fact that an all-powerful, all-knowing and supposedly all-loving god put us, his creations, in this predicament in the first place, since it certainly could have been averted by a being of his stature (I know, I know, he was testing us). However, I still think that even at this point, the narrative descends into foolishness. 

      Let's take the most extreme version of the Passion, the one so lovingly portrayed by that Jew-baiting  prick Mel Gibson in his torture-porn version, The Passion of the Christ. Let's assume jesus was beaten, tortured, mutilated, whipped, and spat upon. He was given a crown of thorns, a spear in the side, and nailed to a cross. And he put up with all this, even though he didn't have to, for the sake of the eternal souls of all humankind.

      Now, the Romans crucified thousands of people, but let's just take one as a foil for jesus. Let us consider the case of Spartacus (which is an excellent series available on Netflix, if you can cope with the utterly gratuitous sex and violence- the first episode of the second season was available last night, and picked up right where the other left off, though really, it is not for the faint of heart). Historical accounts vary, and it is uncertain if Spartacus himself was crucified, but it matters not, since thousands of his men were, but we don't know their names, so let's just stick with Spartacus. Spartacus was a gladiator who escaped from his master, along with many other gladiator slaves and started a rebellion against the Romans. After winning several key battles, and holding the Romans off for several years, they were defeated, and 6,000 former slaves were crucified. Now, while we can't claim that these men were tortured in precisely the same way as jesus, we can assume that they were treated pretty brutally by the Romans once they were defeated, and ultimately they met the exact same fate; death on a cross. And for what? For trying to free themselves and their companions from the oppression of slavery and to be able to return home to their wives and children. No one worships these men.

      The point is that while what jesus is supposed to have done was noble, it is by no means unique or special or even particularly magnanimous, given the circumstances. If someone told you that the eternal souls of all mankind would be doomed to eternal torment if you didn't suffer the same abuse that he did, wouldn't you go through with it? What if it was just one soul, say of a spouse or child? Wouldn't you? What if we weren't even talking about eternity, just their lives? Since the dawn of time, the noblest among us have given their own lives to preserve that of a loved one. No one builds churches to them. On top of that, being god and knowing that he could end the suffering at anytime, actually makes it even easier to bear. Pinching yourself hurts less than someone else pinching you, because you know you control it.

       So while jesus' sacrifice was noble, it wasn't anything that I don't think most of the rest of us wouldn't have done, given the circumstances. It was less noble than thousands, millions, of other sacrificial deaths, where much less was at stake. I mean if god came to me today and said, "We need another sacrifice." I'd say "Okay, but this time, this one is for everyone, not just the ones who believe in me, because really, why do I need that?" Wouldn't you?

The Final Judgment

       So the point of this whole soap opera is so that god can grant us eternal life, which he really, really wants to do, no really he does, he's just making it really complicated so that, so that... well, he does, but all this other stuff had to happen first. Anyway, we've had original sin, and we've had christ's sacrifice and now, if we accept that, and believe that jesus is the way the truth and the life, we are granted eternal life.

      The key here is the concept of eternal. Most people fail to truly appreciate the scope of this concept, and with good reason, since infinities are really hard things to wrap one's brain around. So what the christian narrative would have us accept is that in the space of our mortal lifetimes, which may last 100 years, or may last ten years, or ten minutes, we need to make a decision, based purely on faith in things unseen, not on any evidence, that will determine if we receive bliss or torment for all time. Let's just look at the ratio here. What happens when you put (let's be generous) 100 years in the numerator and infinity in the denominator? You get zero, because when you divide by infinity, no matter what you are dividing it into, you get zero. The span of our lifetimes, even the longest, compared to infinity, is mathematically zero. If you were to compare the blink of an eye to your own lifetime, that in itself is infinitely longer, relatively speaking, than our mortal lifetimes are compared to eternity. Imagine if someone told you had literally the blink of an eye to make the most significant decision of your lifetime in, and there was no going back, and the consequences were the most dire you could imagine. We could imagine someone with a gun to your head, who is going to shoot you  at the end of the day (but you can  do whatever you want for the next 24 hours) if you don't accept that he is Superman (you have no evidence that he is) this instant, in an eyeblink, but if you do accept it, and he lets you live, you must follow him in utter servility for the rest of your life. This isn't a perfect correlation, but it is close enough, because it allows us to see this for what it is, simple extortion. But even the mob usually gives you a fairer shake than this. But Pascal, and countless others, choose the life of servility.

      Pascal was a Sissy

      So even those of us who are fairly firm in our conviction that the christian god doesn't exist face this dilemma; What if we are wrong and gambling our eternal bliss or torment on it? Well, if this narrative is true, that god created us as we are, tempted by knowledge, designed to seek evidence for what we believe, (we all want to see the big miracle, that would settle it), and we are in a fallen state because our first ancestors succumbed to a temptation he planted in front of them and designed them to be susceptible to, didn't give them the tools to realize disobedience was wrong until it was too late, let them fail when he could have prevented it, then punished them and all of us for it, sent his son to clean up the mess he created by  committing a sacrifice which many, many lesser beings have committed with less at stake than he had, then expected us to be grateful for this and accept it without, even despite the evidence, in the blink of an eye, or be condemned for all eternity to the most horrific tortures imaginable, then no, I'll take the bullet at the end of the day, thank you very much. If this is what our existence is, merely a drawn out soap opera for the whims of a capricious, illogical and cruel deity, then sorry, I'm not playing. If he created us as play things merely to see which ones of us fail to make a leap of faith that he designed us to struggle with, then no, I don't want to worship him, I want to punch him in the mouth. I would fight him right here, right now, for being both so stupid and cruel, and for subjecting those I love to such a pointless and arbitrary game.

      But I don't think that I would really have to fight him, which is the whole point. The christian narrative, when examined closely, is so patently ridiculous, so obviously the construction of petty mortal minds, that if there is a god who created this universe, this story is grave insult to the very idea of him. And this is why, no, I don't fear hell, because it is inconceivable to me that any deity would have a poorer sense of justice than I, or any reasonable person, does. If there is a god who created this universe, I think he is well, well beyond our pathetic attempts to placate him. If he isn't, he isn't worthy of worship anyway.


  1. Very nice... so is it that you are actually wound up by the religulous (which seems a bit mad, in a way), or is it that the actions of those who are blinded by illogical dogma tend to lead down a destructive path rather than one of peace and sustainability? Is religion the angel dust of the people?! -AAW

  2. Purely the latter. People believe all kinds of stupid crap, but like I said, I only care when it is affecting public policy, or how you judge what I do in my life. Thanks for reading.

  3. i have always thought, rather simply, that if i, in my imperfect state though in the image of god, could not imagine putting another human being through a 'hell' of any kind then how could a "perfect" god? that summed it up for me. this was a lot more detailed...i concur.

  4. It's funny because we use to discuss this stuff all the time, but I seriously have not given it any thought for years. The absurdity seems so clear, and yet it remains the default belief system of much of the west. I can assure you that in the east it doesn't make any more sense, and it's possible that Hinduism is even sillier. Even Buddhism which has a fairly rational basis is mired in tons of cultural absurdity. It's as if people kind of love really silly stuff with lots of ceremony and pomp. Magic for the masses enlightenment for the few I guess.