After more than 1000 posts at this blog, I’d like to return to the project that started it all, my 2012 book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. I’ll run a few excerpts from the book over the next couple of months. These may run a bit longer than the usual post, but the fiction format is an interesting way to explore apologetics arguments.
A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study. Jim is working on an electric fan.
Paul cleared his throat and began. “Okay, I’m sure you’ll agree that you possess only a tiny fraction of all knowledge.”
“Then isn’t it possible that there is compelling evidence that God exists, but you just don’t know it? Doesn’t this throw great doubt on your belief that God doesn’t exist?”
“Great doubt? Hardly,” Jim said as he strung the power cord through the fan’s base. “I’m also not certain that leprechauns don’t exist. No good evidence argues that they do exist, so I assume they don’t. By this logic, I also think God doesn’t exist. Give me the information that would convince me otherwise. If he exists, that fact is apparently not well publicized or not convincing.”
“Evidence for God’s existence is both well publicized and convincing,” Paul said. “The Bible tells us, ‘Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities have been clearly seen, so that men are without excuse.’ ”
“How can his invisible qualities be seen?”
“What I mean is, the majority of your fellow citizens believe in God.”
“And the majority of people don’t. The preponderance of evidence says that there is no God, so that’s what I believe. That’s what I must believe. If I stumbled across new information that showed my position was wrong, I should indeed change it.”
Jim mounted the motor on its base. “You raise a dangerous challenge. Turn it around: given the tiny fraction of all knowledge that you possess, how can you reject the hundreds of belief systems that exist today and have existed through history? Aren’t you concerned about being a bad Muslim? You don’t want to spend eternity in Muslim hell. Or a bad Buddhist? I’ve seen pictures of the hell of Tibetan Buddhism, and you don’t want to go there either.
“We’re both atheists. We agree that the thousands of gods in history are fiction, with the single exception of the Christian god—you think that particular god, out of all the others, actually exists. I rejected the Christian god with much more deliberation than you used when you rejected all the others. If you think that I’m obliged to consider Christianity’s claims, surely you’re obliged to consider the claims of the other religions.”
Paul said, “I consult my feelings and know the Christian path to be the true one. Faith is believing what you know in your heart to be true.”
“That’s something a believer from any tradition could say. What religion would you claim if you grew up in Egypt or Morocco or the Ottoman Empire? If you were of a spiritual bent, you would almost surely be a Muslim. You’d be a Hindu if raised in certain parts of India, a Confucian in China, and so on. Were you just extraordinarily lucky to have been born in a place and time in which the correct religion happened to be dominant?”
Jim poked his screwdriver toward Paul. “Why are you a Christian? Not because Christianity is the truth. It’s simply because you were raised in a Christian community. It’s the same with language—you speak English because you were born in America. You didn’t evaluate the world’s languages and rationally decide which one to speak—it was a decision made for you by society. You’re simply a product of your culture.”
Paul squeezed his hands into a fist so hard that he could feel his fingernails digging into his palms. “Then how do you explain the hundreds of millions of Christians? Christianity is the most popular religion the world has ever seen.”
“Truth is not a goddamn popularity contest.” Jim slashed with the screwdriver to punctuate his words like a manic orchestra conductor. “Some religion will be the most popular—does that make it the correct one? And how do you explain the hundreds of millions of Muslims? Or Hindus? Or any of the other religions that have been around for centuries and seem to satisfy the spiritual needs of their adherents? Is it delusion? Superstition? Custom? Indoctrination? However you explain the success of those religions should answer your question about why Christians believe. Look at the new variants of Christianity that have sprouted in this country in just the last century—Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why is your flavor of Christianity not invented just like these were?”
Sweat tickled Paul’s skin as it ran down his sides. He couldn’t control this slippery conversation. Now would be a good time to help, God, he thought as he launched into Samuel’s approach to Pascal’s Wager.
“All right, let’s think of this like a bet,” he began, “the most important bet imaginable. Suppose your concerns are correct and there were just one chance in a hundred that Christianity is correct. Let’s suppose the time, energy, and money you would invest in the church amounts to ten thousand dollars over your lifetime. For it to be an even bet, the return on a win—Christianity being true—must be a hundred times your expense, or a million dollars. That is, you wager ten thousand dollars for a one-in-a-hundred chance to win a million dollars. Would you say that that’s a fair bet?”
“Yes, that’s a fair bet,” Jim said, smiling.
“But wouldn’t you also say that the prize of eternal bliss instead of torment is much more valuable than a million dollars? Doesn’t that make betting on Christianity the obvious choice?”
“Sam and I came up with that argument on our own. We were quite pleased with ourselves—only later did I discover that Pascal had beaten us by 250 years.” Jim wiped his hands with a rag as he stood and walked to the bureau holding the chessboard. “I don’t know about Sam, but I’ve thought quite a bit about these arguments over the years. What seemed very compelling to us long ago has a lot of holes under close examination. If all you’ve got is Sam’s arguments from twenty-five years ago, then I’m afraid he hasn’t armed you very well.” He pulled open a wide drawer, poked through its clutter for a few moments, and returned to the sofa with a deck of cards. The low table in front of the sofa held several open books, which Jim closed and dropped with a thump on the blue and white Oriental rug.“Since we’re talking about betting, let’s simulate your argument with cards,” Jim said, as he held the cards face down in one hand and fanned them with the other. “What card shall we use to represent the Christian jackpot?”
Paul groped for a symbol, and the image of the princess mother from the fairy tale came to mind. “How about … the queen of hearts.”
“Okay, and let’s improve your odds. Let’s say that you must pay just a thousand dollars for the privilege of picking a card, but if you pick the queen of hearts, you get a million dollars. That’s about what you’re saying, right?”
“But is that really analogous to our situation?” Jim turned the cards over and leafed through them until he found the queen of hearts. He put that card face up on the sofa beside him and fanned the remaining cards as before, offering them face down to Paul. “How about now? Would you pay a thousand dollars to play now?”
“Of course not,” Paul said. “There’s no chance of winning.”
“Right. So which game are we playing—the one with the winning card in the pack or the one with no winning card?” Jim looked at Paul for a moment before slapping the cards onto the table. “There’s no winning card here! Show me why that’s not completely analogous to your wager. If you said that you worshipped the sun, at least I could know that what you worshipped actually existed. And this wager applies to you as well. You can’t offer this wager to me without making a similar bet yourself with a thousand other religions.”
Jim returned to sit on the floor in front of the fan and pushed the blades onto the motor shaft. “Another thing: I can’t choose to believe. I won’t pretend to believe either—I don’t respect hypocrisy, and if God exists, he doesn’t either. I can’t choose to believe in God or Jesus just like you can’t choose to believe in Zeus or Hercules. Christians seem to imagine faith in Jesus like a plate of sandwiches passed around at supper—I can take or not as I choose. But belief doesn’t work that way, so don’t imagine that your religion has provided eternal salvation for the taking.”
“But what if I’m right?” Paul asked.
“And what if I’m right? Then you will have missed seeing your life for what it truly is—not a test to see if you correctly dance to the tune of an empty set of traditions; not a shell of a life, with real life waiting for you in the hereafter; not drudgery to be endured or penance paid while you bide your time for your reward. But rather the one chance you have at reality. We can argue about whether heaven exists, but one thing we do know is that we get one life here on earth. A too-short life, no matter how long you live, that you can spend wisely or foolishly. Where you can walk in a meadow on a warm spring day, and laugh and learn, and do good things and feel good for having done them. Where you can strive to leave the world a little better than you found it. Where you can play with children, and teach someone, and love.”
Jim gestured with increasing vigor until he sprang from the floor and paced like a preacher, looking at Paul as he did so. “There’s simply no reason to imagine that there’s a beneficent Father in the sky to lean on, to take care of us, to clean up our mistakes—the evidence says that we’re on our own. That reality can be sobering, but it’s also empowering. We’re the caretakers of the world, and if we blunder, we pay the price. But if we create a better world, then we and our descendants get to enjoy it. This is no hollow philosophy. It’s joyous and empowering—and it’s reality. I would rather live in reality than in a delusion, no matter how delightful. I don’t want my mind clouded by superstition just like I don’t want it clouded by opium. And making the most of today is better than living for an imaginary tomorrow in heaven.” Jim stared at him with his hands on his hips.
“Well …” Paul stared at his note card, looking for his next move. “Well, let me ask you this: what would you say if you died and found yourself standing in judgment before God?”
“I would say that I followed reason, not faith,” Jim said as he walked back to the towel and set the brass cage in place around the blades. “That I didn’t allow superstition to govern me and saw no sin in being intellectually honest. That I tried to lead an ethical life driven solely by my love of my fellow man, not by fear of punishment or desire for reward in the afterlife. And what about you? If there is a God, maybe he will say to you, ‘You had no evidence to believe and yet you did. Is that what I gave you brains for—to follow the crowd? You had a powerful tool that you didn’t use. I gave you brains for you to think.’ ”
Jim set the rebuilt fan on the floor next to the bureau. He plugged it in and the blades swung into motion with a hum, sending a cool breeze across the room.
“Remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk?” Jim asked as he returned to the sofa, wiping his hands. “Jack sells the family cow for five magic beans. His mother throws out the beans and scolds the boy. But the next day they find an enormous beanstalk. Jack climbs up, finds an evil giant, takes all his treasure, and kills him—a happy ending.”
He threw the rag onto the center table. “But is this good advice? Should we all be like Jack? Would you recommend that someone trade his most valuable possession for some magical something, with no proof?”
“But look at what happened,” Paul said. “Jack made the bet and won. He took the leap of faith, and things worked out well for him.”
“It’s a story! It’s just pretend. Is Christianity compelling in the same way—because it’s also a story?” Jim jabbed his finger in the air to punctuate his words. “You should not … take your life lessons … from a fairy tale. You should not trade a cow for ‘magic’ beans, and you shouldn’t trade away your most valuable possession, your life, on a mythical claim without evidence.”
“My life isn’t my most valuable possession—my soul is.”
“Show me that your soul is any more real than magic beans and I’ll see your point.”
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/30/14.)