What If You’re Wrong About Your Atheism?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: What if you’re wrong?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Rain

    The way the big religions get around the “Why should people be punished if they don’t have enough evidence to believe?” question is to claim that there indeed is enough evidence and therefore unbelievers should be punished for ignoring it. In a way it is much similar to the atheist argument that religious arguments are so stupid that the people making them must be lying their tails off pretending to believe their own stupid arguments. So for both atheists and theists, the other side seems so ridiculously stupid that they often question each other’s honesty.

    • indorri

      I should note that “thinking the other side is lying” is not morally equivalent to “they should be punished for ignoring it”, so the traditional Christian side (not the theist side in general, nor even all of Christianity, but including traditional Islam) still comes out fundamentally morally degenerate.

  • viaten

    Christians that use Pascal’s Wager seem to be compensating. They present an enormous hell as if to compensate for the probability of God’s existence being very small.

  • Rabid

    Q: What if you’re wrong about your atheism (and the Christian God is real, presumably)?

    A: In death, I will realise I was wrong and act accordingly. By becoming a Luciferian. Hell Crew, Represent… It’s time to overthrow this tyrannical dictator once and for all.

    • indorri

      Mostly correct response. This is one of the things I don’t see addressed often.

      Aside from the invalidity of Pascal’s Wager, assuming we’re talking about the Christian God for a moment, the moral response is “OK, he exists. Now it’s time to rip up the foundations of hell brick by brick and send them into a black hole, and eradicate the menace of the universe permanently.”

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        The entire argument presupposes that there is only the one god (the Christian one) and in Pascal’s case only one religion (Catholicism) so that it’s only a binary choice. but it’s not. Which god(s) would I need to believe in? Which practices? Which of many sub-sects would I have to belong to?

      • Artor

        Um… isn’t heaven the foundation of hell? Where do I get a celestial pickaxe?

        • Hat Stealer

          I’ve heard that God is weak against iron chariots. The next logical step is an iron chariot-pickaxe.

    • Stev84

      I’d rather be in hell with all the nice and interesting people than in heaven, given how many Christians behave.

      • allein

        Heaven for the climate, hell for the company. – Mark Twain

  • viaten

    I’d like to hear one Christian, just one, admit that Pascal’s Wager is the basis of their faith, or that they converted as a result of Pascal’s Wager. When presenting Pascal’s Wager, it’s almost as if Christians expect it to be rejected so as to make atheists look even more atheist if they don’t convert.

    • Rationalist1

      Actually in the time of Pascal and earlier, it probably was the basis for many people’s faith. Most Christians don’t preach it now but hell and damnation for unbelievers was a huge part of the Christian message. I’m old enough to remember Catholic sermons like Fr. Arnall’s in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist designed to literally scare the hell out of the parishioners in the pews.

      The Catholic Church would still be preaching them now if the sermons weren’t so socially unacceptable.

      • Mitch

        Given the Catholic Church’s stance on many things, I didn’t think they were too concerned about what is “socially unacceptable.”

        • viaten

          Their main concern now (as has always been) is money, power, and control, at the moment just hanging on to them.

    • Thom Mills

      I’ve met many that, through their actions and thought process, don’t truly believe but use the “what if you are wrong” statement. They are not trying to convince me but are afraid to not believe.

      • viaten

        “afraid not to believe”, a good observation. As if they believe they’ll go to hell if they stop believing in it. A vicious self sustaining superstition keeping them locked in.

  • A3Kr0n

    Hell, I’m wrong all the time. Learning from my mistakes is how I improve.

    • Rationalist1

      It’s how science improves too. Notice how churches never admit to making any mistakes about their teachings. It’s why they never improve.

      When I teach programming languages, I tell my students one of the ways to learn is to make every mistake in the language. If you don’t have errors in your code you’re not pushing your code as much as you should.

      • Brian Westley

        Notice how churches never admit to making any mistakes about their teachings.

        You got that sooo right. Look at Catholicism: for centuries, Catholics taught that there was NO salvation outside the Catholic church. When that became untenable (e.g. millions of people in remote places or in earlier times who merely hadn’t heard about the Catholic church must be in eternal torment without having had any chance to become Catholic), they changed it. NOT by changing what they taught, but by saying people could be members of the Catholic church without they, or the church, knowing about it! Google “Anonymous Christian.”

        They can’t admit a mistake, so they have to change what the words mean.

  • viaten

    “… believe/prayed just for the hell of it.” An interesting choice of words.

  • Rationalist1

    I grew up a Catholic. When in school many other Protestant Christians told me that I was going to hell because I was the wrong type of believer. And on Sunday at Church I was told you had to be Catholic to go to heaven.

    I’m with Hemant now. Live the best life you can. Religion doesn’t matter.

    • allein

      I grew up Methodist and I can honestly say I’ve never had anyone tell me I’m going to hell for believing the wrong religion (at least not in real life; probably had a few tell me that here). Was I just lucky?

      • Artor

        I don’t know if you can count growing up Methodist as lucky.

        • 3lemenope

          I think you can. On the Mohs scale of Christian “hardness”, the Methodists usually slide in somewhere between the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians. One can certainly do a *lot* worse.

        • allein

          I tend to refer to it as “benignly Methodist.” Also, “Religion was something we did on Sundays.”
          .
          I honestly couldn’t tell you what made us “Methodist” other than we went to the Methodist church.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            Methodists seem to belong to one of two sects, either Quite Charitable And Great To Know or Self-Righteous Pricks. Sounds like you won out there. ;-)

            Of course I am a little biased, since my ex-girlfriend was a Methodist and volunteered like eighty times a week until health issues slowed her down.

    • Miss_Beara

      I was friends with a True Christian and when I met her friends I was asked “what church do you belong to?” I never was asked that question before since I don’t live in the Bible Belt. Since there were about 15 True Christians there, I was not comfortable saying that I don’t belong to a church. I said I went to a Catholic school. The guy who asked me that said in response “Well, that’s ok. Nice to meet you!” I later asked my friend about it and she said that Catholics do not know God and are not Real Christians.

      She then tried to convert me by saying how worthless she is without God. Needless to say we haven’t talked since.

      • allein

        Yeah, telling me you’re worthless and I should feel that way too is a great way to convert me! I have enough issues all on my own without a religion trying to convince me that I’m right.

    • # zbowman

      This is why I love Aurelius’ Assurance as a response to Pascal’s Wager.

  • Jasper

    What if you’re wrong about CCccccooo CCccooooo, the Galaxy-Destroying Pigeon Quintuple, who will destroy any galaxies where the residents don’t believe in them above all other gods. Huh? WHAT IF YOUR WRONG

    • 3lemenope

      WHAT IF YOUR WRONG

      Effing gold, right there.

    • Artor

      (you’re)

    • Jonas Green

      Said Galaxy-Destroying Pigeon would smite the StarGate SG-1 producer who came up with the idea of the Ori.

      • JSC_ltd

        I thought that was a great story line about how religion ruins everything, and that it was obviously critical of Christianity. My super Christian relatives thought it was a great story line about how the wrong religion ruins everything and that it was obviously critical of Not-True-Christianity. As art goes, it’s a mark of good art that it can be interpreted so differently by different viewers. Contrast that with something like the Bible, which is thought of as the literal law by many of its believers: if the law is so vague that it can be interpreted so differently by different adherents, it is useless and bad law.

  • ejoty

    But which god should I pray to? Kali? Loki? Yhwh? There are at least 2,500 to choose from.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Well if I have to pick one, I’ll pick Thor because he’s awesome!

      • Kingasaurus

        Lets get hammered!

  • dsmith

    The pious Christian tells us….God is love. He is your father in heaven. He only wants what is best for you. He is forgiving. Trust in God. He gave his only begotten son for you. Then the soft spoken man of God tells you…..BUT IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN HIM HE WILL CAST YOU INTO A BURNING HELL WHERE YOU WILL BE TORTURED FOREVER AND EVER!!. So I really don’t have a choice?

    • Stev84

      Standard Christian response:
      It’s not god sending you to hell. You do it yourself by not believing in him.

      • Jasper

        My question to that is usually along the lines of: Why, by the Farts of Zeus, did he set it up that way?

        It’d be like my making a robot that was specifically designed to roam around killing everyone, and when asked why, I say, “Well, I gave people the choice to run away, so if they didn’t, clearly they wanted to die.”

        • 3lemenope

          Life taken on its own has some really rough spots. Many lives are nothing but rough spots. Given that the book of Job has gutted the most obvious theistic responses to this problem, the fall back mindset becomes:

          Life is a game and you’ve won, or
          Life is a test and you’ve passed, or
          Life is about behaving well and you got a gold star.

          Which are the specific forms of the general thought that life has value because some being other than the one living it has granted it value, has judged it valuable. It isn’t valuable on its own. Protests of caring about fetuses notwithstanding. It has to be set up this way, otherwise a person might come to think that the whole life thing comes out remarkably unfair, overall. And having unfair lives with a just God just won’t do. But if the whole life thing is just a trial run to prove your worth, then the unfairness takes on a different complexion entirely, especially if you come to believe that the grading system is on a scale.

  • mlj11

    Haven’t seen the video yet – bad connection, will watch when I’m home – but I want to say that I have come across theists who use Pascal’s Wager as a reason (although maybe not the central basis) for their belief.

    But the fact that there are a multitude of religions positing an even larger plethora of gods exposes the central conceit of the Wager – that “saving” your soul via belief is a binary choice.

    To the theist: what if your god is the wrong one?

    I haven’t yet heard a satisfactory counter-argument from any theist to that.

    • allein

      That’s because there isn’t one.

    • viaten

      I think they would say that they’re not “just picking” a religion, but that they are certain, in their hearts, by faith, by apologetic arguments, they have the correct religion. None are satisfactory arguments, and you’ll never get one that is.

  • Ida Know

    If it turns out there is a god, and he’s all-knowing as Christians claim, then he would know why I didn’t believe. If he’s all-loving as they claim, he would understand, take into account the good I’ve done, and forgive me. If not, he’s not worthy of being worshipped, so screw him.

    • Free

      He folks. It’s all about “ME” right. That is the problem with Atheism and why they throw rocks at deity. Because in the end, I want to rule. Somehow my elevated view of myself will win out. I know all, possess all and have all.

      The reality is that we are so insignificant in the cosmos.

      God needs not to compete with your supposed goodness. Goodness to the Holy is complete perfection. Your attempts to be good is not the point.

      • RobMcCune

        It’s all about “ME” right.

        I’d say that’s a fairly good description of your commenting activity on this site.

        Because in the end, I want to rule.

        That’s been fairly obvious for a while, fortunately you don’t.

        Somehow my elevated view of myself will win out

        Sorry to burst your bubble, but the elevated view of yourself that your religion gives you is false.

        The reality is that we are so insignificant in the cosmos.

        Now you’re getting it. Wow, that was a quick turn around.

      • Japooh

        “The reality is that we are so insignificant in the cosmos.”

        Absolutely right. And yet you also believe that the creator of all of the contents of the cosmos is most interested in a single species on one single planet in one single solar system, in a single galaxy of the countless ones that exist. I bet you think it’s really, really interested in who is doing what to whom with their genitalia too, don’t you?

        Talk about ME, ME, ME – the sheer arrogance required to believe this is stunning. Your attempt to make a point is duly noted, and duly dismissed.

      • Jan Kafka

        “He folks. It’s all about “ME” right.”

        Christianity in a nutshell.

  • Mitch

    “Just for the hell of it.” Pun intended?

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    All of us could be wrong. Look at how many religions there are. What I believed in a god but picked the wrong one, or picked the wrong sect of one of them. Such people would be no better off than those of us who don’t believe at all. It’s a stupid argument and reveals that the person using it just hasn’t really thought about it very much (if at all).

  • JET

    Wouldn’t an all-knowing god know I was just praying to hedge my bets? I can force myself to recite prayers, but I can’t force myself to actually believe. Pascal’s Wager assumes god can be easily fooled. I think that might piss him off.

    • 3lemenope

      I think the moral of the story here is that people should really just stop using arguments that were found scribbled in the margins of some dead guy’s private notebook.

    • viaten

      I think Pascal addressed that. Pascal’s Wager isn’t intended to “force” belief and accepting it shouldn’t be equated with belief. It’s intended just to convince someone they’re much better off believing and should takes steps in that direction.

      • allein

        But what steps would those be? I can’t think of anything I could do that would result in my believing in any particular religion.

        • viaten

          Pascal suggested “acting as if you believe, taking holy water, having masses said [for yourself I assume]. This will naturally make you believe and deaden your acuteness [of mind]“. But you might have to believe that will work for it to work. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager#Inability_to_believe

          • allein

            “deaden your acuteness [of mind]“…well that says a lot!

            • viaten

              It seems Pascal knew a sharp intellect works against religious belief.

          • 3lemenope

            FWIW, habituation is a very effective way to alter behaviors, and often beliefs will fall in line with those behaviors after the fact.

            • viaten

              Yes. That probably explains “tradition”.

          • raerants

            “But you might have to believe that will work for it to work.”

            Ah, the placebo effect.

          • Vicq_Ruiz

            taking holy water, having masses said

            This is my favorite response to Protestant apologists who throw the wager my way.

            • viaten

              I’m not sure what you mean by responding with holy water and masses, but I like Pascal’s suggestion “acting as if you believe”. I’d ask such believers if they are still acting or know anyone who took Pascal’s Wager to heart and who is acting as if they believed, and how they (or such a person) would tell the difference.

      • Artor

        No, but it’s an insincere reason to believe. One would presume that a god could tell if you REALLY believed, or if you just pretended to just in case.

        • viaten

          I think Pascal was trying to scare people into at least pursuing belief if they couldn’t just “choose” to believe immediately. I wonder if God would count a “chosen” belief (even not fear based) as a real belief. Whether a Christian “really” believes seems to be a question that is never taken seriously by believers, at least while they’re believing. But then why would they?

          • Japooh

            If the “typical” Christian actually believed the things they claim, they would behave differently.

            If they were paying more attention to the fringes and the subcultures, they would be more vocal in opposition and they would understand what those of us who don’t believe are talking about.

  • viaten

    What if the Bible is just a test God set up to see who is gullible and fearful enough to be taken by it, and those who are skeptical and live rational, compassionate lives go to heaven?

  • C Peterson

    The bottom line is, if Christians are right, we live in a Universe created by an evil, sociopathic god. If that’s the case, we’re all screwed, plain and simple.

    Fundamentally, the question itself is stupid. There are millions of possibilities, none of which have more evidence supporting them than any other (which happens to be zero evidence). We could spend our entire life identifying all these possibilities and asking ourselves “what if we’re wrong about that one?” We’d waste our life, not scratch the surface of all the possibilities, and learn absolutely nothing.

    • DesertSun59

      Correct. The Bible records their deity as being a pathological genocidal maniac.

    • Japooh

      If any current model of a creation deity exists then it follows that: if the christian god exists and is exclusionary, I along with roughly 2/3 of the population of the planet are going to hell; if Allah exists and is exclusionary, I along with roughly 2/3 of the population of the planet are going to hell. Given the Eastern religions view that there are many paths to god, it would make the most sense to follow Buddhism, or Taoism if I had to choose.

      They tend to sputter a bit when I throw that into the conversation.

  • Artor

    If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. I’ve done my best to come to the right conclusion, and if it turns out that Odin is real, then it’s on his head for being so damned sneaky and hiding proof of his existence so well. If I’m going to be punished by a deity for not being able to penetrate his magical veil, then said deity is not one I’d want to worship in the first place.

  • allein

    What does it mean to be “genuinely seeking”? I live my life as if there are no gods, since none have given me a reason to do otherwise, but it’s not like I’m actually looking for evidence. I grew up going to church, and I drifted away from it once A.) my parents were no longer taking me and B.) I had no social reason to go (as in friends who I only saw there). Once I went off to college 3 hours from home, I really had no reason to find a new church because I was never going for the religious aspect in the first place and there was plenty to fill my social needs even on my small college campus.

    • viaten

      I’d say you’re “genuinely seeking” if you have no expectations and are willing to conclude you’re not going to find anything because there is nothing to find.

      • allein

        I guess I’m good to go, then ;)

  • DesertSun59

    Pascal’s Wager has long since been solved. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary EVIDENCE.

    The premise of Pascal’s Wager is that a tribal Jewish myth from the Bronze Age is correct just because people who believe it say its true. (Get it? It’s true because a bunch of people believe its true and pass the ‘trueness’ of it on to their kids, ad infinitum). Bertrand Russell solved this issue long ago with his Russell’s Teapot analogy. Here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_teapot

    • 3lemenope

      Uh, mm. Pascal’s Wager really isn’t premised on the Bible being true because people say so. And it really can’t be defeated by a recourse to lack of evidence, as the whole point of the wager is to attempt to demonstrate *all other things being equal* that it is better to believe than not believe.

      It has two fatal flaws. The first is that even if we assume only two possible options (the correct theism, or atheism), the payoff matrix is tendentious without clear cause; it is unclear, for example, that the loss of a finite portion of an irrecoverable and finite life is more of a loss than the loss of any given form of immortality. Since religion requires time and effort to do properly, if religion turns out to be false then the person choosing theism will have wasted something invaluable and irreplaceable, at least in part. The second, and far more obvious problem, is that the payoff matrix is incomplete because it fails to take into account that there are several available theisms, each with the same prior probability of being true, that mutually exclude the other leading to a positive payoff. Even if there were only two religions, each with exclusive membership or criteria, that would be sufficient to show the wager to be a bad bet for any given theism, since the payoff prediction is neutral between the two theisms, and there is also the (assumed for the purposes of the wager) equal chance that atheism is correct (so the probability of negative to positive payoff always looks like A + T1 > T2).

  • WingedBeast

    What if I’m wrong? Let’s take it in steps.

    What if I’m wrong simply that there is one or more deity that actually exists?
    Well, there’s no evidence supporting even one in general, let alone any specific deities, therefore which one is a crapshoot.

    What if I’m wrong that the specifically Christian deity exists?

    Well, I can always hope that the hype overrules the specifics, that infinitely wise and compassionate overrules the expectations of there being a Hell and God being the kind of guy who would actually command infanticide, even as just a test.

    What if I’m wrong and the specific Christian theology of the ones that ask actually accurately describe God?

    Well then, asker, congratulations. You guessed right and you worshipped a monster. I didn’t. Congratulations on getting to spend eternity in worship to the being who would send you to eternal torment for the high crime of not worshipping to it. I, however, will suffer eternally because I did not make that guess and did not engage the specific level, style, and direction of doublethink that would enable me to escape the definite tortures of Hell for a situation in which, were I not to feel absolute joy at worshipping God, I will soon find myself in Hell with all the wrong-guessers.

    So, yes, if that is the case… what do you expect my answer to be? According to those rules, there’s nothing I can say to make the high infinite terrorist not send me to Hell (and, no, let’s not pretend I’m sending myself. Had I true free will, I’d rather create my own third option).

    But, go ahead, you enjoy an eternity knowing that people you knew and loved or would have loved had you known them are all suffering eternal torment and that you would too, if you allowed yourself to spend a moment worrying that such torment might not be entirely just.

  • JA

    My response to a question like this is usually along the lines of, “And what if when you die and you “come to” in the afterlife, you are face to face with, say, Anubis or Hel?”

  • Bill Brooks

    If my atheist beliefs are wrong and I find myself standing before god I will stab it in the heart and go to hell with a smile on my face. This god you pray to would be a vindictive evil son of a bitch who caused needless suffering for billions of people. It deserves death. My beliefs are not wrong.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I have to feel sorry for Blaise Pascal. He was a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and inventor who made important contributions to science, but today he’s best remembered, almost exclusively remembered for the dumbest thing he ever said. At age 31 he had some kind of “mystical experience” and left scientific work behind to study and write theology for the last 8 years of his life.

    Geniuses: Beware mystical experiences! Bad! Bad!

    • WillBell

      I remember when I was younger having only heard of Pascal’s Wager and being an atheist thinking that he must have been some idiot. Then I learned about his other side in school and I was seriously surprised it was the same guy.

  • Ryan Hite

    Pascals Wager….

  • jreed3000

    These kinds of questions cannot be answered from outside the delusion.

  • Anna

    If I’m wrong about my atheism? No big deal. If there are deities out there, there’s no reason to assume that they would at all resemble the ones created by various human societies.

  • Antinomian

    So what if I’m wrong; right now. If empirical evidence of the existance of supernatural supreme beings presents its self, I could change my mind. However, the gods have had forever to present themselves and have failed to do so. So, FUCK YOU GODS in every form, for the suffering of humanity. You had your chance to help us, but yet, in your vanity, you remained mute and detached, expecting us to love you regardless of our circumstances. You claim to have created us and love us as your chidren, but yet you’ve treated us as chattel. YES you heard me, FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! I’d rather die a thousand deaths, nay, infininite deaths in the worst way, than bow before your infantile needs for agrandisement.

    Oh, in case you didn’t get me the first time, FUCK YOU AND THE HORSE YOU FLEW IN ON.

  • Kodie

    What if I’m wrong. Eternity is a long time to be sent to the “wrong place”.

    What if they’re wrong. One life is all the time you get.

    • ZenDruid

      If I’m wrong, I’ll just keep reincarnating until I get it right, or something.

      • Kodie

        That would be my favorite fake option. If you’re wrong, you will just die and whatever you have done wrong with your life will become dust also. It’s a pretty good deal – take someone’s parking space, apologize profusely, get yelled at anyway, and it doesn’t matter for more than 10 minutes of your conscience and up to about 5 days of theirs. If they are really bad, they might slash your tires, but they probably won’t.

  • Wildthing

    If a theist ever throws this argument at you, then hit ‘em with Revelations 3:15-16; “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out of my mouth.”
    God knows when you are bullshitting. At least, the Catholic God of my childhood does.

  • Jan Kafka

    The geekychristian.com website has some ‘thought provoking’ questions for atheists and others: http://geekychristian.com/questions-for-atheists-agnostics/
    AND ‘proof’ of both Christianity and God http://geekychristian.com/proof-christianity-is-true/ http://geekychristian.com/proof-for-god/

    Warning: You might not want to view any of the material above while eating or drinking anything. Just sayin’….

  • James

    I think Hemant just outed himself as Jewish at 1:22


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