This was written many years ago, but I think the message is still valid…if a bit over the top…an overindulgence of my youth.
Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th century French Philosopher and mathematician had some advice for those who were undecided about the existence of God. In what has become known as “Pascal’s Wager,” he argued that, given a choice between believing or not believing in God, the wise decision is to believe that God exists. “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” A believer will gain eternal life if God exists, but if not, he will be no worse off in death than if he had not believed. On the other hand, a nonbeliever will suffer eternal agony when he dies if God exists, and will gain nothing over the believer if not.
I first heard about Pascal’s Wager when I was in high school. My initial reaction, after I understood the logic of the proposition, was to nod and agree. It was definitely logical. And then, the cynicism of the whole idea hit me…that one could make a cold and detached calculation about the most profound spiritual issue imaginable. This famous mathematician and philosopher was suggesting that a person could turn belief on or off by throwing a mental switch. I searched the innermost recesses of my brain, and I’ll be damned if I could find that switch. I wondered how many people who call themselves Christians never found that switch and were faking it.
Since then, I have probed a bit deeper into Pascal’s thinking, and found that he was not quite as shallow and cynical as I had thought, although his “wager” was certainly part of his mission as a Christian evangelist and apologist. He warned that choosing to believe was no guarantee of salvation, but that the wager should serve as an impetus to attain the true faith that would lead to salvation. I found his “clarification” unconvincing. It still reeked of hypocrisy.
There were many churches in the small Midwestern town where I grew up, but my parents were not churchgoers, so naturally, neither were their children. Their religious views were never discussed at home. It wasn’t that the subject was avoided. It simply didn’t exist as a subject. Of course, I observed the families of some of my classmates attending church on Sundays, but I never felt any discomfort over our lack of participation. On the few occasions where I attended church activities, I found them boring and dreary.
The two infamous words, “under God,” were added to the Pledge in 1954, when I was a senior in high school. Although I was not courageous enough to openly protest, I refused to say them during the daily Pledge recitation by the class. It was my own little private protest.
Prayers were common in schools in those days. Most group ceremonies, graduations, etc. were preceded by an “Invocation” and ended with a “Benediction.” These were given by pastors from local churches, who rotated the privilege amongst themselves. Most people bowed their heads during these, but from the time I was old enough to understand their significance, I sat erect, looking straight ahead. Even then, I felt it would have been dishonest for me to pretend piety, even though I was risking criticism from others who observed my actions. No one ever commented on it. I don’t know if they noticed or not.
The priest for the local Catholic church was a young, handsome and very personable guy in his thirties or early forties. Everyone called him “Father K,” because his surname was one of those Polish or Hungarian strings of unpronounceable consonants. I was thinking about him recently, and concluded that he was probably not involved in any of the pedophilic crimes that have come to light in the past few years. One of the reasons for my doubt is that the Church had thoughtfully provided him with a live-in “housekeeper,” a very attractive…no, make that voluptuous…young woman. My friends and I, with the help of our raging teenage hormones, fantasized endlessly about what went on in that large house on the corner where they lived. There were some titillating rumors. The good Father was having trouble with plugged drains, and called in a plumber, who found that the toilet was plugged with used condoms. It probably wasn’t true, but the arrangement certainly made a lot of sense, and probably reduced the danger to altar boys significantly. I couldn’t help thinking, though, about the Church’s insistence on the celibacy of its priests, and the apparent condoning of this arrangement. The stench of hypocrisy pervaded the whole thing. Nevertheless, my companions and I were verdant with envy of the good Father.
Even though I found organized religion tedious, unbelievable and boring, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the question of the existence of God. I was more interested in the really important things in life…football, basketball and girls. It wasn’t until I graduated and started my first year of college that I started to think about it a little more seriously.
In the fall of 1954, I was just starting my first college English class. The professor asked each of us to write a short essay of 500 words on any subject. I chose the topic, “Religion…Its Value to Society.” I wish I had saved that paper. I don’t remember much that I wrote, but the teacher selected it to read to the class and gave me an A+ grade! I think the main theme was that, although I wasn’t sure about the existence of God, and I didn’t believe in the myths associated with any of the Christian religions, I thought that religion probably provided a useful function of social unification. I remember saying that its value went beyond getting the farmer to “wash his neck once a week,” which got a big laugh from the class.
Other writers on the subject have criticized Hitchens, saying that he goes too far. Even his friends, writers Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”) and Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”) are quietly critical. But having just finished “God Is Not Great,” I must say that Hitchens has got it right. I can think of no redeeming value for any organized religion. They are, individually and taken as a group, the single most destructive force humanity has ever seen, and they continue to wreak their mayhem to this day, promoting ignorance, intolerance and misery. If any human organization on the planet is capable of destroying human life, possibly even ALL life on earth, religion is the one.
I have concluded this reluctantly, and with sad forebodings, because I see the current course of events, with escalating confrontations between Christianity and Islam, inevitably leading to nuclear terrorism, followed by massive nuclear war. If that happens, the ecosphere will be poisoned and uninhabitable for untold centuries into the future. Only devoutly religious extremists in both camps could welcome such an outcome. The only way it can be avoided, in my opinion, is if the secular communities come together and refuse to let it happen. And the only way that can happen is if the influence of the organized religions of the world is greatly reduced or completely eliminated. It is the only way we can survive.
I am not hopeful that this will happen, or that it will happen in time to save us. The dominant voices from our pulpits and from the mosques of Islam are spewing hate and intolerance, inflaming their followers, provoking them to riot and attack anyone with opposing views. As Hitchens says, governments have become adept at manipulating their citizens through sophisticated propaganda in the government-controlled media. This is happening today, both here and abroad. The Rapturists and Islamists welcome the coming Armageddon that they are planning and supporting. It will only be prevented if we non-lunatics, the secular humanists and the less devout Christians and Muslims, take matters into our own hands. We should have done it yesterday. Today is our last chance. Tomorrow may be too late.
I may have started life as a casual skeptic in our God-fearing society, but I have now evolved to the point where I see the approaching danger. The next and final step of my evolution is into a full-fledged activist, seeking to save us from the catastrophe that some of our fellow citizens welcome or accept fatalistically. I do NOT accept such a fate. I want my children and theirs and many more generations beyond to inherit this beautiful planet and live out fulfilling and meaningful lives. Anyone who promotes our destruction is my enemy, and I will fight him with all the self-righteousness that he hypocritically invokes to further his despicable and profoundly immoral religious goals.
AFTERWORD: I wrote that essay on religion at the beginning of my Freshman year in college in the fall of 1954…almost exactly 63 years ago. I was a few months shy of my 18th birthday. I am now a few months shy of my 81st birthday. As you can see, the reversal of the digits in my age has not led to a reversal in my opinion of organized religion.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.