The Cosmic Shell Game

In a world of darkness, I am a messenger.

When I look around, I see myself surrounded by turmoil and anguish, a world where most people live out their lives in inner anguish. From birth to death, the majority of humanity is ever-anxious, never satisfied, always searching and striving for something more. But I know what it is they seek. I was like them once, but then I found it myself – once and for all, I broke through and found peace. Now I have come back to spread this good news, to set my fellow people free with the truth of the message I bear.

I don’t claim to be anyone special – just a human being – but I’ve discovered another way, a higher way. A better way, free of the darkness that most people are lost in. It is the way that all people seek, though many of them do not realize it themselves. Just look at them – going about every day sunk in misery. How can they stand it for another moment? The despair, the bleakness, the hopelessness – it’s more than anyone should have to bear. My heart aches for those poor souls. All I want is to enlighten them to the truth, to set them free from their self-imposed prisons; I want to open their eyes.

But they don’t want to listen to me. Incredible as it may seem, they’d prefer to stay trapped in the darkness they’ve created for themselves, no matter how miserable and depressed it makes them. They can’t change their minds now, because they’re too proud, too stubborn, to admit that they were ever wrong.

It’s a real shame, on the overall. I genuinely pity those theists.

By way of disclaimer, the above paragraphs are, of course, only for rhetorical effect. I am perfectly aware that most theists don’t feel the way I describe.

But the thing is, they should.

Surely this is a curious position for an atheist to take. After all, this argument is almost invariably used the other way around, against atheists by theists. According to some of them, we’re the ones who are lost in darkness or sunk in misery, who suffer from bleakness and hopelessness, who are locked in self-imposed prisons, etc., etc. – or at least, we should be, since we either don’t know the love of God, or know it but reject it out of pride and stubbornness because we don’t want to admit that we were wrong.

This is not true, of course. In fact, as an atheist, I find my life to be full of light, freedom and hope – I have chosen to live it so. Likewise, I am perfectly content with the people I love, who actually make themselves known to me and take action to help me when I need it. I have never needed the invisible and indifferent love of an unseen deity, nor have I ever had the least perception that such a thing even existed. Theists who say otherwise are using an argument that is logically flawed at the core – an example of psychological projection. Those theists who use this argument are simply too set in their ways, too brainwashed, to even accept the concept that there is someone who genuinely does not believe in their god – honest nonbelief threatens their worldview, because it raises the (for them) intolerable possibility that they might be wrong. Therefore, they impute psychological prejudices to those who believe differently, and try to reason out why they would say such things. Of course, since they do believe in a god, they would have to knowingly live a lie to say otherwise. But for atheists, free of the illusions of religion, the same is not true of us. There is, however, a very good reason why anyone who believes in a deity should feel the way described at the beginning of this article.

Consider a shell game, such as one might see in a traveling carnival. There are three identical hollow shells on a tabletop. The barker places a pea under one shell, then slides all three around, swapping them back and forth faster than the eye can follow. The objective is to guess which shell the pea ends up under.

In theory, it seems like a fair game. Even if you lose track of the pea, you still have a one-in-three chance of winning by picking a shell at random. But what if the game was different – what if, instead of three shells, there were thousands, and the barker was quick-fingered enough to switch all of them around at once? The odds of winning would be almost zero. And what if the stakes were higher – what if there was a million-dollar bet riding on whether you could correctly find the single pea hidden under one of those thousand shells? And, finally, what if participation in the game wasn’t voluntary? What if you were seized by the employees the instant you entered the carnival, dragged off to this booth and forced to wager a million dollars of your own money on whether you could win this impossibly difficult challenge? That would be incredibly unfair, wouldn’t it?

The facts are these. There are literally thousands of religions in the world. Some are very similar to each other, even to the point of relying on the same holy books and diverging on only a few minor issues of doctrine or interpretation. Others are wildly dissimilar, differing on every detail of significance. All of them, however, are mutually exclusive. No one is a member of more than one religion.

Despite their differences, all religions have a few things in common. They all involve belief in one or more gods or other supernatural beings. They all address the issue of the afterlife and what happens to us after death. They all set rules for behavior that their adherents are expected to follow, and they all specify consequences for breaking those rules. The exact consequences vary from religion to religion, of course, but as a general rule, none are pleasant. Many Eastern religions state that those who commit evil deeds in this life will be reborn into a lower social caste, or even a non-human life form, where they will have to work off their bad karma. Buddhism says that those who fail to extinguish the three flames of hatred, greed and ignorance will remain bound to the wheel of reincarnation, trapped in lives full of suffering. But those fates, while hardly desirable, pale in comparison to the punishment that some Western religions say awaits sinners – to be cast, upon death, into Hell, a horrible, fiery pit where the damned soul will suffer and be tormented for eternity, with no hope of release or escape.

Of the thousands of religions in the world, some must be right and others wrong, simply because they all make differing and mutually exclusive claims concerning the nature of God, the path to salvation, the description of the afterlife, and so on. No one is a member of more than one religion. Every religion sets rules for behavior, usually accompanied by threats of punishment – in the case of some religions, horrible, agonizing, everlasting punishment – for breaking those rules. And lastly, and most importantly, a large number of religions state that failure to believe in that religion is a transgression of the rules worthy of punishment. Some sects of Protestant Christians, for example, believe that the only people who will get into Heaven are those who repent and accept Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal savior, specifically acknowledging his deity and rejecting all other religions. Without exception, these Christians say, anyone who does not do this is damned.

Religion is a cosmic shell game.

If theism – any brand of theism – is true, then the universe is just a shell game at a rigged carnival, with God the barker whirling the pea of the One True Religion around under one of thousands of identical shells. Out of all those multitudes of faiths, the reward for picking the right one is an eternity of bliss and happiness. Failure to pick the correct one instead merits an eternity of torture. And your participation in the game is not voluntary. This, to put it lightly, is monstrously unfair.

How can we be expected to make that determination? How is it fair to ask – to demand – that we sort through this morass of religious confusion and come to the correct choice? The diversity of beliefs, creeds and practices to choose from is truly enormous. There are polytheists and animists who believe in dozens, hundreds, or millions of gods; there are strict monotheists who believe in only one god; there are Trinitarian Christians who believe something in between. There are pantheists and Spinozans who believe that the universe itself is God, pagans who believe that specific objects within the universe are gods, and monotheists who believe in a transcendent god separate from the universe. There are religions that believe in human free will, others that advocate predestination; there are those that preach the necessity of salvation by good works and obedience to law and tradition, while others believe that redemption comes only through a single act of faith. There are religions that believe in the inerrancy of their holy book and the necessity of thorough study and learning of its teachings, while others say that human language is only an impediment, unable to grasp or transmit the essence of ultimate truth. There are religions that teach love, charity and compassion, and there are those that promote hatred, bloodshed and division. There are religions so lucid and rational that believing in them is hardly different from not believing at all, and there are religions whose beliefs and practices are utterly bizarre, with theologies that resemble hallucinations, fever dreams, or bad science fiction B-movies. (It is a given that every religion has at least some members who think their own faith falls firmly into the former category and all others into the latter.)

Granted, not all religions are completely disjoint; however, the similarities between competing traditions often serve only to cast their differences into sharper relief. For example, there are religions that use the exact same holy book and believe in the exact same god, differing only on a few minor details of interpretation – yet members of each one hold that members of the other are hopelessly condemned. There are religions that claim to be updated versions of other religions, while the original religions those religions were based on claim that they are still the genuine article and denounce their successors as false upstarts trying to steal their thunder. There are religions whose stories are so alike that one must have been copied from the other, but advocates of each claim that it is the original and the other is the fraud.

And why confine ourselves to current religions? It is entirely possible that the true religion was a now-extinct faith. Nor can we discount religions because they do not have many followers, because they are too new (or too old), or because they are practiced only by people considered primitive by modern standards. Especially, we cannot use subjective personal standards of what’s too outlandish to be true. (One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as mentioned above.) All of these things are logically irrelevant to the question of the truth of a particular belief system, and we cannot assume anything at the outset – we must begin with the null hypothesis that all religions have an equal chance of being correct. Only then can we begin to eliminate possibilities by careful examination of the evidence.

But there is another problem we will encounter if we try to do this. No religion can be conclusively proven or disproven by the evidence alone – believers of most, if not all, traditions would agree that, no matter what they feel the facts show, in the end you still have to make a leap of faith. If it were otherwise, religion would not be religion, but science.

However, if this is the case, we can never eliminate any religion from consideration. Some may require greater leaps of faith than others, but they would all stand a chance of being right regardless of the evidence arrayed for or against them. Unfalsifiable God hypotheses could always be invoked to fill the gaps between supportive facts or explain away any contrary ones. Believers could hypothesize that their deity deliberately withheld evidence, or even created false evidence, as a test of their faith, or for unknowable reasons of its own. Many religions do not even attempt to marshal evidence in favor of their claims, but simply postulate the existence of another world beyond our own whose existence must be accepted on faith alone.

Thus, any effort to rationally determine which is the true religion is doomed before it begins. The rules of scientific analysis are stymied by a barrier of faith, and any honest seeker after truth is trapped, hopelessly mired in a swamp of religious confusion. And even if we could somehow overcome the barrier of faith – even if we really did have some way to objectively determine which religions were true and which were false – what guarantee would we have that there would be anything left at the end? We might methodically cut away the thicket of false religions only to find that we had eliminated all of them and had nothing left over. In that case, the true “religion” would be atheism. The religions on this planet cannot all be right – but they could all be wrong!

No religion is different from all the rest. No religion stands out from the crowd. How can we even begin to sort through this mess? It is impossible. Even if we confine ourselves to those religions which anchor themselves in the facts, it would take a lifetime of study to make a comprehensive survey of the evidence for the claims of even one – never mind thousands – and almost no one attempts even that much, even for their belief system of choice. It is simply too much, too hard, to ask human beings with their brief lifespans of threescore and ten years to make this choice. There are too many options, too much confusion, too many religions competing and no way to discriminate among them. Their similarities are so similar, and their differences so different, that there is no good reason to prefer any one over all the others. Anyone who picks one religion is doing little more than guessing.

This is why the followers of any religion should be sunk in despair. Much like the hapless mark who completely loses track of the pea and picks a shell at random, they are making a decision based on guesswork (or upbringing, or a desire to belong, or any one of a hundred other reasons that are logically irrelevant to the truth of a particular belief system). But if this decision is the wrong one, it could well cost them their immortal soul. How could anyone function like that, living with the threat of eternal punishment constantly hanging over their head? How could a theist not be tortured by doubt every waking moment? Why are they not obsessed with worry that they chose wrongly and are widening the rift between themselves and the true god(s) every day? (As Homer Simpson once said, “What if we picked the wrong religion? Every time we go to church we’re just making God madder and madder!”)

Of course, few if any theists do feel this way. In fact, if anything, they are less prone to doubt and skepticism than atheists. They rarely worry that they have chosen wrongly and usually trust their own religion implicitly, even in the face of the evidence. This apparent contradiction can only be explained by that miracle of applied cognitive dissonance called faith. But the fact remains that faith is the only reason why people prefer one religion over all the others – and this is not much of a reason, considering that every religion has its zealots and fundamentalists who believe just as ardently as the zealots of every other. This purely subjective determinant is no way to make such a crucial choice. Faith may help us believe, but it cannot tell us what to believe.

But the argument from religious confusion does more than undercut the theist’s basis for belief – it goes straight through and bears on the question of the existence of God himself. Why, if God exists, would he make it so difficult for people to find him by allowing so many false religions to come into being? Why would he cloak himself in such a surfeit of wildly disparate and hopelessly contradictory traditions? And why would he allow some traditions to dominate in some areas and others to become dominant elsewhere, putting those people who are born into times and places ruled by false religions at an enormous disadvantage for finding him? (“The Argument from Locality” addresses this consideration further.) For God to camouflage the true path to himself in a sea of indistinguishable decoys, and then demand that every human being overcome this vast Babel of religious confusion and choose correctly, seems more like a cruel prank than the saving benevolence of an all-wise deity. If he does not exist, and if these manyfold religions are simply the inventions of humanity, our situation is perfectly understandable. But a carnival-scam-artist god who would do his utmost to conceal the truth from us under a thousand whirling shells – is this what we are to believe in? Is there any other option? Must we participate in this cosmic shell game?

Of course, there is another option, and no, we need not participate. We can withdraw from the game entirely. We can walk away and ignore the tantalizing cries of the barker who promises you unimaginable rewards if only you can play his game and win. We can begin anew, living lives full of promise and unfettered by the fear and superstition of yesterday. We can experience life to the fullest, as it was meant to be lived – reverently, full of wonder and awe. We can drink in the world in all its beauty, thankful every day for the miracles of life and consciousness that allow us to be here in the universe, even if only for a brief time. This is the true meaning of atheism.