Bob Seidensticker, of Cross Examined here at Patheos, contributed a chapter to the recent book Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century. In his piece, he joins a few of us in the first section who look to philosophically dismantle the notion of God. The book is set into three sections.
There is a great variety of writing and subject matter on offer, here, with the first section (Part One: DECONSTRUCTING GOD) dealing with philosophical, moral and theological issues with the God concept. The second section (Part Two: REFLECTING ON GODLESSNESS IN MODERN SOCIETY), deals with atheism within various contexts in modern society, from cinema to the military, politics to education. The final piece of the puzzle (Part Three: LOOKING TOWARD A FUTURE IN A GODLESS WORLD) asks the reader where we go from here, and seeks to give a few answers.
Please click on the link above or the cover to grab yourself a copy (UK link here).
The Monty Hall Problem
I first came across the fascinating Monty Hall problem twenty years ago. Suppose you’re on a television game show, and host Monty Hall gives you the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a new car, but behind the others, nothing. You pick a door (say number one), and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door (say number three), which is empty. He then says to you, “Do you want door number two instead?”
Most people think that there’s no benefit to switching, but they’re wrong. To see that, let’s push this problem to an extreme. Imagine that there are not three doors but three hundred. There’s still just one good prize with nothing behind the other doors.
So you pick a door—say number 274. There’s a 1 in 300 chance you’re right. Remember this: your guess is almost certainly wrong. Then the game show host opens 298 of the remaining doors: 1, 2, 3, and so on. He skips door 59 and your door, 274. Every open door shows nothing.
So should you switch? Of course you should—your initial pick is still almost surely wrong. The probabilities are 1/300 for #274 and 299/300 for #59.
Another way to look at the problem: do you want to stick with your initial door or do you want all the other doors? Switching is simply choosing all the other doors, because (thanks to the open doors) you know the only door within that set that could be the winner.
Perhaps you’ve already anticipated the connection with choosing a religion. Imagine you’ve picked your religion—religion #274, let’s say. For most people, their adoption of a religion is like picking a door in this game. In the game show, you don’t weigh evidence before selecting your door; you pick it randomly. And most people adopt the dominant religion of their upbringing. As with the game show, the religion in which you grew up is also assigned to you at random.
Now imagine an analogous game, the Game of Religion, with Truth as host. Out of three hundred doors, behind each of which is a religion, the believer picks door #274. (More likely, the believer was assigned door #274 by the accident of his birth.) Truth flings open door after door and we see nothing. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Mormonism, Scientology—all empty. As you suspected, they’re just amalgams of legend, myth, tradition, and wishful thinking.
Few of us seriously consider or have even heard of the religions Winti, Candomblé, Mandaeism, or the ancient religions of Central America, for example. Luckily for the believer, Truth gets around to those doors too and opens them, showing nothing.
Here’s where the analogy between the two games fails. First, Truth opens all the other doors. Only the believer’s pick, door #274, is still closed. Second, there was never a guarantee that any door contained a true religion! Since the believer likely came to his beliefs randomly because of the culture of his upbringing, why imagine that his choice is any more likely than the others to be true?
Every believer plays the Game of Religion, and every believer believes that his religion is the one true religion, with nothing behind the hundreds of other doors. But maybe there’s nothing behind every door. And given that the lesson from the three-hundred-door Monty Hall game is that the door you randomly picked at first is almost certainly wrong, why imagine that yours is the only religion that’s right?
Finding Jesus through Board Games
Here’s my version of an insightful argument from the Atheist Experience show. Imagine a board game called “Monopoly Plus,” an updated version of the popular board game. There’s a track around the perimeter of the board that’s divided into cells. Each player is represented by a token on the board—a dog, a car, a top hat, and so on—and each player in turn rolls dice to see how many cells to advance. You start with a certain amount of money, and you can buy the properties that you land on as you move around the board. Players who land on owned properties must pay the owner rent, and the owner can pay to improve properties to raise that rent and increase their income.
Here’s the object of the game: you must accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.
Yes, that’s a pretty bad game. The motivations within the game have absolutely nothing to do with how you win.
Now take that idea about a million times larger, and we have the game of Christianity—ordinary reality filtered through a Christian worldview. It’s far more complicated than any board game. In the game of Christianity, there are good things (love, friendships, possessions, accomplishments, experiences, personal victories) and bad things (illness, death, sorrow, financial difficulties, disappointment, personal defeats), and players try to maximize the good things and minimize the bad. Immersed in this huge mass of complexity, we’re told that, in the big picture, none of that matters. To win the game you must accept Jesus as your lord and savior.
Wow—who invented the rules of that game? And why is the game of Christianity any more in touch with reality than the game of Monopoly Plus?
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