Most religious believers live in their own version of Lake Woebegone. In Garrison Keillor’s mythical locale all the children are above average. Similarly, in these believers’ mental habitation everyone is right about God. This is truly strange. And what is even stranger is that so few people stop to consider its strangeness.
Religious Tolerance.org cites a survey of churches and religions that finds 19 major world religions subdivided into 270 large religious groups and many smaller ones. The four largest religions are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The fundamental beliefs of each one are incompatible with the other three.
Even within the 34,000 separate groups within Christianity there are marked theological differences between denominations. In some doctrinal areas Catholics and Southern Baptists will find as little to agree on as would a Wiccan and a Jew. So why doesn’t this astounding diversity of metaphysical opinion among Earth’s people cause believers to think, “Hmmm. What are the chances that I’m right about God, when so many others hold contrary beliefs?”
My best guess is this: while most people accept that their chances of winning a lottery jackpot are extremely low, given how many others have bought tickets, very few people are comfortable with the idea that they aren’t going to win the Afterlife Jackpot—even though here too the competition is such that many believers are going to enter, but few (if any) will be chosen to get the Big Prize.
Even worse, the religious contest of “Who will be right in the end?” isn’t just between believers who have different conceptions of God. If this were the case, you could choose one of those 19 major world religions at random and face fairly decent odds of having an enjoyable afterlife: about 5%. But there are two other significant alternatives in the mix: (1) Something else entirely, and (2) None of the above.
By “something else entirely,” I mean that God—using this term in the most inclusive and open-ended fashion—does exist, but is utterly unlike any conception found within the teachings of any religion or spiritual practice. By “none of the above,” I mean that the cosmos contains no God—again, extending this term to encompass any possible form of spiritual reality—so there is nothing more to life and existence than what materialists claim: matter/energy and impersonal laws of nature.
My own leanings are decidedly in the “something else entirely” direction, but I readily admit that this has much to do with my fear of bodily death and hope for a continued non-bodily life. I do also have some good non-Freudian reasons for tilting in the direction of what I like to call my non-religion of Skeptical Belief: skeptical that any religion knows the truth about ultimate reality, while willing to entertain the belief that it is possible to realize this truth through non-religious means.
In "The X-Files" terms, my faith is that the truth is out there, somewhere, not that any particular organized religion or spiritual path holds the key to the door of Mystery. For there is no objective evidence that, during the ten thousand years of so of recorded human history, any person has come closer to knowing the truth about God than any other person. God is still a mystery, so the best statement concerning whatever reality exists beyond the physical is “I don’t know.”
My attitude is at odds with Pascal, who came up with what has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager.” There are four possible outcomes to the wager: (1) You believe in God and God exists, (2) You believe in God and God doesn’t exist, (3) You don’t believe in God and God exists, (4) You don’t believe in God and God doesn’t exist. Pascal held that the best and worst outcomes are (1) and (3) in which God exists. Then, a belief in God leads to eternal salvation, while disbelief leads to eternal damnation.
Even if God doesn’t exist, Pascal argued that you should believe in God because this offers consolation and peace of mind while you’re living—though no benefit after death. All in all, then, the benefits of believing seem to markedly exceed the benefits of not believing.
However, Clifford Pickover (among many) points out some of the flaws in Pascal’s argument in his fascinating book, “The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience.” The main problem with Pascal’s wager is that it presupposes that God is a being who rewards blind faith and punishes open-minded skepticism. The reality, says Pickover, could be exactly the opposite:
I think it’s even possible that God could be unhappy with those who are not rational, who believe in all sorts of things without being logical about it…I even think that such a God might punish believers for their credulity and reward clear thinkers that don’t succumb to peer pressure and so forth. Of all the creatures on Earth, humans are the only ones that God gave the most intelligence, so obviously God wants us to use our intellect and to be freethinkers. So when we die, God will reward freethinkers. He won’t be happy with people who tossed their reason away in favor of ignorance.
There are, of course, many other possibilities if God does indeed exist. The point is that we don’t know what they are, because we don’t know the nature of God. So it is crazy to place your faith-bet on a single religious possibility when there is no solid reason to expect that your choice will pay off. The smart thing to do is keep an open mind, research this question of God in as scientific a manner as possible, and be prepared for unexpected opportunities.
In one of his books Huston Smith says that he spoke with a Zen practitioner who told him that she had a new koan: “I could be wrong.”
Now, that sounds right to me.