Why should someone believe in God? Any god. Or gods. Going further: why should someone believe in any metaphysical, spiritual, mystical, or other-worldly hypothesis?
Usually people don't give much thought to these questions.
Most of humanity is religious in one way or another. They've fallen into some faith by virtue of birth, culture, conversion, or a leap that was taken without much (or any) of a logical underpinning.
Yesterday I started reading a book by Greg Craven, "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" It's subtitled A rational response to the climate change debate. Which it is, judging from the four chapters that I've read so far.
Craven's approach also holds promise for being a rational response to the religious debate. This image is from his web site.
On the left, we see rows for "false" and "true." At the top, columns for "yes" and "no" -- whether to take action on the issue, which in this case is global warming.
The beauty of this grid is that someone doesn't have to put all of his or her decision eggs into one truth basket. As it should be, because nothing is certain. Not in science, not in religion, not in anything.
We have to make decisions based on imperfect and uncertain information. For example, should I follow a particular religious or spiritual path? What are the consequences of doing so, or not?
Here's how Craven describes the marvel of discovering this decision grid:
It was suddenly clear that we were deadlocked because we had been asking the wrong question, one that relied on eliminating the uncertainty about whether dangerous human-caused global warming is real or not before making a decision about what (if anything) we should do about it. The amazing thing is that the grid allows the issue to be decided despite the uncertainties.
I was stunned. It was a weird "How come I've never heard of this?" sort of moment, because with the grid there was simply no need to decide which side of the debate to believe. It was like a Magical Grid Machine that took uncertainty and turned it into confidence almost effortlessly.
The debate was over not because I'd found a way to show which side was right but because I'd found a way to show that the debate itself was moot. The real question about dangerous global warming is not, Is it true? but, Is it worth doing anything about, just in case it's true?
Substitute "a religious belief" or "belief in God" for "dangerous global warming" and the decision grid works just the same. This is what Pascal tried to do in his famous wager.
He argued that if eternal damnation is the consequence of not believing in God, and heaven is the reward of believing, then a person should bet that God exists. Acting like a true believer isn't that tough, so the possible rewards way exceed the nasty consequence of hellfire, forever.
However, Pascal's approach suffers from the same problem that Greg Craven's students (and others) pointed out to him after he unveiled version 1.0 of his decision grid: if the bottom right box -- "true" and "no action" contains a horrible consequence, then as he says, this argues "for action to guard against any potential danger, no matter how ridiculous the threat or how expensive the action."
Craven uses the example of giant mutant space hamsters. They could destroy the Earth! So we need to put orbiting rodent traps into space!
Obviously that's ridiculous. The reason is why religious belief is ridiculous. Craven says there are two factors that determine which column ("action," "no action") is preferable:
The likelihood of the rows (probabilities)
The contents of the boxes (consequences or risks)
These factors are difficult to estimate with most worldly problems. They're impossible to come up with for religious problems, because there is no demonstrable evidence to back up estimates of either the probability that a metaphysical belief is true, or what the consequence is of not acting in accord with the belief.
Who knows whether Jesus is the Son of God? Who knows whether Muhammad is God's messenger? Who knows whether this guru or that guru is God in human form? Who knows whether yogic meditation will lead to a merging with God?
Pascal assumed that there is only one choice: whether to believe that God exists. But which God? God comes in hundreds, if not thousands, of different forms -- many of them mutually contradictory.
Some religious (or quasi-religious) faiths don't believe in God at all, Buddhism and Taoism, for example. I talked about this in a post about my Anti-Pascal's Wager.
One refutation is that even if God exists, we have no idea what God's nature is. So how is it possible to believe in an entity about which, or whom, nothing is known? The belief would have to be without content – an acceptance of raw existence without attributes.
Thus the probability of any metaphysical belief system being correct obviously rests on the existence of a realm of reality beyond the physical. What are the odds of this?
Whatever you think the probability is, the next question is more important: What are the odds that your particular metaphysical, religious, spiritual, or mystical belief system is true?
Remember: there are thousands of these belief systems. And as I said in "You're religious, but are you right?" something else entirely and none of the above are two additional choices that must be seriously considered.
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.
So our focus should be on the consequence of believing in God (or some other divinity) if, as seems to be most likely, none of the world's metaphysical belief systems is true. The way I see it, there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by being an atheist or agnostic.
If our human life on this physical planet Earth is all there is, it's crazy to waste our one and only existence on the pursuit of what doesn't exist: God, spirit, soul, heaven.
Yes, we can't know this for sure. All we have are likelihoods, probabilities, best guesses.
We need to weigh the probability that a particular metaphysical belief system is true, and the consequences of not acting in accord with it, with what is gained by preserving an open mind and accepting that evidence is lacking for the truth of any religion.
As I said before, and am pleased to say again:
A big benefit of living life without religion is that it commits you to living in the here and now, rather than the there and then. You don't have one mental foot in an imaginary after life, which causes believers to be unbalanced in earthly reality.
...Pascal's Wager is founded on a belief that we can know God's payoff. The anti-Wager is a more honest bet: nobody knows what will occur in the next life, so we need to make the most of this one.