October 23, 2006


Religion, madness and secular paranoia: Why would a major corporation invest big money in a gratuitous insult of millions of potential customers who, according to the company’s own figures, represent a clear majority of the American public? (Michael Medved, October 4, 2006, Townhall)

Those who believe that religious conservatives want to impose a nightmare of intolerance and oppression on those who disagree with them must classify the nation’s heroic past, from its founding through the landmark school-prayer cases of 1961, as representative of a similar nightmare. It’s secularists and leftists who seek to alter the long-term essence of this deeply religious, majority Christian country (as Sam Harris, for one, freely acknowledges), rather than believing fanatics who want to remake the nation as an alien, unrecognizable theocracy.

Why, then, the current paranoia over the often exaggerated prominence and power of religious conservatives? In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris unwittingly provides the answer. Addressing his believing fellow citizens, he dramatically declaims: “If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You understand this. At least half of the American population understands this. So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.”

Mr. Harris, in other words, seems to worry that people assume he’s bound for damnation and an eternity of regret because in one tiny corner of his mind, at least, he fears they may be right. In the argument he describes, it’s not possible that Christian believers are “really going to lose.” If Mr. Harris is right about humanity and materialism, then there will be no sense of regret or despair if religious people fail to reach heaven after death. If we are, indeed, just spiritless chemicals and soulless matter, then we won’t be around in any sense to feel remorse over a life wasted in prayer, religious fellowship, love of family and good deeds. When he suggests that one side is “really going to lose” he can only have his own side in mind.

It’s the contemporary version of the famous “bargain” of Blaise Pascal, the French scientist and Catholic religious philosopher who died in 1662. When asked how he would react if he discovered at the end of life that his firm belief in God proved unjustified, he suggested that he would still have gained the enormous benefit of having lived as if God existed — and would feel no regret at all. If, on the other hand, non-believers like Sam Harris ultimately discover that the Almighty lives, and has been judging them all along, then, in the words of the great theologian Ricky Riccardo, “they got a whole lot of es-plainin’ to do.”

That’s why even the most benign, loving Biblically based religious ideas seem so threatening to non-believers. The more that people of faith develop confidence, sophistication and intellectual influence, the more that those on the other side nurse the dark, clammy, cold, intolerable fear that these theists just may be right about God and eternity. When polemics and newspaper ads seek to “arm” so-called “rational Americans with powerful arguments,” it’s not that they need defense against rampaging Christians with pitchforks and torches. They ultimately seek protection against creeping, subversive doubts about their own unbelief.

Is there really any question that seculars hate our past and want to radically change America?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 23, 2006 3:48 PM

No, and I think they would agree with that statement. But they would then ask if their hatred of our past was justified or not. And I'm sure you can guess the evidence they would provide - slavery, klan, internment, etc.

Posted by: Brandon at October 23, 2006 4:31 PM

Pascal's Wager is roughly as follows. (Forgive me if I oversimplified it):

- Either there is a God (omnipresent, omnipotent, benevolent, however you want to define it) or there is no God.

- If there is a God and you believe, you receive his benefits (heaven, nirvana, eternal life, reincarnation, 72 virgins, however you define it). If you dont believe, you receive his punishment (hell, bad karma, reincarnated as an ant, however you define it.)

- If there is no God nothing happens. You simply die.

Pascal says you should wager on the former because the upside can be very good. And if you're wrong nothing, well you're dead anyway.

Now before you think about it too hard, here is a heads up: Pascal's Wager is bogus. It is a compelling Mr.Spock-type argument to throw at an agnostic or an atheist. However if you do believe in God as he is known in the major world religions, you will be able to identify the faulty premise of the argument.

A Judeo-Christian will spot the flaw right away. However an atheist typically will miss it.

Posted by: Gideon at October 23, 2006 4:38 PM

That settles it. I can't see the flaw, ergo ...

Posted by: erp at October 23, 2006 5:36 PM

Well, the immediate problem with the wager for one who does not believe is that God, being all-knowing, is not fooled by one who only pretends to believe. The unbelieving poseur has the benefit of the personal benefits of belief--less disease, less anger, less risks, that sort of thing--as well as the societal benefits of living among those who are motivated to be well-behaved without oppressive supervision. He is not saved in the afterlife, however.

Pascal's wager deals only with belief and unbelief, not with feigned belief. The point of the wager is that one who believes gains everything and loses nothing which a reasonable person should value. What is lost is only the childish satisfaction of feeling superior to one's believing neighbors, being able to call oneself a "bright."

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 23, 2006 6:04 PM

The flaw in Pascal's Wager is selfishness.

It can be summed up in Job 1:9-10. Basically Satan was claiming that Job is sucking up to God to score points, like an employee brown-nosing the boss. But God doesn't want that. He wants us to love God, not his goodies. So to show Satan his accusation is wrong God inflicts great suffering on Job to test him, and to prove to Satan that Job's love of God is independent of Job's fortune or circumstances or rewards.

Thinking of heaven as some sort of eternal playland (which is what Pascal's Wager does) is to miss the point. God wants us to love Him as much as He loves us. It's a relationship. The purpose of heaven is to get closer to God, and He to you.

Posted by: Gideon at October 23, 2006 6:17 PM

Also, do you assume that, regarding the possibilities of attaining a pleasant afterlife, it makes no difference what kind of atheist one is? I have a friend who is a nonbeliever but he is quite different from the stereotypical ranting rationalist type: I've never heard him make any harsh comments about religion, except to point out that he can't get himself to believe it. If anything, he's more irritated by the ACLU types than by believers.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 23, 2006 7:22 PM

Wouldn't you assume that a decent person who is confronted by God in the afterlife would eschew his doubts and be welcomed? God seems unlikely to be so petty as to hold your skepticism against you if you lived in accord with His commands.

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2006 7:35 PM

No way O. J. The Christian Bible, my Bible, says, “You are saved by grace through faith and not of works”. The required faith and confession is that Jesus Christ is the risen Son of God.

Posted by: TGN at October 23, 2006 8:25 PM


Of course. But you'll get that opportunity at the day of Judgement, no?

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2006 8:51 PM

There are going to be lots of surprises when the sheep and goats go their separate ways. While the NT is pretty explicit on what is 'required' for salvation, it never gives us the code or the ability to read the heart and make the call.

Jesus says many will claim to be his best, but they will be excluded. Paul says that many who do not know of Christ (or the law) will have their lives 'credited' to them (their consciences will defend them) apart from the law.

One of the most spiritual people I know (in the sense of awareness and sensitivity and just plain old inner strength) is a friend from Iran who is a 'lapsed' Muslim. He is often very sad, because he doesn't know what to believe anymore - he cannot be a Muslim, he likes Christianity but can't stand most Christians, and he knows the follies of the East. He is stuck in the modern world, when he would probably just rather be a simple farmer.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 23, 2006 10:18 PM

Wouldn't you assume that a decent person who is confronted by God in the afterlife would eschew his doubts and be welcomed? God seems unlikely to be so petty as to hold your skepticism against you if you lived in accord with His commands.

If I'm remembering my Catechism correctly, a person who lives in accordance with the natural law can be saved, even if he is not baptized. Matt's friend is different in this respect than an atheist who actively campaigns against God; the latter is violating the natural law.

Posted by: Mike Morley at October 24, 2006 7:24 AM