(This post is part 9 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)
The last set of arguments I wish to discuss is comprised of what are known as “consequentialist arguments.” In other words, these are arguments that, instead of dealing with the truth of Christianity, instead talk about what the consequences would be if Christianity were false. This is an enormously popular strategy, and anyone who has discussed with a Christian the reasons why he or she believes is likely to have at one point heard the statement, “But if Christianity isn’t true, then ______.”
However, the first thing to note about consequentialist arguments is that they are all fallacious. They employ an informal fallacy that is known as an argument from consequences. It is a fallacy because the good or bad consequences that would follow if a certain statement were true says nothing about the truth of that statement.1 For example, I cannot argue that because the idea that the sun goes around the earth is easier for me to comprehend, therefore the sun truly does go around the earth. This is a bad argument. But regardless of whether consequentialist arguments are good or bad, they are prevalent, and therefore I would like to deal with a few of them.
Purpose and Meaning
One often can hear people claim, “If God does not exist, then life has no meaning!” In my own religious days, I heard this countless times from pastors and teachers. But the first question that comes to my mind is, “So what?” Let’s assume for the moment that this claim is true (I will come back to contest that in a second). Does this tell us anything about whether God actually does or does not exist? No. It only tells us that life would be bad if God didn’t exist, so we should hope that he does. But if God does not exist, are we supposed to embrace the terrible consequences of the truth, or instead hide under a protective blanket of wishful thinking? Well, I happen to believe that knowing the truth is important. It helps us to make good decisions about what to do with our time, our money, and our energy. So even if God does not exist, and even if such a fact has terrible ramifications for our purpose and meaning, we should be brave and accept that awful truth and prepare ourselves the best that we can for the consequences. After all, for my part I would rather know that there was no meaning to my life rather than be deluded into chasing after false meaning. No meaning would be bad, but living my life in a fantasy land seems worse to me.
But is it in fact true that God is required to have purpose and meaning? I hardly think so. In my own life at least, I have many sources of purpose. I have family that I love, friends that I care about, hopes and dreams to strive for, personal interests to pursue, jobs and schoolwork to help me grow, and the list goes on. Sure, God can give you some overarching “plan” or “purpose” that can provide meaning. Church can provide a social network. Religion can provide traditions to cherish and pass on, and can give structure to one’s life. But none of these are exclusive to religion. I can create my own plans for my life, I can find social networks through community groups and sports teams and co-workers and social clubs, and I can find other traditions to share and other ways to structure my life. God can be a source of meaning, but he is far from having exclusive dominion in that area.
Of course, as I say this, I know the standard response is, “But God is the only one who can provide ultimate meaning and purpose.” This word “ultimate” is typically poorly-defined, but I take it to mean something like “greater than ourselves” or “imposed on us from above.” But it’s not clear how this is better than any other meaning or purpose. If you lived in an oppressive dictatorship that required you to cut your lawn with scissors each morning, this would provide your life with a purpose that was greater than yourself and that was imposed upon you from the government above. But I doubt you would classify this as something particularly meaningful to you or a greater purpose than, say, your purpose to take care of your family. Or similarly, if God had created us so that we would produce as much carbon dioxide as possible, that would qualify as an “ultimate” purpose, but would it be a better purpose in any sense?2 It doesn’t seem like ultimate purpose from some outside source is intrinsically any better than a purpose that I could come up with myself. It seems like there must be some measure of a purpose’s quality, that even God’s purposes for us must live up to.
The way I see it, purpose and meaning should be evaluated the same way regardless of the source. Certainly, some things are going to be more meaningful for us than other things. And some things should be evaluated as “bad” purposes (like, say, the purpose of slaughtering children). But once purpose and meaning filter through these processes, the source no longer matters. If I find something meaningful, it is meaningful to me. And that’s it. It does not matter if it is “ultimate” or “temporary” or “all-encompassing” or “trivial”. If I find something to be meaningful, I can say, “This ______ provides me with meaning right here, right now.” And under this model, then, God is certainly not the only source of meaning and purpose.
If there’s one term that gets applied to atheists more than any other, I would wager a guess it would be “immoral”. Similar to the previous claim about purpose and meaning, it is often said that “without God, morality means nothing.” Of course, also similar to the previous claim, one can then ask, “So what?” Even if we accept that as true, if God does not exist, then God does not exist. The undesirability of a world without morality does not make it any more likely that God in fact exists.
But again, setting that aside for a moment, I’d like to challenge the idea that morality does not exist without God. Call me strange if you like, but when I concluded that God did not exist, I did not go out and rape or murder anyone. I didn’t even consider it. And throughout the world, there are millions of other atheists that are the same way. Now why is that? Well, most directly, I tend to be a decent human being because when I was little, my mother taught me to share with the other children and to not say bad things or hurt other people. I suspect that most of us, growing up, had similar experiences. We were taught by our parents or caregivers that it’s not nice to pull Sally’s hair or steal Tommy’s truck. And so, while our moral conscience has grown more refined, it’s still there telling us that it’s not nice to do things that other people don’t like. That’s the reason that most people don’t grow up to be serial killers and rapists, and it seems like even if God were conclusively proven to be non-existent tomorrow, that mothers would still go on teaching their children to share their toys.
But isn’t this sort of morality just a set of social customs rather than some objective set of rules for everyone at all times? Well, perhaps. But I think that it can be rooted in something much deeper. There are certain basic facts about how a society must operate. To explain this, let’s imagine a simple society with just two people. I think it is pretty clear that if one person kills the other one, that society ceases to exist. Or if one person steals something from the other person, that second person is more likely to just move off and find some other place to live. Societies where people keep decreasing the social interaction, in short, are less likely to stick around. And conversely, societies where people encourage and maintain social interaction are more likely to continue to exist. We can recognize very basic concepts of prosocial and antisocial behaviour from thinking in this way. And as far as I can tell, all human societies have done is essentially stick the label of “good” to behaviours that are prosocial and “bad” to behaviours that are antisocial. But these ideas of prosocial/antisocial are rooted in the very basic rules of social interaction. They aren’t social constructions. It simply is a fact that prosocial behaviours benefit other people, and that antisocial behaviours hurt other people. There is no God required to provide us with these rules. (Indeed, I find it silly to think that without God’s help, we would have never figured out that killing people in cold blood is generally not a good idea.) These rules are simply inherent in the basic functioning of every society. And so, the only question is whether to call those rules “morality” or not. I think it lines up pretty well with what we tend to think of when we talk about morality. So, morality and objective moral rules can exist without God.
This is a fun little argument. Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and philosopher, came up with an interesting little argument that still gets used today. In Pascal’s Wager, he imagines two scenarios: either God does exist, or he does not. That’s fairly straightforward, right? Now, within each of these two scenarios, one could either choose to believe in God (theism), or not to believe in him (atheism). If God does not exist, the theist was wrong, but has lost nothing. The atheist was right, but what has he gained? He dies and that is the end of him. On the other hand, if God exists, the theist is right, and gains infinitely by going to heaven. The atheist is wrong, and suffers infinitely by going to hell. Examining this state of events, then, Pascal argues that one should believe in God, since it offers the greatest net benefit.
At first glance, this may seem reasonable and logical. It makes sense, after all, to choose the option which offers the greatest chance of gain, right? But let’s not be so hasty. Before I attempt to explain why this argument is a poor one, let me remind you that this is a consequentialist argument. It gives no credence to the evidence that may be present either in favour or against God’s existence. In fact, it implicitly assumes that there is a 50% chance that God exists (and 50% that he does not). Otherwise, one would have to adjust the wager to include a weight corresponding to the likelihood of God’s existence. For example, is it still reasonable to believe in God if there is a 99.999% chance that he does not exist and only a 0.001% chance that he does? That is something that one would have to decide, but the point is that the original wager makes no attempt to examine evidence. It is only dealing with consequences of belief.
Now let’s take a closer look. First off, are “God exists” and “God does not exist” really the only two options? Think about the dizzying variety of Gods that have existed throughout human history. Every culture and geographical region has had their own God or set of Gods. In addition, the consequences of belief or non-belief in these Gods is different depending on the God! For instance, non-belief in the Christian God might get you an eternity in hell (unless your a universalist Christian, that is), but non-belief in Brahman of Hinduism might get you reincarnated to try again. Since the consequences are different, we can’t really lump them all together, but must calculate the net benefit for each God. Once this is accounted for, the logical choice would then be to choose the God with the most wonderful heaven (or the most terrible hell) to maximize your gains and minimize your losses.
But we can go even further! Since, as I said, the argument does not account for any evidence whatsoever, we can’t even stop at just Gods that humans have come up with over the centuries. We have to include even possible Gods! After all, if we are going to examine all the options to make sure we are choosing what’s in our best interest, possible Gods must be examined as well. So, for instance, we should consider Gods who couldn’t care less about humans, and Gods who create a hundred versions of yourself, which all experience eternal bliss or damnation depending on your choice, and Gods who reward people who don’t believe in him and punish those who do. Is this sounding silly yet or should I keep going? The underlying point is that basing what you believe on mere rewards or punishments is foolish; however, if one accepts Pascal’s initial premises that a) we must choose and cannot remain agnostic, and b) we are incapable of knowing whether God exists, then at least we need to do the calculation correctly.
Of course, at a more basic level, even if one only considers the Christian God, one has to wonder whether God might be a little displeased with someone believing in him merely because they are hedging their bets to get the biggest payoff. This sort of belief seems a little insincere. I don’t think an all-knowing God would be fooled by such a tactic, and he might view it as somehow “cheating”. If this means that instead of being rewarded for belief you are punished for insincerity, the wager seems to have backfired on you.
In summary, it seems that Pascal’s Wager is a poor way to go about deciding what one believes. In order to correctly assess the payoffs, we have to consider a limitless number of possibilities. If evidence is indeed present either in favour of or against God’s existence, it seems more reasonable to base one’s beliefs on what the evidence shows to be most probably correct, rather than gambling on what will provide the biggest payoff.
As I said at the beginning of this article, consequentialist arguments do not have anything to say about the truth of God’s existence. They are more often used as emotional rhetoric to scare people into thinking that life without God is undesirable. Pascal’s Wager is the same thing, merely couched in sophisticated language to hide its fallacy. Please note that when I say that statements like “God is necessary for meaning and purpose” or “God is necessary for morality” are wrong, that too says nothing about whether God in fact exists. It only challenges the idea that life without God is somehow undesirable. But when it comes down to it, if God’s non-existence was undesirable but true, I would want to believe it. And if God’s existence was undesirable but true, I would equally want to believe it. Truth is important, and of immense practical value to us as human beings. To know the truth about reality and what it is like is crucial to living an effective life. So please keep in mind that, regardless of whether you agree with my counter-arguments above about morality or purpose or Pascal’s Wager, neither the arguments nor the counter-arguments have any bearing on what is actually true about God’s existence. For that, we must examine the evidence, whatever and wherever it might be.
- Is “Ultimate” Meaning and Purpose Even Possible? – A short article about whether life without God has no “ultimate” meaning.
- Our Meaning in Life – This article discusses where atheists derive their meaning, and how life can have meaning without God or an afterlife.
- Death and the Meaning of Life – An attempt to answer the question, “How can life have meaning if death is the end of it all?”
- Morality Requires God … or Does It? – An explanation of why commands from God are not required for morality.
- Playing the Odds – A critique of Pascal’s Wager by Farrell Till.
- I am aware that stating the consequences of a statement can in some cases be justified. For example, if one argues that B is a consequence of A, and then points out that B is not present, then this provides evidence against A. However, an argument from consequences is not discussing the truth value of B, but rather the desirability or undesirability of B. Or, of course, if the discussion is involved with determining whether to take the course of action A, then the consequences are certainly relevant. But there we are not dealing with the truth of A, but rather the desirability of A. [↩]
- Thank you to Luke Muehlhauser from Common Sense Atheism for this example, found here. [↩]