An essay donated by Cary Cook
"After Pascal:" thoughts on an afterlife
The question of theism vs.
atheism has been seen, quite rightly, in terms of which premise is true. But
after millennia of failure to prove the issue either way, should we not move on
to the next question? If we don’t (and probably can’t) know which premise is
true, possibly we can determine which is most worth betting on.
Pascal, in my opinion, gave us a good start, but
failed to take his reasoning far enough. He stopped at the
God of the New Testament, and figured that the benefit of betting on this
deity and being right would far outweigh the benefit of betting against him and
being right. Conversely the punishment for betting against this deity and being
wrong – yada yada.
But the God of Pascal’s wager was arbitrary. It could have just (or almost) as
rationally been Allah. And this deity administers
rewards or punishes based not on people’s ethics but on their believing the
right spiritual sales-pitch. Furthermore, those rewards
or punishments are both exorbitant and eternal. Those two factors make him
not only arbitrary; but unjust and evil. Would our Creator, who designed our
sense of justice, then reward us for worshipping an apparently unjust God?
Let’s take Pascal a step further. What is the most sensible bet a human can
make, given the uncertainty of an afterlife? If we
love justice, an unjust God cannot possibly get us to worthwhile life, so that
option is out.
- We can bet on no afterlife and grab for the greatest pleasures available
without regard for ethics.
- We can bet on an afterlife with just rewards & punishments, and behave
so as to deserve what we want.
But what are the odds that a just God is out there, given what we have seen
of this planet? Close to zero – unless there is an afterlife in which everyone
gets exactly what he deserves. So ultimately there is absolutely no way to judge
Therefore, I would assert that an afterlife with just rewards & punishments is a
reasonable bet – not because of any compendium of allegedly holy scriptures, but
largely in spite of them all. Nevertheless, one necessary precondition of a just
community is to have just persons in charge of it. And strangely enough, most
Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe their God to be somehow just and righteous
– often despite scriptural evidence to the contrary.
Each of these religions, in fact, holds both a just and an unjust version of its
respective God – one who rewards & punishes appropriately, and one who rewards &
punishes inappropriately. Therefore, instead of trying to convert others to our
own religion (or lack of it) should we not be trying to convert them to the just
version of their own God?
If ultimate justice does not exist, then nihilism – God or no God. If ultimate
justice does exist, what are the necessary preconditions of it?
- An afterlife,
- A just being (or group of beings) in charge of it, and
- Just enforcement throughout it.
This, I contend, is our only chance of worthwhile life, and therefore not
only a reasonable bet, but the only reasonable bet.
This essay appears on the web at:
Originally posted: 2008-MAR-11
Latest update: 2008-MAR-11
Author: Cary Cook