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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Cary Cook

"After Pascal:" thoughts on an afterlife

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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 donít (and probably canít) 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 Ė yada yada.

But the God of Pascalís wager was arbitrary. It could have just (or almost) as rationally been Allah. And this deity administers rewards or punishes based not on peopleís 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?

Letís 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.

That leaves:

  1. We can bet on no afterlife and grab for the greatest pleasures available without regard for ethics.
  2. 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 Ė unless there is an afterlife in which everyone gets exactly what he deserves. So ultimately there is absolutely no way to judge those odds.

Therefore, I would assert that an afterlife with just rewards & punishments is a reasonable bet Ė 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 Ė 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 Ė 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 Ė God or no God. If ultimate justice does exist, what are the necessary preconditions of it?

  1. An afterlife,
  2. A just being (or group of beings) in charge of it, and
  3. 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.

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This essay appears on the web at: http://www.sanityquestpublishing.com/

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Originally posted: 2008-MAR-11
Latest update: 2008-MAR-11
Author: Cary Cook

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