Is God a Human Invention? Commentary #10
If there is, in fact, a Heaven and a Hell, all we know for sure is that Hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix...
Hunter S. Thompson
D'Souza begins his final, and central, argument by making a distinction between belief and knowledge. You only believe, he tells us, when you don't know. This is quite true, whichever definition of belief you use. But it means something quite different in each case:
- In the case of scientific belief, it means that in the absence of strong evidence we must rely on our wits, and the evidence we do have.
- In the case of religious belief, it means that in the absence of strong, or any, evidence we are free to choose to believe whatever we want to (or what we are told to).
D'Souza continues by arguing that both he and Dennett are "reasoning in the dark", and that the only difference is that "Dan won't admit it".
This involves an odd definition of the word "reasoning"—one which includes making up ideas with absolutely no concrete evidence. D'Souza has already insisted that there is not—in fact, cannot be—any empirical evidence of God. Perhaps he's simply misstated his position here?
But no, he continues to build on it. He tells us that the decision to embrace God is ultimately a matter of choice—and confirms beyond any doubt that he is dealing with a specialized meaning of belief.
He proceeds to offer another analogy.
Not deciding to believe in God is like not marrying a woman because you can't be sure what life with her will be like. If you don't take the step of faith, you miss out. She marries someone else.
Once again, his analogy does not hold. After years of acquaintance (his time frame, not mine) you would have a great deal of information about a prospective mate, and your decision would be based on that information. In fact, your beliefs about what life will be like (as opposed to your decision to marry) will have been determined by your interpretation of that evidence.
If she has been nothing but nasty to you for all those years, and you still believe that life with her will be heaven, it isn't because you're exercising free will, it's because you're a fool.
He can't resist one more motivational argument, before his final punch—he asks us what kind of society we want to be a part of?
This is the frame he uses for his final point. Belief is a choice, not a reasoned conclusion. Since it is a choice, we can choose either side we want, without any regard for the evidence or lack of it.
We can choose to side with arrogant elitist academics who hate morality, or with humble, common Christians who believe in goodness.
No pressure. It's up to the individual.
His trump card is Pascal's wager:
- There's no way to know, so you're just making a bet in the dark.
- If you bet on God and you're wrong, you've simply made a metaphysical mistake.
- But if you bet against God and you're wrong, you've condemned yourself to eternal separation from God (one of many Christian descriptions of Hell).
- This separation is not by God's choice, but by yours.
In other words, if Dennett is right, and you cast your fate with D'Souza, there are no significant consequences. But if D'Souza is right, and you cast your fate with Dennett, you go to Hell for eternity.
The argument is, of course, purely political. He concedes that there is absolutely no evidence in favor of his position, in so many words. His argument is entirely an argument for "believing" based on the possible punishment for not believing, rather than on the truth or falsehood of the belief.
But even on that basis, it doesn't hold up.
To begin with, the choice he advocates is more than a mere metaphysical position. The kind of "belief" he urges involves a commitment of time, energy, and orientation to many different values. It involves, in the end, the entire direction of one's life.
So, when D'Souza says that you will "merely have made a metaphysical mistake", if there is no God, he is either lying or very naive. You will have oriented your entire life based on a falsehood. That is a very large sacrifice, indeed.
On the other hand, if you find the idea of God impossible to believe, since there is no evidence for it, what will happen? D'Souza's position is deceptive on this point as well.
What kind of God would create a world which punished you for an honest disbelief, rooted in what D'Souza himself has stressed as an absolute lack of evidence? Would you want to spend eternity connected to that kind of God?
D'Souza tries to get around this difficulty by stressing that the decision is yours, not God's. But what keeps you from changing your mind, once you are in a position to see the real evidence? Why is there a cutoff date—at exactly the point when you would have enough evidence to make an intelligent decision?
The answer is that, however D'Souza might try to disguise it, Hell is designed as a motivation to scare us into his camp. The fact that it makes no sense to say that a loving God would punish people for basing their lives on the obvious conclusion from the evidence they have is irrelevant.
Hell is simply one more piece of unsupportable political rhetoric.
D'Souza's argument is not an argument, but a threat, and only makes sense in terms of a God who we would be better off separated from.
But not all Christians believe in such a God. There are many progressive believers who would object to the whole idea of Hell, in any form—or to the idea that God would give people the kind of choice that D'Souza presents.
Trust me. If there is a God, he, or she is much more likely to approve of Dennett than D'Souza. How could a rational, loving, God not value a person who refused to be taken in by one bogus threat after another, and instead held fast to the evidence they had?