The Infinity / Infinity Religious Dilemma
Pascal's Wager Revisited
by Dan Shanefield
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Here is a parable with some important logical conclusions. A recruiter for a new religion comes to you and says you'd better join, because if you are given this great opportunity, and you turn it down, you will end up in hell for eternity. Alternatively, if you accept, you will only have to go to church once a month. "Just look at the odds," he says. "It's a few Sundays versus INFINITE torture, so any logical person must choose to join."
But then a recruiter for a different new religion says similar things, and then another, and another. It turns out that there are an INFINITE number of such possible religions. They all seem equally attractive, and each says it'll surely lead you to hell if you pick a competitor. But there is no real evidence for any of them.
The odds are infinity divided by infinity, so actually, no logical choice is possible. (Of course, we can't really divide such things into each other. However, I am making an analogy to betting on a horse race, where winning or losing has infinite importance --- like being in heaven or hell for an infinite time --- but on the other hand, there are an infinite number of other people also betting. So you can't make a sensible decision, and it would be best to just not bet at all.)
Looking for a moment at Christianity, why would God make us choose one religion, leaving no evidence except stories from two thousand years ago, and with all the other religions having similar attractiveness? It is not fair to force us to choose, without giving us some different levels of evidence, or even any evidence at all. The only sensible conclusion is to do nothing.
Maybe we are not supposed to choose based on "evidence." Instead, if I am a basically good person, I will "feel it in my heart and soul," when the story of Jesus is presented to me by a missionary, and I will then abandon my old religion.
On the other hand, I may fail to feel it in my heart and stick with the old religion of my parents and neighbors (still worshiping the gods of thunder, fertility, etc., or maybe just still worshiping the wrong sub-sect of Christianity). Then, supposedly. I am basically evil in heart and soul, and I will go to eternal damnation.
But we almost all go with the religion (or sub-sect) of our parents and neighbors, at least while we are children. Whole neighborhoods and even whole countries have the same religion (or sub-sect, like Southern Baptists, etc.). What kind of a God would eternally damn us for feeling in our hearts and souls that we should stay loyal to our parents?
Right. It's not fair. And it's not fair for the Catholics and Protestants to kill each other in Ireland, or for the Shiites and Sunnis to kill each other in Iraq, etc. Morals and ethics in the treatment of other people within your own religion have pretty obvious practical benefits. And believing in heaven might make you feel good (especially when you get to be pretty old!). But choosing one particular religion and hating the others makes no sense whatever, whether looking for "evidence," or based on "feeling it in your heart" --- we can't rely on either. The best thing is if we concentrate on joining a big system of morals and stop worrying about "accepting Jesus." Or accepting any particular one out of the infinite number of other possible religions.
- A version of this parable previously appeared in the textbook entitled "Organic Additives and Ceramic Processing," by Daniel J Shanefield, Kluwer Academic Press, Boston, 1996. It is on page 205, in a discussion about environmental threats to our very existence, versus bankruptingly expensive preventive measures, but each one having no really definite scientific support.
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