To Believe Or Not To Believe, That Is a Question

Philosophers sometimes wonder what the purpose of philosophy is. Given what philosophers do, they probably wonder about the purpose of their role more than, say, dentists or tightrope walkers wonder about the purpose of theirs.

The British philosopher, Bryan Magee, was also “a broadcaster, politician and author”. He was “best known for bringing philosophy to a popular audience” through a series of television interviews (available, of course, on YouTube). In 1997, Magee published Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper. It’s his intellectual autobiography. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but in the first few chapters, Magee argues that academic philosophy in the UK and US went seriously off track after World War 2 when, first at Oxford University, philosophers became too focused on language. He argues that language is a tool for understanding the world and our place in it, but that the philosophy of language shouldn’t be any more central to philosophy than the philosophy of science, politics or art. Magee believed philosophers should spend their time trying to answer the Big Questions, the kind that keep some people awake at night, like how to live a good life, if we have free will and whether to believe in God.

Coincidentally, somebody posted a link to a recent article that deals with one of those very big questions. It concerns the 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who argued it’s a good idea to believe in God, because if we do, we’ll be eternally rewarded in Heaven, and if we don’t, well, we haven’t given up anything of real importance and, what matters much more,Β  we’ll avoid suffering in Hell forever and ever. His argument is somewhat misleadingly known as “Pascal’s Wager”. Saul Smilansky of the University of Haifa argues that Pascal got it wrong:

Pascal famously argued that practical reasoning should lead people to try and form within themselves a commitment to religious practice and obedience, based upon a belief in God…

The argument roughly goes like this: if God is all powerful and all knowing, and he will reward the righteous with heaven and condemn sinners to eternity in hell, it would be irrational to risk upsetting him. Rationally, one ought to β€˜wager on God’. If God does not exist, one’s losses (such as in missing out on the joys of sin, or wasting time on religious ritual) will be relatively meagre, and in any case finite; while eternal torment in an insufferable hell is an infinite risk, which it would be radically foolish to take. There are philosophical difficulties in Pascal’s argument, such as on which God to wager, or the thought that God is unlikely to be pleased by those who follow his commandments as a pragmatic gamble. … But these need not concern us here.

…Β  I argue that there is a huge puzzle here, about the radical dissonance between the beliefs and practices of many of the purportedly religious; so that we should be highly sceptical of the prevalence, strength, and value of religious life and belief in God.

There are, I will argue, good reasons to doubt, concerning many (clearly not all or even most) purported religious believers, whether they are indeed believers, or at least whether their beliefs are strong; and religion seems to greatly increase the risks of deception, duplicity, and hypocrisy, as well as self-deception and inauthenticity. In these ways, many religious people end up being much worse than otherwise similar, seriously morally offending, secular people. By turning towards a religious form of life, one will therefore be adding great morality-related risks; it is playing with fire. Arguably, if there is a God who deeply cares about individual moral behaviour, he would punish religious moral transgressors more than the secular ones. And so, pace [contrary to the opinion of] Pascal, prima facie it seems better to wager on the secular life.

Those are the opening paragraphs of Smilansky’s article, which is free online. His argument made me wonder. Are there many people who loudly proclaim their religiosity, yet don’t act the way you’d expect followers of Jesus to act? Are they at risk of offending the God they claim to worship? That’s a really tough question.

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