pascal’s wager

I’m still thinking about the memorial service I went to several weeks ago, but more about the role of religion in people’s lives and how it relates to my atheistic views.

I must admit that people who believe in religion get many positive benefits. They can have comfort and hope knowing that their god has a purpose for their lives, that he cares for them and guides them through trouble, that someone is listening to their problems during prayer, and that there is an afterlife of some kind where things will be better.

It must be nice to have that source of happiness and joy, even though it makes no sense to me anymore. I understand that giving one’s life to God means that they don’t have to worry as much about problems with the faith that God will solve them.

As an atheist, I have to work a little harder to find happiness, deriving it from the pleasure of living life while I still have it. As a perennially-depressed atheist, it is really difficult for me to achieve this happiness. It is hard for me to have a hopeful or optimistic life because of my brain chemistry, and I don’t derive as much pleasure from life as other atheists might. As a result, sometimes I wish I were one of the faithful.

There is a concept called Pascal’s wager, which supposes that the existence of God cannot be determined by reasoning and logic. If you believe in God, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose; if you don’t believe in God, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose. So you need to place your bets: if you wager there is no God or Heaven or Hell or any of the other trappings of religion, you risk eternal damnation. If you wager that God is real, you get all the benefits of belief without risking anything. It seems like the logical choice would be to believe.

As a former Christian, I know the benefits of believing in religion, but I just can’t bring myself to drink the Kool-Aid again. I’m betting against God. If he does exist, I’ll see some of you in Hell.

comfort for the atheist

I went to a graveside funeral recently. A Christian pastor led the service, and he read several passages from the bible about everlasting life with Jesus and how He has prepared a place to receive his believers after their life ends here on earth.

If you believe in the Christian faith, it must be comforting and uplifting to hear those words, to know that death is not a final end but a passage to a better place. I feel like the friends and family at the service appreciated this, and it helped them cope with the loss of a loved one.

As an atheist (or possibly an atheistic agnostic), I wonder what there is to give me peace and hope after someone close to me has died. Without the belief in an afterlife, am I to think that death is the end, hard stop? I am afraid that’s all there is; you had better enjoy life while you live it, because when the clock reads 0:00, you’re worm food, and that is it.

I believe that a person lives on in the memory of everyone they touched and everyone who loved them, but those memories are fleeting and fade over time. Some people live on through their accomplishments or inventions, but perhaps only in history books or remembered names of long-dead people. But these fragments are just temporary, and don’t imply any kind of afterlife. A person has no consciousness after death and cannot transfer from one phase of life to another one … or can they? 

Personally I don’t believe in any god or eternal life for the soul, but I’m open to the possibility of other outcomes that can’t be explained. There is something appealing about the concept of reincarnation. There are young people that seem truly wise beyond their age (you hear these people called “old souls”). I can accept that ghosts might exist (I think I saw one as an older child). I believe evil forces exist in this world and cause pain and suffering.

But those possibilities cannot be explained through science or logic; these are only constructs of the mind. The brain goes dark after death, and doesn’t return. People who talk about “near-death experiences” are simply confusing perception with the action of chemical reactions and electrical impulses.

None of this answers the questions at hand: what is there that gives me solace and comfort when someone has died, and what do I have to look forward to after death? I don’t think there is anything for me after death, but first I need to finish living. I can help keep alive the memory of people who are close to me. I can do good for others while I am alive. I can have a positive effect on the people around me, even if only a few. 

That’s good enough for me.