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The Way I See It: Choosing to Believe

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The letters page of our local daily newspaper often includes lively discussions on religion. One recent contributor offered this succinct account of his view: “It is up to each individual to believe or not believe. If I believe, and Jesus is the son of God, I will be rewarded. I would rather believe.”

This is what might be called the game-theory argument in favor of religious belief.

Before turning to the argument, I note the philosophical conundrum of “choosing to believe.” Belief is not normally a matter of choice. I believe I have a heart in my body because the evidence is overwhelming that I do. I believe it’s raining today in Montpelier as I write this because I see the rain outside.

In either case, I don’t have a choice. A belief, of course, can be wrong or uncertain. I might, for example, believe it will snow in Boston tomorrow, perfectly aware that my belief could prove to be wrong. But even then, my belief is not about choice, but about the weight of the available evidence.

My mother-in-law once confounded me, as we sat at the top of Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Peninsula, by telling me she didn’t choose to believe in global warming. “It’s not about choice!” I said, too loudly.

Not all beliefs are based primarily on evidence. A person might believe that abortion is bad and should be prohibited. Such a belief might arise from other views about personal morality, sanctity of life, the role of government in regulating behavior, and so forth.

But again, most of us wouldn’t say that we choose our beliefs about abortion or other matters of morality. Rather, we are compelled to hold certain moral beliefs in order to make sense of our lives.

The idea that a person can choose whether to believe in God is predicated on an admission that religious belief is based neither on evidence nor on morality. I don’t write this in a triumphalist vein; indeed, I suspect most religious believers will agree, at least, that their faith is not dependent on evidence. I do not know whether most believers would agree their religious beliefs come by choice.

Now let’s consider the moral proposition that a person should choose to believe in God (or that Jesus is the son of God) in order to reap the heavenly reward, if the belief turns out to be true.

The letter writer makes a bet with the spiritual universe. He “would rather believe,” as he says. If his belief is correct, he will be rewarded. If his belief is incorrect, no harm will follow.

And conversely, if he chose not to believe, and his non-belief were correct, no harm would follow, but if his non-belief were incorrect, he would be forever damned. Belief, in this calculation, is a better bet, less risky.

I do not wish to tar all religious believers with this brush. Others undoubtedly hold that their faith makes possible a more deeply experienced life. Or that the teachings of their faith support a richer moral understanding, perhaps a pathway to achieve social justice.

But in the game-theory view, God is the sort of all-powerful being who rewards only those who choose to believe in Him, even if the motive behind the belief is the desire to reap that reward.

And God condemns to eternal damnation those good people who come to the honest conclusion that they do not believe in the existence of God and who refuse to make a calculated wager because doing so would violate their consciences.

To my way of thinking, a God who behaves that way is a vindictive, shallow, and egotistical autocrat. You won’t believe in Me? Hah, I punish you!

All the more reason to choose not to believe in Him.

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