It’s Christmas! Let’s talk about God.
Growing up I read stories about God. In the Old Testament, he was a guy, and he said things directly to people. Sometimes he was a complete jackass, like in the book of Joshua, where at God’s direction the titular warlord spends half the book wiping out every living being in his path and the other half dividing the treasure. Not keen. It took getting to the New Testament to discover that God had a nice side, and being in God’s love was a warm and comforting thing. Way too late for me. The God I knew was one you would pray to if you wanted something to happen, but it didn’t have to be for good reasons. God was listening, and if he liked what you proposed, he might make it happen. Maybe that’s not how you were taught it. YMMV.
Because I got the unadulterated O.T. version, and had parents who accepted that I was a mostly formed human who could handle the consequences of my decisions, I remember making choices about how close I wanted to get to God. For example, I flat-out rejected the idea of a Bar Mitzvah. I’d read much of the Old Testament in English. I sure as heck wasn’t going to reread it in Hebrew, a language I had no desire to embrace. Religion was not a thing I wanted to ritualize. I got what I wanted out of it, which was just this:
I believe in God.
Maybe that means you think I believe in other things, like the afterlife or the story of Noah. None of that took. Some of it is great storytelling, and boy, that Jesus guy could pack a lot of good stuff into a sentence. I read every word he said, or those that people said he said. I had lots of questions about Jesus. Real person? I absolutely believe that. Son of God? No way. More of a self-motivated latchkey kid, kinda like me. (A diversion: I saw a church sign referring to Joseph as Jesus’s stepfather. C’mon now. Joseph raised Jesus from birth. That’s what you call a dad. Up till Jesus is 12, Mary and Joseph think they’re his natural parents. Joseph gets told by his own son that he’s someone else’s kid. Rough cut. Joseph’s the tragic hero of the Gospels.)
The point here is that I made my choices. I turned into sort of a religious tourist, someone who dives into the trappings of a lot of religions just to see how other folks think, but doesn’t believe in the teachings of any of them. I’ve visited Christian fundamentalist services, Baha’i temples, Moonies cult rooms, Buddhist zen gardens, Scientology centers, Satanist rituals, Baptist choirs, and of course lots of synagogues. They’re all fascinating and kind of precious, in a good way. They all take themselves way more seriously than I think they should. But whatever gets you through the day.
The question I asked myself as a kid: Is there a reason to believe in God? Like, is there a clear value one way or another? What does game theory say about it? Turns out quite a lot, and it’s pretty fascinating.
I’m not talking about the value of professing that you believe in God. That has clear tactical value. Here is a list of all the atheists in Congress:
- [sound of crickets]
Yup, that’s the list. The few who do not identify with a specific branch of religion stop short of saying they’re agnostics or atheists, with California’s Rep. Jared Huffman defining himself as a “nonreligious humanist” and Maryland’s Jamie Raskin saying he’s a humanist “with a small h.” Kyrsten Sinema, the Senator from Arizona, describes herself not as a nonbeliever, but someone who prefers a “secular approach” and “is a student of all cultures in her community.” Senator Bernie Sanders, who once said he was part of no organized religion, came out strongly in the last debate as “proudly Jewish,” though frustrated with Israel. Whatever their internal beliefs, these legislators are saying the right things to stay in office.
You can see why: A whole lot of people don’t trust people who don’t believe in a power greater than themselves. Only 60 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist. And yet the opposite is also true: A whole lot of people don’t trust politicians who invoke the Bible or the Koran for political purposes. It doesn’t seem right. It’s not just the separation of church and state that matters. It’s specifically what they say.
For example, Jeff Sessions. When Sessions invoked Romans 13 to justify the separation of families at the border, people exploded in rage. Romans says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” This clearly secular, clearly racist policy was not what a lot of religious people had in mind when they read Romans. Also, Romans 13 is bunk. Jesus rebelled against authority because that’s the whole point. You can take your Romans 13 and stuff it, Jeff.
So, yeah, saying you believe in God is a win-win thing, even if you’re lying. That’s awful. You should be able to say you’re an atheist or an agnostic and not have it color people’s trust in you. Similarly, you should be able to say you’re a believer and not have it color what atheists or those who believe in some other religion think of you. It’s all about choice and life direction, and if we believe in that for other things, we should believe it for religion too. Maybe that’ll get fixed some day.
But to the actual belief: Yes, there are political calculations to believing in God. The cornerstone principle is a thing called Pascal’s wager. Seventeenth century mathematician Blaise Pascal posited that humans literally bet their lives on whether to believe in God. In the Christian tradition (or at least the one Pascal knew), a believer who lived a good life would be rewarded with eternity in Heaven, while one who lived a bad life would be cast down to Hell. Since Pascal’s Christianity believed that not believing in God was synonymous with living a bad life, such a person was removing any doubt that their actions were bad, and thus condemning themselves to burn. That’s if God existed. If God didn’t exist, then the believer’s losses (maybe some sin) were trivial in the face of the limitless oblivion that awaited. So, even if there’s a minuscule chance God exists, the infinite payoff is so astounding that it is impossible to ignore. If you can somehow convince yourself that the unseen is manifest, Pascal says, bet the house on God:
A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager?… It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is… There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
This was groundbreaking probability theory. It preceded the prisoner’s dilemma by three hundred years, and was just as influential. Merely the stating of the question was unlike anything religious thought had seen.
And like every question, it has an answer that is simple, easy to understand, and wrong.
Upon its spread, the critiques of Pascal’s wager came out in waves. Voltaire called the wager “indecent and childish,” suggesting the mere motivation to believe in something was not proof that the thing itself was rational. Diderot noted that many religions demanded different things of their believers, and believing in one could mean alienating another, an act of consequence if that other religion turned out to be right. Souriau noted that just because a person made the wager was no guarantee that God intended to honor the bet; in fact, God could as easily only honor bets made the opposite way.
The most significant critique of the wager is this: Pascal himself said that people should believe in God wholeheartedly even if there was only a minuscule chance He existed. Here, the entirety of the argument collapses. Poker players and stock market investors make bets on expected value; if the outcome averages a higher reward than the investment, make the bet. But expected value has its limits, and a recasting of Pascal’s wager called “Pascal’s mugging” makes them obvious.
Pascal is mugged by a thief who forgets to bring a knife. But he does have logic, so he uses it as a weapon. He promises Pascal that if he gives the thief the wallet, the thief will return with twice the money tomorrow. Pascal scoffs. So the thief ups the ante, saying he’ll bring four times the money. Pascal refuses. How about a quadrillion times the money, the thief asks? Okay, now Pascal is interested. At worst he loses his wallet, but at best he’s looking at cash forever. If the thief has even a minuscule chance to bring back a near-infinite reward, surely Pascal should give him his wallet. Right?
Well, no, he should not. A math guy like Pascal would tell you that probabilities that are effectively zero are not zero, which is why this thought experiment makes Utilitarians say to give up the wallet. But that word “effectively” should still give you pause. How much effort are you going to put into chasing down something that has almost no chance of being true? If you believe that God has almost no chance of being real, no amount of prospective reward—not even an infinite amount—makes the effort worth it. Expected value is a guideline, not a mandate.
But just as notably, Pascal should never make a deal with an extortionist. Fundamentally, the logic behind Pascal’s wager is extortion: believe or have a nonzero chance of eternal Hell. That’s where a whole lot of people, including me, part company with Christianity. If you can’t get people to trust you except by invoking damnation, how is that trust, exactly?
A more interesting approach, to me anyway, is the atheist’s wager, which posits that living a good life regardless of whether one believes in God is a far superior strategy than just believing in God. If a benevolent God exists, and you live a good life, you go to Heaven; if He exists and you live a bad life, you go to Hell. But if He doesn’t exist, then nothing changes about your state; you just cease to be. You should gamble on living a good life, because there’s a chance you’ll be rewarded, and no chance you’ll be punished.
This works for me, except it posits that God isn’t a tyrant who demands fealty in addition to good works. For me, it all goes back to the Old Testament, where God wasn’t nice at all. New Testament believers may have an opinion that God will do them a solid if they believe the right things, but nothing about the Old Testament suggests God is in the solid-doing business. There’s just as much likelihood that God is evil as that He is good. In fact, this makes Jesus a serious problem child. C.S. Lewis’s “Mad, Bad, or God” trilemma points out that Jesus said outright that he was the resurrected son of God. This means one of three things: he was nuts, he was lying, or he was the resurrected son of God. Occam’s razor does Jesus no favors here. To believe Jesus was the son of God, you just have to believe.
This is why I believe in God: Because for many thousands of years, most really smart people believed in God. That’s it. It’s why I believe in science too. I have not personally done the work to convince myself that life evolved over millions of years; I have proved that to myself no more than I have proved that a tornado swept through a junkyard and assembled the first Boeing 747. But I believe in evolution because really smart people believe it occurs and have told me it occurs. It’s advanced beyond belief, actually. I know that evolution exists, for certain, deep in my heart. So it’s not inconsistent to me to believe in God in the same way. Atheistic proof has existed for my lifetime, maybe a little longer. It’s still got work to do. Again, it’s just my belief. You should believe what you want to believe.
Here’s the problem, though: I’m the last of a dying breed. Americans who believe in science and religion are vanishing. Millennials are leaving religion in droves and are never coming back. They are now more likely to say they have no religion than to say they are Christian. They are making a mockery of Pascal.
In America, a key element of this is the strong tie between the Republican Party and conservative Christianity, which is driving young people to the exits. The deal for right-wing evangelicals was simple: simply rally around the man who was the living embodiment of everything you despise, and you might get Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges overturned. You win by losing your soul forever. Young people know what they’re looking at. For the majority of young people in Christian households, Donald Trump is not the Chosen One they were hoping for. Younger people in Christian households tend to be cool with gay marriage, gun control, and freedom of religion; they tend to be less cool with oppression. Yet that’s the direction the churches are moving.
It’s not just the evangelicals. A great schism is happening around Israel, with the reactionary Netanyahu government pushing young American Jews out of Judaism’s embrace. The Chinese government’s crackdown on religion is the most brutal in 50 years, leading to a diminished status of Judeo-Christianity in the world’s largest country. This is to say nothing of potentially the biggest breakup in the world, as conservative Catholics realize that maybe they no longer have an ally in the Pope, who seems hell-bent on saving Catholicism from the dustheap of history, whoever he ticks off. Religion is in trouble and it doesn’t seem to be getting more hopeful.
This has some problematic consequences. The link between faith, hope, and charity is severing. Americans who attend church are vastly more likely to volunteer for humanitarian causes, for example; the likelihood you helped out last week if you went to services was 45 percent, versus 27 percent if you didn’t. Churchgoers give an average of $2,935 of charitable giving each year, versus $704 for the non-attenders. With religious identification collapsing, so too is our non-governmental safety net. Will we see a corresponding rise in non-religious charity giving? Jury’s out on that.
But it’s going the way it’s going. If religion is only practiced by right-wing, gun-loving kooks, its positive message will get trammeled under. We’ll think of believers as the bad people, and that’ll just be another great divide that cuts our nation and world apart. I suppose it could all turn around, though. Good-thinking religious people could stand up for what they believe in and throw out the rotters who sin in God’s name. Could happen.
So where does that leave us, on Christmas of 2019? Game theory doesn’t settle the question, I’m afraid. For every Pascal’s wager, there’s a Pascal’s mugging around the corner. It all comes down to what you believe. That’s about you and no one else. Happy holidays, whatever they are.
This is the 50th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, and political timing. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.