Richard Dawkins and Ashley Thomas reply to “What if you’re wrong?”by Don Lacey on Jun. 28, 2012, under Atheism, Biblical Inerrancy, Christian Self-Righteous Arrogance, Christianity, Critical Thinking, Education, Faith, Freethought, God & Bible, Islam, Logic, Question of the Day!, Quotations, Reason, Religion
Today, it is my pleasure to introduce a new contributor to the FreeThought Arizona blog, Ashley Thomas:
“You know what it’s like not to believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim, you’re not a Hindu. Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, and not in India…There is no reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian God, by which in the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up and ask me the question ‘what if I’m wrong?’”
In the above quote, Dawkins answers a question from a young Christian, who asked him, essentially, “what if you’re wrong about the non-existence of God?” This is a common question, often posed by Christians or other believers in hellfire, and it is aimed at atheists, agnostics, and just about anyone who doubts the verity of the questioner’s religious text of choice. Dawkins turns this question on its head, asking in return what evidence the young Christian can provide that the Abrahamic God is the true and only celestial governor. How can she be certain that the truth is found in the Bible, and not one of the many other religious texts?
Dawkins argument is spot-on. To elaborate, let us consider a hypothetical situation: In some far-away place, in a time long before the modern age, a man is walking home along a cobble street. He passes a cart where a sooth-teller is selling trinkets and potions.
To add some context, lets say that this man lives in a village where people often go to the soothsayer for advice. Not having access to the Internet or a working knowledge of the scientific method, the villagers aren’t able to grasp that the medium is a phony – she can’t really see into the future, she has no more psychic ability than a rock. Still, he is more than willing to accept money and pretend that the “spirits” talk to him.
A few of the older folks of the village begin to suspect something is rotten about this guy. To them, this supposed psychic seems awfully well-to-do and, well, no one can confirm that his predictions actually come true. They’ve decided to take a wait-and-see approach, and they don’t visit him anymore. As a result, business has been slow in the ESP industry.
Anyway, so this man is walking along, and the psychic scares him out of his boots when he yells:
“Oh, I sense bad things in your future!”
And the man says, “What is it? What do you see?”
“In the next month, your house will catch fire, and your dog will run away.”
“Oh dear, how do you know that?”
“The spirits told me.”
“Well, I don’t want that to happen, is there anything I can do about it?”
“No, I’m afraid it is your destiny, and there’s no changing destiny. Ah, but wait! I just thought of something…”
The psychic digs around in his bag and produces a small bottle filled with some unidentifiable liquid. “If you drink this, hop up-and-down three times, and stick out your tongue, you just might – just might – avoid disaster. For you, its only 5 dollars.”
The man is unsure. He doesn’t have any evidence that this guy’s prediction is wrong, but neither does he know that he is right. He’s a naturally skeptical person, so he’s pretty sure that this fellow is fabricating the whole fire-and-dog story just to get his money. But, then again, he thinks to himself, “But what if I’m wrong? What if he really can see spirits? I don’t want my house to burn down…and it’s only 5 dollars…”
Soon, word gets ‘round that the psychic not only reveals the secrets of the spirit world, but he prevents disaster as well. At least 5 people have bought his magic potion, and not a one of them has died yet! It’s been a tough year, and the villagers want desperately for better luck. The soothsaying business is booming again.
This is a common quirk of the human psyche. We are more than willing to loosen our grip on reality for the sake of some supposed measure of safety. The only thing that has changed since the time of the village medium is that nowadays we do so even in the face of abundant scientific evidence – evidence that casts doubt on the verity of paranormal phenomena.
For a modern example, recall those chain emails that were common in the early days of the Internet, emails with titles like: “Read and forward or suffer a horrible fate.” There were thousands of people who fell for this trick and sent me emails claiming that if you didn’t forward the email to 20 of your friends something bad would happen to you. The recipients had no evidence, apart from the claims in the messages themselves, that there truly was a “curse.” In fact, scientific inquiry has failed to produce any evidence that “curses” and “luck” have any real effect. Yet thousands of people forwarded these bizarre messages anyway. It’s easy to just make scary stuff up, convince people it’s real, and compel them to act on superstition. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Actually, it is literally the oldest trick in a certain book. In Genesis, God warns Adam and Eve that if they eat a certain fruit they will die. Yet when they disobey god and eat the fruit, they survive.
For Christians, hell is the scary thing that brings believers to the pews each Sunday. As such, it is described as exceptionally cruel and interminable. Heaven, on the other hand, is that blissful place where believers live in harmony for eternity, as a reward for praying to Jesus. If the depictions of Heaven and Hell are not cartoonish enough to dismiss them as fabrications, consider the rules of entry for each realm: According to most Christians, the only rigid requirement for entry into heaven is an abiding faith in Jesus and God. You can commit almost any other crime – murder, adultery, theft – and you will be forgiven as long as you repent and accept Jesus as your savior. The crimes that are guaranteed to land you in hell, on the other hand, include skepticism toward Christianity and faith in a non-Christian belief system.
This seems a bit suspicious, don’t you think? The only unforgivable sinners are the ones who don’t come to church, don’t fill up the church coffers, and don’t spread the word to nonbelievers. These disobedient “children of god” are the ones who refuse to buy the magic potion, the ones who refuse to forward the chain mail, and the ones who dare to point out that their house didn’t burn down and their dog didn’t run away.
If your religion or superstition requires belief, obedience, or money in exchange for some promised eternal reward, then you should recognize this tactic for what it is: a pyramid scheme based on fear and emotional coercion.
Of course, on the other hand, what if I’m wrong?