Friday, September 03, 2010

Fear Not

I enjoy glancing through the comment boxes on news stories. We can see some…interesting (to be polite)…responses. In reading through comments regarding Dr. Hawking and God I noticed a number of Christians using Pascal’s Wager as their proof for God.

The problem with effectively arguing against Pascal’s Wager using reason, is that the Wager itself is not based on reason. It is based on fear. In fact, if you look at the premise, as proposed by Pascal, it explicitly states we cannot use reason to determine whether there is or is not a God, and it comes down to a coin toss. A wager. A bet as to which is the better choice to make in light of the unknown.

Have you ever tried to use reason, logic and observation with fear? How well does that work? Anyone with a child has faced (at least once) the “monster under the bed” or the “monster in the closet.” There is a reason Pixar utilized this fear as a theme in a movie—we are all familiar with it.

And, as a parent, we inevitably first try logic and reason. “See, honey? There is no monster under the bed. The toys you left there [that we told you to pick up!] are in the same position. The dust bunnies haven’t been disturbed. No tracks, no smells, no noises—nothing to demonstrate a monster.”

Of course, a short time later, we hear the screaming again. The Monster has returned. Our logic and reason completely failed. Eventually the exhausted parents give in to the belief, and create an alternative belief to counter the fear. A special stuffed animal that keeps away the monsters. Or a ritual to protect the monsters from coming in.

Yeah, yeah—not the most intellectual responses. We crave sleep; we cave in.

We cannot remove fear by arguing a person out of it; conversely we cannot create fear by arguing a person in to it. While the parent cannot convince the child no such monster exists; likewise the child cannot convince the parent they really should be afraid.

This continues into adulthood. Some people parachute for the thrill; others are terrified. And even though one can be convinced to parachute—the fear will still be there. Those that parachute cannot be convinced to begin fearing it.

Some fear public speaking; others fear never getting married. The list is inexhaustible. And all of those fears, one cannot simply reason them away, or reason oneself into. Your heart still pounds faster when confronted by them, or your heart does not.

Of course, one of the greatest fears is the unknown. Anyone diagnosed with a medical condition of “We don’t know what this is” understands.

And what happens after we die is the greatest unknown of them all.

In books and plays and movies, there are two predominate themes for claims of life after death:

1) There are degrees of pain/pleasure in the after life;
2) What you do in this life will determine what happens in this afterlife.

We don’t want pain; we want pleasure. We want to do the thing that creates the least pain and the most pleasure in life; one would certainly want to do it for the greater pain/pleasure promised in the after life! The problem (and the Achilles Heel of Pascal’s Wager) is that we don’t know what that is.

Is there no afterlife, in which case pain/pleasure is limited to what we do? Is the afterlife dependant on works, so we perform certain acts and refrain from other acts to increase pleasure later? Is it dependent on the correct belief, or ritual or statement?

Some individuals have grasped on to a certain belief to alleviate this unknown. It reduces (but never quite eliminates) the fear. It is their magic bunny, keeping away the monster under the bed.

We cannot argue against Pascal’s Wager—they are convinced of the fear. Nor (and Christians should realize this) can they use this to convince use—we have no such fear.


  1. This is such an interesting idea.

    "conversely we cannot create fear by arguing a person in to it."

    I don't know what I think about this, though. I can see how it is true in some cases, but I also wonder about other situations.

    Pascal's Wager is at least somewhat about trying to create fear in other people. Most religious arguments are rooted in fear, in fact.

    Would people use them so often if it truly wasn't possible to infect other people with one's own fear?

    Thoughts, anyone? :)

  2. In the last 3 weeks I have had 8 Christians (responders to a letter I wrote to the newspaper, and 2 family members) who have used some form of Pascal's Wager to try to get me to see the error of my way.

    The last guy, an Evangelists wrote :And as the old saying goes, if we are right and you are wrong, then the ones that you are now influencing and leading are in sad shape indeed. And if we are wrong, then it won't matter in a few years!

    Of course very few of these people "know" this is called Pascal's Wager. They just "know" a preacher or some professor told them this was a good tool to use with unbelievers.

    Of course, as you well know, take away fear from Evangelical Christianity and no one would show up next week. :) The threat of hell, judgment, loss of enjoyment in this life, etc, etc, are powerful motivators for keeping the faith.

    For me it worked the other way......Why would I want to serve a God who uses fear to get me to do things his way?


  3. The Preacher's Kid,
    A couple of thoughts, here. First, you used the word "infect" in discussing the spread of fear.I think that's a perfect term to use. The truth is, emotions are contagious. Now, we don't often "catch" emotions due to rhetoric, it's usually by experiencing someone else's emotion. I think it's our capacity for empathy. To continue DagoodS' example of children and fear, it's not uncommon to see one child's terror cause children around him to become panicky. My youngest son will usually remain calm at the doctor's office unless he sees his older brother freak out.

    I'll speak as a psychologist for a second. In therapy, we use several strategies for helping people with upsetting emotions. We do encourage people to "catch" positive emotions by surrounding themselves with them (such as speaking with a calm therapist, or listening to calm music, or watching a comedy). However, we do sometimes use "cognitive" therapy, which is a rational approach. We are essentially encouraging people to replace "irrational" beliefs with "rational" ones. We use alot of questioning, such as "would you call your friend worthless if he had lost his job." Over time, people learn to argue themselves out of rational beliefs and change their emotions. As therapists, we sometimes do want clients to experience negative emotions, such as fear of being killed by an abusive boyfriend, or anxiety about failing in school if bad grades continue. We use cognitive therapy at times in those situations as well.

    However, I think DagoodS' point is well taken that Pascal's Wager is ineffective for those convinced of no afterlife. However, for those on the fence, it could keep them from feeling free to abandon Christianity completely.

  4. In my post I said:

    Over time, people learn to argue themselves out of rational beliefs and change their emotions.

    I meant to say irrational beliefs.

  5. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable." 1 Cor. 15:19. I don't know how Christians can make the argument that there is no downside to believing if it turns out not to be true when Paul so clearly says that nothing could be worse.

  6. NW Ohio Skeptic,
    "why would I want to serve a God who uses fear..."

    Exactly. As adults we can come to see how others control us. We know we can be controlled through fear, but we don't respect those who use that method. And we certainly don't love them for making us afraid.

    How CAN people love and respect a God who's gonna throw anybody into hell??

  7. I think you can be argued into fear if someone presents rational arguments for being afraid. In the case of the Xians, their threshold for evidence is pretty low. They think that the Bible is actually evidence. So if the Bible says it, (and their preacher repeats it, over and over) they believe it.

    The way to attack this irrational belief is to try to get people to recognize that neither the Bible nor their preacher is actually a trustable authority.

  8. Interesting topic that of fear. I was thinking today about how fearful I am.

    Leaving Christianity removed my fear of the afterlife. Now I have to deal with the rest of them. Fear of working, of unemployment, of starting something, of getting tired of something old, of technology, of this and that.

    No wonder I was killing myself with stress when I was a believer. I had my usual fears plus the fear of bully-god.

    ** Lorena **