Welcome to my Atheist Parables series. In the tradition of Plato, Jesus, and Aesop, I will use stories and allegory to examine issues of faith, reality and reason.
Here, I'll share a thought experiment related to Pascal's Wager, and to the charge that "Atheists just want to sin." Is that a legitimate charge, or are there other ways to look at it?
We were pretty excited when our parents dropped us off at the city park. It was not our own city, you see; we were visiting a distant town, and the playground here was spectacular. There was a giant wooden construction with bridges and towers, secret passages, slides, and swings. There were seesaws and bouncers and a short climbing wall, and we were itching to go and enjoy it.
We were just about to dart off into the throng of happy, screaming boys and girls, when Jake stopped us.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Jake said. “Didn’t you hear what your mother said?”
“I think she said, ‘Play nice, be good, we’ll be back soon,’” said Jimmy.
“She said we can’t play on any of this stuff!” said Jake. “I can’t believe you missed that!”
“Why would she bring us to a giant playground and tell us to play nice if she didn’t want us to play?” I said.
Jake rolled his eyes. “We can play over here, in the grass. We can make up our own games. But she didn’t want us playing on any of that equipment while she was gone, and she said that if we stay off it, she’ll take us to a better playground afterwards as a reward!”
“This looks like fun!” said Jimmy, and he ran off anyway. Jake glared after him.
“Really? A better one?” I said. “I think this one looks pretty awesome already.”
“I know!” said Jake. “Just think of what the other one must be like! It must be a playground beyond our wildest dreams and imaginings!”
We weren’t sure what to think of this, but since Jake was so sure, and since the other playground sounded so mind-bogglingly incredible, we stayed in the corner and played. We had some trouble coming up with a game, though, because everyone kept disagreeing on what the rules were, and half of us kept not paying attention and watching the kids on the playground anyway.
“Are you sure we can’t use the stuff at all?” I asked presently.
“We can use it a little bit,” said Jake. “Watch me.” He stood for a moment, considering the equipment, and then walked slowly over to one of the slides. He stood in line, climbed to the top, slid down, and then came back to us.
“We can do that,” he said. “We can each pick one piece of equipment, and we can ride on it every once in a while, as long as we don’t run, and as long as we spend most of our time over here playing.”
“But Jake, it looks like half of the fun is running back and forth between stuff,” I said.
“Sure, it kinda looks that way. But watch.”
We watched. In a moment, a kid running from the big slide and a kid running from the monkey bars crashed into each other. They fell down, and one started crying.
“There, you see!” Jake cried, nearly jumping with excitement. “This is what she was telling us! If we run and play, we will get hurt! We’ll fight, we’ll get upset, there will be all kinds of problems! That’s why we can’t go out there!”
I looked at the dozens of other kids streaming back and forth, without getting hurt. They didn’t look too upset to me.
“Besides, there’s the fabulous, stupendous, beyond-our-wildest-dreams playground after this! Why would anybody want to go out there now and miss our reward later?”
“Okay,” I said. “I get to pick one though, right? So I’m gonna go slide through that tube.”
“Oh, you can’t!” said Jake. “Don’t you see how far inside the maze that is? If you go there, you’ll have to climb over half the equipment to get there! And once you do that, you probably won’t even want to stay off the rest of it. No, that’s much too dangerous; you need to pick something else.”
Just then Jimmy came by. He’d been running up and down all by himself, and he was feeling a little lonely.
“Hey guys, are you sure none of you wants to come out and play?” he said sheepishly.
“No of course not!” said Jake. “But you may certainly join us over here! Then we can go to the fantastic playground together, and it will be like you never went out there at all!”
“Well, ok,” said Jimmy. He came and stood in the circle with us. He grinned. “Thanks for taking me back,” he said, but I could see how disappointed he was.
We tried playing our game again, but it was even less spirited than before. Finally, some of us started to get disgusted.
“You know,” said Tim, “I never heard anything about not playing out there.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “Jake, if our moms were so sure about this, why wouldn’t they all tell us?”
“She told you! You just must not have been listening! Your mind was so full of thoughts of how you’d run all over this dirty equipment! You’ve got to stay here, or you’ll miss out on everything later!”
“You know, I’m not so sure about this other playground,” said Tim. “I’m sure I never heard anything about it. And my mom would have let me know if there was something that great.”
“It’s a good thing I’m here, then! I can show you the path to true happiness!” said Jake.
“But I think I’m going out there anyway,” said Tim.
“What? You can’t!”
“Maybe I’ll miss out on that other playground if I go now. But if I don’t, then I know I’ll miss out on this playground. And I’m not so sure that other one even exists.”
“I think he’s right,” I said. We started to go out to the playground.
“Stop! Can’t you see what you’re doing to poor Jimmy?” said Jake.
We stopped. Jimmy was looking at me hopefully. He glanced between me, the playground, and Jake.
“Don’t you see, he just got out of there?” said Jake. “He’s finally come back to the truth! Now here you are tempting him back into disobedience! How will you feel when he gets sent home and punished instead of getting the playground of his dreams, just because you were so selfish?”
“This is the playground of his dreams,” said Tim. He ran off and started climbing.
I went back to Jake again. I was so unsure—had my mom really said something about this when I wasn’t listening? I didn’t want to cause problems for Jimmy because I was too eager to play—to say nothing of my own desire to see the bigger playground.
So, I stayed off to the side with Jake and Jimmy. We played I Spy and Tag and Count The Kids. I was really disappointed because it looked like Tim and his brothers were having so much fun. I really hoped my resolve would be worth it in the end.
Finally, our moms showed up again. “Come on, everybody, it’s time to go home,” said my mom.
“See?” I said. “We did good! We stayed over here the whole time! When do we get to go to the fabulous playground?”
“You did what?” said Mom. “You stayed—didn’t you play on the stuff? What’s wrong, doesn’t it look fun?”
“It looks lots of fun!” I said. “It was so hard to stay over here! But I did it anyway because I knew you wanted me to wait for the even better playground that Jake knew about!”
“Even better playground? What’s wrong with this one?”
My heart began to sink.
“Jake’s mom was telling him about this playground, how exciting it is. Are you telling me that you boys didn’t get to enjoy any of it?”
I began to feel tears building up, just a little; I tried to swallow them.
“So there is no other playground?” I said.
“No, sorry. This is what you get.”
“Can we go and play on it a little now, then?” I said.
“No,” said Mom, “actually we’re already late. We have to leave right now.”
“Well, can we come back again soon?”
“Don’t you remember? We’re moving away next week. We won’t ever have the chance to come back here again.”
“So we missed everything!”
“I’m really sorry, son,” said Mom. “We’ll try to do something fun in the time we have left, but this was your only chance at the big playground. You should have used it while you had it instead of letting someone scare you with their ideas of the future.”