According to religious fundamentalists in the U.S., this world is infested with dark, alluring, sinful temptations which exist solely to condemn our souls to Hell. Doubt and skepticism, unwed consenting adults having sex without guilt or shame, using science to shine a light on how the universe came to be without resorting to a supernatural placeholder, and spiritual musings that fall outside literalist dogmas are evil temptresses any human must reject or suffer an eternity of torture in the afterlife. These things look nice and reasonable, say the fundamentalists, but don’t be fooled.
In their worldview, people should be pliant, obedient to every word of their rendition of the Bible, and instead of thinking and analyzing, they should just believe and do what they’re supposed to in the fundamentalist script for an ideal society. And if you take issue with just how well founded their ideas really are, you’ll be met with a pivotal weapon in their proselytizing arsenal; Pascal’s Wager. Ever since Blaise Pascal proposed that even if God can’t be proven by scientific means, we shouldn’t “wager eternity,” Christian literalists have been using this argument to escape scientific discussions and go straight to fire and brimstone fear mongering.
While fundamentalists will tell you that what they’re giving new coverts is hope, what they actually sell is fear of eternal torture, fire and damnation, offering themselves as your only possible escape. It’s the same tactic that mobsters use to get rent from a business. They say that they’re selling protection, but if the owner refuses to pay, they’ll send a few goons to threaten him or smash up his store, or bar, or office and leave the owner little choice but to pay up and avoid the harassment and an even greater financial loss. That’s basically Pascal’s Wager in a nutshell. Just believe and follow religious dogma or you might face potential unpleasantries in the afterlife. Even if you’re wrong in your beliefs, at least you avoided Hell so you technically lost nothing. Nothing important that is. Just the freedom to lead your life the way you want and make the most of your time on Earth since many of our pleasures are vilified, stigmatized or outright forbidden by the religion you’ll have to follow.
Rather than encourage moderation in our little vices and letting our mind soar, religious literalists like to paint our intellectual achievements and earthly delights as alluring, stimulating, beautiful but ultimately sinful, evil, and something to be ashamed and terrified of. They craft a metaphorical picture of the secular world as that of a beautiful demon which seduces men and women into utter depravity, angering a God who’s always ready to smite the deviant unbelievers. It’s not enough just to be a good person and have a little fun in moderation. You have to do it the way they want you to do it or it doesn’t count. Any disagreement with their agenda means that you’re a wicked sinner who fell prey to the beautiful temptress of base pleasures and is too deluded to agree with “the obvious truth of their statements.” Somehow, I doubt that belief being used as a tool for conformity by threats of supernatural brutality is what Pascal had in mind when he wrote his argument.
So what if we reverse the Wager and apply it to believers? What if they choose to believe against all facts and end up wrong? How many opportunities did they lose? How many experiences did they deny themselves just because they were afraid of something for which we have absolutely no evidence? How much guilt or shame did they carry because they were told to? And finally, how much grief and pain did they cause by applying their unyielding dogmas on those around them all in the name of self-righteousness? When Pascal’s Wager was introduced, it came as apart of a work on Christian apologetics and fervently denied science and reason as a reliable tool for working with the universe. But today, we know a lot more and managed to discover profound things using the very reason and science Pascal dismissed centuries ago. And after applying reason to the natural world again and again, we’ve seen that making a choice based on the evidence you have available is usually better than just hedging your bets out of fright that some supernatural creature might kick you around in a metaphysical realm after you die.
So the next time you find yourself face to face with a proselytizer who says you have nothing to lose, maybe it’s a good idea to start listing all the freedoms you’ll have to forfeit starting with the ability to build your own life as you want to, without instructions of a pastor or a priest. Because after all, if your life now has to be guided by a group of people who think they know everything about the universe even though they seem to be unable to get their facts straight and have to rely on spacious rhetoric to make a point, aren’t you giving up what makes you, you for the sake of fearful conformity? And is living in fear really worth taking a gamble on whether there is an omnipresent supernatural creature waiting for you in an afterlife in the total absence of proof for it?