CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

Jedi mind tricks, Pascal’s Wager, and suppressing the truth in unrighteousness

In the past few weeks, I’ve been twice reminded by some in my personal circle that I really do know that the theistic God exists, and that I’m suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (from Romans 1:18). On one of these occasions this was told to me quite explicitly, and on the other it was quite clearly implied. Of course this is nothing new to me and other non-theists–we’ve heard this from many within and/or beyond our personal circles, time and again.

It always strikes me when I hear this that those who claim it don’t seem to realize that two can too easily play that game. I could just as easily and dismissively tell theists that they really do know deep down that they don’t believe in God, and that they’re just suppressing the truth in fear and wishful thinking. Not that I respond with that, other than sometimes in a (usually) playful manner, but it should be clear that if either or both of us is going to dismiss the other in such a sweeping way, then what’s the point of conversation in the first place? I suppose that’s where Jedi mind tricks come in:

Whoops, not those Jedi Mind Tricks! I meant these Jedi mind tricks:

It sure seems that these words (ie, “You know you believe in God”) are intended not as genuine conversation pieces, but almost as if they are magical incantations instead. They’re often accompanied by various biblical quotations, as if the mere recitation of the words themselves possesses a similar mystical ability to pierce right through my outward pretense to my suppressed theism beneath, no conversation necessary.

I suppose you could hold that I’m simply lying here, but for whatever it’s worth: No, I truly, sincerely don’t believe that the theistic God exists. And to try put that in better context, my disbelief in theism is roughly on a par with *your* (to whom it may concern) disbelief in, say, Islam. I’m sure you’re not secret Muslims, in other words, and recitations from the Quran are unlikely to have mystical effects on you either. However, you do have much more metaphysical common ground with Muslims than I have with you, so the comparison isn’t perfect, either.

Or perhaps it’s that I’m too deeply self-deceived to realize that I’m lying (as opposed to lying outright). And indeed this seems to be the thrust of the language about “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness,” although I can’t say that I’m able to make much sense of that phrase. But in any event, if I’m truly that self-deceived, then perhaps you are too, without realizing it? You’re paving the road to radical skepticism here, and I don’t think you want to head that way. I know well what jarring cognitive dissonance feels like (look no further than my propensity for occasional social slacktivism rather than sustained social activism), and I suppose I can only try to assure you that there’s no such dissonance involved with my atheism.

One more related but distinct topic of occasional conversation: Pascal’s Wager. “What if you’re wrong? You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God, and everything to lose and nothing to gain by disbelieving in God.”

There’s so much here that’s so odd that I can’t address it all at length in this brief space. (1: Can I really just choose to believe in God? Perhaps some can, but I certainly can’t–that cat just won’t go back in its bag. I can say I do, but is that really worth anything? 2: Why think that God cares in the first place whether we believe in God? 3: Even if God cares about theistic belief, why think that God brutally/eternally punishes those who don’t believe? 4: Why think there’s nothing to lose by believing in this sort of fearful god? 5: Etc.)

But here’s the main point I want to make regarding Pascal’s Wager: I did fear this “what if you’re wrong?” question for a season, but eventually I not only realized but truly felt the weight of “what if I’m wrong about Islam, or about Judaism, or even about ancient Roman religion?” There are an infinite number of possible horrible-fates-which-might-be-averted-by-doing/believing-this-or-that, and we can’t attend to them all, nor should we. Here’s an amusing Edward Current video which sums this up quite poignantly:

Only if there’s compelling evidence for any particular such horrible fate should we take it seriously, and there certainly is no such compelling evidence that eternal damnation awaits those who disbelieve the claims of traditional Christianity (wait, Catholic? Protestant? Orthodox?…) Furthermore, I realized even before fully deconverting that it wasn’t a healthy or–dare I say–a godly way of life to be driven by this kind of fear, and the fear was a strong hint that I didn’t actually hold these beliefs anyway and so there couldn’t be any further harm in simply admitting that.

On a more pastoral note to close: Do I fear hell? No, I sincerely do not any longer. Again, I did for a season, even after intellectually deconverting. It takes our emotions a while to catch up to our intellect, especially if those emotions are of deeply felt fear. But one day it finally dawned on me in a brilliant, singular moment: I suddenly sensed a rushing color to the world, a vibrancy to it, a beauty to it, a sweet serenity to it, which I could never truly taste and appreciate while held emotionally captive to the false and fearful god of my youth. You too can taste this peace and freedom, if you’ll open your hand to it.

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  • Jackie Booth 1.7.18 at 11:43 pm

    Jeff, a good friend once told me to stick to my convictions with good-natured inflexibility. Yours are not only not being good-natured, but are hostile to the point of ridiculing Christian teachings and those who believe them. Your coloration on your description of fearing hell as a child is disingenuous. You were not taught the way you describe. Please realize that those who mock Christianity will soon be mocked by fellow mockers. You intellectually gifted ones won’t be able to tolerate the less gifted among your fellow atheists and soon will discard them. Such a downer…this doesn’t strike me as a life direction anyone would want to pursue.

    • Jeff Kesterson 1.8.18 at 12:11 am

      I’m sincerely perplexed by your comments. If you think my intent here is to mock or ridicule, then you’ve severely misread me.

    • Jeff Kesterson 1.8.18 at 6:11 pm

      Your coloration on your description of fearing hell as a child is disingenuous. You were not taught the way you describe.

      This is well beside the main point, but on second thought I shouldn’t let it slide. It doesn’t matter how carefully nuanced you might think your theology of hell is–can you really expect five year olds to pick up on all that nuance? I think my understanding was something along the lines of “FIRE!” “DEVIL!” “SIN!” and, yes, I absolutely was terrified of hell as a young child and lost a significant amount of sleep as a result.

  • Heather Rocha 1.8.18 at 6:17 pm

    I grew up with the same teaching, and I was terrified of hell as a child to the point that I would sob myself to sleep begging God to kill me as a kid if there was even a chance that I would lose my faith as an adult. This went on for years. I never told anyone. I was so terrified that Satan would come after me that I didn’t want to sleep.

    The teaching that if a person does not believe the right thing when they die, they will burn in fire for eternity, and that there are invisible evil beings who wish to trick you into damnation is enough for the child to draw their own conclusions of fear and horror. Believing that hell as taught in the Bible is real, depending on the child, is horrifying enough without adding anything else to it. As messed up as my childhood prayer might sound now, it really was an understandable conclusion to come to that it would be far better for me to die as a child than risk going to hell. And that extreme fear of hell kept me for a long time -even as an adult – from being willing to even consider challenging my own beliefs.

    I don’t see anything mocking or any misrepresentation of Christian teaching here. At least that’s not how I read this, without any specific critique of the post’s content to consider.

    • Jeff Kesterson 1.8.18 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks for sharing Heather, that’s hard to hear. My own experience as a child differs from yours in the precise details, but was very similar in terms of general emotional impact.

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