Atheists eat babies for lunch. Well, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons don't actually say that. But they think it. But in the collective mindset of the world’s religious people, the idea that we don’t know how or why we are here, is a cause for much pain and concern. And then – way beyond that – the idea that at some point we all expire and cease to exist in our present state is cause for anxiety and near-panic.
So, since hominids began to become self-aware – or since Adam discussed string theory with Eve in the Garden of Eden, while sewing appropriate garments to cover their nakedness – mankind has had to deal with the great questions of life. Who are we? How did we get here? Do we have a purpose? What happens when we die? There are no answers for these questions ... only suppositions. Nevertheless, the majority of the human race – distraught with fear of the unknown – chose to make up answers instead of facing utter perplexity.
Few religions that I know of offer a real choice or valid explanation. The usual fare that humans come up with to fill in the gaps in our certain lack of knowledge is choice A and choice B. Like that's a choice? At least in the classic daytime TV game show, Let's Make a Deal, a finalist could choose door number one, two, or three. In any case, it was just a guess and everybody knew it.
Long ago, the ancients invented lots of gods and goddesses. These guys were cool because they could be manipulated by mortals, with gifts, prayers, and sacrifices. I really don't know how deeply our ancestors actually believed in the likes of Zeus, Athena, Thor, or Vishnu; but most had really great powers like throwing lightning bolts, shaking the earth, sending plagues, and – above all – stopping up wombs.
Then, somewhere around the time of Ramses the Third or Fourth, a new god was discovered by a sheepherder king named Moses. Or so we are told. He invented a more awesome god than all the rest. His name was Yahweh, and he was more powerful and fearsome than all the other gods and goddesses of the day. Or so we are told.
Now, Yahweh had a lot of issues about the race of beings that he had created years earlier out of dust. He was mostly concerned about human behavior. It sort of all boiled down to one thing – namely, wickedness. As the story goes, all men and women are doomed to a literal burning hell that Yahweh created as a punishment for said wickedness after trying to drown the residents of the planet (including the animals). Some of the dead animals may have been wicked as well, but that is not explained. Suffice it to say, Yahweh needed a Plan B after the flood fiasco. So, he sent his only begotten son to atone for the wickedness of all the people on the planet. As a result, the only requirement for escape from eternal damnation is to believe. That sounds simple enough ... so people believed. End of story.
Well, not quite. Some people did not believe. Some still do not. Atheists do not believe the story. The Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Eskimos, and sundry bush peoples tend not to believe it either. Granted, some have not heard that they are wicked, nor that they have any choice whatsoever in the matter. But that just makes the story more interesting. Believing is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, in my experience, it is downright hard. Years ago, a French guy named Pascal made a wager. He sort of put the Christian's choice A or choice B idea into perspective – it makes sense. He concluded that since the existence of Yahweh – referred to in modern times as God – cannot be proved or disproved, one should pick the better of the two choices. It is better to believe the unknown and avoid the possible consequences than to not believe and take any chances.
When I was a fundamentalist Christian believer, I drifted toward this famous wager myself. When I first "accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my Lord and savior," I bought a fire insurance policy. I took a leap of faith and put my brain on hold, convincing myself that I really believed that this would save me in the end ... just in case.
As time went on, I believed less and less with my brain's prefrontal cortex, and more and more with my deep limbic brain. Like humans everywhere, I wanted to believe what I professed, even as I disbelieved it more all the time. Like Pascal recommended, I pretended to believe, and faked along in my actions and words while doubting the veracity of it all more and more.
Living around the world and interacting with people of various belief systems has some eye-opening advantages. I think that the most remarkable thing to me is just how common it is for people of every stripe, vintage, hue, and mindset, to play the odds despite all logic.
One day, when I was comfortable referring to myself as an atheist, I mentioned to a group of Christians that I did not believe that there was a God – theirs, or any other for that matter. It was like I had just thrown a brick on the floor.
While sucking nearly half of the oxygen out of the room, they all intoned incredulously: "You mean, you don't believe that there is any possibility at all that there is a god out there somewhere, somehow?"
"Sure, there certainly is a possibility," I replied.
"Well then," they all gushed with a sigh of relief, "you are not an atheist at all. You are an agnostic!"
Somehow, to them that was better. It was okay. To me it just exposed their own agnosticism. "Maybe there is a God out there somewhere, somehow" is really what they all believed in their inner minds. But, unlike me, they were too afraid to say it out loud.
"Like that really makes any difference?" I thought to myself. "So what? The operative word is believe! Okay, I believe that there may be a god or goddess, but I don't believe in theirs or in any other deity that I know about presently." That was when I sort of flashed on the notion of the box of diamonds.
Christians and theists around the world who have experience with electricity, space travel, and other notions of the early twenty-first century, know that a lot of the things they pretend to believe are simply not so. They know that the earth is around 4.5 billion (not 6,000) years old, that the water from the worldwide flood couldn't just run off, and that all species are constantly evolving. Somewhere in the more evolved creases and crevices of their frontal lobes, they know the real truth. The one thing that they do not know is the future. What about death?
The options are so painful that most people take the bet. It is just a guess – a shot in the dark, a wager. The choices are: Box A or Box B. One is full of diamonds, and the other is empty. None of us knows. We all have the exact same odds. Like compulsive gamblers, we make our choices, no matter how much we believe, nor to what degree we claim to know that we are right. My experience with most fundamentalist Christians, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Muslims has been somewhat sour. But in most cases of these who believe, the most strident always claim that theirs is more than belief – it is certain knowledge. Of course, how can one know for sure that their own choice is right, and another is dead wrong? It is folly. But, I know lots of people who prefer folly to uncertainty. Maybe in the end one of these "teachings" is right, and all the others who chose wrongly will frizzle and fry with me for eternity. Too bad for them, huh? In the meantime, I am not holding my breath.