Give ’em What They Want

Someone asked me recently why so many of my posts deal with religion. It’s a fair question, considering religion comes last in my tagline.

When I began blogging more frequently, I had actually envisioned spending quite a bit more time discussing East Asian politics, Chinese history and literature, Sino-American relations, and other China-related topics that my education gives me somewhat more authority to discuss. I’m no foreign policy expert, and my Chinese isn’t at the point where I peruse PRC white papers over breakfast, but I thought with my penchant for things Chinese and my mild ability to relate international affairs to practical living, maybe my readers would find it worthwhile.

To my dismay, however, my few posts on Chinese culture and sayings are among my least popular posts. Even recent and flippant posts like “Weiner’s Weiner” have received more all-time hits than “Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow“, which is still one of my favorite posts.

Judging by my stats page, what readers really want are abrasive rants on religion. My posts on religion receive many, many more on-site views, comments, and syndicated views than posts on any other subject. And the more I stray from dispassionate reasoning and toward impassioned raving, the more hits and feedback I receive.

So why do I write about religion so frequently? Here’s half the answer:

STIRFRIES hits per day. The arrows indicate new posts (red for religious posts and green for other posts).


And here’s the other half: I was taught to pray before I learned to ride a bicycle. I know more religious songs than most people know secular ones. I graduated from a 4-year religious seminary and attended a religious university where part of my general education was regular classes in scripture and doctrine. I spent two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where I was taught to feel guilty if I thought about anything BUT religion. And all told, I have spent over a year of my life inside a church building—and that’s excluding classrooms at BYU, all of which are dedicated to God and most of which are used for religious observance on Sundays.

Since I was a child—and until only very recently—my social and family life has revolved around religion. Doubting Thomas and perpetual critic that I am, I have spent thousands of hours considering the role of religion in my life, in society, in human history, its benefits, its drawbacks, its consequences, its veracity.

Religion is what I know. More specifically, doubting religion is what I know. If a few hundred hours of study and a piece of paper that says I know Chinese language, literature, and culture qualify me to comment on Sino-American anything, then a lifetime of theological study, indoctrination, and private criticism give me the right to say a few words about religion.


“Religion Makes Me Happy”

Not long after opening up (somewhat) to friends and family about my agnosticism, I was called into my bishop’s office after our regular Sunday meetings in the BYU 108 ward. The bishop was conducting interviews with members of the ward, and my turn was up. We chatted for a bit about life, school, and my post-graduate plans, and then he asked if I held a current temple recommend. I told him I didn’t, and so he began to ask me the standard set of questions associated with a temple recommend interview.

He asked, “Do you believe in God, the Eternal Father?”

And I told him no. It was the first time I’d given that answer to any bishop—and he was perhaps the fourth or fifth person I’d ever told I didn’t believe in God. He asked me why I felt that way, and we discussed it for a while. Surprisingly though, the interview didn’t end with that question. He asked if we could continue the temple recommend interview, and when I consented, he went through the questions one by one. And one by one, I denied faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Atonement, Christ as Savior and Redeemer, and the Restoration of the Gospel. I denied that there was a prophet on the earth, and I refused to sustain the leadership of the church. Finally, I told him I didn’t consider myself worthy to enter the temple. But when we reached the end of the interview, what he said caught me by surprise.

“Well, Ryan, I know you feel like you don’t believe in any of this, but you served a full mission, you’re active in the church, you do your home teaching, you’re keeping the commandments as best you can, and I feel like all of that demonstrates faith—even if you don’t recognize it.” Then he signed his name on the temple recommend and gave it to me to sign.

I almost laughed at him. Explaining my smiles, I said, “I can’t sign this. Signing means I think I’m worthy to go into the temple, right? I just told you I don’t think I’m worthy, and if I meant that honestly, I can’t sign this. If I do sign it, then I lied when I told you that I was honest with my fellow men, which means I shouldn’t sign it.”

He seemed frustrated, but he understood. And then he said something that really disturbed me at the time, though it took more than a year (and reading Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The God Delusion) to understand why. He said, “Well, Ryan, I understand where you’re coming from. I think we all have doubts sometimes—and particularly those of us who, by nature or by education, think critically about everything we’re taught. I’m a scientist, and I’m used to having concrete evidence before accepting hypotheses. But in this case, believing in God and following his commandments has always made me happy, and to me, that’s evidence enough.”

It’s been a few years since our interview, but I have heard his words echoed many, many times by those who believe in God. Not just “It makes me happy”, but “It makes me happy, and that’s enough.” It makes me want to scream, to type in enormous font—bolded, italicized, and underlined: That it makes you happy does not make it true! That it makes you happy does not make it good for you!

That believing in something makes us happy does not make it true.

Believing in Santa Claus as a child made me as happy as I suppose it makes any other child. And it’s natural, of course. Consider the idea: a single, magical, bearded, jolly man who, out of sheer good will and holiday spirit, flies about the world in a single night, delivering elven-made toys to young boys and girls (but only so long as their names are on the “nice” list).

But St. Nick is nothing but God dumbed down for children! Too young to fear death and wish for eternal life, they get candy and toys instead. Too short-sighted to wait till the end of their lives for reward, they wait till Christmas. More easily threatened than their parents, their naughty behavior receives lumps of coal instead of an eternity of burning and suffering at the hands of sadistic monsters.

Happy as it made me, it was a lie—a lie that hid a much more beautiful and believable truth: my parents loved me dearly, buying gifts with money that could have been spent on themselves and giving them anonymously.

That the ideas of life after death and an all-powerful, benevolent being make us happy is no surprise. Of course these things give us hope and courage to face our own mortality. But that they bring happiness does not make them true…or even good for us.

Proving God

I don’t believe you can prove God’s existence. I don’t believe you can disprove his existence either. But time and time again, I run into people who insist that they can logically prove or disprove God.

The “logical proofs” (for and against) are almost invariably cliché, used and abused for hundreds of years, despite their inherent lack of, well, logical proof. But they are still being used, which indicates to me the following: first, the people making these arguments believe the arguments are effective; and second, people are actually persuaded by these arguments (because, if they weren’t, nobody would believe them effective and continue using them).

This breaks my heart, and so, without any further ado, I present the following series of blog posts. At the risk of actually perpetuating poor logic, I’ll do what I can to demonstrate the illogic of (dis)proving God.

Illogical Proof of God #1: Pascal’s Wager

In truth, my title is a bit of a misnomer. French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal didn’t actually suggest his “wager” in order to convince people that God exists. Instead, he uses it to suggest that it is best to believe in God. However, I’ve heard this so often (and in such threatening tones) from zealous theists that I couldn’t help but address it first in this series.

Pascal’s Wager was originally put forward in Pensées, and when I hear it parroted by theists, it usually approaches the following:

“You should believe in God. If you believe in God and you’re wrong, nothing happens. You lose nothing. But if you’re right, you go to heaven and are happy forever. If you don’t believe in God and you’re right, nothing happens. But if you’re wrong, you go to hell and are miserable forever.”

The logic here can be persuasive to the casual thinker. If we have to choose one or the other, choosing to believe in God seems the obvious solution. Infinite reward if we’re right, zero cost if we’re wrong.

But Pascal’s Wager is inherently illogical and too narrow in scope to merit any real consideration.

The most apparent flaw here is Pascal’s false dichotomy. Our choice is not only between God and no God, but also from among Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, Baal, Odin, Amaterasu, and the thousands of other gods/goddesses that have ever been worshipped on this planet. Consequently, choosing to believe in one of these gods and being wrong might have worse consequences than believing in no god at all and being wrong. We might wager correctly that there is a supernatural, superhuman being, but if we get it wrong, very likely we still end up in some sort of hell. Therefore, believing in God and being wrong does not hold zero cost. You might just be avoiding the wrong hell.

Of course, Pascal dismissed pagan and Eastern religions as quickly as do most Americans. Following his example, let’s assume that there is only one God—a Christian God. Let’s even ignore Judaism and Islam.

Ignoring non-Christian religions, what happens if we believe in God, join the Methodists, and it turns out that the Catholics were right? Or the Mormons? Or the Jehovah’s Witnesses?

But these objections aside, the greatest problem I have with theists who use this argument to suggest that I should put aside skepticism and just believe in God is that, by doing so, they are mocking the intelligence of the very God they’re trying so hard to promote. Two reasons:

  1. I do not think belief is a voluntary choice. I don’t wake up in the morning, put my feet over the edge of the bed, and tell myself “I choose to believe in gravity!” before putting them down. I believe in gravity because, no matter what I do, things go down. It’s a deep, abiding trust that develops from experience. I do not have to work at it. I do not have to convince myself that it’s in my interest to believe in it. I simply do. An omniscient God knows that. He knows that if I were to begin “believing” in him so as not to end up in hell, it would be feigned belief.
  2. I think any God worth believing in and worshipping would value sincere skepticism over self-serving feigned piety. I’d rather God catch me as an honest unbeliever than a dishonest “believer”.