Dawkins’ argument against Pascal’s Wager includes a couple more interesting objections that are worth dealing with on their own.
What if we wager on the wrong God?
Dawkins also criticises Pascal’s Wager because it assumes one knows which God will be waiting for believers when we get there. What if we wager on the Holy Trinity, but God ends up being Baal or any nasty member of someone else’s pantheon?
The best way for me to answer this question is to present reasons why I consider Biblical Christianity to be unique among all other religions and by far the most likely to be genuine.
#1 – The Christian God claims to be personal, involved, Creator and Judge
Dawkins’ question seems to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it is nevertheless important enough. If there is a Judgment, then who will be hosting it?
The first thing to point out is that there are few religions for which the question is even relevant. Most polytheistic religions may have vague conception of an ultimate God (there is even a good case that polytheism stems as a corruption from monotheism), but are preoccupied with favourite gods (such as Catholic saints, in some cases) or regional deities (such as Baal) who ‘control’ whatever forces are most relevant to the worshipper. But these religions are vague on judgment and eternity. Other religions have gods who are not personal (Buddhism) or gods who are not supernatural, but are just a mysterious part of the natural cosmos (such as the Greek gods, pantheism, perhaps animism, and any religions that have personified natural phenomena, such as sun or moon worship).
For all of these, God is either distant, or an impersonal force, or a source of blessing or trouble in this life, but not creator and judge. Wherever this is true, concepts of eternity and judgment are vague, incoherent or irrelevant.
#2 – Christianity makes the best case for Divine revelation
I am of the opinion that God is largely unknowable and unavailable to proofs and experiments. We may gather a sense of God’s existence and nature by looking around us, but many people with good eyes still find God’s existence doubtful, and this general information about God can tell us nothing about who God is personally, what He expects of us, or where to find Him. In other words, God’s special self-revelation is essential to a claim to true religion, or else we are left with complete guesswork rather than credible truth claims (or perhaps worship of an unknowable God, as in some mystical religions, but is this much more than enshrined ignorance?).
Hinduism has the Vedas, but it is a vast body of spiritual writings that Hindus are not expected to read as a unity. They are meditations and thoughts that are said to be spiritually helpful, but (as far as I know) may contradict one another without problem. I stand open to correction, but the Bhagavad-Gita is a portion of the Vedas, claimed as divine by the Krishna Consciousness Movement. I am unable to comment about the credibility of these scriptures, as I am unfamiliar with their history and content.
Buddhism is another splinter movement from Hinduism, but it claims only to be enlightened philosophy rather than divine revelation (Buddhism is in fact atheistic, aiming at extinction from the exhausting cycle of rebirths, rather than unity with any divine force. Folk Buddhism that worships the Buddha is an ironic corruption).
Other scriptures that claim to be revelations from God usually consist in dictations made to one man in private. This is true of Islam and Mormonism, for example. This is not necessarily an argument against the truth of their claims, but consider that the Bible was compiled over about 1500 years and written by many authors, and yet still makes a defensible claim to a unified story without incoherence. The Qu’ran, by comparison, contains claims that the Christian scriptures are true, and yet finds that the Bible repeatedly contradicts what Muhammad taught. Therefore, Muslims argue that the Bible is corrupt, but given that the Bible is almost seven centuries older, the textual evidence is overwhelmingly against them. The Qu’ran also seemingly claims that the Christians think that Trinity is Father, Son and Mother Mary (“Allah will say: ‘O Jesus, son of Mary, Did you ever say to the people, ‘worship me and my mother as gods beside Allah?””), which is problematic. Finally, although Muhammad allegedly received the Qu’ran by dictation, some verses were retracted on the grounds that Satan had deceived him. But if Satan deceived him once, on what grounds can we know that the other dictation was certainly from the good source? These problems are not popular conversation starters with Muslims, as Salman Rushdie found out, but surely there are answers to them if Islam is true?
Of those religions that have scriptures, the Judeo-Christian scriptures are most credible due to their writing and compilation in more than one language, from more than one culture, and over so long a period. This is significant because there is consistency of theology and plot that is unmatched even by those works from a single author.
#3 – Christianity is uniquely moored in history
In The God Delusion, Dawkins claims that the existence of God is (at least in principle) a scientific question, because the virgin birth, resurrection and other key facts were empirical and scientifically testable. How right he is to say this is unimportant for now. It’s interesting though that his comment is true almost exclusively of Christianity. No other religion that I know of claims to stand or fall on its own historicity.
Most religions are philosophical and ethical systems, but not historical. The incarnations of the gods in figures such as Hercules are told in poems and stories, but no one knows when these figures were supposed to have lived. The gods of fertility cults have ‘resurrections’ that signify the death and rebirth of seed, but those resurrections weren’t observed by witnesses.
Christianity is completely different. The gospel events were preached in Jerusalem during Pentecost, seven weeks after the death of Jesus. That preaching presupposed that the historical events were common knowledge. The virgin who bore Jesus was available for comment when the gospels were written. The resurrection appearances were witnessed on many separate occasions, once by a sceptic who insisted on seeing and touching, once by more than 500 people, most of whom were still alive when the gospel was distributed in written form. Three of the gospels were written by disciples (if you agree that Mark ghost-wrote Peter’s story), and the other by Luke who researched and gathered witness accounts. Not only does the Christian gospel claim to be historical, but it claims to be nonsense if it’s not historical, and even invited sceptics to investigate for themselves.
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1Corinthians 15:17-19, c. AD 48)
#4 – Christianity teaches a worldview that has broad power to explain
This is a minor point, and of course every worldview will necessarily have unknowns. However, if we were to judge belief systems simply according to their ability to make human experience coherent, Christianity would score highly. Perhaps stating the case against other hugely successful worldviews will make my point clearer.
Mysticism gives a high place to one’s divine mind or life force. Because much in life is cyclical, and much in life is evil, material existence is viewed as an ever-repeating trap from which one’s spirit must escape. Although it is internally consistent, mysticism is forced to treat some of life’s realest experiences, such as the good and the value in the material world and the goodness of our individuality, as illusions.
Although not a religion, philosophical naturalism, which enshrines science and reason, and which has enormous explanatory power over the natural world, is forced to treat morality and meaning as subjective, which nearly empties such concepts of meaning (as is demonstrated in the subsequent birth of nihilism). If CS Lewis in Miracles is correct, a genuine explanation for the ability of our reason to see truths is also lacking.
Christianity is able to find a place for good and evil, for spirit and matter, for our origins and our end, for our problem and our cure, for eternal and temporal purpose, and for universal ideals in ethics etc.
An important by-product of the Christian worldview is freedom. Finding a balance between the liberty of the individual and the liberty of society, between pleasures and responsibilities, and between denial and indulgence is difficult. Complete libertarianism fails to avoid slavery to pleasure without fulfilment, and slavery of society to the freedoms of individuals. Legalist societies, such as Sharia Islam, so easily force-fit individuals into unhappy moulds, and into slavery to endless empty codes. Biblical Christianity is perhaps the most successful in promoting equality, yet social order; personal pleasures as well as self-control; and joy without naïveté.
#5 – Salvation by grace
Finally and most importantly, Christianity is unique in its teaching on salvation. Every religion in the world conceives of humanity as lacking something in regard to our relationship with the divine (if we were not in need of reconciliation, there would be no need of religion to facilitate that relationship, as is so in atheism). Every religion in the world, but for one, regards the disruption in relationship between God and man to be a gap that is bridgeable by human effort. Our offences are minor enough that if we jump to god’s tune and do more good than bad. Our pleasing deeds will offset our displeasing ones when god weighs them up (allow for tweaks in terminology between religions).
Biblical Christianity has a very different view of the human problem. Our misdeeds are offences against the perfect creator, and so our attempts at offsetting the damage are hopelessly inadequate. My favourite illustration of this is adultery. Imagine that our sins are to a perfect God like adultery is to a marriage. If you’ve slept with the neighbour, it’s no good attempting to placate your spouse by making the bed. A destroyed relationship is not fixed by doing a petty chore or two.
In the light of human helplessness to achieve reconciliation in a relationship that we’ve smashed without provocation, the gospel offers grace. Because of who God is, and not because of who we are, God has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him entirely free. There is no human effort that could achieve reconciliation, and so God has done what was needed and given it to us as a gift without human effort. Of course one is expected to live in that relationship as we did before we destroyed it, but, unlike every other religion in the world, there is no concept in Christianity of earning favour with God.
This is what discredits every other religion the most in my eyes. Just as every criminal believes he’s more or less innocent, or himself some kind of victim, so also we naturally believe that we’re not so bad, and that God has no right to be especially angry with us. In fact, we’ll have a word or two with Him if we ever have to meet up. Every religion except one has more or less this kind of view of humanity built in. The fact that human ‘goodness’ can offset our badness is unequivocal testimony to this. Furthermore, every religion except one makes humanity into the hero of the whole story of history. God is more or less a bystander, now upset that we’re being bad, now inordinately delighted that we’re spinning that prayer wheel or tying bright strings around our ankles. Mankind is doing the business. It’s exactly the kind of story we’d write, but bears none of the marks of Divine authorship. Humans are doing pretty well, doing the fighting; God can be pacified with trinkets.
Christianity, by contrast, points out that there’s nothing significant that separates us ‘good folk’ from the rapist and murderer. Even if we’re shiny on the outside, people are dark to the core. We’re the ones who are helpless to effect any real change. God is the one who takes centre stage to restore something that He didn’t break, He acts despite the fact that we didn’t ask Him to, and generally aren’t grateful that He did. And to cap it off, accepting this gift means the total death of human pride and human autonomy; two of our most prized possessions. What person would make this kind of story up? Well, no other religion has come close. Not even remotely.