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Saturday, 9 February 2013

Pascal's Wager, Revisited

On a recent Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick et al spoke to Community's Yvette Nicole Brown, and eventually, the topic turned to religion. I was a little forewarned to it because as I hit play, I also had a look at some of the comments; there were a few praising her philosophy (ie, this is what I believe and it works for me; you should do whatever works for you), and there were a few who reflexively lashed out at the thought of anyone saying nice things about religion (and took issue with Chris Hardwick for not calling her out on her belief).

I have to place myself firmly in the former camp. Although my father tried to bring me up as a good Catholic, I'm neither religious nor spiritual; I started calling myself a lapsed Catholic around high school, and a couple of years ago stopped doing even that. However, I haven't gone the Richard Dawkins route and taken to calling every religious person an idiot; frankly that sounds too much like religion to me.

What happened? Well, in the first instance I am an extremely stubborn person. If you tell me I have to go to church every week, and I don't want to, then I'm going to come to resent it. Yet I kept calling myself Catholic (even if lapsed), long after I stopped going to Mass regularly, and would argue for faith whenever some of my friends or acquaintances would start in on Christianity's myriad failings (and I would take the opposite side whenever I found myself arguing with people who read the Bible literally).

What eventually persuaded me to drop religion entirely was, nerdily enough, a fantasy novel. Specifically, it was R Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series, accompanied by his own blogs, that did the trick. Bakker's position is, everybody thinks they've lucked into the one true belief system; the problem is, not everyone can be right (for the record, he extends this to all beliefs, not just religions). The other point he made was that you can't pick and choose. So I decided to stop picking and choosing, and dropped religion entirely.

But again, I accept that I could be wrong. Which is why people like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens always rubbed me the wrong way when they went on their rants. Dawkins, in particular, reminds me of an angry teenager who's just discovered his parents are fallible; he's so angry about it that he no longer believes anything they have to say, no matter how sensible. Or to follow with how I put it above, he's traded one kind of proselytizing for another, and I'm really not interested.

Also, preaching to the converted (pun intended) gets a little boring after a while. At the same time, telling people they're stupid isn't exactly the way to win them over to your side.

Alain de Botton recently wrote a book called "Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion". I didn't read it, but I flipped through it, and generally agree with the premise - why can't we take the useful parts of religion and leave out the stuff we don't like? Note that when I say useful parts, I mean the central idea of being nicer to the people around us. Religion should be like sexuality - as long as you don't hurt others, why can't you do whatever you want?

Which brings me back to Yvette Nicole Brown and Chris Hardwick. Their approaches to life could not be more different, but they agree on one fundamental point, which is not to judge other people. We all have our paths through life, and they are usually hard enough; people constantly telling us we're doing it wrong only make it harder.