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It never made sense to me how people could go through their whole lives without ever giving much thought to religious questions. For instance, this quotation from Steven Levitt (whose work I’m generally a fan of) seems to represent a pretty common attitude toward the subject:
I’m not religious. I don’t think much about God, except when I am in a pinch and need some special favors. I have no particular reason to think he’ll deliver, but I sometimes take a shot anyway. Other than that, I’m just not that interested in God.
Even among people who are religious, this relative lack of concern seems pretty normal; sure, they’ll say that they believe there’s “someone up there” if you ask them – but in truth, it’ll usually just be a casual kind of belief that they don’t really think about that much. Their attention will tend to be more focused on worldly concerns like their careers and hobbies and so on.
Like I said though, this mentality just never made any sense to me. In one sense, of course, I do understand where it’s coming from. There’s no way we can know for sure whether some higher power definitely exists or not, so what’s the point in spending too much time speculating? But just because we can’t know something for sure doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of time to even try to figure out anything about it. After all, a military commander might not know for sure whether an enemy force is planning to drop nuclear bombs on his country, but that doesn’t mean it’s not incumbent upon him to do absolutely everything he can to determine the likelihood of that outcome as best he can and respond accordingly. He may not be able to achieve absolute certainty, but the stakes are so high that the question demands his attention regardless. And the same is true of religious questions. If you think that there’s even a moderate level of uncertainty about whether a God exists or not, the stakes are just so astronomically high (even higher than the commander contemplating a nuclear attack) that the question demands your attention. You may not be able to know for sure whether a God really exists or not; but ultimately, that question is one with a definite yes or no answer. And regardless of what the answer is – whether there’s really a God or not – the implications of that answer are maximally consequential, perhaps more so than any other question.
I mean, imagine if there really was such a thing as God. Imagine if there really was such a thing as an eternal afterlife. If these things were actually real, then the significance of that fact would utterly dwarf everything in this world, everything we puny humans are currently doing with our lives, in the most profound way possible. Someone has just invented a new kind of phone? The stock market has just crashed? OK, sure, those things are important – but meanwhile, looming over our planet is an all-powerful cosmic being capable of creating and destroying galaxies at whim, who may or may not intend to keep every living soul alive for the rest of eternity, and who may or may not have certain conditions that humans must follow within this arrangement in order to ensure that they spend this eternity in a state of infinite bliss rather than infinite torment. Doesn’t it seem like this might be a bit more important than the other stuff?
Similarly, let’s imagine the opposite scenario – if it turned out that there was actually no such thing as a God or an afterlife after all. For most people, this revelation would be equally earth-shattering. If, let’s say, you were a believer who fully expected to live forever in Heaven, only to find out that your belief was completely false, then wouldn’t that fact be just as much of a game-changer as learning that it was true? I mean, imagine what it would mean to realize for the first time that you weren’t going to live forever. Imagine some hypothetical character (like a wizard or a vampire or something) who was immortal, and who lived their life based on the belief that they were going to live forever – but then one day found out that no, in fact they only had about 30-50 more years before they utterly ceased to exist. That realization would surely feel like an absolute bombshell. It would be like one of us mere mortals thinking that we were going to live for another 30-50 years, but then finding out instead that in fact we were actually going to die within the next two hours. It would be a life-transforming, perspective-redefining shift. It would change everything.
So while it’s true that none of us can know for sure whether there really is some kind of higher power (at least not currently), the point here is just that the question of religion is an unbelievably important one – and the fact that billions of people hold such differing beliefs on the subject means that, no matter how you slice it, billions of people are wrong in some major way. This is a very big deal. After all, if religion were false, it would mean that the vast majority of humankind was living a massive lie – one that affected everything from their views on morality, to their stances on socio-political issues, to their attitudes toward death – and one that has led to countless fatalities over the centuries and could lead to countless more. If religion were false, it would be a bigger scandal than Watergate; it would be bigger than finding out that there were no WMDs in Iraq and that the entire war was based on false intelligence; hell, it would be bigger than finding out that the Holocaust and the Pearl Harbor attack had never happened and that the Axis Powers were the good guys acting in pure self-defense all along. If religion were false, then the sheer weight of that fact would dwarf every other fraud, scandal, conspiracy, and cover-up (real or imaginary) that has ever existed. And conversely, if religion were true – specifically, if a religion like Christianity were confirmed true – then it would be an even bigger deal, because it would mean that billions of our loved ones whom we had thought were dead were actually alive and worshiping joyously in Heaven – or agonizing in Hell – and that every single one of us would ultimately meet one of those two fates ourselves when we died, depending on certain very specific choices that we made (or didn’t make) during our short time on Earth. Not only that, it would mean that our entire earthly way of life would need to be massively overhauled. For instance, if Christianity were confirmed true, then the ideal system of government would certainly not be our current form of democracy; it would be a Christian theocracy that followed the teachings of the biblical law as closely as possible and existed for the sole purpose of serving Yahweh’s will. If Christianity were true, then the only rational use of your time would be to spend every waking moment learning as much about biblical teachings as you possibly could, following them as closely as possible, and trying to convince others to do the same. If Christianity were true, then the only thing that you would ever want occupying your thoughts would be God and his will; the only songs you would ever want to sing would be songs of worship; the only book you would ever want to read would be the Bible; and your most urgent moral obligation would be trying to rescue as many people as possible from the eternal torment that awaited them if you didn’t convert them. No other way of life would make sense.
To say that it matters whether such a religion actually is true, then, is a massive understatement. In fact, even if we ignored all the supernatural implications and were only concerned with how to make the best day-to-day moral decisions (both as individuals and as a society), the religious question would still be an absolutely fundamental one. As Mark Linsenmayer points out in a podcast conversation:
You can’t do the right thing unless you know what the right thing is, and you can’t know what the right this is until you have a conception of what “the right thing” means. You have to do metaethics before you can do ethics; and before you do that you have to know metaphysics […] so you have to know whether there’s a God or not who’s going to be telling you to do stuff – or if there is no God who’s not telling you to do stuff, then is there any sense in which you should do anything or not.
In this light, there’s a good case to be made that the truth of these metaphysical matters and their implications might in fact be the single most important issue in the world – because it’s from the answers to these questions that the answers to practically every other question we care about must emerge. Our ethics, our politics, our social structures – all of these things are downstream of whether we believe in God or not; and if our religious beliefs ever changed, then our attitudes toward all these things would significantly change as well. (I suspect, for instance, that a huge percentage – maybe even a majority – of current Republican voters originally joined the party not because of its economic policies or whatever, but because it better reflected their religious values on issues like abortion, popular culture, etc.; and if Americans’ levels of religiosity suddenly became more like those of Europe, its political alignments – and therefore its economic and social policies – would start looking a lot more European as well in short order.) Religion is upstream of practically everything.
Having said all this, of course, I can’t help but come back to the conspicuous fact that most people – including even devout religious believers – don’t seem to take these matters nearly as seriously as all this. Aside from a small sliver of the population – the most obsessively fundamentalist monks, nuns, missionaries, and self-proclaimed holy warriors – most people still have lives of their own, outside of their religion, which occupy most of their time and energy. There are plenty of people who claim, for instance, that the Bible is the perfect and literal word of God; yet many of these same people have never actually read the book in its entirety (and likely never will), because they’re busy with other things.
How does that happen? Well, to me it would seem to suggest either that these people don’t actually believe in their religion as completely as they profess to, or that they haven’t fully internalized and thought through the implications of that belief (or both). After all, if you really believed that there was a book on your bookshelf right now that had literally been authored by the most intelligent being that had ever existed – the all-powerful creator and ruler of everything in existence – is there anything in the world that could possibly take priority over rushing to your bookshelf, seizing that book, and staying up all night and day reading it, poring over it, obsessing over it, and parsing every single miniscule detail to try and get as much from it as conceivably possible, then applying that to your life and executing its instructions as thoroughly as possible? I don’t think there could be – not if you really believed it.
At risk of belaboring the point here, let me give one more analogy. Imagine this scenario: One day, you’re sitting in your living room idly watching reruns, when all of a sudden time freezes – your clocks stop, birds flying past your window are suspended in mid-flight – and a glowing portal opens up in front of you. Through it, you can see a group of alien beings watching everything that’s happening in the world on a giant computer screen – everything from your great-aunt brushing her teeth at home, to world leaders conducting top-secret meetings in undisclosed locations, to your own self staring dumbfounded at the portal – and from what you’re seeing, it’s clear that these alien beings are somehow monitoring and perhaps even controlling all the major events in the world. One of these beings turns toward you, says something in a strange language, and then hands you a thick sheaf of papers, before closing the portal and leaving you alone again in your living room. After a moment of shocked silence, you look down at the sheaf of papers and see some writing on them indicating that their contents explain not only who these alien beings are, but where they come from, what they are doing, what they want, and even the secrets of how they are able to see everything at will. How do you respond to this situation? Do you [A] realize that the significance of what you’ve just seen dwarfs everything you thought you knew about the world, and start obsessively reading through the alien papers and spending the next several hours (or days, or weeks, or months, or years) desperately trying to glean everything you possibly can from them? Or [B] stick the papers on a shelf somewhere and tell yourself you’ll maybe take a look inside them someday, before promptly forgetting about them and going back to your reruns?
I suspect any sane person would pick the former. And yet, the situation with the Bible is claimed by many to be much the same – so we have to ask, then, why aren’t they treating it with the kind of urgency it would seem to deserve? After all, if God actually came down from the sky right now and handed you a sheaf of papers that he had personally hand-written himself, and told you that it contained all the universe’s most important truths and all the instructions that humans needed to follow in order to live forever, would you really just stuff it on your shelf somewhere and forget to ever read it because you needed to mow the lawn or whatever? In other words, would you treat this hypothetical Word of God the same way you treat the actual non-hypothetical Bible in the real world? And if not, what does that say about what you truly believe? It seems like there could be a very serious disconnect there.