This is a revised version of a talk I gave to the Atheists’ Society in Melbourne, Australia, on 11 August 2015
People who don’t believe in the existence of God are sometimes asked by people who do believe in God, ‘What if you are wrong?’
The person who asks this question is probably implying that the non-believer will be in dire danger of eternal damnation after they die unless they abandon their disbelief. It’s more of a challenge than a question because the questioner will believe that people have eternal souls that constitute the essence of their being.
But a devout believer in God, Heaven and Hell might just be worried about a loved one who is an atheist. But I suppose it’s still a challenge.
I will consider the consequences of disbelief, but relating only to disbelief of the Abrahamic God, and will discuss how serious this challenge really is for
Believers in the existence of God.
What will unfold will be:
The details of the belief that you may be wrong about,
What the questioner thinks is actually true,
The possible after-death alternatives for the belief,
The probabilities of each possibility
And who, if anyone, should be worried.
What if Atheists are wrong?
Atheists believe, or are strongly convinced, that there is nothing but the material world. There is no God or any other kind of supernatural entity, no immortal souls, no Heaven and no Hell.
The person who asks an Atheist ‘what if you are wrong’ thinks that some or all of these things exist, and that the Atheist is in danger of having a very uncomfortable time after death.
I think there is no hard evidence for any of this. I will present the possibilities in the form of a series of steps, each containing a question requiring either YES or NO as the answer. If at any step the probability favouring the belief were actually zero, then the significance of all the subsequent steps that depend on it would automatically become zero. To avoid any appearance of bias I will tentatively assign a probability of 50% to each step.
Step1: Is there a supernatural entity of any kind?
The 50% chance means a 50% chance that Atheists are in trouble after death is no greater than 50%, and the chance of oblivion 50%. But the actual probabilities will depend on the combined probabilities of all of the steps.
Step 2: If there is some supernatural entity, do human beings have supernatural souls?
There is now 50% of a 50% chance of damnation for Atheists, that is, no greater than 25%. Since the only expected alternative outcome is oblivion, the probability of oblivion is about 75%.
Step 3. Are these supernatural souls our real identity? The chance of damnation is now no greater than 12.5%.
Step 4. Do these supernatural souls remain in existence after the death of our bodies?
Step 5: Are these souls conscious after the death of our bodies?
Step 6: Are these conscious souls then susceptible to pain, anguish and discomfort?
Having now considered all the things relating to the soul that need to be true if there is to be punishment for dead Atheists, there is at this stage, about a 3% chance of consciousness, with the chance of damnation being no greater than 1.6% , if the probability at each step is 50%.
Neuroscientists would put the probabilities at each of Steps 3, 4 and 5, to be very much lower than 50%, but for the moment I will still say we are now at 1.6%.
There are also issues relating to God.
Step 7: Is there is a God of the universe?
Step 8. Is that God omniscient?
Step 9: Does that God care about the actions of organisms in the various parts of the universe?
Step 10: Does that God want people who live on planet Earth to do particular things and/or abstain from doing particular things?
At this stage, the chance of all the answers being YES, and the chance of damnation is no greater than slightly less than 0.1%,
Step 11: Is that omniscient God able to give pleasure or pain to the individual conscious souls of dead people? If YES, the overall probability is now no greater than 0.05%.
Step 12: Is that omniscient God completely loving, understanding and forgiving?
In the answer is YES, then no one should have any worries about any possible afterlife. If NO, the probability of damnation would be no greater than 0.025%. The chance of oblivion is now about 99.975%.
Step 13: Does that God take punitive action of any kind.
In NO, no one should have any worries about what happens after death. Some people might expect some kind of pleasure, but the probability of this would be no greater than 0.012%.
If the answer is YES, the probability of damnation would be now no greater than 0.012%. But there is religious ambiguity between this and the previous step. The scriptures say that God is completely knowing, loving and understanding, but also very punishing. So God might take more account of deeds than of beliefs or singing hymns, and if the assigned probability of this is to be 50%, the chance of damnation would be no greater than 0.006%. .
Step 13a: Is that God vindictive?
If YES, then the probability of damnation for Atheists stays at 0.006%, and the punishment might be more severe. If NO, the chance of damnation is now no greater than 0.003%.
So, overall, with the allocation of 50% for each step, the probability of damnation for Atheists would be no greater than one chance in about thirty thousand. This is very low, but not zero. People buy tickets in lotteries where the chances are much less, but if they don’t win the cost is just the price of their tickets and not damnation. Given the implied consequences, would Atheists think this probability of damnation is low enough to take the risk? That would depend on what, if anything, they thought they might have to do to save them.
Although these probabilities, and the steps themselves, are all arbitrary, the process shows that a lot of beliefs have to be correct before Atheists are in trouble.
Atheists do not accept that the probabilities are 50%. They would put most of them at zero or very close to zero. To get a more realistic estimate, the probabilities of some steps need to be reviewed.
But before doing this I will look at the fates of dead Agnostics and of dead Supernaturalists, i.e., of believers in the supernatural, with the same “unbiased” probabilities of 50%.
The expected alternative fates for Agnostics would be about the same as for Atheists – oblivion or damnation. Perhaps they might get some consideration for not completely denying the existence of God.
For Supernaturalists the expected alternatives are bliss or damnation, or perhaps reincarnation, but generally not oblivion.
The beliefs across the religions are very diverse, so at least some of them would be untrue. There are at least three named religions, each of which has several sects. And there are conflicting interpretations of the sacred texts. Some believers actually say that certain other believers are bound for hell.
Despite this diversity, for Supernaturalists the first 12 steps are the same as for Atheists. So starting with:
Step 1: Is there a supernatural entity of any kind? ,
I will immediately proceed to
Step 12: Is that God completely loving, understanding and forgiving?
In the answer is YES, then no one should have any worries about any possible afterlife. If NO, the probability of damnation would be no greater than 0.025%.
But instead of the probability of 0.025 relating to damnation, it now relates to either bliss or damnation, with the chance of each being no greater than 0.0125%.
Step 13. Does that God punish people who do not believe and act in particular ways?
If NO, the chance for each of bliss and damnation is 0.003%. As with Step 13 for Atheists, there is religious ambiguity between this and the previous step: the scriptures say that God is completely knowing, loving and understanding, but also very punishing
Step 13a: Is that God vindictive?
If YES, then the probability of damnation stays at 0.003%, the punishment might be more severe, and there is no chance of bliss. If NO, the chances of bliss and damnation are each no greater than 0.0015%.
Step 14. Has this particular believer picked the right religion, and the right interpretation of it?
Given the very wide range of religions and interpretations, the chance of being right would be very small. It would be generous to assume that 10% of the believers got it right, but that is what I will do. For them the chances would be the same as in Step 13a. But, irrespective of what they believed, no one would know whether they were in that 10%. So the actual overall “unbiased” chance of bliss would be 0.00015%, and for damnation about 0.014%. This assumes that no one is condemned to oblivion as a softer punishment than damnation, but the difference is negligible. The chance of oblivion is 99.9985%.
This means that believers would fare slightly better than Atheists as far as damnation is concerned. This is because the alternative to oblivion is now shared between bliss and damnation. But the difference is negligible. Their chances of bliss are a lot less than what they are hoping for.
Oblivion is by far the most likely outcome for everyone.
Of course believers would give themselves a much higher probability of bliss. Atheists would give them much less, but the chance of bliss is already negligible..
This has all been guesswork and the choice of steps has been somewhat arbitrary. But that does not mean it should be summarily dismissed. It illustrates that the more complicated something is said to be, the more evidence is needed to justify its description. The reliability of the description depends on the probabilities.
To assess the probability of anything it is necessary to have information about the relevant conditions and influences. For something whose existence is conjectured, such as a supernatural entity, where is no hard evidence, the grounds for assigning any probability would depend on the reasons, if any, that may have prompted the conjecture.
In the present issue there are:
- matters for which there is good scientific evidence, such as
the evolution of all biological organisms from some very simple primitive microorganism
and the complete dependence of human consciousness on the condition of the brain.
- and matters that may be intrinsically beyond the reach of science, such as, what makes the difference between inanimate matter and living matter;
what produces consciousness out of intelligence,
- And whether there are any observable signs that might suggest the presence of a supernatural entity.
I think there is no compelling evidence for either the existence or the non-existence of anything other than the material world. So I would have to accept 50% for Step 1.
Evolution strongly suggests that life is a purely material phenomenon. Step 2 proposes some necessary supernatural contribution. There is no credible scientific explanation of how life on Earth arose from inanimate matter. But if the origin or the nature of life were to be satisfactorily explained by including some supernatural contribution, then this would give some credence to a YES vote for Steps2, 3 and 4 . But it would be necessary to find evidence supporting such proposed supernatural processes. There is no such evidence, or anything else, to support a YES for Steps 2 and 3 and4, so the probability of each must be well below the assigned 50%.
Consciousness depends entirely on the intelligence held in the brain. All organisms need a degree of intelligence to survive. Pain and emotional anguish arise from specific areas of the brain.
There are conditions under which people are said to “lose consciousness”. One such condition is when they go to sleep. But sleep is a complex thing, with different kinds of brain activity, sometimes without consciousness and sometimes with consciousness in the form of dreams. Other conditions whereby people lose consciousness are when they faint, or are in a coma, or are completely anaesthetised. All occasions of consciousness and all occasions of losing consciousness have to do with the functioning of the brain. If there were some supernatural partner that, along with the brain, produced consciousness, it could not produce consciousness from a dead brain.
This reinforces the case for low probabilities for Steps 3 and 4, and requires very low probabilities for Steps 5, and 6, but putting a value on any of them would still be guesswork.
Religious texts describe God as the creator of the universe, with absolute knowledge of it and absolute power over it. Texts also describe God as loving and compassionate but also as having anger and hate. There is no evidence for any of this.
The texts say that God has prescribed rules of behaviour for one specific recently-evolved kind of organism on a tiny planet of a medium size star in a medium size galaxy which has billion of stars, and will severely punish those who disobey, but only after they have died.
The attributed characteristics of God are self-contradictory and so they cannot all be correct.
We have no way of knowing how the universe came to be – if it did – and no way of determining any characteristics of God – if God actually exists. The probability of 50% for all the steps after Step 6 now looks unduly generous in the light of given modern scientific knowledge.
With the probability of every step at 50%, the overall probability of Atheists having to suffer after death came out as about one chance in thirty thousand. Now, having looked at the evidence and applied new probabilities according to the evidence, the probability of anything other than oblivion after death would be orders of magnitude less for everyone. That is as accurate as is possible.
Some Atheists or Agnostics might feel that the probability of damnation, however small it seemed, was still too high for them to take the risk. But how would they choose a safe alternative belief? There are too many alternatives and negligible difference between their outcomes.
All this shows that when we are talking about supernatural matters, where there is no credible evidence, the probabilities and consequences of being wrong are quite uncertain. Any purported consequences are also very much less worrying than some people would like to believe. There will, of course, be no agreement about who was right. And the probability of finding out, which would occur only after death, seems to be very, very small.