I have been asked, “What if you’re wrong? What if God exists and you are indeed bound for hell because you don’t believe? You are risking an eternity of punishment and the loss of infinite reward, simply for refusing to have faith.”
There are a great many flaws in that argument, but more on that after a bit. I generally respond to those questions by turning the argument around: What if God is not what you expect? What if God does exist, but prefers honest inquiry to professions of faith? What if God dislikes blind obedience? By choosing to have an uncritical (blind) faith, you face exactly the same loss of eternal reward you think I am risking.
Why I’m not worried about a possible god:
There is no evidence that convinces me that there exists a “supreme being” that would correspond to any commonly held concept of God. However, I can’t absolutely prove that such a being can’t exist; the cosmos is a big place. So, should I be worried that there may be a being who will smite me for unbelief? What are my odds regarding being supernaturally smitten? What might this smiter might be like? Is there a Supreme Being who loves people, or one who doesn’t care much what happens to people? Would a Supreme Being rather watch people suffer, or see them achieve happiness? I could go on indefinitely. The point is that we have no way of determining the nature of such a being, at least not a way that everyone can agree on.
The “what if you’re wrong” argument is referred to as Pascal’s Wager. The gist of the argument is that you have two choices: believe in God or not; and there are four possible outcomes: if God exists and you believe, you win eternal life. If God exists and you don’t believe, you go to hell. If God doesn’t exist, you only win or lose regardless of your beliefs, based only on how rewarding your mortal life is. Therefore, the best bet is to believe, even if the chance of God existing is small. Why miss out on even a small chance of infinite reward? If it turns out there is no God, you aren’t out much, if anything, compared to the magnitude of heaven or hell.
Let’s leave aside the argument of whether it is even possible to choose to believe. I have my doubts about that, but it doesn’t matter to the argument. Let’s also accept, for the sake of argument, that the three outcomes of the wager are the only possibilities. That is, after your mortal life you either a) cease to exist, b) live eternally in heaven, or c) suffer eternally in hell. If those are the only options, the logical choice would be to go for b. Failing that, a is clearly better than c. Pascal was confident that he knew how to get to b (heaven). I have no reason to think he was correct.
That’s the nature of the problem, right? If eternal life is possible, I assume I would want that. Then how do I get in? Christian fundamentalists will say that I can determine the path to heaven from studying the Bible, but clearly, different groups have very different interpretations of the Bible’s god and that god’s requirements to win eternal life. And what if the Bible is wrong? How then could we interpret it accurately? What if “God” is something else altogether, perhaps nature itself, or some kind of omnipresent Mind of the universe? Or what if, as I suggested above, there is a god who gives eternal life, but only to those who honestly investigate reality to determine what is true?
One more possibility: what if we are all wrong? Suppose we all reside in a computer simulation, and our Supreme Being is the programmer. What if that programmer rewards those who pique his curiosity with their unusual behavior? Then it would be smart to be as outrageous as possible. The more we amuse the programmer, the longer we survive.
As you might guess, I favor being an honest investigator, regardless of the nature of any god that may exist. I would rather know the truth, even if it is uncomfortable, than live with even the most pleasant lies. I would like to think a Supreme Being would prefer the honest skeptic to a believer with no curiosity, but I don’t believe on the basis of what I would like to think. What is, is. Blessed be what is.