Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Wager

I was not at Skepticon, and I'm not acquainted with anyone involved in the incident that a large section of the atheist blogosphere has been talking about. Lots of other people have written about what actually happened, and so I'm not going to rehash it here – I'll put links to some of those posts at the end for those who don't know what I'm talking about. I'm also not going to presume to speak for anyone who was directly involved in this, since I don't know them personally.

One thing I've noticed is that some people are assuming that Rebecca Watson is being overly sensitive about this – because she was uncomfortable at being approached by a man she didn't know in a hotel elevator, and invited up to his room, she was being unreasonably cautious. Some people have pointed to the use of the term "potential sexual assault" as evidence that she and her supporters view all men as potential rapists; in any case, she had no evidence that this man had any intention to do her any harm at all, and so any assumption she might have made about him was ostensibly paranoid and sexist. I disagree with all of this, and after thinking about it a while I think I've thought of a good way of explaining my reasons.

If you're an atheist, chances are you're familiar with the concept of Pasal's Wager. If you're not, the short version of it is that since we can't be certain of whether there's a God or not, it's better to believe that there is one. This is because of the possible consequences of being wrong. If you believe and it turns out you're wrong, then you'll be just as dead as you would have been otherwise, and no worse off. If you don't believe and you're wrong, then God's going to be ticked off by your impertinent skepticism and send you straight to hell. Of course, most atheists know that there are a lot of things wrong with these assumptions – maybe you decide to worship the wrong god. Maybe God values honest skepticism. There's also the fact that believing in God typically does come at a cost, in the form of time and resources spent worshiping him/her/it that could have gone to other things.