But What If You’re Wrong?

In a rather remarkable Q&A session from October of 2006, Richard Dawkins is asked what to a believer must have seemed like a rather poignant question:  “What if you’re wrong?”

We have to contextualize, and then unpack, that question a little bit to really understand it, because it’s ambiguously-phrased.  Dr. Dawkins was then at the height of publicity surrounding his release of The God Delusion, which became a best-seller and his speech at the college included a reading of a chapter of that book in which he advances the claim that there is no rational reason to believe in Jehovah.  Dawkins was speaking at a small liberal arts college in Lynchburg, Virginia. Which is where Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University happens to be located, and a number of Liberty students crashed the lecture. The presumption was that the young woman who asked Dawkins this question was a Christian student at Liberty.

That being the case, it is fair to read into her question that she is asking not only “What if you’re wrong that there is no such thing as the supernatural,” but to glaze on top of that, “What if the teachings of Christianity are the truth?”

Dawkins’ response was that the young lady asking the question was probably Christian because she had been raised in a Christian environment and accepted Christianity as normal.  Therefore, she probably felt very comfortable about discounting the claims made by other religions — she likely had no trouble dismissing the teachings of Hinduism, for instance.  But had she been born in India, she would have been raised in a Hindu environment and accepted Hinduism as normal, and thus had little difficulty discounting the claims made by Christianity.

This was, in essence, a rephrasing of a pithy statement by usenet pioneer Stephen Roberts, who noted in an internet debate over a decade ago: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” 

So the unpacked question is “What if I’m right?” and the unpacked response is, “You’re not really scared of being wrong about all those other gods, so why should I be scared of yours?” or, phrased somewhat more confrontationally, “Don’t try to scare me with a bogeyman.”

But while Dawkins makes a strong and worthwhile point that “what if you’re wrong” is simply a case of invoking fear to support a claim of “I’m right,” this response nevertheless does not directly answer the student’s question at face value, which may have left an unthoughtful person unsatisfied with Dawkins’ response.

What if it turns out that not only is Dawkins wrong, but the Christians are right?  Indeed, let’s take it a step further — what if not only are the Christians right, but the millenial, evangelical Christians (as opposed to the Catholics, the Mormons, the milquetoast Lutherans, and so on) really are right?  What if the Rapture really happens tomorrow and the apocalypse took place and suddenly I was before Jehovah with Jesus seated at his right hand on Dies Irae, the Day of Judgment, with hellfire and the sword awaiting on one hand and eternal bliss with Jehovah on the other?  Faced with indisputable proof that my former atheism was incorrect, and the Christian world view not just validated but confronting me with dramatic, imminent, and dire potential consequences, what would I do then?

The face-value answer to the question is, I would ask to be judged based on how morally I had lived my life.  Jehovah being omniscient, He would also be able to discern my motives and know when I had been acting for good motives.  I would admit of my moral failings.  I would ask that my moral achievements be considered along with them.  I would ask Jehovah to consider both my motives and my actions.  I would hope that God would find that I had been more moral than immoral, on balance a good person.  And I would ask that the eternal reward or punishment to be given me be based on my deeds.

But of course, if the hellfire-and-brimstone Christians were right, and I was to be saved (or not) by the grace of God alone, or perhaps by faith in God alone (I always get those two confused), then my deeds would be insignificant whether they would be good or bad.  There really wouldn’t be anything I could do about it, would there?  I’d be screwed.  I’d be in the hands of a power that judged me based on factors that were never in my control in the first place, and justice and morality would have nothing to do with my fate.  I’d have to plead for mercy and forgiveness while at the same time admitting that I didn’t really deserve it.  Which is what Christians do now.  And I’d either be forgiven, or not, by fiat of Jehovah, a entity totally beyond my power to influence.  Which is the place Christians find themselves in as well — and they seem to think that by reciting the Sinner’s Prayer they can somehow influence that same entity who they claim is unifluencible.

So what if I’m wrong and the evangelicals are right?  Although the odds of that being the case are infinitesimally small and the intellectual ploy behind the question is a cheap scare tactic, it seems to me that if it does somehow work out that way, I’ll be no better or worse off than anyone else.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.