February 16, 2005

De asini umbra disceptare

WE NOTE with interest that several of our blogging colleagues are discussing whether those who believe in God are more likely to meet their Maker through accident than those who do not believe in the Almighty. It is an interesting question, although thus far, the only thing that's been proven is the old saw about economists not reaching a conclusion.

The first entry in this whole debate comes from Will Wilkinson, who writes in part:

In a fit of Beckerite rational choice reasoning, I decided that theists ought to have higher rates of death by accident. If I believe that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my maker ... So, one should expect that theists who believe in perpetual Miami would take more risks than those who do not so believe, and that thus, death-by-accident ought to be higher among believer than non-believers.

My guess is that there is no difference in rates of death-by-accident among believers and non-believers. If my guess is correct, then there's another reason to believe that many people don't really believe in God, even though they think they do. Or, at least, there's a reason for rational choice economists to believe meta-atheism.

In response, Tyler Cowen writes:

Most of all, theists should have stronger reasons to live. They have their own selfish reasons, plus whatever role they think they are supposed to be playing in God's plan. So they ought to take fewer chances; indeed the data suggest that both religious belief and religious participation are correlated with longer lifespans. And even if theists believe death is paradise, that will come sooner or later in any case. In other words, heaven brings an "income effect," not a "substitution effect." We need of course two auxiliary assumptions. First, theists, given their perceived roles in God's plan, do not feel a strong impatience to arrive in heaven. Second, the method of death under consideration should not affect the probability of heaven vs. hell.

Megan McArdle, meanwhile, argues on Mr Cowen's side:

What, after all, is the goal of theists? To spend eternity with their Maker. Eternity, as we all know, is infinitely long. So they cannot add to the time that they spend with Our Heavenly Father, since "infinity + 30 years" = "infinity"...

... On the other hand, assuming that they have some utility to life on this side of The Great Divide, they can add to their net "mortal" utility, by having more human years, without subtracting from their total "Hosannas on Highest" years. It's a winning strategy for the rational theistic value-maximiser.

So, to sum up, we have two nays and one yea in favor of the proposition. Out of the three, Ms McArdle has written the briefest and smartest answer to the question at hand. Yet because none of the three writers fully address the theological implications of such a question, their answers necessarily fall short. Furthermore, the question's theological implications explain exactly why one cannot answer the question one way or the other. Hence the argument itself is making a mountain out of a molehill.

For all three arguments have the same glaring, fundamental flaw: the idea that all religious believers have the end goal of getting to Heaven. Yet this is not the case, for that's not the point of religious belief. The end goal for religious believers is to do His will in all things, to pursue whatever calling He puts before them. If Heaven is a result of that, then wonderful. If it is not, then the faithful can only accede to His judgment in the matter.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 16, 2005 11:30 PM | TrackBack