If, like myself, you make no apologies for your atheism and are quite open, if not eager to discuss it with others, you will have definitely heard this question from the religously affiliated at least once in your life. It came to me over the weekend, and I could not have been more delighted. Why? Well, I had had a couple of beers and I was pleased to get such an easy one to respond to.
This question, at least in my experience, almost always comes from a genuinely nice and engaging religious person, and frequently from Christians. The Bible-bashing crowd tend to go for either the angry "you're going to Hell! Repent!" or the even more annoying condescending "I feel so bad for you, you're so brainwashed, you poor soul". Because of the uncharacteristic friendliness and openness to discussion from this other breed, some atheists can be slightly taken aback from this seemingly innocuous question, and instead of responding logically simply revert to a "well let's just agree to disagree shall we? You're nice, I don't want to be insulting and tell you I know you're full of shit, cause I get very annoyed at the bible-bashers who do the same to me". I am not advocating for getting arrogant or condescending with your questioner, but I feel that there is a perfectly civil and rational way to respond nonetheless.
The question essentially bolis down to this: What if you are wrong about your beliefs? If you're right and there is no heaven or hell then nothing bad happens to me when I die, I just cease to exist. But if I'm right and you're wrong, you miss out on heaven and have to spend the rest of eternity in torment and hellfire. I have nothing to lose, but you have heaven to lose.
There are two aspects of this question that make it a poorly thought out question. The first part is the one that we have seen from Bill Maher in Religulous, for example. It can be viewed as a slight deflection of the question, but it makes a valid point nonetheless. The gist of it is that fear of a God and hell is not a good reason to become a Christian. Plus, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, wouldn't he be able to call your bluff? Wouldn't he know that I think you're religion is stupid and that I'm only joining just in case he exists, without truly believing that he does? If I think it's silly it's just silly, joining your church wont save my soul
A good point, true, but missing the central core of the problem with this question. Richard Dawkins did adress this second part somewhat, although the heated way in which he responded and the words he chose made some people miss the point he was making.He mentions that the only reason said person believed what they did was because of the time in history and geographical location they were born in, and that is true, but he hits the nail on the head when he turns it around and says: what if you're wrong?
The central fallacy that this question is based on is the idea that there are only two possibilities to chose from: the religion that the person happens to believe in, or atheism. If that were the case then yes, they'd have a slightly better point to make with this question. However, that is obviously not the case. There are thousands of denominations of Christianity alone, never mind all the other religions out there, and many of them believe that their religion is the one true religion and that everyone else is going to hell for being mislead and worshipping in the wrong church. What if you picked the wrong denomination? You'd be on a fast train to hell same as I am, except at least I would have enjoyed my life in the process. Worse, you probably have converted others to your faith, and therefore are responsible for their souls eternal torment as well. So, what if you're wrong?
This is generally followed by a split second of wide-eyedness, then a condescending smile, then something along the lines of "well, I don't really believe that only my specific church is going to heaven. If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you lead a good and honest Christian life, then it really doesn't matter what specific denomination of Christianity you adhere to.
And this is where you press your advantage, not shrug your shoulders and agree to disagree. It doesn't matter what you believe, what matters is that there are many denominations that do believe that their version is the only true version and that everyone else is going to hell, regardless of whether or not they are just "a different kind of Christian", Muslim or Atheists. So, what if you're wrong? If you're right, and you all get in to heaven, then great, everybody wins. But if you're wrong you go to hell and the Mormons/Westboro Baptists/whomever was lucky enough to get it right will be laughing at your burning tortured soul from heaven. So what is stopping you from joining a much more extreme version of Christianity? I mean, you have nothing to lose right? What if they're right and gay bashing and abortion-clinic protesting and evolution-denying is the only way to get your ticket into heaven?
Is it perhaps because you think they can't be right, because their version of religion is a little ridiculous? Is it because you think they have been brainwashed at a young age? Is it because you just like your version better? Since when does what is real and what is true depend on what we like or want to be true? I would want and like a world with no wars, torture or rape, but I'm not going to delude myself into thinking that none of those things exist because that is what I would like reality to be. Is it that you think that if these people just reasoned with themselves, really thought about what they were saying, then maybe they would fall into your category of Christianity?
So, when is the last time you applied the same logic and reasoning to your own beliefs?