Suppose Pasquale Galante came to you and said that not only had he personally seen a flying saucer but that he would like you to believe that they are real – based on his testimony and that of other alleged eyewitnesses claiming similar experiences. If you’re anything like me, you’d require stronger evidence than a few firsthand accounts. Why? Because people are mistaken all the time, about what they think they are perceiving, what they recall having seen, and how they recount their stories. Some people can even be dishonest with themselves and others at times, especially when that inures to their personal benefit, as when incredible stories attract undue attention to their bearers.
Now suppose that in order to bolster his credibility and compel you to take his testimony seriously, Pasquale asks you to consider the following possibility:
· If you choose to believe in the extraterrestrial UFO’s, you will not lose anything thereby.
· If you do not choose to believe in the UFO’s, the aliens might well abduct and torture you just to prove the point.
So just go ahead and believe what Pasquale does, because the aliens are thought (by some) to be vengeful and cruel to unbelievers.
Now, how might you react to this little gambit?
You might say that one does in fact lose something whenever one claims that camera-shy extraterrestrials are visiting our planet and teasing credulous eyewitnesses with gratuitous acts of crop flattening. You lose face, you lose credibility, you lose the ability to have critical thinkers take you seriously. So it is not as if there is nothing on the line here. At the very least, one’s own self-respect ought to depend somewhat on one’s sense of having lead an examined life, rather than blithely believing whomever walks up and claims to have had a personal encounter with super-intelligent beings from the heavens.
More importantly, though, one should notice that Pasquale would be threatening you with force by proxy, by saying that unless you believe what he says someone (in whom you do not now believe) may make you suffer for not believing. Even leaving aside the fact that beliefs are not subject to direct acts of the will, this is an exceedingly bizarre way to attempt to compel belief. It is a bit like pointing a toy gun at someone and telling them that if they don’t believe the gun is really real, well, you’re just going to pull the trigger and show them.
Now that I’ve gone and created an analogy for my original analogy, probably I should go ahead and get to the point: Threatening unbelievers with hell is pointless. Many people of faith have trouble seeing this, because they’ve been raised with the idea that hell is a real place to which their all-loving heavenly father will someday consign everyone who fails to adhere to their own faith. But viewed from the outside it is no more credible as a threat than alien rectal probes or toy guns. You have to already believe in the threat in order to take the threat seriously, but the whole point of the wager is to help unbelievers come to believe.