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On bridges, lifebelts, and being wrong

“There was once an atheist man,” a colleague of mine told me after someone outed my atheism to her. “Who fell into the ocean. And then he called out for Jesus.” She was a nice woman in her mid-life who had probably never met an atheist before. I could tell it shocked her profoundly that such a thing even existed – as if I had suddenly turned into a feral leprechaun before her very eyes. So I hurriedly ended my shift while politely informing her that, in the man’s stead, I would rather have called for a lifebelt.

LifebeltMaybe it’s just because I’m from the Faroe Islands but, in my experience, Christians seem obsessed with falling into the ocean. Another frequently used canard is the good old “If you saw someone falling into the ocean and you knew they couldn’t swim, wouldn’t you do anything to save them?” This is usually the go-to excuse for the “tough love” of the unpleasant and dishonest kind of proselytism and of the forcible injection of religion into education and politics. A variation is the oft-repeated bridge-gambit; “If someone were about to walk onto a bridge, you knew to be unstable, wouldn’t you be justified in saving them from danger by any means?”

The danger is Hell, the rickety bridge is your life-style, and what’s being justified is any immoral conduct perpetrated by the believers. After all, they only want the best for you. If establishing a theocratic dictatorship or orchestrating medieval torture is all that’s keeping you out of eternal damnation, isn’t it actually the moral duty of the theist to do so?

This is what Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, in their book ‘Heaven,’ call the Querists’ Fallacy:

Heaven“Most querists honestly believe that what they do is necessary for the good of their victims’ lifesouls. You know why. You have heard their reasoning.” Epimenides paused for emphasis. “And you have asked them: What if their reasoning is wrong?”
“I have,” said Sam. “And I can’t detect any flaw in their answer: `By accepting the possibility of error, we risk our own lifesouls for the good of others. What greater love can there be than this?’ That was the answer that led me to become a torturer myself. I tried to inflict mortal harm on Second-Best Sailor!”
“You did,” said Epimenides calmly. “But nevertheless, there is a flaw. You could not find it because you looked for it within the querists’ logic, and that was what seduced you. But the flaw lies in the context, not in the content. Understand this, and you will never make such a mistake again.
“The Querists’ Fallacy is to pose the entire argument within the context of their own belief system. However, if they are wrong to torture innocents, those beliefs may also be wrong. In particular, the belief that the querist’s own lifesoul is at risk may be wrong. And then, what they do is based not on love but on ignorance and superstition.”
“But—are you saying that the Lifesoul-Giver doesn’t exist?”
“No. Neither am I saying that it does. I am saying that it is a fallacy to make deductions on the basis of a false hypothesis.”

So, theocratical believers, if your fall-into-ocean/rickety-bridge analogy is set within the context of your own belief system, what would the analogy look like if set within the context of reality? Well, for one, you don’t know. You don’t know that we’re in danger. You don’t know that you’re not in danger. You don’t know that your belief system will save us. You don’t know that we can’t swim or that the bridge is unstable. You don’t know…anything. You believe. You believe that if you don’t believe, you’ll go to Hell. You believe this for no other reason than your fear of going to Hell.

BridgeWe’re all standing by a seemingly bottomless chasm. Spanning over this chasm are countless bridges, only one of which is stable and will bring you to the other side. All of the other bridges, no matter how sturdy they look, are unstable and will collapse under the weight of a person. Now, you might be willing to risk your own life on one of these bridges. Are you truly willing to risk someone else’s life on your ill-founded beliefs? Are you presumptuous enough to claim, without a shadow of doubt, that you know better than everyone else? You know better despite the fact that neither you nor anyone else have ever been to the other side or met anyone who has? Despite the fact, that all of us have equal access to the relevant facts? Do you have a moral obligation to force people onto your bridge against their will? Or do you have a moral obligation to let everyone make their own decision?

We don’t even know that the chasm is bottomless. Maybe there are trampolines and amazing sweets down there.

This is why ‘what would it take for you to change your mind?‘ is such an important question. If you don’t know, or if you can’t answer it, you’re a danger to all of us; your querist logic might as well lead you to believe the ends justify the means.

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