Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Betting Against Pascal

This post is not an attack on any person's belief or lack thereof. Though I do not understand Christianity, I respect those who practice it so long as they respect others in turn. This about the backfiring of a popular apologetic argument, which ended my brief foray into Christianity.

I grew up in Taiwan, immersed in Chinese culture where philosophy, science, and religions of various sorts coexist without any sense of contradiction. This mentality of syncretism and non-exclusivity makes it difficult for me to grok the appeal of Christianity.

It was in part my failure to understand Christianity and curiosity about its success that encouraged me to 'give it a try'. I chose Roman Catholicism because it is the faith practiced by the Irish American side of my family. My beloved aunt, who is a sister (nun) and a lifelong educator, gave me guidance and reading materials, and I found an enthusiastic sponsor at Saint Jude's Shrine in downtown Baltimore.

If Pascal is right, I would side with this guy
The details of my experience are for another post, but suffice to say that Christianity and I did not part on good terms. I came away from it even more mystified by the popularity of Christianity than I was before. Catholic theology in general and apologetics in particular made little sense to me, no matter how my mentors framed it. The single most obnoxious argument in their arsenal was Pascal's Wager.

Seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal posited that, with no rational means to prove or disprove the existence of the Christian god, it is safer to bet on his existence, as one has everything to gain by believing (i.e. Heaven) and everything to lose by not believing (i.e. Hell). This is known as Pascal's Wager, or Pascal's Gambit.

There are a number of serious problems with this argument--false dichotomy being the most immediately obvious--but the one that really put me off was its implications on the character of the Christian god. Pascal's Wager hinges on the assumption that the Christian god, if he exists, saves those who believe him and damns those who do not. 'Believing in the Christian god' entails acknowledging him as an omnipotent being and the creator of the human species, if not the entire Universe.

However, Christianity originated only two thousand years ago, within a rather small ethnic tradition. In order to preserve Pascal's premise, then, we must conclude that the Christian god intentionally withheld his revelation--and therefore salvation--from the vast majority of humanity for most of history. If so, he is a negligent parent at best and an egomaniacal despot at worst.

Given Pascal's conditions, I would wager against the existence of the Christian god. If he exists and would damn anyone who did not believe in him, then I want no part of his kingdom. If he exists and is the just and loving god some modern Christians make him out to be, then he would presumably save anyone who leads a good life, believer or nonbeliever. If he does not exist, then it makes no difference whether I believe in him or not.

When I left the Church without ever being baptized or confirmed (they do it in one big ceremony for adult converts), my sponsor was not surprised. My aunt kept a brave face, though I knew she must have been devastated. She told me to "follow your own Light", to which I replied that I did, and always would.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Open Letter to LGBT Allies

Dear Allies,

Thank you. I do not think we say it often enough. We appreciate you, though that might seem less obvious as queer people gain more acceptance in society at large. The LGBT subcultures are notoriously cliquish, something many of us find endlessly frustrating. To some extent this is a defense mechanism, the logical extreme of a minority group's tribal mentality. I am glad that it has not driven you away, even when we fall prey to the same kind of group politics employed by those who despise us.

At the Baltimore Pride Festival this weekend, I saw more different-sex couples and young children than I ever expected. The sheer number of strollers and baby baskets (is there another name for those things?) there amazed me.

When straight parents intersect with queer issues in the news, it rarely makes for a happy story. We read about concerned mothers who do not want their children 'indoctrinated' by the homosexual agenda. We read about fathers who send their sons to reparative therapy or special camps in the hopes of 'curing' them. We read about grief-stricken families who wished that their kids had found support instead of taking their own lives.

Yet there you are, quietly raising your younglings to love and tolerate--or raising no children, despite all of the pressures and expectations that you 'should'. I do not expect the majority to ever agree with you; I will be happy enough with their indifference, which is certainly a sight better than hate. You, however, go above and beyond just letting us be.

You are the brother who kept my secret and said you would always love me. You are the teacher who gave me shelter from the bullies, and listened when my parents would not. You are the friend who tirelessly petitioned your legislators for our rights. You are the employer who kept me on when you could have replaced me with someone more 'acceptable'. You are the stranger who smiled at us when we walked hand-in-hand.

In your eyes I see a better future, for you are living proof that humanity can rise above the petty squabbling of ingroup against outgroup. While I welcome the neutrality or even tacit sympathy of the majority, I will always cherish having you on our side, even when all our battles are won. Thank you, once again.



Monday, June 4, 2012


People say they never forget where they were when they learned of certain historical tragedies--the assassination of JFK, the Challenger disaster, 9-11. My earliest such experience, which marked me deeply, was of the Tiananmen Square incident. In Chinese it is typically referred to as 六四 (6-4) in reference to the date that the People's Republic of China resorted to military force to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations.

Though the protests had been going on for months all across China, I was five years old and oblivious. I had broken my ankle the previous winter, and spent what seemed like an eternity (but turned out to be less than two months) in a cast. Happily recovered, I had spent much of the spring rambling through the coastal shantytown on the outskirts of Keelung where we lived in temporary military housing.

I was sitting on the floor of the little concrete hovel I shared with my parents, doodling. The door stood perpetually open to admit the sea breeze that cooled steep seaward slope. My grandmother, visiting as she often did, and sat nearby shelling beans for dinner and watching news on our flickery television set.

I looked up from my drawings when I heard the news anchor say something about 'students'. Chinese children heavily identify themselves as students for various cultural reasons, so I was keyed to the word. What I saw had nothing to do with preschool. It was a video clip of the early morning hours of June 4th, when the ironically named People's Liberation Army rolled in to clear Tiananmen Square. It was a vision of darkness punctuated with fire and milling bodies, and then a line of troops.

The anchor described (in what was probably a recap of earlier news) the crackdown on the student protesters, and the uncertain death toll. I could not fully comprehend, but I stared raptly at the screen.

"Ni-ni," I said to my grandmother (in Chinese; I translated it as best I can remember), "why would the soldiers kill the students?" To my young mind, a students were children, and soldiers were kindly 'older brothers' who played with me when my father was too busy at the base.

"Those are older students," my grandmother said. "They did something the government didn't like."

I turned around and looked at her, wide-eyed. "What if I do something the government doesn't like? Will the soldiers come after me?"

"We do not have the same government as those students," she said wearily.

"But they're Chinese, too!" I insisted, not yet understanding the complexities of the Chinese Civil War, which ended in the ongoing stalemate of Taiwan's ambiguous statehood.

"Don't worry about it," she said. "We came here so that would not happen to you."

I looked back at the television screen, which showed an interview with a highly agitated eye-witness. For all I understood of geography, it hardly mattered whether Beijing was a world away or just over the next ridge. Watching the man on that screen, I did not find my grandmother's words very reassuring.