Friday, July 15, 2011

CWAS Excerpt Number Two

The Wager

On Tuesday morning I found the coffee shop busier than usual. The shop was rarely ever full, but this day was different. I picked up a newspaper, went inside, and stood in a long line to order my coffee. As I turned around to leave the counter, I noticed that there wasn’t a single table available. Toward the back, I spotted a lady who looked like she was nearly ready to get up and leave. Her bagel had been reduced to crumbs and her coffee cup was nearly empty. I drifted over near her table, not so close as to make her nervous, but close enough for me to grab the table before anyone else could. Shifting from foot to foot, I kept one eye on her and the other on nearby tables.

After a few minutes she got up and headed for the door. I was sitting in her chair before she could get two steps away.

Settling down, I began drinking my coffee and reading the paper. Before long, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a voice behind me saying, “Excuse me, friend, all of the tables are taken. Do you mind if I sit at your table while I wait for another table to open up?”

I turned around and saw the same stranger looking down at me with that same annoying smile on his face. I couldn’t think of a good reason to turn him down, so I reluctantly said, “Sure. Have a seat.”

After taking a sip of his coffee he began that idle chat I so disliked. It went on and on. First, he talked about the weather, then sports, then local news, then national news, and then world events. Trying to be polite I attempted to act interested, while in my thoughts I was wishing another table would open up so he would leave me alone. No such luck was with me that day. He discussed Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. He talked about the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Then he started discussing the strife between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In no time at all, he was talking about religion. I wasn’t much of the religious type, so the more he talked, the more uncomfortable I got. “Sir,” I interrupted, “I don’t mean to offend you, but this religious business is something I really don’t care to talk about. I haven’t even made up my mind if there is a God or not. There are a lot of religious people out there talking about God, but to date none of them have actually shown me God. Now, if someone could definitively prove to me with pencil and paper that there is a God, I wouldn’t mind talking about God. So far, I just haven’t seen or heard anything to convince me that there really is a God.”

“Really?” he replied. “If you don’t mind my asking, how did you come by this way of thinking?”

I did mind him asking. But I had opened my mouth and he had responded. I didn’t have much choice but to answer his question. “Well, my parents weren’t very religious, so as a child, I rarely ever darkened a church door. As an adult, I just never gave religion much thought. My engineering background leads me to seek scientific proof for most everything I encounter. Facts and structure are the things that make me tick. If you can prove something to me, I’ll believe it. ”

Unshaken, he took another sip of coffee and sat back. “Well, friend, I can see that you’re the analytical type.” He stared out into space for a few moments and then continued, “You know, I have heard about the works of some great religious thinkers. Some people call them Christian apologists or philosophers. The information I have is that some of them actually claim to prove that God exists. I have often wanted to explore their arguments. Perhaps you would be interested in delving into them with me. Who knows, maybe both of us could benefit from their knowledge and wisdom.”

I knew I was in trouble. I had learned early in life that sales people have an answer for every excuse a potential customer can think of. It doesn’t matter what reason you give for not wanting their product, they have a response to your objection. Consequently, I had determined that when sales people come by, I should never give them an opportunity to answer any of my objections. Generally I had two or three responses, such as I’m not interested or I don’t want it or please leave me alone. Never did I give a reason for not wanting their product. I had become quite capable at cutting sales people off at the pass. It usually involved some rudeness on my part, but at least I could get rid of them rather quickly.

Yet in just ten minutes this stranger had tricked me into forgetting my tactics, and had lured me into giving a reason and excuse for why I didn’t want to talk about God. It appeared that I had fallen into his trap and made myself vulnerable to his sales pitch about God’s existence. Okay, I thought, I might as well hear his pitch. Eventually, I’ll be able to get out of this conversation and get on with my life.

“Well, sir,” I reluctantly replied, “I find it hard to believe that someone can prove that God exists, but why don’t you go ahead and tell me about these so-called arguments and proofs you’ve heard of. I’m warning you, though; I want hard facts and provable arguments. I don’t want any of that mystical mumbo jumbo.”

He smiled, set his coffee on the table, and said, “Okay, friend, I’m cognizant of how critical and analytical you are. I’m not going to try pushing any of my own beliefs off on you. I’m just going to share with you the beliefs that others have spoken of. Then you can decide for yourself. How does that sound?”

I nodded without uttering a sound.

“Friend, do you ever place wagers?”

“Of course not,” I said. Gambling was a subject I knew a little about. I had studied probability theory and the virtual guarantee that in the long run, gambling will always result in a net loss. “Sir, I don’t have any desire to lose my money on gambling. I have better things to do with my money. Life itself is a gamble, and my investments are a gamble. That’s enough for me.”

“You’re not afraid to speak your mind,” said the stranger. “Can you tell me what the definition of a wager is?”

“That’s simple,” I said. “A wager is the act of placing a certain predetermined risk on the outcome of a certain event. Normally, a person puts down a certain amount of money in a game of chance with the hopes of winning a larger amount of money.”

“Tell me, friend, have you placed any wagers today?”

“No I have not,” I bristled. “I don’t squander my money. Have you forgotten that already?”

Acting as though he didn’t hear me, he continued, “Just suppose, my friend, that you were to walk up to a gambling table and see that there are only two choices for you to bet on. You could place your bet on red or you could place your bet on black. While you are looking at the table, the dealer tells you that if you bet on black, the best you could hope for was to break even but you’re likely lose your entire bet. On the other hand, if you bet on red, the worst you could do would be to break even, but you’re likely to win a large sum of money. Now, friend, what would you do?”

I chuckled at the stranger and said, “For one thing, no casino would ever offer such a bet. But there’s no question what I’d do. Black has no chance of winning, while red has no chance of losing. So I would bet on red, as would anyone else who has a lick of sense.”

Sounding as if he was changing the subject he said, “Tell me, friend, do you enjoy having your coffee here at this coffee shop?”

I answered, “Yes, I sure do. I come here almost every day. What’s that got to do with placing a bet?”

Ignoring my inquiry, he continued, “Well, my friend, you came in a car, didn’t you?”

Now, I was getting a bit irritated. He seemed to be drifting from subject to subject. “Of course I came in a car. Otherwise, I’d still be walking.”

“If you’ll bear with me, my friend, surely you’ve heard of people being injured in automobile accidents. Wouldn’t you say that there is more risk of personal injury while driving your car to this coffee shop as opposed to walking here?”

“You’ve got me there,” I said. “Statistically, there isn’t much risk in driving a car, but due to the speed of the vehicle, an automobile accident does have the potential for causing serious injury. On the other hand, walking exposes a person to less risk from injury. So…yes I suppose there’s a little more risk in traveling by car than by traveling by foot.”

“So, friend, you did place a wager today. You made a determination in your mind that you would incur a little more risk by driving a car so that you could have more time to do other things today. On the other hand, had you chosen to walk to the coffee shop, while being somewhat safer, you may not have the time to enjoy all of the other things you want to do.”

“Okay, sir. You’ve made your point. I can see that I’m considering risks versus rewards in virtually everything I do. Now, sir, what’s this got to do with placing a bet in a situation where I know in advance which bet loses and which bet wins, and what does all of this wager stuff have to do with the existence of God?”

I was getting flustered, but he was as calm as a cucumber. Continuing on, he said, “I’m going to tell you about a wager you can make on the existence or non-existence of God. Once you see the wager, you may be convinced to believe in God without us having to go any farther exploring proofs of his existence.”

“Sir, are you telling me that by placing a bet, I will come to believe in God? That’s the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. For one thing, there aren’t any wagers in which a person knows in advance which bet wins and which bet loses. For another, a wager can’t even begin to prove the existence of God. Who in their right mind would make a bet on the existence of God?”

“You’re going to be a challenge,” he said. “But let’s continue. Would you agree that there either is a God, or there isn’t a God?”

“Yes, sir. That seems clear enough. There are only two choices regarding the existence of God. God exists, or He doesn’t exist. Mathematically speaking, God has a fifty percent chance of existing.”

“And, friend, would you agree that a person either believes in God or doesn’t believe in God?”

“I’m not sure about that, sir. I am in another category all together. I told you earlier that I don’t know whether I believe in God’s existence or not.”

“That’s all right, friend. Let’s see if that position deserves another category. Do you believe right now that God exists?”

With exasperation I exclaimed, “No, sir. As I said, I don’t know if he exists!”

“So, friend, you’re admitting that you don’t fit in the believing category, aren’t you?”

“No, sir, I don’t fit in the believing category.”

“Friend, it appears that your position of not knowing is in the arena of not believing.”

“Why is that, sir?”

“When we say that a person either believes or does not believe, we are saying that there is a believing category and a negative of the believing category. While you may not be declaring that God absolutely does not exist, your not knowing is in the camp of not believing.”

“Okay, sir, in that light I can see that a person either believes in God or doesn’t believe in God. You are making me weary with these fine-pointed definitions.”

“We have to make a solid case,” said the stranger. “Now, try to imagine placing a wager on one’s belief in God. What would be the risk you would be taking, and what would be the potential reward?”

I thought for a moment. The stranger had just taken me to a point I did not want to cross. I was being forced to provide an answer as though I was accepting the possibility of the existence of God. The stubborn side of me just did not want to give in to his argument. On the other hand, I was doing similar analogies every day at work by considering all sides of a particular problem. Feeling a bit relieved, I looked up at the stranger and said, “Well, I think we will have to make some certain assumptions first. Christians claim that after death believers go to heaven and unbelievers go to hell. Right now I don’t know if God exists, but for the sake of this argument I will use heaven as the reward and hell as the loss.”

“That sounds reasonable enough,” he said.

I pondered his question and said, “It appears to me that the wager placed is my belief or unbelief in God. And it appears that the reward or loss is what I encounter after my life has ended.”

“So, can you describe for me the various outcomes of the wagers?”

“I believe so. There are only two choices for the wager. I can either believe in God or not believe in God. So, if I believe in God and He does exist, then I would go to heaven. On the other hand, if I don’t believe in God, and He does not exist, I lose nothing; I break even. When I die, I will merely cease to exist.”

“Okay, friend, but what if you do believe in God, and he does not exist?”

“That’s easy. If I believe in God and he does not exist, I still break even. When I die, I will merely cease to exist.”

“And finally, friend, what if you don’t believe in God, but He actually does exist?”

“According to Christian teachings, I would go to hell after I died.”

“So, friend, like the gaming table we spoke of a few minutes ago, this wager has but two choices. One bet, not believing in God, has no chance of winning. The other bet, believing in God, has no chance of losing. If you were placing a wager on your life knowing that one of the wagers cannot possibly win, and the other wager cannot possibly lose, wouldn’t you want to place your bet with believing in God?”

Staring into space, I took a few moments to analyze his logic. After considering his statements from every possible angle, I turned my attention back to the stranger. “I see your point,” I said. “It seems to make sense on a certain level. And it certainly causes me to think a little differently about the existence of God. But still, this wager theory does not prove the existence of God. I would like to see the real proofs and evidence of the existence of God that you told me about.”

“Certainly,” said the stranger. “You’re stubbornness is quite evident and overt. I would like to share with you some of those arguments and proofs. Would you like to start now?”

My time was beginning to run out. “Sir, I really need to go to work.” Trying to be as polite as possible I said, “Perhaps if you and I meet again, we could continue this conversation.” Then with politeness aside I continued, “But it’s going to be an uphill battle to prove God’s existence to me. You’ve got to be armed with a lot more than some silly wager scenario. As a matter of fact, why don’t you bring God with you next time we meet?”

Without acknowledging my snide remarks, the stranger said, “Next time I see you, I’ll be happy to talk about some proofs of God’s existence.”

I excused myself and left the coffee shop. I didn’t know if I would ever see the stranger again. Oh well, I thought, I really can’t imagine that he could prove to me that God exists anyway.

The above excerpt is from the copyrighted book Conversations with a Stranger by Larry Tate

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