“Pasquale in the Alley”

That’s the title I gave to this piece I wrote for National Review Online (posted April 2, 2007).  Here it is:

Pasquale in the Alley
Religion in black and white.
By Roger Clegg — April 2, 2007

Pasquale was the smartest guy I knew, so when I had my doubts, I went to him.

He sat down on a garbage can in the alley. “Look,” he said, “you say you’re not sure that he exists. Well, welcome to the club. Who could know for sure, unless you think you’ve seen him or experienced him directly, you know what I mean?” I nodded. “And you haven’t?” This time, I shook my head. “Of course,” added Pasquale, “you can’t know for sure that he doesn’t exist either. Anyone who tells you he knows that for sure is lying.” He let that sink in with me.

“Okay,” he continued. “So you don’t know. But you have to worry about it because you have to decide how you’re going to live, right?” Right, I said: It’s too important and the question won’t go away. “Exactly,” said Pasquale. “And there’s another reason you’d like an answer. Once you do, you can take on an attitude. I mean, you can look for more reasons to believe, or more reasons not to believe. You can cultivate your faith, maybe then have that experience that we talked about before, right? Or,” he waved his hand, “cultivate your nonfaith.” He paused. “You know what ‘cultivate’ means, doncha?” Sure.

“Good. Now, let me show you something.” He stood up and took the lids off of four trash cans and put them on the ground, two and two — like the four spots on dice, only closer together.

“You got four possibilities,” he said briskly, “and only four. Here, stand over here next to me.”

“First,” he pointed to the trash can lid in the upper left, “here God exists and you decide to believe in him and cultivate your faith.” He looked at me, and I thought he was going to ask me again if I knew what “cultivate” meant, but he decided not to and went on.

“Okay, second,” he pointed to the lid underneath it, “you can decide not to believe, but then it turns out that he does exist after all. Third” — now he tapped the lid in the upper right — “you can decide to believe but it turns out he doesn’t exist. And fourth” — he pointed to the remaining lid, the one in lower right — you can decide not to believe and, sure enough, he doesn’t.”

“You with me so far?” he asked. I said I was. “All right. If you’re the first lid — if you believe and he does exist — how’s that?” Whaddya mean, how’s that? “I mean,” answered Pasquale, and I thought he would be irritated, but he wasn’t, “are you in good shape or what?” I said in good shape. “In great shape,” corrected Pasquale. “Great shape. You’ve won the lottery! You live forever in heaven, right? Perfect ending, right?” Right. Okay.

Now he pointed to the lid underneath it. “This is the one where you decided not to believe, but he’s there. How’s that going to be?” Very bad. “Exactly. Very, very bad. Maybe burn-in-hell-forever bad.”

Pasquale drew a deep breath. “Okay, now the interesting part — the last two lids. In both of them, God doesn’t exist. But in one of them,” he tapped the upper right hand one, “you’ve chosen to believe, and in the other,” he tapped the fourth, “you’ve chosen not to.” He looked at me. “Either way, of course, it all ends when you die. This is all the life there is. Not like the first two lids. The stakes aren’t as high now. Still, which is the better lid, of the last two, I mean?”

Well, I said, I guess if God doesn’t exist it’s better if you hadn’t believed in him. “And why’s that?” asked Pasquale. I said because you can have more fun then. No need to avoid sin. More girls, you know, get high. Just do what feels good.

Pasquale nodded. “That’s what I used to figure, too.” Then he shook his head a little. “But you know, you look around at people and you ask yourself: Are the ones who don’t believe any happier than the ones who do? I’m not so sure. Not so sure at all. Maybe even the opposite.” We both thought for a while.

“Anyway,” Pasquale broke the silence, “Here’s the thing. It’s a close call. Unlike the first two lids, right, where one is so far ahead of the other three lids, and the other is so far behind the other three lids, that it’s not funny, right?” Right.

“Now, I’m a gambler, you know?” He smiled. We both smiled. He was, we both knew — everybody knew — the best at all betting games in the neighborhood. “And suppose I had to decide between putting down a bet on two teams. And if the first team won, I might lose everything I had, forever, or I might break even. But if I bet on the second team, I would either break even, or I would win everything — everything that any man could ever want. Now, who am I going to bet on?”

The second team, I said. “Smart kid,” said Pasquale.