A Pragmatical Analysis of Religious Beliefs

Are faith and pragmatism opposites?
A Pragmatical Analysis of Religious Beliefs

Religion, we are told, encourages us to sacrifice our present life for another life that may or may not exist. But is this necessarily true? Do religious beliefs do us harm here on Earth—or good? That's the question this essay proposes to answer.

It's important to be clear from the beginning: my remit here will be narrow. So narrow as to perplex the faithful who've stumbled onto this page. I won't analyze any existing religions in toto. Nor least of all will I deem one superior to another. Instead I'll address the most fundamental religious concepts in the abstract, and then encourage you to complete the analysis yourself whenever some ambiguity regarding the correct conclusion might persist. Any pretension on the part of the author to answer such difficult questions for you would subtract from the value of this project rather than adding to it.

This narrow approach is more ambitious than it might seem on first blush. A slight transformation of our opening question yields the following, much more radical formulation: "As far as our present life is concerned, what are the optimum beliefs about unknowables?" By phrasing the question in this way it becomes possible to establish religion on a rational basis.

To facilitate the analysis I'll define a special concept: pragmatical. Here “pragmatical” will mean “good for you as an individual during this life.” The word “good” is to be understood in an entirely conventional way. A good belief should, as far as possible, enable a happy and fulfilling life. But it should also conform to basic human moral intuitions and aspirations. Thus, “pragmatical” does not mean hedonistic nor self-interested.

A pragmatical belief also shouldn't be too hard to hold. Beliefs that contradict established science, observation, or even contradict themselves, are psychologically difficult to maintain, and entail a loss of probity that irks our moral intuitions. In our analysis, beliefs with these flaws will be considered inherently less pragmatical.

A note on science.

Science and religion are different realms of belief. They need not and should not conflict. Science consists in predictive theories derived from the observation of repeatable experiments, as well as from our innate sense of logical certitude. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, derive from faith and intuition, and concern fundamental uncertainties that can neither be proven nor disproven by experimentation. Religious beliefs that contradict observable reality are called superstitions. Scientific theories that reach beyond experimental predictions to make metaphysical claims are called scientistic. Both forms of overreach are errors.

Our pragmatical analysis strictly concerns religious beliefs, and should not be construed to provide support for beliefs that contradict empirical knowledge.


If our pragmatical analysis finds in favor of belief X or Y, we do not thereby endorse any other dogmas traditionally associated with X or Y. Our conclusions only extend exactly as far as they extend. Thus, in no case should they be taken as a comprehensive endorsement, nor refutation, of any existing religion.

Lastly, before you continue, please be sure you've fully understood the limited focus of this essay. To repeat, we will exclusively examine the pragmaticality of religious beliefs, never their validity otherwise understood.

We can provide a rational basis for religion by reconceptualizing it as the optimization of beliefs about unknowables.


Part One: The Immortality of the Soul
Part Two: The Shape of Time
Part Three: God
Part Four: Supernatural Incentives and Values
Part Five: The Pragmatical Principle
Appendix: Quantum Theodicies

Part One: The Immortality of the Soul

Let's begin by analyzing the most famous religious belief of all: the immortality of the soul. Nearly all religions claim the spirit persists after the death of the body. Understandably so, since death is both the most troubling and the most inevitable fact of life.

Religious views about life after death are varied, and include the following:

  • The disembodied spirit lingers in this world.
  • The disembodied spirit persists in some other world.
  • The spirit is transferred to a newly born body.
  • The spirit loses its individual identity and is absorbed into God.
  • The body is resurrected, and the spirit along with it.
  • The body is resurrected without the spirit (zombie apocalypse).

Materialism and irreligion.

The typical materialist view is that consciousness is an “emergent” property which arises only when matter is in a particular configuration. If that configuration breaks, it's destroyed utterly. In other words, death is just the end. One could argue that this view is itself implicitly religious, because it presumes a materialist resolution to the mind-body problem in which “emergence” functions as a magic word papering over a great unknown. That's a metaphysical position, not a scientific one stricto sensu, and it's far from self-evident. (For more on this issue, read my companion essay on the mind-body problem.)

Although agnosticism is the only stance that truly merits the description, materialism is today the default position of those who consider themselves irreligious. In a spirit of generosity I'll call them them all “nonbelievers.”

Pragmatical advantages of belief.

I'll soon compare different views on the nature of life after death. But for now let's simply weigh the pragmatical value of belief in mortality or immortality tout court, without worrying too much about the details.

What are the advantages of believing in the immortality of the soul?

We all feel despair at the deaths of our loved ones, and we usually feel despair at the thought of our own death as well. When death approaches, a belief in the immortality of the soul therefore encourages a happier and more balanced state of mind than disbelief.

Believers also avoid subtler psychological troubles that can afflict non-believers late in life. Some functions of the human mind are fundamentally oriented toward the future. If we have no future to look forward to, our better motivations might wane, shortsighted hedonism and immorality might become more appealing, and depression and dysfunction might become more likely. If tomorrow I'll be weaker and frailer than today, and so on until oblivion, it's difficult to live with enthusiasm. This is true even for those who've accomplished great things in their younger days—and perhaps doubly true.

But for believers, the end of life is not so different from the beginning. The future is always there, they won't disappear, nor will their connections to others. Old age is only a transitional state to a new existence—a temporary weakening.

The dangers of belief.

Taken on its own, belief in the immortality of the soul is not only problematic, it's outright dangerous. Believing yourself immortal, with infinite time on your hands, you might adopt a lazy, procrastinating attitude. Far worse than that, you might behave with a casual disregard for your own life. Why worry if you can't really die? In fact, why preserve the lives of others if they can't really die? You might as well kill them! Needless to say, these attitudes are highly unpragmatical.

The cognitive difficulty of believing is also a problem. When someone dies, we see that they're dead and gone without the need for any leap of faith. Their purported immortality is invisible to us, and not easily differentiated from wishful thinking. Faith in immortality thus requires more mental effort than doubt.

Faith to shore up faith.

These dangers are so great that you might wonder how belief could ever be more pragmatical than disbelief. The reduction in end-of-life despair clearly isn't beneficial enough to justify indifference toward the lives of ourselves and others.

But what the above analysis shows is that immortality fails as a standalone belief. In practice, every major religion incorporates supplementary beliefs that counteract the unpragmatical side-effects of isolated belief in the immortality of the soul.

These usually boil down to the claim that good conduct in this life is a prerequisite for a good afterlife, though sometimes they simply prescribe, via commandments or duties, good conduct in this life regardless of the outcome. One could more cynically summarize them as, “Death isn't really the end, but you should still almost always act as if it is.” It's questionable whether supplementation can generate the same visceral motivation to preserve, enhance, and extend this life that an unbeliever will feel.

So the problems with belief that we highlighted can be solved reasonably well, but at a cost. If we're to believe in the immortality of the soul, we're also obligated to take additional beliefs, commandments, or duties on faith, and these need to be very carefully engineered to patch up problems without introducing any harmful bugs. Since it's pragmatical to minimize the unsubstantiated beliefs we hold, this requirement for exogeneous supplementation does amount to a real defect.

Mental tricks of the unbelievers.

Unbelievers too try to compensate for the weaknesses of their views—not with additional axioms, but with platitudes and mental tricks intended to reduce their despair.

For instance, unbelievers often claim that they'll live on in memory, or in their descendants, which amounts to a kind of immortality. But this is a platitude, and wrong several times over. Memory disappears very quickly. Some people are unable to leave descendants, others have descendants who fail to continue the family line, and even in the best case, after five or ten generations our descendants will resemble the average person in our breeding group more than they resemble us. On a longer time scale, as evolution continues, our descendants will be shaped by their own environment, and gradually lose meaningful similarities to any people of the present day. They might not even qualify as homo sapiens! That's assuming the entire human race doesn't go extinct for one reason or another. And in fact, having a family makes death harder for unbelievers, not easier. You'll have to come to terms with your children dying too—and perhaps even dying before you do. That's a dreadful burden to bear.

The most common unbelievers' solution—“just ignore it”—is simpler and less deceptive than “You'll live on in your descendants,” but not much more effective. It's true that some people can be fairly successful at ignoring their oncoming death—especially when it arrives prematurely and without warning. But no one is really successful at ignoring the deaths of their loved ones.

A more sophisticated non-believing approach is to embrace the finitude of life and aestheticize it in the form of tragedy. By making it beautiful, pain can become pleasant. This is essentially a psychological trick that allows us to experience something definitely bad as if it were something good. It's difficult to objectively determine its pragmatical value. But in my view, to keep seeing death through this aesthetically heightened tragic lens we would need to engage in perpetual histrionics, pushing our emotions into a strained state that's ruinous to our health, magnifies our character flaws, and encourages poor choices. A life lived in this way would be further tainted by the artificiality of this self-induced psychological distortion, as well as by the self-deception required to continually interpret our lives as tragic plots. Death usually isn't tragic: it's just bad. Thus it seems difficult to argue that “embrace tragedy” is the most pragmatical response to death.

In sum, the tricks of the unbelievers don't work very well, and some of them are dishonest. Pragmatically speaking, it's better to have faith in an unknown than to believe a demonstrable lie.

Middle paths.

There are middle positions that split the difference between disbelief and belief in “full” immortality.

One middle position is that our persistence after death is likely, but not certain. I'll call this “optimistic agnosticism.” Not many people preach this view publicly, but lukewarm religious believers might think this way in private. Optimistic agnosticism brings with it a serious disadvantage: if faith is fickle and understood as merely “likely,” it's vulnerable to mood fluctuations, and may desert us in times of need. It's a very unreliable position.

A more promising middle position is that only part of us survives into the afterlife (e.g. because some of our personal characteristics die with the body), so that our losses in exiting this life are real and substantial, but not total. I'll call this “partial immortality.” Partial immortality motivates us to care for and extend this unique and irreplaceable life, without giving into despair at its eventual cessation. While it doesn't completely eliminate despair, it also doesn't require as much support from commandments or supplementary beliefs. However, this “not as much” is a critical qualification whose explanation will show the basic mechanics of religious belief in immortality.

Replacing fruits with duties.

Religious belief in immortality works by replacing a bad (absolute death) that guides our actions through natural aversion with a belief, commandment, or duty that replicates the motivational effects of this aversion without the concomitant despair. As we just discussed, if murdering a man does him no real harm because he's immortal, then we need a supplementary proscription of murder to restore equilibrium with our moral intuitions. We can't escape this requirement by supposing immortality to be only partial, for if murdering a man destroys some fraction of his essence less than the totality but greater than zero, we still need a supplement to restore the full moral value of his life, and the effect of this supplement must be such as to make up the difference.

For example, suppose motivation is a vector M with components D (duty) and A (natural aversion), such that M=A+D. If M is to be held constant then any decrease in A must be balanced out by a corresponding increase in D. Since A entails greater psychological pain than D, the substitution of D for A results in a net increase in happiness while producing the same motivation and therefore the same action (assuming it's possible to achieve the required value of D).

Disbelievers will object that aversion works perfectly and substituting a duty for it is highly artificial. Such belief in the perfection of human intuition would be more appropriate for credulous creationists than doubters. As we've already explained, aversion to death doesn't work perfectly. It frequently generates pain when no improvement to action is possible, and sometimes it motivates wrong actions, such as when despair at the death of a loved one causes one to behave foolishly or even suicidally. So it's plausible that substituting some D for A will be beneficial.

Final results.

Let's sum up these analyses. Disbelief is easier and better supported by our direct observations, but leaves us with no honest way to ward off despair, and terminal unhappiness is the likely result. Belief in full immortality reduces our despair, but requires faith, and further supplementary beliefs as well. Partial immortality is a compromise position that's less dependent on these supplementary beliefs.

In the final balance, belief does look more pragmatical than disbelief. It reduces the despair in our lives at the relatively low price of faith in a set of uncertain but harmless claims—a net gain. But whether it's preferable to believe in partial or full immortality is a harder question. The answer depends on how much you're willing to rely on supplements to guide you toward good actions.

So that's my cost-benefit analysis. Now you, dear readers, will have to make up your own minds.

Part Two: The Shape of Time

Winter returns to spring and the cycle of seasons begins again. When we set the timer on an oven, it counts down for a finite period of time and then ends, and our roast is done. When a factory produces a new car, the next serial number is always higher than the current one.

These are examples of different temporal narratives, which we can represent in simplified terms as circular or linear, finite or infinite. I'm going to refer to them as time shapes, for simplicity's sake. Time shapes are a characteristic of anything that unfolds in time: natural events, practical projects, myths, fiction, history, human life, and even the universe as a whole. What's important for our purposes is that different time shapes engender different attitudes, moods, ethics, and aesthetics. They influence how we feel and what choices we make.

For instance, suppose you're ordered to dig a hole, and informed that once you're done, you'll never have to dig again. You'll probably get through the work fairly efficiently, not terribly bothered by how unpleasant it is. It's only once, after all. But suppose instead that you're condemned to dig and fill in the same hole every day, over and over, forever. The work is exactly the same, but your attitude is completely different, even on the first day. There's simply no reason to make sacrifices and strive to finish faster, and the pointlessness of doing and undoing the same task causes horror and depression. Same task, but different attitudes—because the time shapes are different.

Since the nature of the afterlife is a religious matter, the time shape of our human narrative is perforce a religious matter as well. Resurrection, reincarnation, and total oblivion each imply different shapes. The time shape of the universe as a whole seems like a scientific question, but in practice it's not one that science can answer with any confidence. There's no way to know what came before the big bang; the end of the universe is in doubt as well, with several viable theses put forward. How, for that matter, can we be certain that the laws of physics will remain the same unimaginably far into the future? The “big slurp” theory proposes that physical constants could change in time; perhaps physical laws could change as well. These scientific limitations and uncertainties open the door to speculation of a more religious character.

In what follows we're going to continue our method of pragmatical analysis, and ask which time shape we should believe in if we want to maximally benefit our lives here and now.

Point time.

Yes, there is such a thing as one-dimensional time. According to this view, continuity is an illusion and the present moment is what really matters. This attitude is conducive to a particular type of meditation, and also to extremes of human experience where the blinding intensity of the present moment makes the past and future seem insignificant.

The philosophical argument for point time—that any change refutes the existence of persistent entities—isn't very convincing. Far worse than that, if we took point time seriously, it would cause us to fall apart, because a sense of continuity between past, present, and future is fundamental to the operation of our minds.

Point time is appealing to people who like extreme experiences. But in practice the promoters of point time don't behave as if they really believe their own arguments. If they lived entirely in the moment they'd be unable to plan ahead, unable to work, unable to escape the mildest addictions, and so on. Point time is clearly the least pragmatical of all shapes.

Parabolic time.

The typical unbeliever's perspective on time is already an improvement over point time. I'll call it parabolic time—it's the time shape of a biological, material organism. There is birth, growth, and then decay, followed by death. The universe too might follow an analogous cycle—the big bang, expansion, then entropy and heat death.

This view is pragmatical insofar as it accurately describes the life history of the human body: the concrete biological basis makes it the easiest shape to believe in. It also encourages us to enjoy the present and make the most of our short lives, since they only come once—certainly a pragmatical attitude.

On the other hand, the same criticisms we leveled at disbelief in the immortality of the soul apply here. In the later stages of life, parabolic time leaves us nothing to look forward to. Despair becomes stronger and stronger, and the only defense against it is to ignore both our approaching end and our continual decay. If we believe the entire universe follows the same time shape, our despair increases still further. True, the death of the universe is far away and has no relevance to us now; but it's hardly encouraging to believe the whole thing will come to such an uninspiring end. The thought contributes, in some small way, to our despair.

Because of these clear negatives, it's hard to consider parabolic time a pragmatic viewpoint. Its only advantage is that it's easy to believe.

Linear time.

Linear time means we start from a definite beginning, then progress upward toward a goal, and then, after we achieve that goal, we rest, or arrive at some form of relative stasis. This is how we conceive of most tasks in life—like doing the dishes or building a house. But we could also apply it to ourselves. We're born, we struggle through the test of life, then we arrive in paradise, where we enjoy eternity. Or to the universe: it's born, develops, after a fixed period of time there's a sizeable apocalypse (everyone loves those), and then everything is transfigured into some kind of divine form, where it remains forever.

Having a goal and a better world to look forward to is heartening, especially in tough times. Goal orientation gives us the inspiration and energy to struggle onward and get the job done, and our present distress seems less significant when we compare it to the eternal bliss to come. Faced with addictions or great challenges, linear time gives us the best chance of success. All of these are pragmatical advantages.

On the other hand, if we believe the future we're struggling for is superior to the present, the here and now will seem relatively pale and unimportant. We'll be less capable of enjoying it, and also less inclined to do so. Goal orientation has a similar effect. It causes us to value the present world as a means of achieving the future world, and not for its own sake. If earthly life is finite and heavenly life is infinite, we'll naturally be willing to sacrifice the present for a brighter future.

In our pragmatical analysis here we're not permitted to consider the bliss to come in our calculation, but only the effect that belief in this bliss to come will have on us here and now. That turns earthly sacrifice for otherworldly gains into a straight negative. A further demerit is the difficulty of maintaining belief in a future paradise not supported by any direct evidence.

So, is linear time pragmatical or not? It depends. In dire circumstances where it's impossible to enjoy the present, linear time may be the most pragmatical belief of all, because hope for a blissful future can brighten our mood and give us inspiration to continue. The same benefits would also apply more generally to those who have a dour personality and find it difficult to enjoy life. On the other hand, in pleasant circumstances, or even neutral ones, the net pragmatical value of linear time is more questionable. But whatever the case, by reducing our despair at death, linear time still retains a notable advantage over parabolic time.

Circular time.

Circular time is simple: life is an infinitely repeating sequence, like a spinning wheel. Our current life will be followed by another similar or perhaps even identical life. The history of the universe will repeat—big bang, expansion, big crunch, then big bang again.

At first glance circular time seems the direst shape of all. Since everything we do will be undone, it's ultimately futile. Of course it will be redone again too, which is still more confusing. However, on closer examination, circular time does indeed have pragmatical benefits. Our analysis here is the inverse of the one we just gave for linear time: if everything done will be undone, then goal orientation loses its significance. That means the present reclaims its full value, and isn't sacrificed to achieve salvation, or diminished in comparison to a future in paradise. Of course, goals aren't banished entirely, but their significance becomes secondary, meaningful mainly for how they affect the present. They become mere landmarks guiding an endless impetus forward.

The price for these pragmatical advantages is a reduction of our motivation to make genuine progress. If the future is just repetition, why try to create a better one? Such a fatalistic attitude is demotivating, and if we want to satisfy our basic moral intuitions by encouraging positive efforts to improve the world, we're obliged to bring in supplementary commandments that patch the hole. Another disadvantage is reduced hope for the future compared to linear time: when life is grim, the thought of repetition is also grim.

So, just like linear time, circular time is a mixed bag. But because it doesn't demand sacrifices for gains that are only realized in the afterlife, it's likely to be more pragmatical than linear time for those who are in a position to enjoy the present. It's also a little easier to believe, since the repetition of our known universe is inherently more plausible than an unseen paradise. And the rejection of goal orientation has particular advantages for meditative and aestheticizing moods. This is a topic I'll return to after I discuss the final time shape.

Helical time.

Helical time is the term I'll use for a shape that advances infinitely and without end, but which also exhibits cyclical effects. The seasons will repeat, but next year will be a new year, different from this year. Imagine an endless spiral staircase: the X and Z coordinates make a repetitive circle, but the Y coordinate is continually increasing. Of course, helical time isn't actually as regular as a true geometrical helix. Instead it's a complex looping motion whose overall direction is upward, toward greater complexity, novelty, variety, and beauty, but with many temporary reversals and repetitions. On a universal level, helical time means endless development; on an individual level it means endless reincarnation into more complex forms, in strict parallel with the material development of life.

Helical time resembles a fusion of linear and circular time, but the pragmatical consequences are quite different from either. As we've already observed, if we suppose time is a line that leads to a final, superior endpoint (paradise), the present loses its luster in comparison, and it's reduced to a resource to be mined for the sake of reaching that endpoint, or to a trial to be endured. If we suppose instead that time is an endless circle, our motivation to improve the world is reduced; our larger projects seem futile. But helical time posits neither a circle nor a final destination, only endless development. This eliminates the unpragmatic consequences of both circular and linear time, and eliminates too the need for supplementary commandments.

However, helical time suffers from a new problem that doesn't impact the alternatives. If we're continually evolving through rising cycles, we'll eventually cease to exist as humans, and become instead something quite other than human, never to return. Some of you might be perfectly happy with this outcome, but I suspect most won't find the prospect of losing your humanity especially desirable or encouraging.

So, is helical time pragmatical? It offers some interesting advantages. But its final value depends on your reaction to the issue I've just cited.

Eschatological and aesthetic correspondences.

Just as each time shape implies a particular vision of the afterlife, they each also bring a particular aesthetic coloration to our view of the world.

Try to adopt, just for a moment and in the manner of a method actor, belief in circular time. You might find that present perceptions immediately become more vivid, and that you're inclined toward a more meditative attitude. This is the consequence of goal-orientation losing some of its influence on your thinking, freeing the present to be perceived for its own sake.

On the other hand, if you recall times in your life when you've been extremely focused on accomplishing a goal—perhaps in the midst of a sports match, or devoted to some important project, or even just looking forward to a joyfully anticipated event—you'll notice a special, hopeful energy that carried you through the difficulties. This energy is characteristic of linear time.

Helical time combines some features of linear and circular time, but encourages an entirely different mood, which I would describe as luminous and expansive.

Your perceptions, emotions, and attitudes will take on the aesthetic tint of whichever time shape you hold to, so it's worth thinking about which of these moods you find compelling.

Final results.

All things considered, which shape is really the most pragmatical? The answer may depend on individual circumstances and personality. You're going to have to make the decision on your own, dear reader. Perhaps the summary notes below will help.

  • For those living hard lives, those faced with great challenges, those who find little enjoyment in life on earth, or those who are innately self-sacrificing and goal-oriented, linear time is likely to be the most pragmatical. Patch-up commandments might help to expand its appeal to others.
  • For meditative, idle, aesthetic, or epicurean personalities who relish the present, circular time is likely to be the most pragmatical. Patch-up commandments might help to expand its appeal to others.
  • For those with broad-minded and optimistic personalities, and whose lives afford them good opportunities for growth and development—and who aren't too fussed about remaining human—helical time is likely to be the most pragmatical.

Part Three: God

Is it pragmatical to believe in God? That depends, in the first place, on what we mean by “God.” Various religious doctrines might bandy about the same word, but they give it very different meanings.

In this section I'll offer a pragmatical analysis of the main theories involving the word “God”: atheism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism. These theories are susceptible to a multitude of subtle variations, but for our purposes here we'll limit ourselves to their simplest and most salient forms.

Before we continue, let me repeat once again that our project is only to analyze the pragmaticality of these theologies, and nothing more. We aren't discussing the validity of belief, but rather its advantages and disadvantages.


Atheism is the belief that there exists no creator, no omniscient, omnipotent consciousness, and indeed no superhuman supernatural entity of any kind. There might still be good and bad, right and wrong from a human perspective; but nothing is divine, sacred, or holy. Any intuitions we have of divinity are mere hallucinations.

Atheism is easy to believe and contains no logical contradiction. But a world without God or gods, with nothing sacred or holy, where profound experiences are dismissed as mere hallucinations, is a disenchanted, poorer world. Atheists will typically admit these defects, but point out that there are many other things in life to enjoy. A sunset, for instance, is still beautiful whether it's sacred or not. Right and wrong don't necessarily depend on God.

So atheism pays nothing and receives nothing in return. From a pragmatical perspective the math is easy: zero plus zero equals zero.

Unlimited monotheism

Unlimited monotheism holds that an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, and conscious entity exists apart from this world and is responsible for its creation. Belief in such a God can grant deep satisfaction and elevated feelings, give us strength in the face of adversity, and support our innate moral impulses. All these effects are highly pragmatical.

Unfortunately, unlimited monotheism has a very big problem. Namely, the problem of evil. If we observe evil in the world, it's logically impossible for there to be an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, for such a God would ensure that evil doesn't exist.

There are several commonly cited but ineffective responses to this apparent contradiction. For instance, we could assign responsibility for evil to humans, whom God has purportedly granted free will. Or we could deem evil “educational”: God creates painful challenges because they give us an opportunity for growth. But natural evils like earthquakes and tsunamis do harm at random, to the the old, young, and newborn, to the bad and the good alike. Plagues aren't caused by human free will (well, at least not always), and they inflict suffering and death without creating any opportunity for personal growth.

The solution to the problem of evil that definitely works is skepticism: “We, with our limited human intelligence, can't understand why God created the kind of world that He did, and we just need to accept on faith that He has excellent reasons to allow children to be tortured, etc., etc.”

Such hyperbolic skepticism contains no contradiction, but it's still a significant barrier to embracing unlimited monotheism, because it requires us to stop trusting our own good sense. It's not only necessary to have faith in God, it's also necessary to have faith that our own well-supported conclusion—that the world could quite easily be better than it is—is mistaken. For some this level of skepticism will seem a step too far.

So, unlimited monotheism provides us with great benefits, but they come at a great cost. From a pragmatical perspective, is it a net gain, or a net loss? That's for you to decide, dear reader.

(Note: I discuss a more sophisticated non-traditional version of the free-will theodicy, as well as the promising but dubious multiverse theodicy, in the appendix. According to this "quantum free-will theodicy," God evolves a world from agents who are indeterminate on the quantum level. The reader can decide whether this new theodicy eliminates the need for reliance on hyperbolic skepticism.)

Limited monotheism

Limited monotheism is the term I'll use for belief in a God who is lacking some or all of the characteristics attributed to the God of unlimited monotheism. In other words, a God who is not omnipotent, or not omniscient, or not benevolent. By removing any one of these terms we can solve the problem of evil without resorting to hyperbolic skepticism.

It's hard to see how we can remove God's omniscience without also canceling His omnipotence, since the latter seems to imply the former. And it's hard to see how we can remove His benevolence and still have a God that humans would look on benevolently—though admittedly this remains a logical possibility. So here we'll just consider the remaining option: God is omniscient and benevolent, but not omnipotent.

There are several variants of limited monotheism. According to the strictest variant, God is an omniscient consciousness that exists separately from the world, but did not create it, and has limited influence over it. He knows everything that has happened and is happening, and perhaps even everything that will happen. But He's only able to influence it by appearing as an idea or a vision calling us toward our best possibilities and highest goals. We know Him only through our human intuitions. In other words, the limited God is a cheerleader who offers us inspiration, watches and remembers everything we do in every game we play, sympathizes whether we win or lose, but can't directly interfere with the course of events.

Limited monotheism preserves some of the elevated feelings and inspirations of unlimited monotheism without forcing us to deny our own observation that the world could be better than it is. However, the God of limited monotheism is extremely feeble in comparison to the God of unlimited monotheism. He can't even move a cup across a table.

The cost of believing in this limited God is quite low, but whether it's worth paying depends on whether you consider such a God worth believing in.

We can upgrade this strict version of limited monotheism by proposing that the limited God manages an afterlife or a system of reincarnation to reward those who do good, but is otherwise unable to interfere with the present world. However, it's hard to believe God could be powerful enough to manage heaven and reincarnation, yet too weak to improve the world.

In a third version of limited monotheism, God is powerful and does affect the world, but simply isn't powerful enough to eliminate evil. There's no logical flaw in this approach. But once again, it becomes something of a puzzle why God would have enough power to create such a complex world, but not quite enough power to create it without evil. This precisely tuned impotence strikes me as a considerable barrier to belief.


Pantheism is the belief that everything in the universe is God, and that God is everything in the universe, and nothing beyond it. (Keep in mind that this doesn't necessarily imply a materialist metaphysics.) You, this screen, your terrier's toenail clippings, the sun and moon and stars—everything. But what could that possibly mean?

The natural objection to pantheism is that it's nonsense. While someone can put together sentences that seem to explain why your terrier's toenail clippings are God, or part of God, it seems impossible to translate these sentences into clear and distinct language whose meaning we all understand and agree on.

Part of the problem is in the name. The “God” of pantheism bears little resemblance to the God of monotheism. The real meaning of “pantheism” is something closer to omnipresent sacredness or holiness, not the omnipresence of the monotheistic God. Monotheists will claim that this form of pantheism isn't truly theistic. That's a reasonable claim, but pantheism is still distinct from atheism that sees all experiences of divinity as empty hallucinations.

According to pantheism, the site of sacredness isn't a Creator who exists apart from the world. Sacredness exists within the world itself. Even your terrier's toenail clippings can be seen as fragments of the greater miracle of existence. Usually, however, pantheism directs our attention not toward rubbish, but toward places, things, and ideas that inspire elevated feelings and create an impression of divine presence. All these sources of sacredness can enhance our lives, providing us with happiness and aesthetic enjoyment. And they can provide moral guidance and encouragement as well.

However, there are potential problems with so much holiness. Positing divinity everywhere—even in rubbish—seems inherently dubious, and verging on a semantic trick. It's questionable whether such a belief can inspire and reassure us to the same extent that belief in a conscious and benevolent deity does. And if we really do start to see the world in such a way, we might become paralyzed—unable to mow the lawn for fear of cutting short sacred little lives or crushing innocent pebbles.

So pantheism would benefit from a supplementary moral doctrine which rejects the idea that everything, or even all life, is equally sacred, and establishes instead a functional hierarchy of value. This should be enough to render it a pragmatical belief—at least for those who consider the universe a worthy object of devotion.


The word “panentheism” means that everything is in God. This is more straightforward than it might sound. According to panentheism, all entities within the universe—including you and I—are fragments of God, yet God isn't reducible to the sum of entities within the universe.

In a sense this is a fusion of pantheism and monotheism. However, panentheism has an important advantage over the unlimited monotheism we discussed earlier. If we suppose that all entities are fragments of a God who fashioned them by dividing himself, it's difficult to see exactly how or why this God would have a moral obligation toward his own parts. One can further conceive of the panentheistic God as playful rather than benevolent. A more straightforward way of putting this traditional formulation is that God's sense of good and bad is not perfectly aligned with our human sense of good and bad. If we look at life as a kind of role-playing game God plays with himself, the ups and downs are justified by the nature of the game, and we can even find solace by cultivating a God's-eye-view.

Since this solves the problem of evil without resorting to hyperbolic skepticism, panentheism can incorporate some advantages of unlimited monotheism at a lower cost. However, from a human perspective, the panentheistic God gives up the absolute goodness that many find so appealing in the God of unlimited monotheism, so the benefit is reduced as well.

Primitive animism and polytheism

When primitive man was faced with phenomena whose efficient causes were beyond his ken—things like the bubbling up of a spring, or the shining of the sun, or patterns of rainfall and drought—he attempted to explain them on the basis of personal motivation, the form of cause and effect he already innately used to understand human actions. This compelled him to postulate a multitude of personalities, from gods to ghosts, behind complex natural events.

For better or worse, it's impossible to understand these complex material phenomena on the basis of personalities with motivations, and whoever insists on doing so is indulging in mere superstition. We can forgive primitive men for these beliefs, but today they're beyond the bounds of reason, and would create all sorts of confusion and trouble for a believer.

Animism is certainly not pragmatical. However, it's possible to preserve some advantages of primitive polytheism without the superstitions.

Limited polytheism

Could belief in a plurality of gods possibly be pragmatical?

As I've just explained, attempting to explain natural events by means of divine personalities is a form of superstition. But we can avoid this issue if we understand the gods as motive causes rather than efficient causes.

Such an account works as follows. The gods envisioned by humans are perspectives of a panentheistic God who has divided his awareness into fragments. They are conscious of and able to evaluate our conduct, and may play a role in determining our future after death, but they only alter the course of events in the material world by inspiring us to act. In this they're similar to the God of limited monotheism we discussed earlier (though not identical, since the panentheistic God they're derived from is omnipotent). These gods are represented as a human figures to facilitate understanding with human intuitions, not because they actually have noses and kneecaps, nor because they’re spatially localized within physical idols.

Some may find that the specificity of these gods facilitates worship, including worship that's ultimately directed toward the fragmented God Himself. They have the additional advantage of allowing for contradictory ideals and experiences of divinity: one god for foxes; another god for hens.

Insofar as the panentheistic God we described earlier has a sense of good that isn't fully aligned with our human sense of good, He cannot serve as a moral beacon to the extent that the God of unlimited monotheism can; but the type of polytheism we just described can supplement this deficiency, as the individual gods take on this role. One’s tutelary deity could be defined as the fragment of God that observes one’s particular life from the best of all possible perspectives and represents one’s particular ideals.

This limited form of polytheism is pragmatical insofar as it provides us with objects of devotion and sources of moral recognition that facilitate our pursuit of diverse non-universal virtues, whilst also reducing our psychological dependence on humans who all too often fail to appreciate virtue, let alone reward it. On the other hand, one could argue that such gods are toothless and unworthy of serious thought, amounting to little more than an empty reification of human ideals, for if a panentheistic God does have infinitely many perspectives, singling out certain of these for worship is an act of arbitrary human judgment. I'll leave it up to readers to decide if they're swayed by this objection.


I'll summarize our conclusions in bullet form.

  • Atheism can be evaluated with a very simple equation: zero plus zero equals zero. Atheists make no effort to believe, and they live in a disenchanted world with no supernatural psychological support.
  • Limited monotheism offers us some inspirational feelings and moral support, and requires only a modest effort to maintain faith. Perhaps a net positive; but whether this positive is big enough to be meaningful depends on whether you find such a powerless God compelling.
  • Unlimited monotheism offers us inspirational feelings and a moral beacon beyond the human world. But from these considerable positives we need to subtract the effort required to maintain a hyperbolic skepticism regarding our own powers of reason and observation, which is necessary to deal with the problem of evil. It's hard to determine the result of this equation because it involves two large and uncertain numbers. The reader will have to do the math for himself.
  • Pantheism surrounds us with sources of sacredness. Perhaps too many sources of sacredness; and none that qualify as actual divinities. Still, it should be a net positive if we supplement it with a well-designed hierarchy of value.
  • Panentheism offers us some of the advantages of unlimited monotheism while evading the problem of evil. In its optional polytheistic form, it also facilitates devotion to specific, non-universal ideals. All in all it seems pragmatical.

Part Four: Supernatural Incentives and Values

Supernatural Incentives

In our world good deeds are often punished, and evil deeds are often rewarded. We find this mismatch of action and outcome unjust and unpleasant to contemplate. One of the most common religious beliefs is that a supernatural system of incentives will eventually right the balance, rewarding good and punishing evil. Is such a belief pragmatical?

The nonbeliever's position is that the imperfect alignment of good deeds and good outcomes is simply a feature of this world that we should learn to accept through stoicism, and never corrected by any supernatural incentives. This is easy to believe, but dissatisfying for obvious reasons. A stoic attitude can't make a sour drink any sweeter. And those who repeatedly find their good actions unrewarded are more likely to give in to despair or nihilism.

The believer's position is that actions in this world are supernaturally incentivized in heaven or hell, or through rebirth into better or worse future lives. The belief that we and others will ultimately be treated as we deserve diminishes our painful sense of injustice and replaces it with patient optimism. It might therefore seem easy to declare it more pragmatical than nonbelief. The devil, however, lies in the details.

When a believer calculates whether an action is worth its costs, he will include the supernatural incentive for the action in his calculations. But in our pragmatical analysis, we cannot so do. We can count only his sense that the action is pragmatical and the positive attitude inspired by the supernatural incentive. If there is a gap between the believer's calculation and this pragmatical calculation, then the supernatural incentives motivate unpragmatical actions and must be themselves deemed unpragmatical.

A simple example will make my meaning clearer. Suppose you believe donating 100% of your income to charity will be rewarded with a supernatural incentive of infinity dollars. Logically you should make the donation, because 100% of your finite salary is still less than infinity dollars, and you'll come out ahead. But in our pragmatical analysis we can't count the supernatural incentive itself. Pragmatically speaking, your reward for the donation is limited to your feeling that you're acting properly, plus the positive attitudes inspired by the promise of infinity dollars (again, not the dollars themselves). Assuming you deem those alone to be worth less than 100% of your income, the supernatural incentive is unpragmatical.

By contrast, suppose you believe donating 10% of your income to charity will be rewarded with a supernatural incentive of infinity dollars. And suppose you think donating 10% of your income is a good thing to do regardless. In this second case the donation is both logical on the basis of the religious belief, and pragmatical, because when we remove the actual receipt of infinity dollars from the calculation, it's still weighted in favor of the action. And the belief grants you an additional positive attitude that nonbelievers wouldn't enjoy, which is a modest but real net gain.

To generalize the meaning of these examples: beliefs in supernatural incentives are pragmatical if and only if those incentives are for actions that are already pragmatically good, or at least neutral, on net.

Infinite incentives run a very high risk of unpragmaticality, because they can justify any action, no matter how much it contradicts our intuitions. Mass suicides by cults hoping for supernatural rewards are the clearest instance, but far from the only one. In fact, we should expect power-hungry leaders, be they priests or princes, to ask us to sacrifice more than we ought to in the service of an agenda that serves them more than it does us. They won't hesitate to assure us that no sacrifices we make for their cause could ever be too great, because the supernatural incentives will always be greater than the costs. Likewise, enemies of all sorts will tell us that we should turn infinite cheeks for our infinite rewards, and sweat for the benefit of the undeserving to win our slice of heaven.

Be wary of such calls to make unpragmatical sacrifices even if they're deployed with eloquent assurances that they're justified by religion. Infinite rewards like eternal paradise must be coupled with modest and well-targeted ethical demands if they're to qualify as pragmatical. Finite supernatural rewards like those given through reincarnation are inherently less risky, but because they're ultimately subject to the same analysis, the same warning applies. A pragmatical religion must exclude the type of supernatural incentives that justify fanaticism. I'll elaborate on this point in more detail later on.

Supernatural Reinforcement of Values

Supernatural incentives have the effect of strengthening the ethical values they reward, and strengthening our will to live up to our ideals. And typically they work in tandem with supernatural subjects' (i.e. spirits, gods, God) recognition of our actions, which also strengthen these values and our will to live up to our ideals. Provided our values are well chosen, this is a benefit that helps to protect us from the dangers of nihilism and despair. (It should go without saying that when supernatural subjects and incentives strengthen unpragmatical values, the effect is unpragmatical in turn.)

What's wrong with nihilism? A man with strong values is in general in a happier and more stable state than one without. Most people don't thrive when they abandon or lose their values and seek pleasure on the whim of the moment. This type of careless abandon may be good in small doses, and it's perhaps natural during periods of reevaluation when one's ideals are in flux; but where it persists it produces distressing feelings of meaninglessness and despair, eventually dissolving one's personality into something less than the sum of its parts.

The belief that God or gods confirm our ideals and recognize and reward our struggles is especially helpful in times of isolation where moral support from allies is not forthcoming and the strength to persist weakens, and also for those burdened with addictions that push them to trample their values. In cases like these disbelief would leave us adrift.

Troubleshooting: Incentives, Theodicy, Universality

One issue with supernatural incentives is that they make theodicy more difficult. Consider the following. Incentives require judging whether a moral standard has been reached. But for any standard we conventionally recognize as moral, some people are better positioned to meet it than others. For instance, some people are more prone to anger than others, and this makes it harder for them to meet a conventional moral standard, and at the limit, impossible. The game is rigged against them by accident of birth and circumstance, and the incentive structure is therefore unfair. But a just God wouldn't run a rigged game.

One is tempted to call on free will to explain away the injustice. But nobody chooses to be born as the person they are, and if they're born with intuitions that drive them in the wrong direction, the loss of supernatural incentives that eventually results cannot be ascribed to their free choice. Worse still, the incentives themselves make a mockery of free will, because we don't have the freedom to choose what we're "paid" to do.

Skeptics will also object that the doctrine of supernatural incentives for conventionally moral behavior assigns to God human moral intuitions produced by human evolution in a specific time and place. This isn't logically impossible, but it is arbitrary and implausible, and requires a leap of faith larger than any taken previously.

There's no easy response to these issues. So long as one maintains that there are supernatural incentives for conventional morality under unlimited monotheism, only the hyperbolic skepticism we discussed in the previous section can justify God. The reader must again evaluate whether the many benefits we've enumerated are worth the cost of that skepticism.

In the paragraphs above I've been using the phrase "conventional morality" to mean the basic moral principles about which there is broad social and legal agreement, and which are generally considered to apply equally to everyone. Now, one way to save supernatural incentives and absolve God without relying on hyperbolic skepticism is to abandon the universal application of conventional morality and instead make supernatural moral standards specific to each individual and circumstancetailored even to individuals we personally and socially consider reprehensible. One standard for foxes and another for hens; or rather, one standard for each fox and one standard for each hen—handicapped to be fair.

Unfortunately, this weakens the incentives' benefits. It fails to reward those we consider good more than those we consider evil, and in the absence of a universal moral law, each individual is left to guess at the moral standard that applies specifically to him, which risks reducing that standard to a matter of individual whim: unstable and uncertain.

There's another doctrine that avoids universalizing conventional morality: God will assign each of us a future life on the basis of the values we've expressed through our choices in this life, in a manner that is, by conventional standards, morally neutral—giving hens no special rewards over foxes. The proposed incentive (a developing continuation of our identity after death) is quite feeble compared to an eternal stay in paradise, but it does leave each of us the freedom to choose our own values according to our own intuitions (arguably the most important freedom of all), each choice provoking a supernatural consequence, and it sidesteps the thorny problems addressed above. Unfortunately both the weaker incentive and the failure to discriminate between conventionally moral and immoral behavior mean that this doctrine leaves some, perhaps most, of the benefits of belief on the table.

Finally, you should consider the unfamiliar idea that God wants the world to be better, but gives such a high priority to free will that he refuses to incentivize good behavior or punish bad behavior (which would amount to a form of compulsion).


While believers can provide a solid argument for the pragmaticality of supernatural incentives, skeptics have grounds to object that the entire project either falls apart or weakens into irrelevance when one tries to provide a systematic account of how those incentives actually work and are integrated with other religious beliefs, and that the whole thing is simply too hard to believe in the first place. As usual I'll leave you, dear readers, to draw your own conclusion.

To summarize:

  • Supernatural incentives that are poorly aligned with our intuitive, pragmatical sense of good and bad action are unpragmatical, and the bigger the incentives, the worse they are.
  • Supernatural incentives that are well aligned with our intuitive, pragmatical sense of good and bad action are pragmatical.
  • Supernatural incentives and supernatural subjects fortify our values and help to protect us from nihilism.
  • If we suppose supernatural incentives are based on the universal application of conventional moral standards by an unlimited God, theodicy becomes more difficult, increasing the cost of belief. If we suppose otherwise, we can avoid this cost, but the benefits of belief are reduced.

Before moving on, I'll point out that while belief in supernatural incentives is dependent on at least some of the religious beliefs we've addressed previously (e.g. there can be no supernatural punishment without life after death), the converse is not true. Neither life after death nor God logically require the existence of supernatural incentives.

Part Five: The Pragmatical Principle

Belief compatibility

Some answers to the questions posed in this essay are mutually incompatible. For instance, full immortality isn't compatible with circular time, since in the latter memories can't persist forever. Similarly, it's difficult to imagine why the God of unlimited monotheism would grant only partial immortality, or how He could be subject to parabolic time.

When we take compatibility into account, we find that the number of plausible answer combinations is actually rather limited. This is advantageous, because fewer choices means easier selection.

Answers tend to cluster into two groups. I'll call them “religious frameworks,” as they're too abstract to include all the details we associate with existing religions. I provide a summary of each below.

Religious Framework A

- Full immortality: souls are preserved after death, including memories.
- Linear time: a permanent afterlife immediately follows a single life; time in the mundane world has an endpoint.
- Unlimited monotheism: God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
- Response to the problem of evil: God has reasons to allow evil that are beyond our ability to understand, or else the product of free will.
- Universalization of conventional morality.

Cons: heaven overshadows mundane life, response to the problem of evil isn't rationally satisfying.

(Variant: as above but with limited monotheism.)
Religious Framework B

- Partial immortality: consciousness is preserved after death but memories are not.
- Circular time: after each death consciousness is reborn into a new life that's a meaningful sequel to previous lives; the universe has no beginning or end and is repeatedly destroyed and recreated.
- Panentheism: we are all part of God but ignorant of this relationship.
- Response to the problem of evil: creation is like a drama or game that God plays with himself, and the evils we experience are only moments in this game.
- Moral duties are specific to roles.

Cons: immortality is only partial, circular time may discourage progress.

(Variant: as above but with agnosticism.)

These two religious frameworks are entirely the product of our pragmatical analysis, and don't rely on prophecy or scripture in any fashion. Despite this, they match up to the two largest groups of major world religions, and the indicated variants capture the others.

The choice between Framework A and Framework B largely comes down to which set of advantages and disadvantages you're more willing to accept. Naturally that's another choice I'll leave to you, dear readers.

Faith and Fanaticism

Religion is accused of sacrificing the present world for uncertainties and speculations of dubious value. But our analysis shows that some religious beliefs can improve our lives here and now. Of course, we all know there are also religious beliefs that do harm to our lives here and now, and entail needless or even outright foolish sacrifices. For instance, mass suicide to catch a ride when a UFO passes overhead, or the proverbial drinking of kool-aid.

From a pragmatical perspective we can define these positive and negative beliefs as faith and fanaticism respectively. Pragmatical faith is belief in unverifiable claims whose effect is positive with respect to our earthly existence. Pragmatical fanaticism, which is meant as a pejorative, is belief in unverifiable claims whose effect is negative with respect to our earthly existence.

Pragmatical fanaticism is typically caused by harmful commandments that lean on theism, not by theism as such. This works as follows. A priest says that God says that you should do X. When X is harmful, atheists blame belief in God for the fault. But there's nothing inherent in God that implies the commandment. The fault clearly lies in the “says X,” not in theism as such. To protect yourself against this mode of fanaticism, you should scrutinize any claims in the form “God says you should do X” with extreme care.

It's worth citing here the most typical path to atheism, which works along essentially the same lines: “Priests claim belief-set Y is completely true and good, and according to belief-set Y, God claimed or commanded X; but X is false or bad, therefore God does not exist.” Faulty logic, of course. The actual conclusion should be “therefore belief-set Y isn't completely true and good.” Even when limiting himself to this latter conclusion a believer steps onto a slippery slope, because his priests had inculcated faith in the unified whole of belief-set Y more strongly than faith in God, and bound the two together indissolubly in his mind; and to belief-set Y they had added, moreover, many spurious principles that serve to increase the worldly power of their guild. If the befuddled believer later wants to preserve belief-set Y in the face of evidence contradicting one or more of its components, his easiest approach will be to declare it metaphorical rather than literal. And thence the slippery slope turns into a waterslide of dilution and reinterpretation, at the end of which even God becomes a metaphor, and only the memory of some warm feelings remains.

Evaluation in terms of pragmaticalism may provide a guide—not the only guide, but one guide—as to which beliefs you ought to hold fast. You can interrogate commandments and principles and the like in the very same way we've interrogated the most fundamental religious beliefs in the preceding sections.

Religious Minimalism

To the atheist or agnostic I'll make a different point. You needn't join a religion filled with what you consider dubious dogmas to benefit from a pragmatical analysis. You could instead adopt a minimal core of pragmatical beliefs. This minimal core is derived entirely from abstract reasoning, and not dependent on the variety of other claims made by traditional religions. Nor is it based on the perennialist observation that such principles are widely held by diverse human groups.

The easiest way to do this is to simply choose between Framework A and Framework B, and take them bare and as is, without adding the details, dogmas, and rituals of traditional religions. We could call these two pared-down religions “Pragmatical Minimalism A” and “Pragmatical Minimalism B,” but since these names sound rather technical, you might prefer to call them “Abrahamic Minimalism” and “Dharmic Minimalism”—terms which I suggest purely for convenience and without enthusiastic endorsement, as they are explicitly not intended to be faithful representations of the traditional religions to which they allude.

Dharmic Minimalism (Framework B) would contain the following belief set. Existence is an evolving cycle that God continually creates by dividing himself into many parts with many perspectives, which have limited freedom to make independent choices. Each person is one such fragment of God. After death we are reincarnated into a body selected by the values we express through our choices in this present life. There is no preservation of memory between incarnations: consciousness persists, but its new contents derive from its new body.

The principles of Abrahamic Minimalism (Pragmatical Minimalism A) have been covered at length in this essay and are already familiar to most readers, so in this case I encourage you to review and summarize the minimal core yourself. As previously noted, the main hurdle to belief in Framework A is the problem of evil, which remains a challenge for the minimalist version as much as it is for the traditional religions within the same framework.

The Pragmatical Principle

I've thus far presented this essay as merely analytical. But it becomes actionable if you accept the "pragmatical principle." I define this principle as follows:

Faced with an unknowable, one should adopt the most beneficial beliefs on faith.

A weak form of the pragmatical principle is:

Faced with an unknown, one should adopt the most beneficial theory as a working hypothesis.

This isn't intended to exclude the possibility that agnosticism or atheism are the most beneficial beliefs, and by now the reader will have formed an opinion on whether that is indeed the case.

The pragmatical principle allows us to establish faith on a rational basis by understanding religion as the optimization of beliefs about unknowables. It contradicts the conventional assumption that agnosticism or atheism should be our default attitude regarding unknowables even when we have firm reason to consider other beliefs more beneficial.

What are the optimal beliefs about unknowables? I'll leave that question, dear readers, for you to answer.

I'll end by recalling to your mind for one last time my limited mission here. I've not tried to establish true or false, but only guided you through an analysis narrowly focused on pragmaticality, with which you can do or not do as you like. Even if you disagree on certain points, it should have at least demonstrated the concept well enough that you can apply it according to your own lights.

Appendix: Quantum Theodicies

The Multiverse Theodicy

Most theodicies start from the assumption that God created only one world. Therefore if our one world is imperfect, it means He screwed up, and since He can't screw up by definition, it means He doesn't exist. But according to the multiverse theodicy, a maximally good God would not create only one world. He would actually create every possible world that deserves to exist. That is, every world that's a net positive. Because otherwise it wouldn't exist at all, and by not creating it, He would be making a mistake, because anything that's a net good is by definition better than nothing.

In short: a maximally good God would create every possible world in which the good outweighs the bad.

Once we have this principle in mind our task becomes much easier, because we only need to conclude that our world is good on net to get Him off the hook. And then, since we have no way to see the infinity of other worlds He's created, the prosecution will have to rest.

There is, however, a strange issue with this otherwise promising theodicy.

According to the multiverse theodicy God creates every possible net-good world. That means given a coin toss (presuming that toss doesn't shift the world into being net bad) God creates a world where the coin shows heads, a world where the coin shows tails, and a world where the coin lands on its edge. In each of these worlds there are an equal number of observers. There are therefore equal odds that a randomly selected observer lives in any one of these three worlds.

Now suppose that empirically when you toss a coin the chance it shows heads is 0.499, the chance it shows tails is 0.499, and the chance it lands on its edge is 0.002. (Naturally these aren't the real empirical probabilities but only an illustration.) We are consequently faced with a probability gap. The empirical odds of a coin landing on its edge are 1 in 500 but the odds that a randomly selected observer lives in a world where the coin lands on its edge are 1 in 3.

As repetitions of the coin toss approach infinity the probability that the total ratio of heads to tails to edge outcomes deviates significantly from 499:499:2 approaches zero. If all net-good worlds exist, as repetitions of the coin toss approach infinity the probability that a randomly selected observer lives in a world where the total ratio of heads to tails to edge outcomes deviates significantly from 1:1:1 approaches zero. Yet we empirically do live in a world where the odds of heads, tails, and edge are not equal, and therefore, if we consider ourselves as randomly selected observers, the probability that every possible net-good world exists also approaches zero.

We can attempt to escape this reasoning by proposing that probabilities like those we observe in our world are a condition of possibility for the existence of observers themselves (e.g. perhaps organic chemistry is dependent on probabilities like those in our world). This is a version of the anthropic principle. But even assuming an anthropic principle restricts the probabilities which could allow or prohibit the existence of intelligent life, we would still expect other probabilities to tend toward even odds, and they do not.

Another attempt to save the multiverse theodicy is to assume that God creates more copies of the higher probability worlds to ensure that probabilities are matched to the frequency of worlds. For instance, God could create 499 worlds where the result is heads, 499 worlds where the result is tails, and 2 worlds where the coin lands on its edge. Yet these worlds have to be distinguished in some way, for otherwise they are not copies, but simply the same world. Now, suppose they're in different locations one universe-sized spatial unit apart and separated by barriers that observers cannot penetrate. Then at every unit of space away from the zero coordinate there will be a heads world and a tails world, and every 499 units there will be an edge world, and this ratio will repeat infinitely as we move away from the starting point, with different worlds arranged along the Y-axis and their copies arranged along the X-axis. The problem here is that even if He's matched probabilities to observers, for every 2 edge worlds, God would have omitted 497 edge worlds that He could have created but chose not to. While there are infinite copies of each world, the infinity is smaller than it could be, because it's missing an infinite number of possible worlds too. And this contradicts the core premise of the multiverse theodicy: that God would create every possible net-good world, and not merely an infinite number of net-good worlds. To match the premise, all worlds would need to exist in equal proportion, no matter how many copies of each there are; but this is empirically refuted by the issue of observer frequency.

Neither of these attempts to save the theodicy work. So the hypothesis that God creates every possible net-good world is almost certainly false, and the multiverse theodicy fails.

A pragmatical analysis of the multiverse theodicy reveals a second fault. If every possible net-good world exists, an evil deed I don't do in this world will be done in another by someone essentially identical to me, and vice versa. My individual actions to improve my world have no impact on the net good of the multiverse, which is constant. I'm therefore morally justified in doing exactly as I please at any given moment.

For instance, imagine two worlds that are net-good and identical in every respect except that in one I kick Schrodinger's cute and completely innocent calico cat to vent my frustrations and in the other I don't kick his cat. In the multiverse theodicy it doesn't matter if I do or don't kick Schrodinger's cat, because whatever I do in this world I will do the opposite in the other world: regardless of my decision to act morally or immorally, the cat will always be both kicked and unkicked.

This implies a further problem: if every possible net-good world exists, then free will does not, because if my counterpart in a world identical in all respects apart from the kicking of the cat were to choose not to kick the cat, I would be forced to kick the cat, because otherwise the two worlds would be identical and one possible world (the world in which I kick the cat) would not exist. Therefore we can say that if God wants free will, he cannot create every possible net-good world. Free will is incompatible with the multiverse theodicy.

The multiverse theodicy would thus be unpragmatical even if it worked and justified God, because in the same blow it defeats the most fundamental justification for moral action (an increase in net good). And as confirmatory evidence of my critique, it's interesting to note that the inventor of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics came to a premature end because he thought along similar lines. If we accept the argument that an unlimited God would necessarily create all possible net-good worlds, this critique of the multiverse theodicy also impugns the pragmaticality of belief in such a God.

Rather than proving that unlimited monotheism could be valid, the multiverse theodicy therefore seems to call it further into question, and to save unlimited monotheism, we have to assume that its premise is false: for some reason God does not want to create every possible net-good world.

To make a last attempt at saving the multiverse theodicy, we can reformulate it. I'll call this reformulation "the almost-everything theodicy." It's very simple: take the multiverse theodicy and remove all the possible universes that would distort probabilities or make free will impossible. There are still infinite universes; just not every possible net-good universe.

While the almost-everything theodicy would fix most of the problems with the multiverse theodicy, it creates a new problem. Suppose two net-good worlds are nearly identical, and they only differ in that the inhabitants of one appear in heaven after they die, and the inhabitants of the other don't. According to the almost-everything theodicy, God would create both of these worlds. However, He would not create an equal number of otherwise identical worlds where a coin lands on heads, tails, and edge respectively. Would a God who's willing to cancel heaven but unwilling to allow "wrong" probabilities for irrelevant events truly be a benevolent God? If not, the almost-everything theodicy fails as well. I'll allow you, dear readers, to make the final call.

The Quantum Free-Will Theodicy

The classical free-will theodicy claims that God gave us free will, and evil exists because we use this free will badly. He doesn't correct it because He's decided in advance not to interfere with our decisions. The problem with this theodicy is that it can justify evils created by conscious beings, but not "natural" evils such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

I propose to extend this theodicy to natural phenomena, thereby plugging the hole in the classical free-will theodicy. I'll use a very simple definition of freedom: "undetermined by past events."

According to the quantum free-will theodicy, God gave freedom to both conscious entities and particles. The evils in our world, both human and natural, are a consequence of this freedom. This justifies both natural evils and those created by conscious beings.

The question, of course, is whether we can imagine a plausible reason God would make a free world rather than a perfect one. I believe we can.

If God wished to create beings who are independent from Himself, and whose character He does not choose in all details, He might evolve them in a world filled with many small, undetermined events. These undetermined events allow natural evils to occur. Moreover, if He believes it best to create a physically consistent world, the freedom of conscious beings might require the freedom of particles. The essential point will still hold if one objects that "freedom" is indistinguishable from "randomness."

Thus, the quantum free-will theodicy provides an alternative to hyperbolic skepticism, but at a price: the nominally omnipotent God is self-limited to such a great extent that the result blurs the lines between limited monotheism and unlimited monotheism.

While I'm not aware of any prior account of the quantum free-will theodicy and it might be original to this article, I consider that very unlikely considering how straightforward and obvious it is. Nevertheless, I find no mention of it in common catalogues of theodicies, which is a strange omission.