The Parable of the Roller Coaster

A couple weeks ago I went to Six Flags with a friend.  It was not a busy day.  Most of the lines were very short.  We literally walked right onto one ride, without having to wait at all.  The last ride we went on, we waited for roughly an hour.  While I was in line, I thought of something.  A parable.

Waiting for an hour is a sacrifice.  Most people view waiting as a negative thing--and I agree with that.  I don't like waiting.  The times I wait are when I am forced to (such as in a traffic jam) or when I know there will be something valuable that comes from the waiting (such as a roller coaster).  I made a sacrifice in order to obtain something I wanted--namely a fun time riding the coaster.

While I was waiting in line, I drew a parallel with religion.  Many religious people will teach that rewards in the next life are worth the sacrifices they require in this life.  That is, they are telling us that (religiously speaking) it is worth waiting in line for an hour in order to enjoy the roller coaster that comes at the end of the queue.  I know I have heard similar arguments in my time as a believer, and I have heard people say similar things in the last few years as well.

So let us examine the differences.  I will explain why I am willing to wait for a roller coaster but not for the promises of eternal life.  First of all, I have ridden this particular coaster before, so I know how enjoyable it is.  I know it's fun.  I know it's real.  I've seen it with my own eyes, I've felt the wind rushing past my face, I've seen the world turn upside-down as I go through the loops.  I have experienced it first-hand and I can recommend it to other people based on my own experience.

But, for the sake of understanding all the differences, let us suppose that I have never been on this roller coaster.  How would I know whether it's worth one hour of my time to ride it?  Even though I have never been on it myself, I can see the cars rushing down the coaster while I'm waiting in line.  The track is built all around the queue, so I can see the track and I can see the people riding it and hear their screams as they rush by.  So, I have evidence that at least some people are riding the coaster.  If I pay close attention, I can see that some of the people on the coaster are people that I had previously seen ahead of me in the queue.  So I know that at least some of the people who were waiting in line are now riding the coaster.  All of this is evidence which leads me to believe that I will also be allowed to ride the coaster and that I will likely enjoy it when I do.

But, let us suppose that the queue were not in site of the ride.  Let us suppose that they were separate.  I cannot see the ride at all until you're actually at the end of the queue.  I can't hear the people riding it, I can't see them swoosh up and down and around and around.  I can only see people waiting in line with me.  How then would I be able to know whether waiting in line were worth my time?  I would be able to ask people who had ridden the coaster in the past.  I would need to take their word for it, since I wouldn't have seen them on the coaster with my own eyes.  However, they would be able to tell me about their experiences.   Perhaps I would find their stories too incredulous and believe they had made it all up.  However, if I were extremely skeptical and wanted to ascertain the truth of the matter, I could isolate several people who had claimed to have gone on the ride and ask them very detailed questions.  I could then determine the degree to which their stories matched and use that to make a decision on whether to believe them.  That is, if they all described having done a corkscrew then I might believe that it was part of the ride.  However, if one of them said there were only loop-the-loops, another had said that the coaster simply went up and down without twisting at all, and another said there were only corkscrews, then I would have to determine that they couldn't have been describing the same coaster.

So let us now turn to the religious argument.  Religious leaders and texts insist that we base our actions in this life on the promise of a great reward which will happen in the next life.  As I have demonstrated with the roller coaster example, I am more than willing to sacrifice something of some value to me in order to obtain something of greater value.  So, it is not an unreasonable thing to ask that people engage in a particular behavior now in order to gain some future benefit.  However, this is all based on blindly believing in the reward to come without any evidence for it whatsoever.

We cannot see the afterlife.  We cannot speak with the people who allegedly inhabit it.  We cannot interview people who have been there.  In fact, there are people who claim to have had visions about the afterlife, or to have actually been there during a near-death experience.  However, the accounts that these persons give are, as I mentioned above, discordant.  Some people describe one type of vision while others describe something wholly different.  Due to the discrepancies in the stories, a skeptical mind cannot believe that all the people who have had these experiences visited the same location.  (Yes, it can be argued that the afterlife is so vast and so diverse that, like the Earth, two people can both visit and see completely different things.  However, this does not fit doctrinally with any major religion, so it can easily be dismissed--or rather, the doctrine of any major religion can be easily dismissed if this argument is to be accepted.)

 So, religious leaders are expecting us to wait in line for a roller coaster that we cannot see or hear--we cannot see other people riding the coaster.  We can see people in line in front of us and behind us.  As soon as people get to the end of the queue, we cannot see them ever again.  We can never talk to them or observe them in any way after they complete their time waiting.  We cannot verify in any empirical way whether the roller coaster is real.  For all we know, there is an executioner at the end of the line killing every person who walks in.  Or, there's a philanthropist handing out a million dollars to each person.  There is no way to know.  We must accept on "faith" that the coaster story is real, that we will be allowed to ride it (and subsequently never speak about it with--or even be seen by--anyone who has not yet ridden it).  I would not be willing to do that.  If someone asked me to wait in line for a ride that I could not see, hear, or in any way know is real, I would laugh.  I would consider doing so a waste of my time.

I accept the possibility that I may well be wrong.  There may actually be a roller coaster at the end of the line, and I missed out on riding it because I refused to wait in line for an hour without seeing any evidence that it is real.  However, I would not regret having made my choice.  Because instead of waiting in line for an unseen roller coaster, I would likely be home in bed playing a video game--in other words, I would be enjoying my time rather than wasting it waiting in line.  And that is how I choose to live my life.  I choose to spend my time doing those things which I believe will be beneficial to myself and to others, in ways that I can measure and observe.  If a behavior improves my own life or the life of another person, I will engage in it.  If a behavior is said to guarantee a certain reward and yet the veracity of the claim cannot be verified in any empirical way, then I will dismiss the claim as invalid.  I will not wait in line for a roller coaster unless I know it's real and I know it's fun to ride.