trilemmaCS Lewis wrote fantasy. He also wrote this line: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important,” but that’s a fantasy too. It’s easy for Christianity to be false and moderately important, since believers are using its tenets to modify their behavior – or they say they do? In practice, many Christians practice secular, liberal morality, usually some kind of utilitarianism/consequentialism. There’s a whole generation of Christians who seem functionally identical to atheists, except they go to church.

Some would ask: if believers and non believers do exactly the same things, what’s the value of “Christianity” even being in the picture? What’s the point of accepting a supernatural framework of God, Son, Holy Ghost, sola scriptura et cetera if it leads you to do the exact same thing you’d do anyway? It’s like praying because the battery in your car went flat, and receiving divine word that you must go to Supercheap Auto.

That’s a good question. I think that consequentialist morality as practiced by a Christian is still arguably superior to consequentialist morality as practiced by an atheist. Or at least, it’s different. The answer is found in prisoner’s dilemma.

Two prisoners (in separate rooms, working independently and without the other’s knowledge) have the choice to either cooperate or defect. If both cooperate, they get a small reward. If both defect, they get a small punishment. If one defects and the other cooperates, the defector gets a big reward and the cooperator gets a big punishment. It’s a simple game and although it’s possible to overapply it, it’s an important part of understanding altruism and partnership.

The key insight of prisoners’ dilemma is that it’s impossible to lose by defecting. No matter what your opponent does, you’ll at least get the same outcome as him. The only way “cooperate” can be a good strategy is if a), the game is iterated, with round after round, so that a cooperator has a chance to punish a defecting partner b), exists and competes in an ecosystem of prisoners. Two players who defect 100% of the time will have an equal score at the end, but they’ll still have “lost” relative to prisoners in the next cellblock who co-operate 100% of the time, reaping massive rewards.

Robert Axelrod’s famous experiments found that the optimal strategy in most cases is “tit for tat” – that is, cooperate on your first move, and thereafter copy your opponent’s last move. In other words, assume honesty, immediately punish defectors, but be prepared to forgive. The essence of tit for tat is found in Theodore Roosevelt’s line on diplomatic policy: “speak softly, and carry a big stick”.

But a key part in finding the optimum strategy is to ask “how long is the game? Is it 10 iterations? 20 iterations? An unknown number of iterations?”

And that’s where atheists and Christians break ranks. Atheists believe that the game has a limited number of iterations. That is, eventually you die, and then you’re no longer playing prisoners dilemma. You can’t punish defectors, or reward cooperators, or do anything at all. The game’s just…over.

Imagine someone who lives his life, and, moments before death, defects in a massive way. Tit for tat doesn’t work. There’s simply no way to punish him. Look at the Columbine kids – they defected because they knew they had a way to escape the game and its consequences – two bullets between the teeth.

For Christians, it’s different. Their prisoners dilemma game has infinite iterations.

Eternal life or eternal damnation is much the same motivator in any faith: it’s a prisoners dilemma game that doesn’t end. You can’t escape, or weasel out. This fundamentally changes things.

I wonder how many would-be murderers have stayed their hand because they were afraid of hell. Probably quite a few.

In practice, this doesn’t mean Christians are going to act like they’re playing an infinitely long prisoners dilemma game. And lots of atheists act like they’re playing neverending prisoners dilemma (some of the transhumanist bent believe that the dead will someday be reborn by nanotechnology or some other means. It’s sort of like the game pauses and them resumes after a coffee break.) But the motivators are there, and if humans aren’t acting rationally, that’s their problem.

This is why I think Christian morality is distinct and perhaps superior to secular morality even if God isn’t real, worms eat us after we die, and Golgotha was never anything but a rubbish tip.

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