This post is part of a series
In Part 1, I discussed Pascal’s Wager as a risk calculation, similar to how we estimate risk in project management. In Part 2, I attempted to debunk the anti-intellectual and narrow view that all religions are essentially equally improbable and ridiculous. In Part 3, I used the criteria that I suggested for evaluating faith systems to show that there is a difference between the faith claims of Christianity, Islam, Zeus, and the FSM.
In this last part, I address some remaining objections, and recommend to you Christian Philosopher Peter Kreeft’s book Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees.
1. Pascal is arguing that we should BELIEVE based on this wager
He is not, he is arguing that we should be open, seek, and even practice the disciplines of faith based on this wager – he directly confronts the atheist contention that “faith is not important enough to seriously investigate.” However, he does invite skeptics to “act as IF they believe” until they do, claiming that such experimentation will reveal to them the truth of faith in practice.
Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you…will quiet your proudly critical intellect…
I’m not sure I buy this approach, esp. when it comes to such outward and relatively powerless practices as going to mass and blessing with holy water. Rather, I think that the unbeliever ought to at least genuinely and regularly employ the position of the heart exemplified in ‘The Skeptics Prayer, written by Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft:
God, I don’t know whether you even exist. I’m a skeptic. I doubt. I think you may be only a myth. But I’m not certain (at least when I’m completely honest with myself). So if you do exist, and if you really did promise to reward all seekers, you must be hearing me now. So I hereby declare myself a seeker of truth, whatever and wherever it is. I want to know the truth and live the truth. If you are the truth, please help me.
2. You can’t just choose to believe
This claim is absolutely true. No one can merely hear some probabilities or arguments about God and will themselves to believe. But Pascal is encouraging us to endeavor to believe, by temporarily doubting our doubts, employing Christian practices and perspectives, and openly researching faith with our own lives, rather than proudly evaluating faith from a safe distance, hiding behind intellectual objections, fear of lack of control, lack of trust, and excuses given to us by the examples of religious hypocrites and their malfeasance.
In fact, this inability to make one’s self believe is clearly spoken of in the Bible, which teaches that, while we can seek, it is God who actually enables us to see and believe, so that no one can claim that their own goodness, or their own strength in seeking, is what gave them their faith:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.
3. It’s really just a veiled threat
Many people have an extreme, knee-jerk reaction to any warnings about the consequences of decisions. Warnings about the consequences of careless sex, overeating, greed, or worldly accomplishment will always be unpopular, and especially if we add that God is displeased with such values and threatens hell.
In defense of such antipathy to such teachings, I admit that many ‘hell fire and brimstone’ preachers have cajoled people into faked faith decisions, under the auspices of ‘making sure you are saved in case you die on the way home tonight.’
But let’s strike a balance here. We OUGHT to use the fear of consequences as a way to wake people from apathy and slumber, but when it comes to recommending solutions to REMEDY their situation, we ought to provide a perspective that draws them, not drives them with fear. To see these two principles in scripture, observe these two principles in perfect paradoxical balance:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.
The goodness of God leads you to repentance.
Note that fear can often be the beginning of wisdom (to wake us), but not the ongoing motivation for spiritual life.
4. The loss of living a Christian life *IS* significant because you live in bondage to a lie and lose freedom.
Pascal argues that to live a Christian life is to lose nothing, but rather, even in this life, you are gaining much:
Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
However, some atheists might argue that they can have all of those virtues without faith, and still maintain an intellectual and inner life apart from ‘slavery to God.’ In fact, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that a life free from God is a fuller life:
It could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshiping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.
However, without deconstructing his argument point by point, let me rather indicate the things that a life of faith give you that a faithless life can not:
- Real comfort in hard times – As Dinesh D’Souza argues in Where Is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?, atheism offers no comfort to the grieving beyond “that’s just the way it is, you’ll have to get over it, but I’ll be here with you as a human.” Atheists might argue that it is better to offer people the truth rather than comforting lies, but they presume that faith claims are lies, taking away hope that they have no way of knowing is false.
- Real communion with the divine – even when I practiced Buddhism, there was a great void in practicing as if there was no personal God to pray to, listen for, and be loved by. This experience of communion with God is, in my experience, real, and even required by the soul. To miss this is to miss much, even one of the essentials of living.
- Redemption – Christianity offers the most lost and broken person hope for the future, in this life and the next. Atheism, at it’s best, can only offer meager rewards for the rest of this life, and no promise of forgiveness and cleansing for past deeds, save a blithe perspective that guilt and evil are all illusory anyway.
- Transformation – surely, one of the most poweful witnesses to Christian truth is the transformed lives of former unbelievers. Throughout history, no ideology has produced so many people who testify of their own inner change through faith in Christ. And while all ideologies have converts that claim miraculous change, I would bet that none produce the number and degree of happily transformed lives. As the former slave trader John Newton documented in the now famous Amazing Grace, God’s power to transform is real and deep:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see
5. Serving the wrong God
In Part 3, I explored how we could eliminate faith systems of lesser value, but this does not eliminate them all. How do we know if we should serve the God of Christianity, or say Buddhism? Denis Diderot, a contemporary of Voltaire, concisely expressed this opinion when asked about the wager, saying “an Imam could reason the same way.”
While this is a very valid question, such small barriers to finding one’s way are insignificant in the life of the seeker of truth. But for those looking for excuses to ignore faith, it may seem insurmountable.
Though Pascal did not directly address this question, he assumed Christianity to be superior, and in Pensees and other works, examined stoicism, paganism, Islam, and Judaism, and concluded that Christianity was most likely to be correct.
Pascal’s wager in itself can not create faith. However, it should open up our minds to the grave probability that choosing to be apathetic or atheistic may carry huge personal risk, and the person who lightly dismisses such an argument is probably a fool, and may certainly be seen to be one in the life to come. Pascal calls such people ‘stupid.’ I reluctantly agree:
If there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.