As part of my blog series on Christianity and atheism with Jesse, I’ve responded to his latest post which deals with Pascal’s Wager.
Not directly related to the wager, there seems to be an underlying thread in the post that suggests Christians are in the business of conning people—purposefully hiding the truth. Naturally, Christians are as capable of deceit as the next person, however to imply (unless I’ve badly misunderstood) that deceit is more or less a part of Christian doctrine itself, doesn’t sit well. Basically because there seems to be a lack of evidence for this—with the exception of some tele-evangelists. I think a distinction between individuals and creed is needed. But anyway, that’s taking this conversation down a different path—psychology I guess—and one that can easily lead to playing the man, not the game. Maybe it’s best to move on.
Pascal, as Jesse points out, was a French mathematician and Christian philosopher who lived in the 1600s. He’s best known in philosophical circles for his wager, which concludes that the eternal benefits of acting as though God exists—if he does—outweigh the short-term benefits of not acting as though he exists—when he doesn’t. Clear as mud?
- If God exists, but you don’t act as though he does, you lose infinitely (eternal Hell)
- If God exists, and you do act as though he does, you win infinitely (eternal Heaven)
- If God does not exist, and you don’t act as though he does, you win in a small way (live life how you want)
- If God does not exist, and you do act as though he does, you lose in a small way (live life according to rules/false hope)
Pascal concludes that based on this wager, the most sensible thing to do is to act as though God exists, because the worst that can happen is number 4 (fairly low loss), while number 2 has infinite reward. So basically, the argument goes, you may as well act as though God exists and live accordingly.
It’s important to point out that this wager is not an argument for the existence of God, it’s an argument about how people should act when they’re not sure about the existence of God . So immediately the focus of the wager is not really on God, but on people. From Pascal’s perspective, you can’t decide to believe in God, only how you act, hence my substitution of ‘belief’ for ‘act as though’ above. As such, the wager, rather than being seen perhaps as the only argument adopted regarding the existence of God, can instead be used—if at all—as an extra motivation.
The fact that Pascal’s Wager is rarely mentioned in mainstream Christian apologetics seems to demonstrate this point. While doubtless there may be Christians who misunderstand it, or overestimate its strength, on its own it seems unlikely to lead to belief—whether one takes Pascal’s predestinationist view of salvation or not. An important criticism of the wager is also that it can be applied to any god or gods: ‘If Vishnu exists, and you act as though…and so on.’ Clearly it is not confined to Christian belief alone, therefore other reasons for ‘acting as though God exists’ must be sought and justified.
With this in mind, Pascal’s Wager may be used, not as the reason for faith, but as a reason to look for reasons for faith. It’s these reasons that seem most relevant to why one might adopt Christian, or atheistic, belief.
As a way of helping this conversation progress, I’ll ask Jesse some questions which arose from his post on Pascal.
Referring to Darwinism, it’s argued that the theory of evolution ‘reduces the probability of the existence of the Christian God.’ Please explain? (cue Pauline Hanson’s voice).
Also, maybe for a separate post:
‘Hume … instead of burying his face in the sand and believing in God out of wishful thinking … faced up to the gruelling challenge of rational inquiry, the only path that can give humans a schema in their brains for the world as it is.’ An expansion on this would be interesting.