Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
I remember reading Pascal’s wager as a freshman in college. Even back then I thought there was something cold and calculating about the argument. After the extraordinary leap of logic that Anselm makes in his ontological argument and the majestic cosmological vision of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways, Pascal’s wager seemed like a middle class banker’s approach to the question of God’s existence. I wish that I could say that Pascal’s argument has grown on me over time, but, if anything, I hate the argument even more now than I did as a freshman.
Let’s start with a brief summary of what Pascal claims are our options with respect to belief in the existence of God:
Our first option, he says, is to assume that God exists and live our lives accordingly (i.e., with as much faith, hope, and love as we can muster). If God does exists, says Pascal, we’ve won the big prize—eternal life with him in heaven; if he doesn’t exist, on the other hand, nothing much is lost.
The second option is to live our lives assuming God doesn’t exist. If, in fact, he doesn’t, then there’s no problem. But there’s also the possibility that God does exist, and he may not take kindly to those who have rejected him (Just think about how hot the fires of hell must be and how interminably long they’ll last….Yikes!).
According to Pascal, the sensible betting man, then, will always choose option 1 (belief in God), since the rewards for belief are great and the penalty for unbelief is too horrible to even consider.
In an attempt to show where Pascal goes wrong, I’d like to offer my wager-like argument. My wager makes the exact opposite point of Pascal’s, but I think that it stands up much better than the French logician’s argument does.
Once again, let’s assume we have two options: (1) believe in God and live out our lives with faith and devotion or (2) reject the belief in God and live out our lives as atheists.
Let’s start with the second option first. If we reject belief in God as a silly superstition of a bygone era, there are certainly consequences to holding this belief, as Pascal maintains. But what exactly are those consequences? If God doesn’t exist, then we are free to live out our lives with enlightened self-interest. There would be no rules we would be forced to follow, except those leading to our own happiness and the happiness of those we love, no transcendent commands hanging over our heads, no life lived in fear of damnation. Certainly, all this will come to an end with death, but at least while we’re alive we’d actually be living, instead of postponing our ultimate happiness to the next life. And our lives would probably be a heck of a lot more fun while we’re here, because we’re living for ourselves instead of in observance of some antiquated religious precepts.
But what if God does exist and we’ve opted not to believe in him? Isn’t the danger involved in this choice so great that it is best to be avoided at all costs? That may be true, but only if we believe in a very nasty and vindictive sort of God—a petty potentate who punishes his followers who fail to acknowledge his greatness by unceasing acts of submission and groveling. Is that the kind of God who really can claim the title “Supreme Being”? He certainly doesn’t sound all that supreme to me. I like to think that a Supreme Being, if he does in fact exist, would be at least as moral as the most moral human being imaginable—a Gandhi or an Albert Schweitzer, for example. It’s hard to imagine our most moral human being behaving like a petty potentate when he encounters those who refuse to acknowledge his greatness. Rather, our most moral human being would probably respond to resistance the way a bemused parent does towards difficult children—with tolerance, sympathy, and, ultimately, forgiveness. So, if our God is actually more like Gandhi than Benito Mussolini, the consequences for not believing in him—if we are following our consciences, at least—would probably not be all that horrible.
Now back to the first option: we opt to believe in God. If he exists, there seems to be no problem—no problem, that is, if he really is the petty potentate who demands obedience, even at the cost of the conscience of his followers. That sort of God would certainly reward blind faith. But again, let’s imagine that our God is at least as moral as the most moral human being that we can imagine. Would such a superior being reward his followers for believing in him and groveling over him out of fear, or ignorance, or the desire for reward? I think not. In fact, if our God were at least as enlightened as the most moral human being he would probably respect the conscientious atheist much more than the groveling sycophant who simply is covering his bets in order to reap the big reward (eternal life in heaven).
Finally, let’s say we believe in God and he doesn’t really exist. Pascal would say that this is no problem really, because we’d still be living a much more moral and decent life than the non-believer. But one could argue that possessing faith in the absence of a legitimate object of faith is the height of folly. You’d be wasting much of your life praying, going to services, doing devotions, and following commands, duties, and obligations that don’t make any sense in the absence of our petty potentate-like God. Even if you only spend three hours a week engaged in worship and acts of service—and this would seem to be the bare minimum amount that any serious deity desiring the devotion of his followers would expect—that would mean that you’ve spent 11,520 hours over the course of your life focused on appeasing a being who doesn’t actually exist. In that amount of time just imagine all the wonderful things that you could have been doing instead—spending more time with family and friends, enjoying nature, working to make the world you live in a better place, or just sleeping an extra 42 minutes a day (some people would kill to have that extra time in bed!).
Now, I am certainly not arguing that God doesn’t exist; nor am I arguing that the life of an atheist makes more sense than that of a believer. The point of this exercise is to show that if we opt to follow Pascal and use a wager-type approach to religious belief, the argument for unbelief is as strong—if not stronger—than that for belief. In the end, the gambler’s approach to matters of faith is as foolish an exercise as playing roulette by always putting all your chips on black rather than red, because you’ve heard that black has a higher probability of winning than red. Even if you do win in the end, the experience of playing this sort of game is simply not all that much fun. If, however, you actually derive some deep satisfaction from the act of gambling itself, if you leave a casino feeling like you life has a greater meaning and purpose, than by all means continue to gamble.
Of course, my analogy here is that religious faith makes sense if it brings greater meaning, purpose, and happiness to one’s life. And this is true regardless of whether or not God exists. So believe and enjoy, believe and find peace, but please, don’t believe simply to hedge your bets.