Is It More Rational to Bet That God Exists?
You are going to die.
Your life is quickly passing away, and your death will be for eternity. And the moment of this death is unpredictable. It could come 50 years from now or 5 minutes from now.
It’s this sobering fact that forms the starting point of one of the most famous proofs for God’s existence: Pascal’s Wager.
Okay, so it’s less a proof for God’s existence than it is an argument for acting as if God exists.
Let me explain.
The famous mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) laid out his “wager” in part III of his Pensées. He prefaces his argument with a reflection on the “foolishness,” “blindness,” and “weakness of mind” of those who were untroubled by their impending death.
Just like today, many in Pascal’s time lived as if they were never going to die. They went about their existences wholly consumed with the challenges, anxieties, and enjoyments of the day-to-day. (And indeed, that’s what many of us are raised and educated to focus on.) “The sensibility of man to trifles,” writes Pascal, “and his insensibility to great things, indicates a strange inversion.”
But according to Pascal, it is unconscionable to be indifferent to death. Because of its eternal nature, he thought that one must take some definite position on it, and guide one’s life by that position:
But what course to take?
As Pascal puts it:
“‘God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager?”
According to Pascal, agnosticism isn’t really an option, since we’re already involved in the “game”: death is coming. That then leaves only two viable alternatives—theism or atheism—which have four possible outcomes:
1) Believe that God exists, and if he does exist, you gain eternal happiness.
2) Believe that God exists, and if he doesn’t, you face eternal annihilation.
3) Don’t believe that God exists, and if he does, you face eternal damnation.
4) Don’t believe that God exists, and if he doesn’t, you face eternal annihilation.
In sum, Pascal thinks atheism is a bad bet, because the one who wagers on it doesn’t really get much. Sure, the atheist may get to partake of some more “pleasures” and have a bit more “freedom” than the religious person. But those things are fleeting, along with his life. Plus, statistically speaking, religious people tend to report being “happier” than non-religious people.
Do you find Pascal’s argument compelling? If not (or even if you do), what are some objections that can be leveled against it?