Really, Mr. Blaise Pascal, YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!

By | July 29, 2010

(Somewhat of a “tongue-in-cheek” reply to Blaise Pascal’s Wager)

The Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 ), argued that rational prudence dictated that everyone should believe in God’s existence, even if we lacked a personal faith in God. According to Pascal, the person who opts to believe has nothing to lose, should it turn out there is no God, and everything to gain, should God exist. On the other hand, the person who chooses to disbelieve has nothing to gain, should God not exist, and everything to lose, should God exist. In simple terms, believe and you risk nothing but stand to gain everything; disbelieve and you risk everything and stand to gain nothing.

Shouldn’t all agree, then, that any rational person would certainly opt to belief in God’s existence? Pascal says the answer was obvious. This has been called “Pascal’s Wager.”

A number of critics have shown that there are a number of problems with Pascal’s argument, and I will not rehash all the good responses that have been given. The main one is simply that nobody, including respected theologians, knows what fate awaits any human in the afterlife, supposing it even makes rational sense to speak of the ‘afterlife.’ Pascal simply relied on what are very questionable points of Christian doctrine. For now, I simply will focus attention Pascal’s key assumptions. Pascal assumes that God will punish non-believers, solely for their lack of belief, and reward believers, solely for their belief in his existence. These are philosophically untenable claims which ignore altogether the moral aspect of religious life.

The God of Pascal’s Christian faith is certainly considered to be an infinitely wise deity. Let us ask: How would an infinitely wise deity treat those human creatures that did not believe in him? Would he punish them by eternal damnation simply for their lack of belief, as many Christians claim?

First, this infinitely wise deity remains hidden from the human world, never giving any clear evidence of his existence. After having remained hidden and mysterious, he allegedly condemns all non-believers, among them the empirically-minded, rational humans who operate on the basis of evidence available to them. These humans conclude quite reasonably that there are no grounds for affirming that a supernatural deity exists. On the contrary, the deity allegedly rewards all the credulous, fantasy-minded humans who proclaim that he does exist. Does this sound like the behavior of an infinitely wise being?

Consider our attitude to a parent who treats his children in an analogous way. An absentee father who was never present, never let his children know where he might be, and never supported his children, but later appeared and punished those children who stopped believing in him, while rewarding the credulous ones who never stopped believing despite all evidence to the contrary. Would anyone hold that such a parent was wise and good? Yet, Pascal’s wager can be seen as attributing analogous behavior to the deity, a being who is perfectly good and infinitely wise.

Many of us question whether an infinitely wise being would condemn non-believers, as Pascal and some Christians claim. Wouldn’t an infinitely wise being easily understand why some humans would withhold belief in him? After all, as their creator, he would know that these creatures were given brains, the capability to question things and the inclination to seek evidence for doubtful claims. It would be the opposite of wisdom to punish these creatures for using the faculties that they were given, and to reward those lazy creatures who make no use of their faculties. Doesn’t it make rational sense to conjecture that an infinitely wise deity might hold the prudent believer in contempt for being so credulous?

When we play this theologically speculative game, we have as much reason for inferring contempt for the pious believer as Mr. Pascal had for his assumption that believers would be rewarded. Yes, I know this is part of accepted Christian doctrine. However, looking at all this from a philosophically rational perspective, we can say that Pascal’s assumptions are simply false and untenable.

My guess is that an infinitely wise being might even prefer the skeptics and the agnostics. They are certainly more interesting and entertaining company than pious, credulous folk, who don’t have much to say beyond repetitious “hosannas to the Lord.” An infinitely wise being might prefer someone who can give him a good argument or a good game of chess, over some religious type who simply sings his praises. Let’s not bore the deity; after all, eternity is a long time!

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