Pascal’s Wager

In the most recent Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast, Brendan Myers presents – and then refutes – Pascal’s Wager. As with all the podcasts Brendan and his partner Juniper do, this one is entertaining, enlightening, and well worth your time. I’m glad to see the professional philosopher tackle one of the most annoying attempts to make exclusive Christianity seem reasonable.

Pascal’s Wager says that it is more reasonable to believe in God (who, of course, is the God of Christianity) than not, because if you do and you’re right, you go to heaven, while if you’re wrong, you get nothingness. If you don’t believe in God and you’re right, you get nothingness, but if you’re wrong you get hell. Therefore you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing in God.

I hear Pascal’s Wager or some variation on it at least once a month, usually from Christians who should know better. Pascal’s Wager is not reasonable – it is intellectually dishonest and spiritually offensive.

It is intellectually dishonest because it assumes there are two and only two possibilities – the Christian afterlife or nothingness. In fact there are many possibilities for what comes after death. Perhaps there really is an omniscient omnipotent God, but she’s nothing like the God of Christianity. Perhaps reincarnation is true. Perhaps Odin really does rule the universe (or at least your part of it) and he’s not going to be happy with those who abandoned him for some tribal god of the desert.

Or as I occasionally remind an evangelical friend, “if the Muslims are right we’re both going to hell.”

Pascal answered this criticism by dismissing the non-Abrahamic religions out of hand, as could be expected from a 17th century European intellectual (or from a 21st century American anti-intellectual). And he claimed that if you studied diligently, it would become apparent that Christianity was superior to Judaism and Islam. Those of us with experience in those religions would beg to differ.

Pascal’s Wager is spiritually offensive because it assumes that what God, the Infinite, the All, wants is our blind and insincere obedience. If “God” exists as a distinct being (something I think is unlikely) I cannot imagine she is that petty.

Pascal’s Wager was best answered 900 years before his birth by the Sufi mystic Rabi’a al-Adawiya, who said

I want to pour water into hell and set fire to paradise so that these two veils disappear and no one worships God out of fear of hell or in hope of paradise but just for the sake of his own eternal beauty.

Revealed wisdom is highly subjective and even contradictory from person to person and from time to time. We do not (and likely cannot) know the exact nature of Ultimate Reality – the possibilities are too numerous to place wagers based on game theory.

Instead, we must live with integrity. Speak the truth, treat others with dignity and respect, work for the greater good, and practice compassion. And follow the spiritual path to which you are called.

Blaise Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, but he was a lousy theologian.

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  • Prior to this Pascal actually had a mystic vision lasting for hours in which he sat immobile and beheld the god of abraham.

    So he was a believer. My suspicion is that the wager is something of a trick designed to turn the mind of the French intelligentsia back to god.

    Fascinating figure, really.

  • Actually, Pascal was thinking in particular of three drinking buddies of his, from a pool hall where he used to spend a lot of his free time.

    He wanted an argument that would convince *them* of the reasonableness of Christian faith, and he knew the usual arguments from Augustine, Aquinas, etc. would be too complex and wouldn't work.

    He was already a fairly rigorous Catholic, and grew up in a very religious household, but his mystic vision certainly did change his life.

    And in other Pascal trivia: he also helped organise the city of Paris' first public transit system!:-)

  • And thank you John, for the kind words about the podcast! 🙂


  • Gordon – I don't begrudge Pascal his vision. Too many people have had similar visions to simply write them off. My complaint is with his gross oversimplification of possible next worlds.

    Brendan – perhaps for those drinking buddies, living in a world where the primacy of Christianity was assumed, the Wager was an effective argument, but someone of Pascal's brilliance should have seen through its weaknesses. Is there any record of whether or not his drinking buddies converted?

  • John: Pascal's drinking buddies probably never heard the argument, unless Pascal described it to them personally. The argument was among Pascal's private notes, kept in his desk drawer and not discovered by others until after he died.

    To my knowledge, his friends were impressed, but didn't change their lifestyles much.