“Pascal’s Wager” is a famous and controversial argument in favor of the existence of God often used by Christian apologetics. It has been called the potentially weakest or potentially strongest argument available when debating with an atheist. Basically, it runs as follows: If a skeptical person were to lay a bet on whether or not God exists, it would wiser to bet on God existing, since if this is the correct position it will make all the difference for him when the time comes to “meet his maker.” If the position is incorrect, nothing from nothing still equals nothing, and when you die and fade into nothing you will not be bothered by your incorrect calculations in the least!
The whole style of this is meant to be wryly humorous, with a touch of dramatic hyperbole for effect. It’s best described as “parliament humor”, a witty jab with a purpose to make the opponent get red in the face. And quite a few atheists do get very indignant when confronted with it, saying that it is a shot below the belt, as well as their intelligence and integrity. It is asking them to be opportunists and hedge bets on the nature of reality for all the wrong reasons. Some even make a direct of point of saying that it’s “morally wrong”, although it’s a bit amusing how morality comes into this, since without some transcendent plain of belief, human morals would be nothing more than evolutionary habits or social norms without any real authority beyond an illusionary sense of meaning.
First of all, I would probably suggest that these atheists learn to lighten up a little bit and take it on the chin, and then consider some of their own arguments, claiming that belief in God is as groundless as a Flying Spaghetti Monster or a Mystical Teapot, and ask themselves whether perhaps they might embrace a bit of hyperbole themselves. Second, I think they should come to realize that “Pascal’s Wager” was never meant to be a standalone argument, but as a part of a greater whole which they might do good to explore with an open mind before saying that Pascal is asking them to abandon “truth”. Third, I would encourage them to swallow their initial distaste for his quip and consider the deeper meaning within the “Wager”.
But before any of this, it would probably be a good idea to make sure everyone is on the same page with regards to the nature of debating for and against the existence of God. Sadly, many such debates quickly devolve into an 8th Grade schoolyard squabble along these lines: “You can’t scientifically prove God exists!” “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t scientifically prove God doesn’t exist!” This process proceeds to repeats itself until we meet with the Spaghetti Monsters and Mystical Teapots. It’s all a tad juvenile.
There are two points that need to be clarified to avoid this cycle. One is to realize that philosophical debates are not conducted by producing scientific evidence, but rather rational arguments in favor or against. After all, if there is a reality beyond the purely physical one, we would be unable to measure it with scientific instruments. There is no way of “proving” God, but there are more than enough reasons to belief. This brings us to the second point. The whole premise of God is not meant to indicate the existence of some obtuse invisible object floating around in the atmosphere, or a celestial tyrant perched on some cloud or other. Instead, He would be the very Essence of Being, Transcendence, and Goodness. He would be eternal, with no beginning and no end, from which all reality flows.
There are rational, coherent, and well-thought-out arguments for believing, and for not believing, in this Origin of All Things. Even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with them, at least it should be admitted that they are mature analytical conclusions on both sides. Equivocating arguments in favor of the existence of God with something as silly as Spaghetti Monsters and Mystical Teapots woefully misses the whole point, and just reveals serious philosophical shallowness. After all, these debates are ultimately about if there is any meaning in life at all, making the job of an atheist apologist fairly self-defeating if they should actually succeed.
As I mentioned above, while Pascal’s Wager needs a strong basis of rational arguments to undergird it, it still has a profound point to make about human nature and the way we live. Basically, is atheism really livable, or is it ultimately a “lost cause” in the practical flow of daily life? Looking at existence from an atheist worldview, is there any true meaning to anything, ever? I certainly know many atheists who would be quick to point out that they don’t need a God to have a meaningful life. But I do wonder what meaning actually means to them. All the things commonly associated with meaning are actually illusions if their belief that nothingness is the ultimate reality.
If we are just a combination of brain cells, our sense of identity and the ability to say “I”, is really just an illusion. Likewise, altruistic love is an illusion, because any good we do is either a herd instinct left over from an evolutionary process that helps our species survive, or we have been affected by social norms and psychologically “programmed” to behave a certain way. Hence, free will is actually an illusion as well, and some atheists are quite comfortable with admitting it. Some have even postulated that some people’s brains are wired for love, and some are not. Lovelessness is just the way that blind forces set them up; with this view in mind, it is not right or wrong. It just is. But I wonder…do they also believe that bad behavior can be explained by programming? Were Hitler and Stalin just born to behave the way they were? Do we really have a right to called them “evil”?
Without believing in the transcendent meaning of identity, love, free will, and morality, what meaning is left in life? Only embracing these illusions of meaning can give us even a taste of happiness. Or perhaps happiness is the wrong word…I am thinking more of joy. It is that inner wonder when struck with the majestic grandeur of nature, or the resonant beauty of music, or the extraordinary skill of dance, or the rhythmic weave of poetry, or the rousing heartbeat of a heroic story. This can often lead us to what C.S. Lewis calls the “numinous”, or the awe felt when encountering an unknown power that cannot be explained. We take it all in, and for that moment, we believe unquestioningly that it has meaning, that it is real, that it taps into some essence of transcendence that will never diminish. But if we are atheists, we must inevitably “check our brains at the door”…this is all just an illusion. Even, or perhaps especially, our own thoughts are illusions.
So even if “Pascal’s Wager” was used strictly in the perspective of our own earthly lives and not in reference to the possibility of Judgment Day, I think he would still have made a very good point. Basically, if atheists follow their own logical conclusions, they basically wipe out all sense of meaning from their lives. The worldview grows so dark it melts into a realm beyond despair. Who the heck could bear to live like that? Of course, the majority of atheists do not. Most of the atheists I know are caring, sensitive, passionate people who act just like they believed in a transcendent truth and beauty within the world and every human being. But according to their worldview, that must be embracing a sense of “illusion”. How tragic.
To cover a final objection, it has been said that one cannot simply decide to believe something out of the blue, even if it might be desirable, or even necessary. This is true to some extent, but admitting doubt can actually be the first step towards true faith. At a certain point, there is some degree of choice involved in taking a leap off the ladder of pure logic into the spirit realm that necessitates an embrace of mystery. It may be fraught with risks, but in the end there is no where left to climb. I think many agnostics simply refuse to make that choice. In other words, since we will never have conclusive proof one way or the other, many simply will not believe anything. They prefer to sit on the fence indefinitely. Yet perhaps a lot of things in life depend on a choice rather than a feeling. Indeed, the most solid foundation of a loving relationship is based not purely on feelings but on choice.
On given days, I honestly don't feel full of belief and faith, but I do fall back on the very primal form of hope, and say, "God, I want to believe; help me with my unbelief." Basically, it is from this undying sense of hope that makes us human -- the hope that we are more than mere scientific accidents -- that keeps us going. Even most atheists believe in the spiritual qualities of man, and show it by the way they act. In a sense, all of these impossibilities of believing in nothing make believing in something the only livable option. And somehow I think most of us would find it extremely hard to swallow that the Truth with a capital T could possibly be so empty as if the tenets of atheism, or even loose-leaf agnosticism, were followed to their logical ends. We would have truly killed God in our own hearts, and in the process, they would have been turned to stone.
Ironically, this sort of takes the atheist objection to the wager full circle. Atheists will say that Pascal is asking them to abandon the truth in exchange for a safe conduct pass to Paradise. Actually, the wager could just as well be pointing out the sheer senselessness of living as if there is meaning in life, when your worldview asserts that there is none. As creatures of hope, we must embrace some sense of meaning and transcendence, or we would be unable to survive in any meaningful way. Even our demand for truth infers meaning. So yes…if you were to take a gamble, would it not make sense to cast it on the side of hope instead of despair, something instead of nothing? As a character in the 1978 movie The Nativity aptly said when questioning the coming of the Messiah: “If you cannot believe in His coming, at least hope for it!”