The seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) devised a clever way an agnostic or non-believer might consider thinking about faith. Pascal argued that, while it’s impossible to prove whether or not God exists through reason alone. The next best thing is to live your life as if God exists, which He certainly does! If we live as though God exists and discover that God truly exists, we win eternal bliss in heaven. However, if we make the wager that God does not exist, and He does, Pascal points out that we will spend all eternity in damnation.
But what if we are not sure? If we live as though God exists, and He does indeed exist, we will have gained eternal life. If He doesn’t exist, we have lost nothing. On the other hand, if we live as though God does not exist and He really does exist, we have gained hell and punishment and have lost heaven and bliss. Pascal claims that when you consider the odds, clearly the rational choice to live as if God exists is the better of the possible choices. The relative paybacks that come with believing are greater than the payback or risks of not believing in God. Perhaps when we living as if we have faith, someday we might eventually come to have faith. [i]
Critiquing Pascal’s Wager
Pascal’s argument has little appeal to Jews. Jewish tradition has long taught, “Don’t be like servants who minister to their superior with the ulterior motive of receiving a reward. Rather, be like servants who minister their superior gratuitously. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you” (Avoth 1:3). When we worship God to receive a reward, we are no longer serving God, but ourselves. There is a name for that, it is called, “idolatry.” Rabbinic thought would certainly concur with the early 20th-century psychologist William James, who candidly noted, “Those who engaged in such egotistic reasoning might be among the first that God would exclude from heaven.” Elihu asks Job, “If you are righteous, what do you give him, or what does he receive from your hand?” (Job 35:7).
Christopher Hitchens argues that the wager makes a mockery of the idea of God. How are you going to venerate God as the greatest possible being to exist, and who can read your thoughts and judge them, and then turn around and say God isn’t smart enough to see through false beliefs made “just in case?” It is “religious hucksterism.” It’s a sly way of saying, “Hey, come on over to my shop, I have a special price just for you, but come in through the side door.” It assumes God is a moron. If this wager were a real possibility for eternal salvation, then it’s all the more reason not to believe in the God it represents. Richard Dawkins’ counter-argument also makes more sense:
There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to do as an act of will. I can decide to go to church and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don’t. Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he’d see through the deception.
But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? Isn’t it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity? What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn’t the designer of the universe have to be a scientist?
Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him. ‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,’ was Russell’s (I almost said immortal) reply. Mightn’t God respect Russell for his courageous skepticism (let alone for the courageous pacifism that landed him in prison in the First World War) far more than he would respect Pascal for his cowardly bet-hedging? And, while we cannot know which way God would jump, we don’t need to know in order to refute Pascal’s Wager. We are talking about a bet, remember, and Pascal wasn’t claiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds. Would you bet on God’s valuing dishonestly faked belief (or even honest belief) over honest skepticism?[ii]
It is utterly preposterous and theologically scandalous to suggest that God may choose to reward honest disbelief and punish blind or feigned faith. Scriptures makes this point clear: “For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes” (Deut. 10:16). In other words, we are not doing God any favors by believing in His existence. This is precisely the kind of dross R. Abraham Isaac Kook warned us about in the previous section that needs to be purged from the religious consciousness of the believer.
[i]Blaise Pascal Pensées (“Thoughts”) No. 233.
[ii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 104.