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Blaise Pascal loses his bet

It's common for people whose beliefs in God are being challenged to respond "But what if you're wrong?" By this they mean "You're going to hell!"

It's a bare-bones version of what has come to be known as "Pascal's Wager."

A 17th-century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, suspected one couldn't really make a compelling positive argument for the existence of God, so he adopted a pragmatic approach.

His argument ran like this: If you wrongly believe in God, you have little to lose -- life can still be satisfying, and when you die, you just return to the non-awareness from which you emerged at conception. But if you mistakenly disbelieve in God, you might also live a fulfilling life, but then you burn in Hell forever!

Therefore, he thought, the safest position is to believe in God.

Is that valid reasoning?

For one thing, it assigns greatest weight to the position that threatens the most horrific penalties for those who disagree. My astonishingly sadistic hell trumps your winking out like a candle.

Would that mean we should switch our allegiance when a new religion comes along that would not only boil dissenters in fire for all eternity, but also force them to listen to rap music the whole time?

It seems grotesque to favor a religious stance based on how nasty the religion is.

A second problem is that we really can't choose to believe something that seems unproven, or evidently false.

If someone offered you a hundred bucks to believe that a chair is an elephant, could you do it? You might act as though you believe -- offer the chair peanuts, bring it water -- but it would never eat the peanuts or drink the water, and at some level you'd know you were just playing along.

By the same token, you could follow all a religion's rules, perform all the rituals, but if you were only doing it to hedge your bets, that would be obvious.

It seems dubious that a self-respecting deity would grant fakers the same exemption from hell as he would True Believers.

There really are serious downsides in the here-and-now for erroneous belief in God -- for example, the enormous waste of effort and resources in support of a comforting fiction. What if every lavish cathedral were a hospital, library, or school?

Pascal made another major oversight, though in his milieu, it might've seemed natural enough.

The problem is that there are more than two available choices. Disbelief in any and all gods is one option, but the other option isn't limited to Pascal's Christian god.

That is, the wager would apply as much to belief in the wrong god as to belief in no god.

If you believe in the Protestant God, the Catholic God might damn you. If you believe in the Christian God, Al'lah might damn you. If you believe in Hindu gods, both versions of the Christian God might damn you. If you believe in any God of the Book, you might remain entangled in the cycle of misery and rebirth -- perhaps reborn as a slug.

Members of any religion are likely to believe that their faith is self-evidently superior to all other religions, but the strength of one's conviction does not constitute proof that the belief is warranted. Remember, Pascal is assuming that belief alone might be insufficient, and he's trying to move beyond belief into pragmatism.

There's a final issue that would never have occurred to Pascal.

If we examine the attributes with which God's devotees have endowed him, and the actions with which they credit him, we must ask: what if there really is a god -- and he's evil?

Before we ever progress to the sadistic penalties the New Testament version of God threatens to levy if we simply aren't persuaded that he's real, his OT predecessor establishes a persona that by any sensible definition of the terms "good and evil," falls squarely into the "evil" camp.

Acting in fear and blind faith, Abraham followed YHWH's command to deceive and murder Isaac. YHWH called it off at the last moment, to prove "God will provide." A powerful, wise, compassionate god couldn't make his point without inflicting such anguish and terror?

YHWH "hardened Pharaoh's heart" when the king had already agreed to let the Hebrews go. This provided a rationale, of sorts, for murdering thousands of first-born male babies who had nothing at all to do with the whole squabble.

YHWH imposes a series of disasters upon his loyal servant Job -- including killing off most of his family and servants -- for no apparent reason other than winning a debate with Satan. Inflicting such suffering for so petty a reason seems very hard to distinguish from evil. YHWH then justifies these horrors to Job by asserting that he can do whatever he wants -- also known as the "500-pound gorilla gambit" -- because, hey, he's God, and under no obligation to be nice.

Then there are YHWH's genocidal commands to slaughter every single person, innocent kids too, in countless coveted city-states during the conquest of Canaan -- though sometimes surviving virgins could be abducted as sex slaves. In what sense is this anything other than evil?

If a genuinely good person believed in such a god, he could hardly assent to such atrocities, or cooperate with the perpetrator -- even if hell were the consequence. Brute power is no substitute for moral legitimacy.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net