Why Not Take Pascal’s Wager?

In one conversation this summer, a non-religious friend told me he thought both sides of an atheist-theist debate defended a rational position. He responded like this to the book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Barwhich I recommended to him. Despite considering the arguments of the book, he did not lean toward adopting theism. What can be said in a situation like this?

You might consider a few options:

  • Present stronger arguments for God’s existence (like these).
  • Find out more about his agnosticism/atheism and what keeps him there.
  • Offer Dr. Michael Rota’s updated version of Pascal’s Wager.

Depending on past conversations, any one of these might be a good choice. Here, I want to focus on the third choice: Pascal’s Wager.

Taking Pascal’s Wager

The argument, offered by Blaise Pascal in his Pensees, asks the unbeliever to consider his potential gains and losses in believing in God or not. Dr. Michael Rota presents an excellent updated version of the argument in his book Taking Pascal’s Wager.

Rota ably defends the idea that if Christianity has at least a 50% chance of being true, the rational thing to do is commit to living a devout Christian life. I think he’s entirely correct. (Regarding how to defend Christianity in general: see this).

Below, I explain the four possibilities and an approximate “score” for each choice based on the goods attained. I’m not seeking precision with the numerical scoring, but rather a way to compare the relative outcomes of each choice.

The Possibilities

If you commit to living a devout Christian life, and Christianity is true, you gain the incommensurable good of knowing and loving God as well as being loved by Him for all eternity. Score: +1 Million

If you commit to living a devout Christian life, and atheism is true, you do not gain eternal goods but you still gain the goods in this life that come with religiosity. Rota uses contemporary sociological data to show that religious people live very fulfilling lives here and now. Some of the concrete benefits are longer life spans and more fulfilling relationships. Score: +10

If you do not commit to living a devout Christian life, and atheism is true, you do not gain eternal goods, and you may gain some additional goods in this life you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Score: +10 to + 20

 If you do not commit to living a devout Christian life, and Christianity is true, then you have a much greater chance of a negative eternal judgment. Separation from God for all eternity constitutes the ultimate despair.  Score: -1 million

What do these scores show? By committing to atheism over Christianity, your potential gains are very small and your potential losses are huge. By committing to Christianity over atheism, your potential gains are huge and your potential losses are very small. This suffices to establish Rota’s thesis: If Christianity has at least a 50% chance of being true, you should commit to living a devout Christian life.

The Big Objections

There are three classic objections to Pascal’s wager and Rota deals with all of them. Here they are:

  1. You cannot force yourself to believe something
  2. The wager does not consider the possibility of other religions (sometimes called the many-God’s objection).
  3. The wager is un-Christian; Christianity isn’t about betting on God to make a profit.

I will provide a brief answer to each of these. If you want all the details of the refutations, check out Rota’s book.

1) Rota’s formulation does not couch the wager in terms of belief but rather Christian commitment. One should commit to doing the things Christians do, even if they include conditional statements during prayer such as, “God, if you exist, I want to know you. I pray that you grant my parents the blessings of comfort in old age. That you help my wife and I make this decision [insert difficult decision], etc.”

2) The many-God’s objection does not provide any reason to adopt atheism. Even if Christianity is one live option among several, the rational thing to do is examine the varied religions and decide which is most likely to be true. Then, commit to living out that religion.

3) The wager does not imply a superficial belief that only aims to get material profit. The “profit” a Christian seeks consists of deep relationship with God. Moreover, Christian commitment amounts to living a life of love, serving others, and taking up one’s cross. Clearly, these are not the same as buying a lottery ticket in hope of a 10-million dollar win.

What to Do Now?

When talking with atheists that are on the fence, explain Rota’s version of Pascal’s wager. It’s a reasonable argument, and it will get them thinking.

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