Blaise Pascal was a man with a lot on his mind. He was a writer, a mathematician, a scientist, a philosopher – in short, a thinker. So it’s appropriate that his best-known work is titled Pensées (“Thoughts”).
And of the Pensées, his best-known thought is something called Pascal’s Wager. It’s among the most famous Christian arguments of all time.
Pascal’s Wager goes like this (and I’m paraphrasing):
God either exists, or He does not, and there’s no way we can reason out which one it is. But we’re forced to “wager” on the outcome anyway (i.e. we must choose to either be Christian, or not). If God exists, then believing in Him offers eternal reward, whereas disbelief leads to infinite punishment. If God does not exist, we have nothing to lose by believing in Him anyway, and nothing to gain by disbelief. Therefore, believing in God is the only rational choice.
This argument does make a kind of sense. By believing in God, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Why wouldn’t you?
But Pascal’s Wager fails, in my view, for at least three reasons.
1. It assumes that belief is a choice.
I’m agnostic – not because I just decided to be, but because a lifetime of thought and experience has convinced me that it makes sense. If I honestly believe this, how can I simply choose to put that aside and believe in God? Imagine someone offered you $100 to stop believing that 2 + 2 = 4. You might say you’ve stopped believing to get the money, but you can’t actually change your mind about the truth (as you see it) just to get something in return.
2. What kind of faith is that?
Even if belief were a choice, it’s a sad and sickly faith that rests only on the fear of punishment or the lust for reward. Suppose another religion comes along and makes you a better deal. (Heaven plus a Corvette?) Are you going to shop around like an investor, gambling your soul on whoever offers the comfiest afterlife? Something tells me this kind of “faith” doesn’t merit much reward anyway.
3. What kind of God is that?
Pascal’s Wager assumes that if God is real, He will punish nonbelievers with eternal damnation. But I came to my beliefs by honestly following the path of truth (as it appears to me). If God is indeed real, I can’t imagine He would fault me for that – or, if He did, that He would be worthy of my worship.
What do you think? Agree or disagree with Pascal? Agree or disagree with Buckley? Does the whole thing make your head hurt? Let me know in the comments!