Pascal’s Wager in Modern America

Pascal's WagerI was having one of my regular tea dates with a cousin of mine. These are always wide ranging discussions, but one mainstay is religion. We are both very interested in religion, although not as believers. I had just returned a book she had loaned me, Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. Mac attacks the subject from a political and sociological point of view. And in particular, he argues that the Gospels were not written as any kind of history but rather as a way to grapple with things that were happening in the early competing Christian communities. (There should be a quote from the book here tomorrow.)

We began to talk about how fascinating all this early Christian scholarship is and how sad it is that fundamentalists get none of this because they think they have found The One True God™. And she related a story to me about another relative who is a fundamentalist Christian. The Christian’s daughter asked her the “what if” question: what if you are wrong? And our Christian relative responded that she was just hedging her bets. I burst out laughing. Pascal’s Wager is alive and well in modern Northern California!

But it isn’t quite Pascal’s Wager — it is quite a lot dumber. Pascal claimed that if there really was a God who insisted that you believe in him, the pain of not doing so would be infinite — the difference between burning forever in hell and having a nonstop orgasm for the rest of eternity. The down side of believing in God if he didn’t exist was relatively small and certainly finite: church attendance and maybe a few bucks to the priest. Mathematically, it is actually really interesting. Theologically, well, it’s just ridiculous.

Remember that Pascal came up with this idea almost 400 years ago. And even then, people dumped all over it. In particular, the religious true believers hated it. It treats God like he’s a chump. Is God really such a simpleton that he wouldn’t figure out what you were doing? Of course, this gets to a fundamental problem I’ve always had with Christianity — especially in its newer, heretical, forms. The idea that all you have to do is “believe” in God and he’s okay with you is just so offensive both to humanity and to God. What kind of a pathetic God is so questionable in his existence that he needs the reassurance of humanity’s “belief”? And this doesn’t even get to the whole issue of what kind of evil God would have to be to punish someone for eternity for the “sin” of not going against the nature that God created? It’s a madhouse!

Still, I think theologically, Pascal’s Wager was better back then when knowledge of the full scale of religious beliefs were more limited. Now, the Wager really makes no sense at all. It’s assumption is wrong. There aren’t two choices: belief in God or non-belief in God. There are too many possible gods on which to wager. In fact, if we imagine all the possible gods that might exist requiring that we believe in them and them alone, we have an infinity. Thus it makes no sense to wager on a particular god because we have an infinitesimal chance of getting an infinite reward. At that point, the finite losses of belief may well outweigh the infinitesimal chance of reward.

But what our modern fundamentalist Christian is showing in her acceptance of Pascal’s Wager is her theological isolation. To her, the only possible god is the God she believes in. But there are billions of people who would beg to differ. I can’t help but feel that deep down it must bother her that The One True God™ just happens to be the god who she was raised with and which is the dominant one in the nation of her birth. How cheap salvation comes to the modern American Christian!

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