Sunday, January 29, 2006

My take on Pascal's Wager

In a previous post, I responded to a comment left on my blog by an anonymous visitor. I outlined my belief that it is possible for someone to find meaning without the hope of an afterlife. In this post I will respond to another remark made by the visitor.

“What hurt does it do living the life of a christian...if you turn out to be wrong you lived a good life of living for a reason, having a meaning for life or dying as an atheist to find your views were wrong and suffer the consequences of hell."

This a variant of an argument originally formulated by Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, and is consequently known as Pascal’s Wager. It isn’t really an argument for the existence of God, but more a reason for believing in God.

My problem with this argument is that it uses the fear of hell as a reason to believe in God. The problem using fear is this: if I come to God through fear, can I truly and sincerely love and respect that God? If Christianity is all about relationship, what kind of relationship is based on fear? It is the kind that a wife has with her husband who beats her, or the kind that a slave has with his cruel master. If a person’s motivation to believe is based on fear, there is no chance for a healthy relationship.

Moreover, the use of fear as a reason for belief is used as a last resort by those who can’t logically argue for their beliefs. This is where I have respect for apologists, who at least appeal to reason and evidence as tools to argue for the existence of God. I have an intense disgust for any evangelist, pastor or church that uses the fear of hell as an evangelistic tool. It might get people into heaven, but only those with shallow intensions. What would God prefer: those who come to him through love, or those that come to him through fear? Which is more sincere?

When I was a Christian, I believed that Christianity was based on love and respect. I believe that this is what most Christians believe today. If this is the case, why should one use fear as a reason to believe? This is the primary reason why I don’t take Pascal’s Wager seriously at all.


Anonymous said...

And of course what exactly does "living the life of a christian" actually mean?

I came across the following on a website a few days ago:

"God’s Word is telling us not to have fellowship with unbelievers. We are not to be yoked with unbelievers; but we are to separate from all unbelievers. Come out from among them. If a person is dating an unsaved person, they are to stop immediately. If a person hangs out with unsaved people, they are to stop immediately. The Scripture states in 1 Cor 5:13-PUT AWAY FROM AMONG YOURSELVES THAT WICKED PERSON." []

What are you to do if you find yourself married to one, I wonder?

You can do your own research to find out what some 'Christians' on the Net are ruling is the correct view of the Christian with regard to re-marital sex, contraception even within marriage, homosexuality, abortion, pop music, bikinis, &tc, &tc. &tc.

From memory Christ himself didn't say a single damn thing about any of these. All I can remember him saying related to vague concepts such as loving your neighbour, doing unto others and rendering unto Caesar, and it was all perfectly sensible advice as far as it went. As Christ didn't tell me what to think about abortion I either have to make up my own mind, or surrender my brain to someone who claims he knows what Christ would have said about it had he been asked.

If living the life of a Christian means following these precepts then I with a great many other atheists, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, Bhuddists and worshippers of the Many-coloured parrot god are living Christian lives.

isn't that nice for us.

Roger Saner said...

To anonymous: isn't it interesting that "the Bible says we are not to hang out with unbelievers"? I wonder how they'd explain Jesus's mixing with those unbelievers...

Btw, if Jesus did indeed give us his definitive perspective on pop music in the New Testament, that would've been really alternative version of Matthew 5 might be: "Now when he saw the crowds he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them, saying, 'In 2000 years time all of you better not be freakin listening to pop music for behold, it is the music of the devil.'"

Even more interesting, would pop music still have come about 2000 years after Jesus banned it (let's say he did)?! And besides, when have humans been known to follow a list of rules, anyway? Soul-killing.

You might be interested to know that the thing Jesus said most often was, "He who tries to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will find it." Does that fall into the realm of "sensible advice?" :p

Roger Saner said...

Hi Kevin

Firstly, I love Terry Pratchett's story ("Small Gods," I think) where there was this philosopher who, instead of advocating belief in a single god, advised the masses to belief in *all* of the gods so that when they died they were bound to be right. This was all ok until he woke up in the afterlife surrounded by said gods - all holding various implements of the inflicting pain variety - and one of them said, "We'll tell you what we think of mister smartypants in *these* parts!"

As a Christian myself I nonetheless struggle with the concept of hell - and disagree vehemently with those who use the fear of hell to scare people into heaven. "Believe that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life - or else he'll send you to hell," sums up my divergence. (and let's put those who use hell for their own lust for power and control in another, completely different category - see the movie "Luther" for horrible examples).

Your key question is "The problem using fear is this: if I come to God through fear, can I truly and sincerely love and respect that God?" which I both agree with (as stated above) and disagree with for the following reason: who of us comes to God with the right reasons in the first place? If we agree we need God we can only do that on the basis of accepting our sin (otherwise we wouldn't need him); but this means that we come to him from a place of weakness - and probably selfishness (God gives me eternal life and peace and whatever).

So my answer to your question - can I truly and sincerely love and respect that God - is "No - you can't." However, if you let your relationship with said God develop and mature from that initial point - coming to God for fire insurance - then yes, it is possible to truly love God.


Anonymous said...

Just as our Earthly parents have consequences for disobedience...So must our Heavenly Father have for us. Pascal's Wager gives you the following...the best & the worst of what your choice in believing in God can bring. Yes, there is the consequence of Hell if we die unbelievers...but that is a consequence of our choice as a rebelious child of God. PERIOD! HE created us so that we would have a relationship with him...imagine that. Then, he even sealed our option with defeating death by taking a part of himself in form of a man and walking in man's steps so he can say "YES, I DO know where you are at...because I've been there." God loves us whether we accept or return His love...but just like a parent, he has consequences. Yes, very harsh ones. But He is the creator and gave us CHOICE. That has to say something more than He's just a God trying to have us obey him with fear. God gives you a meaningful life, living for him gives you peace. Think of what the peace alone does for you? How many illness & deaths are a result of stress? Hmmm? I know that living without God & claiming his promises in the Bible has caused me many sleepless nights & useless days of fretting over my life. But living for God, studying and claiming the word of God gives me a solid ground on which to build my life. It is about relationship, but like all relationships...there are expectations. He doesn't want perfection because we cannot achieve that...He wants you to put him above all else...for He is the creator, He is God.

Anonymous said...

First off pascal's wager isn't about Jesus. It's about believing in God or not believing in God. Well a lot of people believe in God and are still going to hell. The problem with that wager is that it doesn't express the "right" God to follow so no i don't think fear has any motivation for that theory. Yes Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. I didn't make the rules , God Did.

Denise said...

The real problem with Paschal's wager, imo is that it assumes your choice is Christianity or Nothing. What if Judaism is the one true religion, or Islam, or some religion no one has heard of or invented yet? (Christianity has barely been around for 2,000 in the history of humanity). What if you should be asking believe in Xeniowushul or go to Hell instead of the Christian God?

Ilse said...

'The real problem with Paschal's wager, imo is that it assumes your choice is Christianity or Nothing. What if Judaism is the one true religion, or Islam, or some religion no one has heard of or invented yet? (Christianity has barely been around for 2,000 in the history of humanity). What if you should be asking believe in Xeniowushul or go to Hell instead of the Christian God?'

Exactly. This Pascal's wager would have worked perfectly if all babies would have been born with the exact rules to follow and the exact God to worship sticked to their forehead and then say ok you have the option of obeying me or not. But it isn't this simple and every christian or muslim if he really uses logic can know this. Actually Islam uses the exact same line of reasoning: you can't think for yourself or choose not to obey God, He has a right to be worshipped so it's only logical you would go to hell. And according to Islam, you will be, since you associate Jesus with God as His Son. So you are on a one-way road to hell, only you don't know it, once you come to know it, there will be no way back. Scared yet? A Christian will say to a muslim the exact other way around.
The only way to jugde is to use our brains, but in that way we have to use logic or intuition outside of our own religion which for as much as I know in Islam is severely dissallowed for risk of being misled by the devil which is omnipresent. So out of fear of hell, I won't even consider a different religion. If the Christian does the same, then either one of the two groups is doomed forever, no matter how sincere they were. At one point in my mind I came to the conclusion that this is not fair, I mean at least the really sincere should come to one conclusion right, and be saved?