If you ever want to truly grasp the futility of taking sides in the roundabout argument between theists and atheists, I highly recommend grabbing a balcony seat for a debate over the usefulness of Pascal’s Wager. I’ve never seen such a procession of logical loop-de-loops in my life.
From Wikipedia: “Pascal’s Wager is an argument in apologetic philosophy which was devised by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or not. Given the possibility that God actually does exist and assuming an infinite gain or loss associated with belief or unbelief in said God (as represented by an eternity in heaven or hell), a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc).
“Pascal did not advance the wager as a proof of God’s existence but rather as a necessary pragmatic decision which is ‘impossible to avoid’ for any living person. He argued that abstaining from making a wager is not an option and that ‘reason is incapable of divining the truth’; thus, a decision of whether or not to believe in the existence of God must be made by ‘considering the consequences of each possibility.'”
Atheist objections to the wager are numerous, with the two most common sounding like this: 1) such a formulaic matrix of choice encourages shallow, insincere belief and selfish intent that would in no way fool a God of presumed omniscience; and 2) the matrix falls apart in a pluralistic world with many concepts of god(s) from which to choose:
“Since there have been many religions throughout history, and therefore many conceptions of God (or gods), some assert that all of them need to be factored into the wager….This, its proponents argue, would lead to a high probability of believing in “the wrong god”, which, they claim, eliminates the mathematical advantage Pascal claimed with his Wager. Denis Diderot, a contemporary of Voltaire, concisely expressed this opinion when asked about the wager, saying ‘an Imam could reason the same way.’ J. L. Mackie notes that ‘the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshipers of Kali or of Odin.’”
The theist counterpoint to the first objection is fairly innocuous: the wager is not meant to make an open-and-shut case of belief, but rather to encourage an investigative process by pointing out an incentive for the undertaking. “Far from glorifying blind irrationality, one of the chief aims of Pascal’s arguments was to shake people out of what he saw as their ignorant complacency so that they could rationally approach this most crucial existential matter. Pascal says, ‘Atheism shows strength of mind, but only to a certain degree.’ Unbelievers who persistently endeavor in an honest, rational effort to search for the truth are commended by Pascal, to the exclusion of those who are merely dismissive.”
The counterpoint to the second argument is more troubling –it relies on circling the wagons around one’s own faith, so that choosing the “wrong” religion is tantamount to rejecting God. Pascal scholars have noted in his rebuttals the same exclusivism that is taught by too many Christian churches now, more than 350 years later: “As David Wetsel notes, Pascal’s treatment of the pagan religions is brisk: ‘As far as Pascal is concerned, the demise of the pagan religions of antiquity speaks for itself. Those pagan religions which still exist in the New World, in India, and in Africa are not even worth a second glance. They are obviously the work of superstition and ignorance and have nothing in them which might interest ‘les gens habiles’ (‘clever men’)’ Islam warrants more attention, being distinguished from paganism (which for Pascal presumably includes all the other non-Christian religions) by its claim to be a revealed religion. Nevertheless, Pascal concludes that the religion founded by Mohammed can on several counts be shown to be devoid of divine authority, and that therefore, as a path to the knowledge of God, it is as much a dead end as paganism.”
Nowadays we know that, as with Mark Twain, reports of the demise of these “pagan” religions were greatly exaggerated. Seeing this, the atheist seems to have all the more reason to dismiss the wager as absurd….which, following the logic of Tertullian’s “I believe because it is absurd,” seems to make theists believe and defend it all the more…. and so on and so on, in a downward spiral of character assassinations and other unoriginal thoughts.
One mode of thought that never seems to get a voice is that of pantheism. What would an “everything is God” perspective have to say about Pascal’s wager? Is there a middle road between the extremes that we’ve been missing as we place our existential bets? I spent the better part of a day contemplating this, and here’s what I have to offer to the discussion, one pantheist’s version of Pascal’s Wager:
Silly a/theists. You’re all tilting at windmills. God is Existence itself. There is one God –creator, sustainer, and destroyer of all from within, the intelligence inherent in every atom– and it is called by many names. None of these names are true. Not Yahweh or Allah or Brahman or Tao.. Not “Nature,” not “Gaia,” not even “Universe.” Every attempt is a metaphor for the unspeakable truth.
You can describe your subjective experience of God using a personal metaphor. You can describe your subjective experience of God using an impersonal metaphor. You can describe God as nonexistent and mythological –it makes no difference & it all fits within the Whole. The only thing you can’t do is make an objective statement about God and prove or disprove it through subjective evidence. Existence is both subject and object; you can’t stand apart from Existence and describe it or name it. That which creates us is within us and beyond us. It is farther than the expanding edge of the knowable universe; it is closer than your heartbeat.
Theists, when you argue for the objective existence of your favorite metaphor of God, you deny God. You deny God’s wholeness and settle for a subjective sliver — might as well worship your ego and enjoy this life in that case. Or keep your mouth shut and your heart open, and love God the best you know how. But please, keep this denial to a minimum: you’re feeding the unfaithful their favorite food. If you want to be sure to win your version of the wager, be in love with the mystery of God, not its possible names or faces.
Atheists, why waste your time denying what is unreal? Are you having fun with your sense of superiority? I hope so –this is the extent of your reward for winning Pascal’s Wager. If you stay content with that, missing the Forest while calling yourself the tallest trees, no one can give you back the time you spent arguing about myths, nor the squandered opportunities for meeting religious hate and exclusion with love and inclusion. No one can restore what you could have done with your life if you lived with true self-knowledge of the One existent as all. There is such thing as being “dead right,” and no one is qualified to say you are but your wager leaves you open to that risk.
You speak of “a life of freedom, a life based on reality, a life of awe and wonder of the universe and my place in it.” This is a great place to start! Keep contemplating that life and its reality; soon you will find it growing ever harder to tell where Life ends and Reality begins. Eventually it will become self-evident that there is one Life which creates, sustains, and destroys the many lives that exist within it, and you are That.
If we are wrong because there is a transcendent god that creates us, we will not have missed for love and reverence of that god, for to the pantheist, Everything includes everything, including what is unknown or unknowable. If we are wrong because Existence does not exist, then we are experiencing some kind of inconsequential dreamstate, and we will have spent that dream loving and revering an illusion for no reason, with nothing better to have done. Either option is acceptable, and in fact it hardly feels fair to call this gamble a wager with the odds stacked so favorably for Love. It becomes pointless to flip a coin once you realize that there is only one side and we’re all on it.