The Empty Wager

April 18, 2007

The coverage of my recent debate in the pages of Newsweek began and ended with Jon Meacham and Rick Warren each making respectful reference to Pascal’s wager. As many readers will remember, Pascal suggested that religious believers are simply taking the wiser of two bets: if a believer is wrong about God, there is not much harm to him or to anyone else, and if he is right, he wins eternal happiness; if an atheist is wrong, however, he is destined for hell. Put this way, atheism seems the very picture of reckless stupidity.

But there are many questionable assumptions built into this famous wager. One is the notion that people do not pay a terrible price for religious faith. It seems worth remembering in this context just what sort of costs, great and small, we are incurring on account of religion. With destructive technology now spreading throughout the world with 21st century efficiency, what is the social cost of millions of Muslims believing in the metaphysics of martyrdom? Who would like to put a price on the heartfelt religious differences that the Sunni and the Shia are now expressing in Iraq (with car bombs and power tools)? What is the net effect of so many Jewish settlers believing that the Creator of the universe promised them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean? What have been the psychological costs imposed by Christianity’s anxiety about sex these last seventy generations? The current costs of religion are incalculable. And they are excruciating.

While Pascal deserves his reputation as a brilliant mathematician, his wager was never more than a cute (and false) analogy. Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell); Buddhists could use it to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth; and the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.

But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe something, he must also believe that the belief under consideration is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.

Beliefs are not like clothing: comfort, utility, and attractiveness cannot be one’s conscious criteria for acquiring them. It is true that people often believe things for bad reasons—self-deception, wishful thinking, and a wide variety of other cognitive biases really do cloud our thinking—but bad reasons only tend to work when they are unrecognized. Pascal’s wager suggests that a rational person can knowingly believe a proposition purely out of concern for his future gratification. I suspect no one ever acquires his religious beliefs in this way (Pascal certainly didn’t). But even if some people do, who could be so foolish as to think that such beliefs are likely to be true?

April 18, 2007

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