The Underused Wager

It seems to me that Pascal’s Wager is greatly underutilized and ought to be used more aggressively in evangelism.

Brief review:  Pascal’s Wager argues that, because the costs of incorrectly choosing not to believe in God if He turns out to exist (namely, eternal damnation instead of eternal and joyful life) are so much greater than the costs of incorrectly choosing to believe in God (namely, foregoing a pleasure or two in this vale of tears, if that), the rational course is to believe.

To me, it is also valuable because it is a good way to encourage a mindset that is open to accepting God, that will look at the wide variety of evidence and arguments for Him with at least an open mind, and indeed one that is positive. It can be used to draw unbelievers into the God question, to encourage them to answer it affirmatively, and then to keep the believer’s faith strong.

Pascal also notes that there’s no escaping the fact that we have to place our bets, one way or the other:  That is, that we have to grapple with the question whether God exists and accordingly how we should lead our lives.  And I’ll note that the arguments for believing in God are many — cosmological, scientific evidentiary, design, moral — as are the arguments for, in particular, the historicity of the Gospels.

Some objections to the Wager are easily answered. For example, it is sometimes argued that it proves too much, since it could be used to further a made-up religious belief (“Send all your money to me or you will go to Hell”), but of course one can add to the Wager a proviso that the belief has to meet some level of plausibility.

I also don’t think much of the objection that there’s something cynical about acting a particular way because of fear of punishment.  That proves too much, since:   (a) if it’s raised by a believer, well, the whole Bible is suffused with this warning; and (b) if it’s raised by a nonbeliever, well, without God there’s no morality and so how can someone who rejects God complain of cynicism or, indeed, acting out of self-interest generally?  I’ll note here also that, if Pascal’s Wager results in people acting virtuously at first in a way that is somehow insincere, mightn’t they nonetheless eventually conform to the mask?; and this is not the usual bribe, where what’s offered is wholly distinct from the action requested (that is, it’s different to offer a bicycle for a good report card versus telling a child that he’ll enjoy Greek by learning it). [Note:  It’s possible I stole the points in the last sentence from Richard L. Purtill’s C.S. Lewis’s Case for the Christian Faith (123-24), though probably not — see discussion of that book elsewhere on this site.]

A more serious (to me) objection would be that somehow its appeal to self-interest encourages people to weigh truth less heavily than they ought to.  But, as I discuss (and will further discuss) elsewhere on this site, I think there are more persuasive arguments to that objection as well.

Here’s another key point: Pascal’s wager suggests not just how we ought to bet, but the mindset we ought to have in deciding how to bet and, after we’ve bet, deciding whether to withdraw that bet.

It is rather odd: It seems to me that it ought to be harder for a nonbeliever to reject Pascal’s Wager than a believer. A nonbeliever has no grounds for asserting the absolute value of truth – or of anything else. He has no grounds for rejecting an appeal to his interests, for he has no reason to put anything else in front of them. But the Wager works for Christians, too, since the Bible makes appeals to our interests, and suggests that faith sometimes requires belief in things that are unproved, are unseen.

The rewards and punishments of the afterlife are the same for all peoples; the rewards and punishments in this life vary more. But I would guess that, with one significant exception, the downside in this life of believing is relatively small. That is, choosing to believe will not make your life in the here and now a great deal worse for most people today; for many people, in fact — and I discuss the elderly in particular on this site — the Christian life is a happier one even on this earth.

The obvious exception is if you live in a society where Christians are persecuted. There’s no denying it: If the price of Christian faith is persecution, torture, and death — and not just for you, but for your family as well — that does make the Wager a harder call. But that’s not the West, or much of the East either, for that matter.

All this and, it seems to me, that the evidence is increasing that belief makes our existence in the here and now happier and there is increasing evidence in a Supreme Being, as discussed in numerous books noted on this site.  Note that the Wager provides an excellent framework for including other apologetic arguments and addressing objections to them.   Thus, the approach taken by Pascal in his Wager is becoming more powerful, not less.

So what’s your excuse, you nonbelievers?  And, for you Christians, consider using Pascal’s Wager as you fulfill the Great Commission.