Posted by: rohlfsen1 | March 28, 2009

Is it a wager to use Pascal’s Wager?

Since the start of this semester, I have become more and more fascinated by the idea of Pascal’s Wager. To remind any of you who may have forgotten, Pascal states that if one doubts his/her belief in God, then it is better to err on the side of belief than on disbelief because the consequences of disbelief if God does exist are much greater (damnation or something of the sort) than the consequences of belief if God does not exist. To me, this makes total sense. Maybe it is just an appeal to my analytical side, but I know that when my faith slips into periodic comatose states where I tend to doubt everything, sometimes thoughts that parallel Pascal’s Wager are the only things that keep me going. It’s not that I found my faith on the wager, but rather that when God seems distant, this simple wager helps to reassure me in my searching for God (if that makes sense).

However, I think there is a big difference between Pascal’s Wager coming into play in a more fully-developed, already-founded faith and the Wager acting as the foundation as one’s faith. One of my good friends right now, who would like to be called Javier for the purposes of this blog, is going through a long period of agnosticism. He was raised Christian and loves discussing theology, but at the same time holds serious doubts concerning the existence of God, especially the personal God of Christianity. Javier goes to church and is legitimately searching for God, but as of right now, he doesn’t feel as though God is responding in any way.

So here’s my dilemma: for Javier, can Pascal’s Wager serve productive purposes of pushing him towards faith or perhaps even to God, or is Pascal’s Wager in fact more detrimental to Javier coming to know the loving, personal God of Christianity? Methods of supporting God’s existence that are independent of revelation, such as Natural Theology or Pascal’s Wager, can oftentimes only support the existence of a God and therefore lend no support to the existence of the Christian God. And therefore, these methods do not necessarily point in the correct direction, towards the correct God. In addition, one runs into problems inherent in the circumstances of an “unbeliever” wanting to partake in the events of a church service that are meant to be reserved for the believing community only, such as communion or baptism. So while Pascal’s Wager or Natural Theology may get an agnostic through the doors of the church, neither can found the relationship with God that is necessary for full participation in the sacraments.

Reflecting on all of this, I struggle with deciding if it is okay to use Pascal’s Wager to pull someone on the fence towards God  or not. On pages 130-132 of The God Delusion, Dawkins negates the possibility of any positive use of Pascal’s Wager through the observation that it “could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God”. But I am not so convinced of the uselessness of the wager. On one hand, if Pascal’s Wager can open a person up to the idea of a God, then perhaps that person will be more willing to personally explore religion and will eventually come to an acceptance of the Christian God (if he or she comes to accept Christianity). That would be a positive thing and I feel as though Pascal’s Wager would lead only to gain. On the other hand, Pascal’s Wager could open up an unbeliever to the “wrong” idea about God, allowing him or her to stay on the theistic side of the fence forever without ever knowing the true God any deeper. And paradoxically, if this scenario were to occur, it could be argued that the believer still will not reap the benefits of the wager, because the salvation that occurs through Christianity is much more complex than just believing in a God because a wager led you to do so.

Any thoughts?

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Responses

  1. Hey Rae, I might know a little bit of the doubts that J experiences, and you yourself have mentioned before. I imagine most people go through greater or lesser periods of questioning the big issues which are the foundations of their faith. It’s strange, for me two of the biggest foundations of my faith and my life are God and the Eucharist, and yet the two most frequent doubts for me are over the existence of God and Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. I’ve found a way that helps me get through these doubts. I can’t say that my way will help anyone else (in fact, it probably won’t, since it really doesn’t seem to help me all that much, since doubts always reappear, but c’est la vie perhaps).

    Anyway, the only way I’ve found to really rise up from my paralysing doubts is to take somewhat the opposite of the rational viewpoint you talk a bit about in this post. Trying to force myself to accept the logicality of God or transubstantiation has for the most part only made my doubts worse. I’ve never used Pascal’s wager (I personally think that he was just having a bit of intellectual fun with it), but I can just imagine that it would only help to demolish my faith and relationship with God.

    The only way I’ve found to experience the personal God of Christ is to do just that: open yourself up to the experience. Shed all reason and thought, everything with which you protect yourself from other people in you life. Go out into the desert to meet temptation face to face with no defences of rationality. It really doesn’t make any sense, but it seems that only by exposing yourself to temptation are you rescued from it by God.

    I don’t know if anyone else has felt this, but in moments of terrible doubt, I feel like if I keep clinging to God, I will smother God; but if I let go, I will fall into the abyss. I think that is right, but that you still have to let go in order to be saved – you have to let go not of God, but of yourself.

    In a way, theological discussion can be very harmful by focusing us on the intellect and moving us away from the experience. I definitely think that my spiritual life has been strengthened by what I have learned in theology, but theology has definitely been supplemental and, at times has gotten in the way. It’s experience which is foundational to spiritual life. I hope this helps…someone, and I’m sorry this was so long!

  2. Elizabeth Johnson quoted Rahner as saying something like, “In the postmodern world, if a Christian doesn’t become a mystic, they will cease to be anything at all.” In times when I share the doubt you and Gabe have been alluding to, it is this modern version of Pascal’s wager that I wrestle in. Eventually I do something akin to what Gabe mentions and give myself away to faith in Christ Crucified even though it seems as much as foolishness to me as it does to the gentiles.

    I would like to say three things about what usually happens next. It does seem that some kind of consolation reaches out to grab me, although never enough to ever keep me from doubting. When I trust, some circumstance in my life eventually lights me and my spirit back on fire. I acknowledge that even if the new atheist were right about their being God, there is no way I could live according to their paradigm of rationalism. I can not live as fully alive as I have in a world were we just vanish upon death and there is no Lord to hear the cry of the poor. So if religion is just a placebo, I hope it keeps working for me even if I’m not rationally persuaded by it.
    Moving on from that desperate argument, it should be pointed out that solid faith isn’t a bed of roses either. Even saints that have profound visions, like Padre Pio who had the stigmata, still have intense experiences of doubt and the absence of the presence of God. This life is going to give us challenges no matter what. Maybe it is my cross to except my own doubts. St. Ignatius says that eventually we can learn a lot about ourselves and God in periods of spiritual desolation. If God is a personal God that speaks to us as the Holy Spirit, it could be that these doubts are part of tough lessons of love where God trusts me enough to grow into something greater where I can be more fully in relationship with God and more capable of love of neighbor.


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