Pascal’s wager is a famous apologetic argument that says, in brief: There is a choice between belief in the Christian God and unbelief. One comes with the prospect of infinite heavenly gain if Christianity is indeed true, and the other with the prospect of infinite hellish loss. On the other hand, if Christianity is not true, then there is relatively little gained or lost on either choice. Thus, the rational course of action is to believe.
The seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (if you took algebra, you know him for his triangle) developed this argument in his Pensées—a set of notes published after his death that were meant to be developed into an apologetic treatise. There have been many objections to Pascal's wager, from atheists and theists alike. Problems range from the multiplicity of religions diluting the bet (there’s a fun chart floating out there on the Internet that expands the logic of the wager to a total of thirty-five religious worldviews), to suspicions about the notion that belief is a simple choice. Many people just get an icky feeling about the idea of considering faith and unbelief purely from the vantage point of self-interest.
But Michael Rota defends Pascal’s wager—or, rather, an updated version of it—in his recent book, Taking Pascal’s Wager: Faith, Evidence and the Abundant Life. Rota writes as a Christian and as a philosopher, arguing that it is rational for someone who is unsure about God to choose to pursue God anyway. This often takes the form of rather abstract probabilistic arguments:
Because outcome WC [that is, believing and Christianity being true] is so much greater than outcome ~WC [that is, disbelieving and Christianity being true], and outcome WN [that is, believing and naturalism being true] is either better, equal or only a small amount worse than outcome ~WN [that is, disbelieving, and naturalism being true], the strategy of committing to God weakly dominates . . . the strategy of not committing to God. (51)
If that sentence (forgiving my bracketed insertions) furrows your brow, then keep reading my blog, but don’t bother reading Rota’s book. It’s a rather targeted apologetic. There are no fluffy feelings here. There’s no attempt, at least directly, to answer existential questions—Who am I? What is my purpose? and so on. There is an appeal to a particular kind of person: If you are really on the fence, and you think that Christianity either is true or isn’t, then don’t let anyone convince you that the rational choice is to assume it isn’t.
Pascal’s wager is an apologetic scalpel. It’s a tool with a very precise and very important use. Use it for something it's not meant for, and the blade will dull or the tip break on one or other of the objections that have been raised against it. Use it as it is intended, and it will serve you well. Rota has done an excellent job of defining the role that the wager should play in our thinking.
He begins with a detailed presentation of his updated version of the argument. The skeleton remains as it has always been, but Rota qualifies it in some important ways. One is who the argument is for: someone who thinks that Christianity is “more likely than not” or “as likely as not.” The wager is not any kind of evidence of Christian faith. It is a decision-making tool for someone who is aware of the evidence, and, having considered it, is still uncertain what conclusion to make. Pascal's critics are right when they say that it is intellectually dishonest for someone who is convinced that Christianity is false to take the wager. But there are many people who have considered the evidence and failed conclude that Christianity is false.
(This precision also touches on the objection of multiple religions. Of course Pascal’s wager is unhelpful to someone who is equally unconvinced by thirty-five different worldviews, but most religious inquirers are not so broad. There are many people—of whom I have been one—who are caught between naturalism and faith in the God of Christianity. The wager is a useful tool for them.)
Another important qualification is that a person does not make the wager by believing or disbelieving. Rota is sympathetic to the objection that belief is not something one can throw on the table like a poker chip. Rather, the wager is made by choosing whether one will commit to God. This neither requires belief, nor implies salvation in the Christian sense:
Although committing to God will involve somewhat different things for the agnostic and the believer, the essential core is the same for believer and agnostic alike: the effort to form a close, personal relationship with God. This is not necessarily equivalent to faith. According to traditional Christian doctrine, the act of supernatural faith includes belief in God and the revelation of Jesus, whereas the strategy of committing to God under discussion here does not necessarily include belief. At the same time, committing to God may serve as a crucial stage on the path toward robust faith. (31–32)
Importantly, this is not an all-or-nothing event. It is not an opportunity to reject any future reasoned argument. Someone who commits to seek relationship with God is open to being convinced that there really is no God. Committing to God in this way is a kind of inquiry into things that reason and naturalism can’t determine. The one who commits is ready to receive faith if there is a God who gives it. But such a person is also ready not to find it.
Another important qualification is that the “benefits” of belief are not strictly self-serving. It is important to consider that, given that there is a God, there is a greater opportunity for a person to bring joy to that God and to others by committing to him. A person could take the wager selfishly, but the decision is ultimately not going to affect only the one person who makes. It’s reasonable to say that the person who makes it will do good, or perhaps harm, to God and others through that decision.
Rota carefully articulates what he sees as the benefits and costs of committing to God, and even someone who is disinterested in the rationality of a cost-benefit analysis might find something interesting in the section where Rota lays out the benefits of Christian faith that believers experience, even on the condition that Christianity is not true. Rota looks to recent sociological and psychological studies that indicate the positive contributions of religious belief to mental and physical health, marital stability, social support, and subjective well-being. He also considers the intrinsic benefits of a moral life, which is encouraged and strengthened by religious practice.
Of course, there are also costs to religious commitment—including time, mental energy, and pleasures that are forbidden to Christians. While Rota concedes this, he rightly argues that many of the costs proposed are not as significant as one might think. Time spent in religious commitment comes with its own benefits. And atheists do not, for the most part, doubt the necessity of virtue, even if many disagree with the average Christian on how some virtues should be expressed.
Rota ultimately brings these costs and benefits together into a helpful chart, and reaches a conclusion much like that Pascal reached before him: For the person who believes Christianity is at least as likely as not, it is indeed rational to commit to God.
In the second part of the book, Rota moves on to expound some traditional arguments for God and respond to common objections to belief. His goal here is to convince readers who are not at the point of believing that Christianity really is at least as likely as not—to move closer to the position where they can take the wager. These chapters are much like what you would find in many other apologetic works, but Rota does an excellent job of making the arguments clear and understandable. I would especially recommend chapter 7, “A Primer on Probability,” to anyone who is interested in further research in apologetics in the tradition of analytic philosophy. Go here before you go to Alvin Plantinga.
Part 3 puts a more subjective focus on three notable Christians: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jean Vanier, and Immaculée Ilibagiza. Rota aims to show the beauty that can come through commitment to a Christian life. He presents each biography sympathetically, but without making any arguments. The stories speak for themselves. This section reads and feels much different than the rest of the book, but comes as a worthwhile and interesting conclusion, especially to someone unfamiliar with these figures.
While Rota’s work is aimed more at the intellect than the heart, it is no less impassioned for that. Rota is someone who is convinced of what he believes, and who desires to share the benefits of faith with those who are not yet convinced. I can’t speak for the effect that this book will have on an agnostic, because I did not read it as one, but I found it affirming and informative. There have been times in my life when I have been in precisely the place where Pascal’s wager is useful, and when it has indeed been useful to me. I’m glad to have been able to reflect on the role it has played in my faith, and to think about the limited—but important!—role it can play in sharing my faith. While Rota’s work is not for everyone, it will be helpful to someone, and I encourage you to read it if it has piqued your interest.
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