During a recent debate between my atheist self and a nominative Christian, he mentioned Pascal’s wager as a justification for why I should cast my lot with the churchgoing crowd.
In a nutshell, the wager says that the existence of God can’t be proved or disproved, but you may as well act as though God exists because the payoff’s so great if He does (and so awful if you’re wrong about it).
This makes sense if you think “behave as though God exists” is synonymous with “behave morally” (however you define that). It still suggests a low opinion of human nature – I refrain from harming people not because I fear God or even the cops, but because my own conscience
won’t allow me to do harm – but I take a dim view of human nature myself, so I don’t fault Pascal for that.
But whenever I – an average American who came of age in the late twentieth century and is now well into the twenty-first – hear anyone mention Pascal’s wager it’s always in the context of why I should be a Christian.
And that’s where the wager falls apart. Christianity doesn’t promise heaven, or even hell-avoidance, based on what people do
but on what they believe
. How can Pascal’s wager cover that? Threats or bribes can alter people's words or actions, but not their beliefs. Consider: suppose I’m invested with the supernatural power to give you anything you desire – up to and including eternal life and youth. In addition, or instead, I can also inflict great suffering, up to and including eternal torment. The one thing I can’t magically do is force you to believe or disbelieve anything; I can only try to persuade.
Whether I offer you the carrot or the stick – happiness eternal or torment everlasting – here’s what I want you to believe, with true sincerity and all your heart: that our world is flat.
“The world is flat.” You can easily make yourself say this, write it or announce it to the world, if you think the payoff's worth it. But can you make yourself truly believe it
? Ignore everything you know about geography, geology, gravity, physics and history until you sincerely believe Earth is flat, and when your friend goes on a round-the-world cruise you’re worried he’ll fall off the edge?
Not without copious use of mind-altering drugs powerful enough to fry your brain forever, and that’s not what Pascal was talking about.