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Why You Should Take Pascal’s Wager

March 18, 2019


There are many forms of Pascal’s Wager, but the best form, I believe, can be stated like this: If you think there is (at least) a 50% chance of Christianity being true, then you should commit to a deeply religious life. The reason for this is simple to understand: You have potentially an infinite amount to gain, with comparatively little–in fact, virtually nada—to lose.

There are, however, and, as you would expect, objections to Pascal’s Wager, which we must consider before we continue. Often, the initial point of hesitation is this. You cannot force yourself to believe something you happen to be unsure about, so wouldn’t a person be acting insincerely by accepting Pascal’s Wager, if they’re unsure about God? And surely that doesn’t sound right? Would God want someone to act insincerely? Good old God? But this formulation of the wager—which I owe to Dr. Michael Rota (who I recently interviewed here, and who’s book you can find here)—does not say you have to force yourself to believe in anything. It only says that if you happen to think Christianity has a 50% chance (or better) of being true, then you should commit to a life of religious seeking. And this you can do even as an agnostic. You can pray as an agnostic (“God, if you’re there…”) and you can attend religious services as an agnostic. The wager does not say you need, nor should, be inauthentic about what you believe or how you act. It only says you should make a sincere effort to come to know God, and, if that so happens, love Him.

Another objection would be the argument from multiple religions. Why not Hinduism, or Judaism, or Islam, or… whatever? But this objection misses the point. Pascal’s Wager is aimed only at someone who thinks Christianity has a 50% chance (or better) of being true, as opposed to atheism. The wager does not tell you which religion is true, it only tells you how to act if you think Christianity is possibly the right answer. So, the wager does not absolve a person from having to look at the evidence to see what religion has the best of it.

But just because the wager doesn’t tell you that Christianity is true, doesn’t mean there isn’t good evidence that it is. As a recovering atheist, I eventually came to realize, after many years of obstinate and pig-headed refusal, that there is actually a most impressive array of arguments for why Christianity is very probably the case (or, if we care to be more conservative in our phrasing, at least more probably true than not).

Some of these argument are from modern cosmology, such as the coming into existence of the physical universe from nothing, which seems to smack strongly of a supernatural creation event, or, in a similar way, the infinitesimally precise fine-tuning of the universe for the emergence of intelligent life, which would appear to suggest transcendent intelligence; and some of it from philosophy of mind, like the inability to reduce (or explain) consciousness by physical processes alone, or even the evidence of a transphysical soul from near death experiences and terminal lucidity; and surely some of the evidence is merely intuitive but still eminently reasonable to believe absent any good reason not to, such as the beauty, radicality, and yet remarkably clear “ring of truth” to the teachings of Christ, or that our experience of interpersonal love seems so much more than a mere neuronal event or stew of chemicals sloshing about in the brain, but is rather irreducibly—and therefore infinitely—precious. All these pieces of evidence, especially when huddled together, offer what I believe to be a quite convincing case for the truth of Christianity. Not to mention, the historical basis for the resurrection of Christ.

But still, these arguments are only summaries which deserve further treatment. And further treatment is certainly available. But let me warn you: Should you willingly and seriously consider the matter, there is a not-insignificant chance you might come away with a belief that Christianity is, in fact, true, or—to get back to Pascal’s Wager—at least as likely to be true as false. And remember, we do not need certainty to take Pascal up on his wager. We only need plausibility.

So, while it is correct to say that Pascal’s Wager does not solve the argument of which, if any, religion is true, there seems to be more than sufficient evidence to satisfy the first premise of the argument. It seems entirely plausible, and indeed, quite conservative, to suggest Christianity has (at least) a 50% chance of being true.

But if this is the case, we then need to seriously examine the stakes. What do we have to gain from living a life of religious commitment, and what do we stand to miss out on? The answer, surely enough, will vary depending on whether Christianity is, in fact, true. But say that it is. Well, then obviously the person who commits to a life of authentic religious seeking has a much-improved chance of enjoying eternal friendship with God, and of satisfying their ultimate purpose for life, which, if the Christian position is correct, would be getting into heaven. The value of such an attainment cannot be appropriately estimated—it is honestly infinite. Eternal friendship with God is worth more than any amount of money, pleasure, or glory a person could ever obtain on Earth. None of this is to say people who aren’t religious won’t get into heaven; that is a theological question beyond the scope of this otherwise simple project. But it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest those who do live a religious life have (perhaps greatly) increased their likelihood of not only getting themselves to heaven (which equates to our perfect and complete happiness), but also pleasing God here and now by trying to know him. OK. Neat. But what else? Well, a lot. And some of it may surprise you. Various studies, for example, have elucidated the fact that people who live a religious life are not only more likely to live longer, but also enjoy a greater sense of meaning, purpose, and community in life. They tend to have better health and a more optimistic outlook. They are overall healthier and happier people. So, even if Christianity turns out not to be true, a person would still do well to live a religious life, even when just considering the “this-worldly” benefits. If happiness is your goal (which, let’s be honest, whose isn’t it?), it seems it makes sense to pray and attend religious service, even if you’re an atheist. How about that?

This makes the “cons” side seem almost nonexistent, or at least exceedingly miniscule. Mostly people look at the sort of stuff they’d have to give up to live a religious life. But here’s the thing. Other studies have shown just how massively people tend to underestimate their ability, not just to handle, but even to thrive, when it comes to engaging future challenges. This is something I can personally relate to. Ultimately, I decided to become Catholic because I came to believe that Catholicism was true. But I wasn’t exactly looking forward to religious living, because I had no delusions that much of my then-lifestyle was not exactly congruent to authentic Catholic teaching. I knew sacrifices would have to be made, and I was willing to make them because I didn’t want to live hypocritically with my beliefs. But to my (now very glad) surprise, the sacrifices I made, and the practices I developed, wound up making me happier than I have ever been. Previously, I dreaded the idea of attending weekly Mass, but now I long to attend mass every chance I get, and often attend daily. There are other, more difficult and personal examples I could give, but the critical point is this: What I originally saw as sacrifices that could only potentially sap away my happiness—and possibly even drain it completely—are now the very things that bring me greater peace and joy than anything I’d spend my time doing when I wasn’t religious, like watching Food Network, or playing video games. To be fair, I still watch Food Network, and I still play video games, but these things appear so incredibly paltry now, in comparison. They are no longer my greatest joy. God is.