Blaise Pascal is most famous for his “Wager.” He wrote, “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. [So] you must wager. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.”

Many Christians—including myself—have found Pascal’s Wager helpful when talking with unbelievers. But Pascal’s Wager is not without its critics. A while back Steve Ares sent me a list of quotes by, or about atheists that included two criticisms of Pascal’s wager. For example, Alan Dershowitz wrote, “I have always considered ‘Pascal’s Wager’ a questionable bet to place. Any God worth ‘believing in’ would surely prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite.” Dershowitz’s complaint implicitly critiques Pascal’s assumptions about God’s identity. Pascal’s Wager assumes the identity of God to be that of the Christian God; a God who is concerned that people believe in and follow Him. If the God who exists is not the Christian God, however, then He or They may prefer an honest agnostic like Dershowitz said. Of course Dershowitz himself is betting on that, and I don’t think it’s a very safe bet! He hopes God doesn’t care simply because he doesn’t care.

In Pascal’s defense his Wager is found in his Pensees, which was aimed at the happy agnostic who did not consider the question of God’s existence worth considering, and was not convinced by traditional proofs for God’s existence. It was a pragmatic argument for belief in God. Pascal argued that belief in God is pragmatically justified because we have everything to gain and nothing to lose for holding such a belief. He reasoned that if we believe God exists and He does, then we will experience infinite gain minus finite loss. If we believe God exists and He does not, we will experience finite loss. If, on the other hand, we do not believe God exists and yet He does, we will experience finite gain minus infinite loss. If we believe God does not exist and He in fact does not exist we will experience finite gain.

Dave Matson is the bearer of Pascal’s second criticism. He wrote, “ ‘Belief’ is not something you can turn on and off like a spigot. No person can truly ‘believe in God’ unless the evidence convinces his or her mind. If you don’t believe me, try believing that the stars are holes punched into a heavenly dome, with the light of heaven shining through. Pascal’s recommendation is inherently impractical.”

What do we make of this? In Pascal’s favor I think the logic of his Wager is unassailable. Belief in the existence of God is clearly the safer of the two bets. In favor of his detractor, however, an unbeliever who is persuaded by this logic will be little better for it. He may be persuaded that placing his bet on the existence of God is the safer of the two bets, but he will be unable to do anything about it. As Matson pointed out, beliefs are not something we have power to change at will. While one may be persuaded by Pascal’s argument, belief in God will not follow. I can no more give up my belief in God than I can my belief that the person I call my mother actually gave birth to me. Likewise, an atheist who sees no reason to believe in God cannot generate that belief just because he is convinced that it is the safer thing to believe. In Pascal’s defense, however, his Wager was not an argument for the existence of God, but for belief in God. The reasons for which one should believe in God are a separate question.

Contra Matson I would argue that the knowledge of God is evident to all on some level, even in the absence of any rational evidence. This is what Paul was talking about in Romans 1 and 2. He argued that all men know God exists through the witness of creation and conscience (general revelation), and even have some basic knowledge about what this God is like. While this knowledge is available to all men, and known by all men to one degree or another, we purposely suppress it, or we are fooled into believing it is false. This leads me to my next point.

While the universal experience of the witness of creation, conscience, and/or the Holy Spirit is often rejected because one’s will is simply bent toward rebellion against God, sometimes it is rejected because an individual has been given intellectual defeaters to those witnesses, and those defeaters stand in the way so that the witnesses are not taken seriously, preventing the individual from being open to the working of the Spirit in their lives. If we can remove those defeaters an individual may be willing to accept the message of those witnesses. This is what apologetics do: remove those defeaters by overcoming the intellectual objections with truth, thereby facilitating the path towards faith. Apologetics do not cause belief in God, but merely remove the barriers that have been erected in the face of that knowledge. As J. Budziszewski wrote, “The knowledge of God belongs to us already; these arguments are not its source, but only responses to objections.” Indeed, one does not need to hear rational arguments in order to know there is a God—that knowledge belongs to them already. But rational arguments may help clear the smoke of deception, showing how the reasons they have been given (or have given themselves) for denying the existence of God are faulty and ill-founded.

The famed Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, makes the case that belief in God is justified apart from any rational justification. He writes:

It is less plausible, however, to suggest that I would or could be going contrary to my intellectual duties in believing, without evidence, that there is such a person as God. For first, my beliefs are not, for the most part, within my control. If, for example, you offer me $1,000,000 to cease believing that Mars is smaller than Venus, there is no way I can collect. But the same holds for my belief in God: even if I wanted to, I couldn’t-short of heroic measures like coma inducing drugs-just divest myself of it. … Clearly I am not under an obligation to have evidence for everything I believe; that would not be possible. But why, then, suppose that I have an obligation to accept belief in God only if I accept other propositions which serve as evidence for it?[1]

And again:

As I say, he [Daniel Dennett] seems to think one could be a sensible believer in God only on the basis of some argument, something like one of the traditional theistic arguments. But why think a thing like that? Why think you need an argument to be rational in believing in God? There are plenty of other things we rationally accept without argument–that there has been a past, for example, or that there are other people, or an external world, or that our cognitive faculties are reasonably reliable. Moreover, one lesson to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes to Hume and Reid is that there probably aren’t any good arguments for these things–but we are still perfectly rational in accepting them. Couldn’t the same be true for belief in God?

Here Dennett seems to assume that if you can’t show by reason that a given proposed source of truth is in fact reliable, then it is improper to accept the deliverances of that source. This assumption goes back to the Lockean, Enlightenment claim that, while there could indeed be such a thing as divine revelation, it would be irrational to accept any belief as divinely revealed unless we could give a good argument from reason that it was. But again, why think a thing like that? Take other sources of knowledge: rational intuition, memory, and perception, for example. Can we show by the first two that the third is in fact reliable–that is, without relying in anyway on the deliverances of the third? No, we can’t; nor can we show by the first and third that memory is reliable, nor (of course) by perception and memory that rational intuition is. Nor can we give a decent, non-question-begging rational argument that reason itself is indeed reliable. Does it follow that there is something irrational in trusting these alleged sources, in accepting their deliverances? Certainly not. So why insist that it is irrational to accept, say, the Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit unless we can give a rationally conclusive argument for the conclusion that there is indeed such a thing, and that what it delivers is the truth? Why treat these alleged sources differently? Is there anything but arbitrariness in insisting that any alleged source of truth must justify itself at the bar of rational intuition, perception and memory? Perhaps God has given us several different sources of knowledge about the world, and none of them can be shown to be reliable using only the resources of the others.[2]

I do not agree with everything Plantinga says here[3], but he has elucidated a point that all those involved in the defense of the Gospel must keep in mind: most people come to believe in God apart from any rational justification for those beliefs (more will be said about this in a later post). Contra Matson, then, rational people can believe in God in the absence of rational evidence. This does not make evidentiary apologetics unnecessary; rather it explains their proper role in bringing unbelievers to faith. Apologetics do not generate belief in God, but they can facilitate it.

I think Dershowitz and Matson are being a little hard on Pascal, because Pascal did not leave people to contemplate his Wager without offering any reasons to believe in God. He was persuaded that belief in God was rational, and even offered arguments in favor of faith. But this should serve as a lesson for us. Reciting Pascal’s wager without his evidentiary support will do little to help some unbelievers. We need for them to see both the wisdom of the God-bet as well as the evidentiary basis for making the decision to place their bet on God.


[1]Alvin Plantinga, “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality”; available from http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth02.html; Internet; accessed 29 March 2005.

[2]Alvin Plantinga, “Darwin, Mind, and Meaning”; available from http://id-www.ucsb.edu/fscf/library/plantinga/dennett.html; Internet; accessed 23 March 2005.

[3]Particularly, Plantinga seems to argue that belief in the existence of the past, and belief in the external world are epistemologically equivalent to belief in the existence of God. I disagree. While the knowledge of God’s existence is self-evident, it is not self-evident in the same way that belief in the past is self-evident. We have no good reason to doubt the existence of the past and a world external to our minds, but there are formidable reasons for doubting the existence of God. While belief in God is self-evident, arguably belief in the past and the external world are properly basic.

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