It Is Better to Believe in God's Existence Than to Deny It
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 3 - Philosophy of Religion
Blaise Pascal, from Pensees
Kem Stone - 23 August 2007
One of the most well-known arguments in favour religious faith is Pascal’s Wager, which defends the practice of
religious beliefs in spite of their uncertainty.  Pascal does not believe that God’s existence can be established by
reason, but that nevertheless we must choose whether or not to believe, and since we must choose we might as
well choose to believe, as we have everything to gain if we do, and nothing to lose.  I think that Pascal’s argument
has some merit, but it suffers from many weaknesses and I ultimately believe that it is ultimately a
dangerous
argument and it ought not to be adopted.

Pascal begins by establishing that we can not know whether God exists.  “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” (85).  In just one sentence, Pascal dismisses every argument that has ever
been offered to establish conclusive proof of God’s existence.  Because He is infinite, our finite minds are
incapable of knowing Him.  While this point is certainly debatable, for the sake of this exposition I will grant him
this point (with which I agree—though for different reasons).

So we cannot establish God’s existence by reason, yet we must choose whether or not to believe.  We must
wager, and Pascal lays out the stakes: “You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to
stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness: and your nature has two things to shun,
error and misery” (86).  Pascal sets up a division of priorities between the intellect—which may be slightly bruised
if you choose to believe and God does
not exist—and personal happiness—which you will gain infinitely if you
choose to believe and God
does exist.  Pascal believes the proper choice is immediately apparent.  “If you gain,
you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.  Wager, then, without hesitation that He is” (86).  What you stake is
finite, but what you stand to gain is infinite, and therefore one can clearly see the correct choice is to bet on God’s
existence.

One may immediately object on epistemological grounds, claiming that the formation of beliefs is not volitional and
one cannot force oneself to believe in the existence of God if one simply does not believe.  Pascal’s answer to this
point is where I begin to see an ethical problem with his argument:  “Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by
increase in proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions….learn of those who have been bound like you,
and who now stake all their possessions…follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed,
taking the holy water, having masses said, etc” (87).

I immediately see two major problems with this suggestion.  First, if we are to endeavour to adopt a belief by
acting as though we held that belief, we lose something we may value dearly—pride and dignity.  I have lost
something on this wager, and that is the ability to see myself as an honest person.  I am now participating in rituals
to appease a God that I do not even believe in simply on the off-chance that this God
does exist and I may be
rewarded in a future life by pretending to believe.  This leads to my second major problem, which is that if this
God really does exist, I have a hard time imagining that He would want people to believe in Him for fear of going
to Hell, or to secure a place in paradise.  Pascal is promoting a very selfish reason for adopting religious faith, and
most religions—Christianity included—do not celebrate selfishness as a virtue.

Pascal asks, “what harm will befall you in taking this side?  You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous,
a sincere friend, truthful.  Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not
have others?” (87)  I believe Nietzsche would have had an interesting reply to this statement, but I will merely
point out the obvious—that there is nothing inherently
better about values such as generosity and sincerity than
glory and luxury.  It is merely a matter of taste.

Next, Pascal anticipates a very weak objection that we ought not to believe in God’s existence unless we are
absolutely certain.  Pascal counters this by pointing out how many things we do on uncertainties anyway, such as
sea voyages or battles.  These are important matters, the outcomes of which are never certain, yet we must wager
and we do.  Furthermore, because
nothing is certain, if we insist upon acting solely on certainties, we can do
nothing at all!  This is true, but so obviously so that this point seems barely worth mentioning.

But what Pascal is essentially trying to do is to bring faith from the realm of the mental to that of the emotional.  
Our religious beliefs ought not to come from logic but from custom.  “Proofs only convince the mind.  Custom is
the source of our strongest and most believed proofs.  It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without
its thinking about the matter” (88).  This, I believe, is the chief danger inherent in Pascal’s argument, and why it
ought not to be adopted.  The subordination of rationality to custom has been responsible for some of the greatest
evils this world has ever seen.

Pascal’s wager is meant to appeal to the individual mind, and when taken in this context it does appear to have
some merit.  Indeed, for the already religious man who is nevertheless unsure of whether his beliefs are absolutely
true, it serves as a good justification to go on believing.  “I lose nothing if I am wrong, but I gain everything if I am
right.”  I see nothing wrong with this, and have in fact known many people who feel this way about their religion.

But if we broaden the scope of this argument and consider the possible consequences if such a doctrine were
universally adopted, the picture can be somewhat frightening.  If everyone in the world, regardless of whether he
or she
truly believed in God’s existence, practiced worship and blindly followed custom, what room is left for
new ideas?  Who will stand up and question the validity of these universally-held beliefs?  With nobody willing to
wager
against God’s existence, we all go on believing that God exists, that He is in control, that the course of fate
is determined by Him and not ourselves, and that the best we can do is simply have faith in the beneficence of His
divine plan, whatever it may be.

This, I believe, would be a dreadful circumstance.  And to a great degree, it already is the prevalent circumstance
present in the world.  I may not stand to lose anything
individually by choosing to believe in God, but humanity as
a whole may stand to lose everything.  If we merely put our faith in God’s plan and let ourselves drift aimlessly
down time’s river, we may find ourselves headed over a waterfall.  But if we wager the other way, and choose to
believe that God
does not exist, it becomes apparent that nobody is going to steer this raft unless we steer it
ourselves, and we ought to find the right shore upon which to anchor before disaster strikes.  We must recognise
that the fate of our species is in
our hands, not in God’s, and that it is our responsibility to determine our course.

I reject Pascal’s wager on these grounds.  I grant that we can not know whether or not God exists.  Yet even if
God does exist, it would be better for humanity as a whole to believe that He does not.