Placing a bet on whether God exists

JamesKnight300Network Ipswich columnist James Knight says that Christianity is not an each-way bet.

I remember one night last year at the Hotel Nelson in Norwich, after a night of unofficial street-pastoring, speaking to a man about Christianity. He said that he did believe in God but did not wish to subscribe to any particular religion. Upon questioning him further, he said that when it came to religion, he wanted to ‘play it safe’. He went on to say, ‘If god is up there, it’s best that I believe in Him. If he is not then I’m in the same position as all the rest of us’
Many of you might recognise this type of thinking; it was made famous by Blaise Pascal in his Pensees (thoughts - written for ‘those who cannot bring themselves to believe in Christianity’) - and it is commonly known as Pascal’s Wager. It is quite simply this.  ‘If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing - but if you don't believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will have lost everything. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist’.
Pascal is a man for whom I have much admiration, but this contention, it has to be said, is not sensible both on the emotional level or, indeed, on the philosophical level. I think it is a great shame that many atheists simply remember him for his flawed wager, because much of his Pensees is very good - in fact, sections of it are, in my view, among the best Christian writings of the last 2000 years. 
The most obvious flaw with the wager is that a mere ‘each-way bet’ in God is never going to be enough, it is both insulting to Him and is never going to produce the inner-growth that is required. Christ does not want tempered acknowledgement, He wants every part of us; He wants to live inside of us and help us fulfil our potential; that is, He wants to make us more like Him. He did not die on the cross for us to make a half-hearted revelation - He died and rose again so that we could experience the spirit of Christ within us, so that we could fully imbibe all that the divine has to give us. 
Christianity has virtually nothing to say to the man who is happy to acknowledge it as part of his daily background but makes no attempt to grow in Christ. Thus is it probably better not to believe at all than to adopt an indifferent sycophancy which merely hopes in the end for a divine hand-out (see Revelation 3). After all those who live their lives by this principle are no closer to the genuine rewards of Christianity than those who passionately repudiate it. 
The wager is, of course, flawed on the philosophical level too. Pascal’s contention is only sound because it supposes Christianity to be the right religion; it has, by itself, no way of distinguishing which religion is the right one - thus a Muslim or a Mormon could adopt the same principle in his or her faith and be no closer to the truth. 
RouletteWheelAnother flaw in the wager is that it presupposes that two methods of thought have equal claim on the truth - that is, it presupposes that probability favours your chosen choice in the first place. 
Yet another flaw is the idea that what we believe is chosen by us in the first place. We believe only what seems sensible to us; that is, we infer from experience, from perception, from feelings and (hopefully) from rational enquiry. Thus we will not be able to create a belief system if one is not put in place by another form of established cognitive discipline. We can, of course, circumvent this problem by committing fully to Christ, for then we shall receive sufficient faith and sufficient wisdom to formulate a proper enquiry. Self-centred solicitation of reward will never achieve for us any kind of blessedness - we have to be prepared to give Christ our whole self, for in doing so we will only be giving back what is His, but we will be doing so with worship and reverence for the One who created us. 
Having, as I do, a great deal of respect for Pascal, I am inclined to believe that his wager might have been, in fact, propounded as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy - which reads: behave as though you believe in Christ and you will gradually start to become more Christ-like; thus He will start to reveal Himself to you. But even if this is true (I do not doubt that it happens on some occasions) - I think the wager is a superfluous contention - it leads to many more incidents of indifference and complacency than it does genuine passionate enquiry. 
Moreover, there is, I would say, a different type of wager which is sadly far more prevalent in this day and age than Pascal’s - it is what one might refer to as ‘The Atheist’s Wager’. In its simplest form it reads something like this: I am quite happy to live my life satisfying all my inner-feelings, living a good life, living for the here and now, trying to do no harm to anyone; thus if there is no God I will be satisfied that I lived a good and fulfilling life, but if there is a God He will look upon me favourably for trying to live the best and most moral life possible. And I think we do, in fact, greatly underestimate the part about ‘if there is a God’ - that is to say, we have not, in our ministry, placed enough emphasis upon this ubiquitous dismissal of our Heavenly Father; for if this type of attitude were going to be enough then Christ died for nothing. The reality is quite different; He died on the cross, not so we would live under such clouds of illusion, but so we could have a relationship with Him. To deny this is to live outside of the complete picture and, in doing so, deny yourself the pleasures of knowing Christ and having the Holy Spirit inside you. 
Christianity is, of course, worth so much more than blithe acknowledgement; it is a part of, or interrelated with, everything we do and, more importantly, everything we are. I am sure all of us can see this atheist’s wager working in our friends and loved ones - it is easily recognisable, and it is very rarely a conscious outward decision with conviction; it is usually a sleep from which they need to be awoken.
Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
Matthew 16:25-26
We are told by St Paul that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ do not belong to Christ. If we were created to know God, we were created to please God and to be blessed by Him; thus all attempts to find contentment, happiness and blessedness without Him will be, in the end, fruitless.
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. Romans 8:5-8
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at 

James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.
  You can access his current collections of columns from Network Norfolk here

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: 




Reproduced from the Network Norwich and Norfolk web site. Used with permission.
Alan Fisher 17/02/2009 16:58
This reminds me of a mathematical demonstration, based on probabilities, that claimed to show that it is logical to believe in God. Ultimately, the formulae were dominated by the use of "infinity" within the parameters; meaning, of course, that it was subject to the same flaws you discuss.

It seems that people of parallel intelligence, background and experience can come to totally different world views, irrespective of their conditioning. Pascal also said "the supreme achievement of reason is to bring us to see that there is a limit to reason". Faith remains a mystery. But what a mystery!
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