Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why we rarely go to church: Pascal's Wager for the modern world

A quote passed through my Facebook feed earlier today that read like this, "I would rather live my life as if there is a God, and die to find out there isn't // Than to live my life as if there isn't, and die to find out there is."

This is not exactly a new idea. In the 17th century, the mathematician, philosopher and physicist, Blaise Pascal, basically made the same claim, albeit far more philosophically and far less poetically. He argued for God's existence based on the logic of gain and loss in an argument famously known as Pascal's Wager. Here is his logic, quoted from his work, Pensées, first published in 1669.
  1. "God is, or He is not"
  2. A Game is being played... where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
  4. You must wager. (It's not optional.)
  5. 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.
  6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (...) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
My philosophy professor in undergrad explained the wager in a chart that looked something like this:

If you're not into logic this whole idea might sound strange, but it comes to much the same thing as that Facebook quote. It makes sense to live as if there is a God because of the gain, because if there isn't a God we don't actually lose much of anything. That's a rather callous reason to have faith but it's hard to argue against the practicality of God. Of course, you might say that this is all very nice for philosophers, but it doesn't really apply to much that people do in their daily lives. You might say that these "proofs" of God are just something for academic-types. But I think this one in particular is more important than that. In fact, I think Pascal's Wager is one of main reasons people in the western world believe in God. Let me explain.

One of the trends that the church has struggled with is Christians who are members of a church but who do not regularly attend. These are folks who show up for Easter and Christmas, whenever a family member has a child baptized or when their kids are in the Christmas pageant. These are people who have a faith life but, for whatever reason, little of it involves regular attendance at worship. People will say that this is a newer trend in the faith (by newer they mean the last forty years), but I'm not so sure. I think it's merely that people who were forced by duty to go to church before are now free to come and go as they please, and they are simply doing what they would have otherwise done if not compelled to attend by the culture and their families.

Blaise Pascal, courtesy of Wikipedia
Whatever the reason, there are a lot of people who are no longer interested in the church on a week-to-week, day-to-day basis. It just doesn't appeal to them. This is where Pascal's Wager comes in. I think many of us, even though we do not recognize it, believe because faith is practical from a profit-loss perspective. For we 21st century Christians, our wager looks something like this:
  1. Either there is a God or there is not.
  2. I don't have all the answers. I don't entirely buy into the view of faith or the view of reason.
  3. But I have to choose one or the other.
  4. If there is a God I gain everything from believing in him; and if there isn't it really won't affect my life very much.
  5. But I don't want to have to buy fully into faith, because it might occupy too much of my life, making it less enjoyable.
  6. Therefore, I will believe in God in my heart but only as far as it allows me certainty of the future in case there is a God after all. This way I can enjoy life down here, while still being assured of eternity in case Christianity checks out.
Step #5 is the one implied in our modern world. We want faith without commitment; the rewards without the work. Five hundred years of the Reformation has reminded Protestants again and again that we are not saved by our own good works; we are saved by grace through faith. But too many have heard that message as one freeing them from commitment. "If we are saved without me doing much of anything then I am free to sleep in on Sunday mornings--or accept that once my kids are confirmed they will never again come to worship until they have kids of their own." That's the problem with this kind of logic. It gives us excuses, because the sinful self is always looking for ways not to help those who are in need, not to commit our lives to things that matter, and not to put any store by our beliefs until moments of crisis break down those walls and compel us, like Peter, to turn to God because to whom else shall we go?

This is the problem with Pascal's Wager. It makes sense; too much sense in fact to the modern mind. I do too many baptisms that, if the parents are honest, are "just in case." Just in case of what? Just in case this is all true? Just in case there is a God? I've heard that many nurses in hospitals do the same thing, often baptizing children without their parents even knowing--you know, just in case. I do not baptize just in case; I baptize because. Because we claim a promise that sin and death and the power of the devil are conquered. Because we believe that God is not only real but because without God we simply cannot see the world as we see it now. Because, as C.S. Lewis once said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

The problem with living life by Pascal's Wager is that we add in a step that makes us feel better. We add in step 5, because we think that making a full commitment will rob us of our enjoyment of life. But what we fail to realize that in a world where God is real, where faith matters and where Jesus Christ died for you, the best of all ways to live is a life full of God; not hedging our bets. Step 5 shouldn't exist. We need to stop hedging--not simply because our churches are dwindling and not simply because our faith needs fresh blood, but also because it is the best way to find that meaning in your life that has been lacking.

So go ahead, live life by Pascal's Wager, but, for the love of God, commit to it. Commit to the good or the bad; don't hedge, don't baptize just in case. Instead, live fully, have faith fully, and I bet you'll be surprised what happens next.


  1. Nicely written, Frank. Pascal would, I think, agree with you. Because for him it wasn't a matter of buying fire insurance by claiming to believe, but of really acting like he believed, with the hope that this would help his nascent faith to grow. We see as in a mirror, darkly, a faint reflection. So perhaps we cannot prove there is a God. But we know enough that we can begin to pray, begin to worship, begin to show some feeble love. And when we do, Love Himself comes out to meet our feeble love like the father in Luke 15: as we stumble homeward, Home Himself runs to meet us.

  2. Here's my response:
    Let the conversation commence.

  3. I've read the blogs of non-believers, and I'd like to mention a couple of things they say.

    In response to Pascal's wager--one atheist said we don't know enough about what God wants of us--there's too much disagreement among religious people for us to be sure.

    On life having meaning--if we have all eternity, it doesn't matter if or when we do something, we can do it later. So what we do or don't do now doesn't matter, we can do it later.

    I didn't feel like responding to those two, but I will here--one partial response is, we consider what's consistent, to figure out what God would want.

    And whether or not we have eternity, it still matters what we do in this life, and the effect we have on others in this life.