Pascal’s foolish bet

What is more important believing in God or acting properly? Some philosophers and academics today recognize that the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) stressed behavior. He recognized that we cannot force people to believe what they are convinced is untrue. In contrast to belief, he spoke of knowing God. He stated that one can gain knowledge about God by studying the laws of nature that God created. The Frenchman Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) took the opposite approach and emphasized belief. He made the famous claim regarding religious beliefs translated as “Pascal’s bet” or “Pascal’s wager” or “Pascal’s gambit” which states that it makes sense to believe. Those who accept his notion try to believe in God – even when they are convinced that God does not exist.

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist and religious theologian who lived a brief thirty-nine years from 1623 to 1662. He had a mystical vision in 1654, was enraptured, abandoned his scientific work, and devoted himself to theology. Among his works, he wrote Pensées, which was published after his death. The book contains his famous “Bet.”

The Wager

Pascal argued that it was a far better bet, gamble, or wager to believe that God exists than to deny God’s existence. Belief in God, he contended, assures that a person will have an enormous, everlasting and joyous benefit after death, a gift from God if God exists. If God does not exist, believing in God loses nothing. Thus, it is stupid, he claimed, to cleave to non-belief.

Problems with Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s wager raises several problems:

  1. Insisting that people believe, rather than learn the truth promotes a habit of blind credulity rather than rational thinking.
  2. People corrupt themselves and their integrity when they push themselves to believe something that they know is wrong.
  3. Pascal’s wager arrogantly implies that God punishes non-believers unjustly. It implies that God has no consideration or mercy for people who are simply unable to believe because of their environment, education, or lack of intelligence.
  4. It is impossible to force people to believe something they are certain is irrational and wrong.

A Discussion on Beliefs

It is virtually certain that Pascal focused on beliefs rather than acts because of the general Christian attitude, derived from the first-century Paul’s teachings, that faith is more important than acts. Thus, Pascal would answer item 1 by saying that there is no problem in suppressing rational thought and accepting blind belief because this is what religion demands. Thus also, in regard to item 2, people are not corrupting themselves by believing; they are fulfilling the demands of Christian teachings. Many Christians also believe item 3’s contention that God punishes non-believers, even punishes those who try to believe but fail to do so. Pascal realized the psychological difficulty of forcing beliefs mentioned in item 4, but although it is difficult to develop a belief, he insisted that people can overcome their thoughts and natural inclinations and force themselves to believe.

Drazin’s Bet

I have a different approach, one that we can call “Drazin’s Bet.”

Unlike Pascal’s wager, Drazin’s bet focuses on behavior, not belief. It recognizes, as Maimonides taught, that it is usually impossible or at least difficult to force people to believe something contrary to their nature, training, and inclinations. Also, unlike Pascal’s wager, the bet addresses religious people rather than atheists.

According to Pascal, the person who “believes” in God, thinks, at least unconsciously, that God wants people to sit back, relax and depend on divine help. The “believer” thinks that God, like a parent or king, will take care of humanity and bring a messianic age. God will feed the poor, clothe the naked, and ensure that war, pestilence, ignorance, and spoiling the environment do not destroy the world.

In my opinion, the first view is misguided. I think that God wants people to do these things. I propose Drazin’s bet. I suggest that even if people are convinced that God will take care of everything and that there is no need to act, they should still hedge their bets. For it is possible, contrary to their understanding, but consistent with rational thinking, God wants people to act. The bet states that whenever there is a need for something to be done – to help people, society or the world in general – people should behave as if there is no God who is involved in human affairs and nothing will be done to resolve the problem at hand unless they themselves do what must be done.

The bet takes into account that if God is present as a parent, ready, willing and able to resolve human problems, since God knows that the individual who assumed the divine role of acting to help others and the world in general is behaving for a good reason, God will be pleased with the person’s good intensions and behavior.

The bet goes one step further. It supposes that God would be displeased with people who contend that they should sit back, pray, read religious texts, and not work to improve themselves, society and the world.

Thus, the bet is a sure thing; there is no way of losing. If I am right that God expects people to perform these acts, the individual is performing God’s will. If, on the other hand, God does all that needs to be done, God will still be satisfied with the person who assumes the divine role.

However, the pious person who does not take the bet and who sits back performing devotional deeds, expecting God to remedy human and societal needs, when God expects people to perform these acts, will suffer divine wrath.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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