Discover more from Beyond Belief
You Bet Your Life—Literally
A classic wager on which faith is right (if any).
The French Catholic philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal is famous for putting forward a wager (or a bet). According to him, you can either bet on Catholicism and try to live the life of a good Catholic, or you can bet on atheism and live whatever sort of life you want. His argument, in a nutshell, was this. If you bet on atheism and Catholicism is true, then you’ll end up regretting your choice. Indeed, you’ll probably go to hell.
If you bet on Catholicism, by contrast, and it turns out that atheism was right all along, then you probably won’t exist after you die to regret your decision. Finally, however, if you bet on Catholicism, and Catholicism was actually true, then you’ll have won eternal life and all sorts of other good things too. If this were the choice, it would be a no-brainer. You should bet on Catholicism. You have nothing to lose and everything to win.
The problem with this argument is that we’re not faced with a simple choice between Catholicism and atheism. We’re faced with a choice between atheism and a whole plethora of different religions. It’s not like we’re betting on a coin flip with only two options. It’s more like rolling a die with many, many sides. Why shouldn’t we bet on Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, or Judaism?
The great American philosopher and psychologist William James developed one way to save Pascal’s wager from this concern. James argued that when faced with a practical decision, we simply can’t consider every single option and every single possibility. We certainly have to weigh the options before making any decision, but it’s often impossible to think through them. Sometimes there are just too many. So, according to James, what we do, is rule out some options as simply too exotic to be live. If an option isn’t live, it doesn’t need to be factored into our decision-making procedures.
To save Pascal’s wager, James thought he could do this: for most people, there’s only one religion that’s really a live option. Religions from other cultures are too exotic, somehow, to qualify as live. And so, as far as James is concerned, some people do face a decision between Christianity on the one hand and atheism on the other. It’s more like a coin flip than the rolling of a die.
But this is deeply unsatisfying. I admit that we can’t always weigh up every option, and I acknowledge that some options are live and others aren’t. But we need to have a good reason for treating some options as live. We need a good reason for bracketing the options that aren’t live. Merely to say that they’re too exotic is to fall a long way short of presenting an actual argument. That’s why James’s suggestion doesn’t work.
Having said that, I think we can save James’s basic idea by adding an extra element. The extra element has to do with the cost of adopting a belief. For example, if you are deeply rooted in a community, converting to a religion that isn’t associated with that community often incurs a considerable cost. You’d alienate yourself from your friends and family. My wife would kill me, for example, if I converted to Christianity (so would my parents).
It’s for that reason that it is rational for a person in such a community to bracket the possibility that other religions are true unless they receive overwhelming evidence to the contrary. All the while that they haven’t received overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it’s legitimate for a person to say that the only live options are:
The religion of my community (since, with sufficient sensitivity and understanding on both sides, it would surely be possible for me to become more religious within the faith of my birth community without alienating all of my friends and family); or
Being a religiously lapsed (or an atheist) member of that community.
Leaving my community altogether, at least without overwhelming evidence, is simply unthinkable. In my new book, A Guide for the Jewish Undecided, I argue that rationality licenses just such an attitude. Accordingly, I argue that many people, like my younger self, growing up in a warm and traditional but not all that religiously observant Jewish home, really do face a pretty binary choice—either atheism with a secular Jewish identity or some form of religious Judaism. Other options are not live.
And if that’s the choice, then Pascalian reasoning kicks in to show us that it is indeed a no-brainer. Even if we’re wrong, and I really don’t think we are, we could at least justify ourselves to God, whatever religion ends up being true, that we did what was most rational for us to do given the situation of our birth and upbringing. What more could a reasonable God demand? And indeed, perhaps this is why the God of Judaism doesn’t demand that non-Jews adopt the Jewish religion. For Jews, it might be overwhelmingly reasonable to bet on Judaism. For other people, in other situations, things can reasonably look quite different. But each of us can only do the best that we can do. We can only take this wager once.