Pascal’s Wager on the Existence of God

If we were to start from scratch, how would we know God exists? Recently on The Cale Clarke Show, Cale dove into the existence of the supernatural and the way Pascal’s Wager can encourage us to live virtuously.

“Conviction is my inheritance, but as an adult, I preferred atheism to a generic spirituality because it mirrored the bright lines of my upbringing: God is or isn’t. The universe, I had decided, contained nothing but bright light in the vacuum of space. So why, after two years of this plague, did I want to know if it hid anything else?” Sarah Jones, a writer for The New Yorker and an atheist for most of her life, wrote an article talking about her search for truth during the pandemic.

Sarah documented her Christian upbringing, her gravitation towards atheism, and then the impact of the deaths of two of her close friends. The gravity of these deaths and the grief and fatigue the pandemic brought affected her deeply. She said she’s thought “several hundred times this year” about making her way back to church. She referenced The Screwtape Letters in her article, saying that Screwtape makes a good point in talking about the existence of demons. If we humans believe in demons, we are subject to be fearful of the terror demons can cause. If we don’t believe in demons, we can be transformed into materialists because we have no fear of the supernatural. So, what are our options?

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Sarah grappled with this question in the context of God’s existence. How do we balance the wager of whether God exists or not? She closed her article by saying that when she listened and searched for God, she heard and saw nothing but us, the beings that walk this earth. Cale hoped and prayed that Sarah would continue to be open to God’s existence and search for the truth in her life. He also offered a way to frame this difficult concept for those struggling with disbelief.

The way to think about God’s existence in a vacuum has to do with risk management and the argument known as Pascal’s Wager. Risk management is a tool used to avoid bad consequences or outcomes. However, sometimes you have to do risk management without all the information that you need. Cale looked at an example given by Dr. Joshua Hochschild, the director of Philosophy, Economics, and Politics at Mount St. Mary’s University.

Dr. Hochschild says to imagine that you are going to walk out onto a frozen lake in the winter. Granted, the safest thing to do to avoid risk would be to not walk onto the ice. But imagining that you had to, you should do things to ensure your safety such as use a rope, spread out your weight, or have a friend help. We can look at the existence of God in the same way. Choosing to believe in God is to remain safely on dry land. But to venture into the uncertainty of your beliefs is to test that ice. So set up lifelines, ask for help, and use tools like Pascal’s Wager to ensure your safety.

Pascal’s Wager says that if we do believe in God and he ends up not existing, we don’t lose much of anything except material indulgence. If we believe and he does end up existing, we attain incomprehensible levels of eternal joy and happiness. If we don’t believe in God and He doesn’t exist, we have gained nothing. We simply lived our lives in an indulgent manner and were left wanting. If we don’t believe in God and he does end up existing, we lose everything. We are not granted salvation nor any further earthly pleasures. We are subject to an eternity without the God that we never believed in. “It’s a bet, and practically speaking, nobody would stake their lives on atheism,” said Dr. Hochschild. It does not pay to be an unbeliever. It only pays to be a believer.

For clarification, this argument is not proof of the existence of God or validation of any other knowledge. It is merely a practical analysis of weighing the risks versus the consequences. It’s an attempt to show that practically, it makes zero sense to wager that God doesn’t exist. It is both far safer and far more productive to believe in God.

“Pascal’s argument engages the whole person. It is more intuitive. If Aquinas’ five ways appeal to the ‘head,’ Pascal appeals to the ‘heart,’ or what C.S. Lewis called the ‘chest.’ We realize that there are stakes involved; Pascal engages our sense of dignity, and the difference between rashness and courage.”

Listen to the full talk below:

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.