Doubtful Gamblers, Religious Agnostics, and Hopeful Beliebers

However much attention it once received, “Pascal’s Wager” doesn’t seem to get much traction in […]

David Zahl / 9.29.15


However much attention it once received, “Pascal’s Wager” doesn’t seem to get much traction in today’s God debate/discourse. I’m referring to the idea put forth by the 18th century Jansenist sage Blaise Pascal that belief in God is a good “bet”–there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain from taking the leap of faith. In other words, the real question is not why a person should believe in God so much as why not. I can only presume the argument was more captivating in a pre-digital age than it is now.

If I were to theorize about the reasons for the degradation, it probably has something to do with how it appeals to reason in a culture that privileges emotion, or objectivity in a time of ascendant/triumphant subjectivity. Maybe it’s simply that the premise of the wager no longer carries the same weight. That is, there is a lot to lose these days by believing in God, and as believers themselves downplay matters of eternity, the potential benefit doesn’t seem to be particularly great either.

That’s all by way of introduction to an article that appeared yesterday in the Times by philosopher Gary Gutting, suggesting that if the proposition is to regain relevance, an allowance for doubt might be in order:

gambler__130911195645Most discussions of Pascal’s wager take it as a peculiar if not perverse calculation of self-interest. As Pascal puts it: “If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Taken this way, the argument seems morally suspect; William James noted that those who engaged in such egotistic reasoning might be among the first that God would exclude from heaven…

The wager requires a choice between believing and not believing. But there are two ways of not believing. I can either deny that God exists or doubt that God exists… Denial of God means that I simply close the door on the hope that there is something beyond the natural world; doubt may keep that door open. I say “may” because doubt can express indifference to what is doubted. I don’t know and I don’t care whether there is an even number of stars or whether there are planets made of purple rock. Indifferent doubt is the practical equivalent of denial, since both refuse to take a given belief as a viable possibility — neither sees it as what William James called a “live option.” But doubt may also be open to and even desirous of what it doubts. I may doubt that I will ever understand and appreciate Pierre Boulez’s music, but still hope that I someday will.

I propose to reformulate Pascal’s wager as urging those who doubt God’s existence to embrace a doubt of desire rather than a doubt of indifference. This means, first, that they should hope — and therefore desire — that they might find a higher meaning and value to their existence by making contact with a beneficent power beyond the natural world…

Unlike the traditional versions, this wager does not require believing that there is a God. So the standard drawbacks of self-deception or insincerity don’t arise. The wager calls for some manner of spiritual commitment, but there is no demand for belief, either immediately or eventually. The commitment is, rather, to what I have called religious agnosticism: serious involvement with religious teachings and practices, in hope for a truth that I do not have and may never attain. Further, religious agnosticism does not mean that I renounce all claims to other knowledge. I may well have strong commitments to scientific, philosophical and ethical truths that place significant constraints on the religious approaches I find appropriate. Religious agnosticism demands only that I reject atheism, which excludes the hope for something beyond the natural world knowable by science.


An interesting proposal, and definitely one from which a polarized society could profit. A couple of notes:

  • Reminds me of Martin Amis’ heartfelt public rejoinder to Christopher Hitchens, toward the end of the latter’s life, in which Amis impressed upon his friend the contradiction he saw between Hitch’s strident atheism and simultaneous conviction that there is no greater evidence of a good education than the ability to acknowledge one’s ignorance. The truly wise person knows that they don’t know. (1 Cor 8:2).
  • That said, I’m loath to prop up the culture’s foreign, false dichotomy regarding faith and doubt. The weird notion that there are those who have faith, and there are those who doubt, and never the twain shall meet. We’ve said it before: The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is control. We are all in the doubting camp to some degree or another. Which would seem to undermine Gutting’s adjustment somewhat. At least, the odds are not in our favor.
  • Ironically enough, some would say that Christianity represents a deeper embrace of one’s limitations than (any form of) agnosticism. In fact, it posits ignorance as a defining aspect of human nature, that part of our collective exhaustion has to do with our never-ending attempts to establish our own watertight truth, to summon certainty out of life’s vicissitudes, an impossible task if ever there was one. Into this context arrives the announcement of divine confidence vis-a-vis confused and vacillating sinners, a beneficence spelled out in sacrifice. In other words, the house always wins.

I don’t know, though, perhaps that all sounds too flowery. Perhaps it takes no less a posterboy of confusion and rebellion than Justin Bieber to say it clearly, as he did in an interview with Complex this week:

“If we can understand that we’re all imperfect, let’s come to God and come for his help. You’re not weak by doing that. I think that’s a common misperception of Christians, that you’re being weak because you can’t handle it. None of us can handle this world, dude! It’s eating us alive. But, man, I don’t wanna have to do it on my own.”