A Skeptic’s Wager 9

Blaise Pascal

“If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.” — Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

Pascal was a skeptic.

“This is what I see, and what troubles me,” observed Pascal:

“I look on all sides, and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet.”

An often overlooked yet very important assumption underlying Pascal’s famous “Wager” is that the human mind is not capable of grasping God; therefore, it cannot affirm his existence:

“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.”

Clearly, then, Pascal did not intend for his wager to be a proof for God’s existence; if we cannot know with our reason whether or not God exists, all arguments to that effect are futile.

Whether you agree with Pascal’s fideistic approach or not, in order to understand his wager, you must first realize that it is not a proof.

It’s a Wager.

The wager.

Pascal presents his wager in Pensées, 233. I am going to paraphrase his argument here.

  • Either God exists or he does not exist. (Obviously true)
  • Let’s flip a coin: Head’s, God exists; Tails, he doesn’t.
  • You have to agree that it could land either way.
  • There’s a gun to your head. Place your bet (Sorry! There’s no opting out on this one).
  • “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.”
  • The only rational choice is to wager on God’s existence, because the stakes are finite and the gain (or loss) is infinite. Do yourself a favor and bet on God.

Alright, I imported the part about the gun. Pascal does not issue any threats but he does say, “You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.” To put some teeth into his edict, he needs an enforcer. So I introduced the gunman. That said…

Personally, I would always bet on God, because I am a believer. That happens to be beside the point in this game, however, because reason (called into question) seems to trump faith in this scenario, despite whatever reasons one might have for believing in the first place. For the sake of experiment, here’s what I think I would do in this situation.

  • The Joker: There’s a gun pointed at your head and I’m going to shoot. First, I’ll flip a coin. You call it in the air. Head’s, God exists; tails, he doesn’t. Ready…
  • James: Wait! I already believe in God! Don’t shoot!
  • The Joker: Call it, Jimmy.
  • James: In that case, I have a question. Calling heads — does that constitue the short form for the Act of Contrition?

There’s something about this analogy that does not sit well with me. A coin toss, Russian Roulette, Texas hold ’em — there are too many calculations involved. Belief in God should not work that way, in my opinion, but that’s just me.

I think if a non-believer would call heads in this situation, that’s between him and God. I do believe that God is merciful and I hope as many people as possible will benefit from that mercy, so I’d probably urge him to call heads and hope to see him on the other side, but regarding Pascal’s wager…

Faith just does not work that way — for me. If it does for you, that’s a personal matter between you and God.

There is a flip-side to Paschal’s argument. I like the way Cardinal Ratzinger represents it in his last book before being elected Pope, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Ratzinger doesn’t put a gun to anyone’s head. To the non-believer who disregards revelation and mocks the faith, he merely invites him to consider, “What if it’s true?”

In other words, you can opt out if you want (in Paschal’s game, you can’t — you have to wager). But be open and think about it. Don’t be a cynic.

To that I would add that the skeptical approach has its value for the sake of experiment. Speculating on it shows that on a practical level it leaves a lot to be desired. Speculating on it too much might be risky, if you want to keep your faith in tact. As a moderate realist who believes in God, I have to advise you not to play around with skepticism.


  1. Very interesting.
    He merely invites him to consider ‘What if it’s true?’ ” I have heard TV/radio pundit Bill O’Reilly talk on this topic, and to express his own beliefs in such a way. He is “wagering”, I guess, if I remember him correctly and can paraphrase: He chooses to believe in God, attend Mass, live a moral Christian life. If he is wrong and it turns out that there is no God, then that’s fine–he has led a good life, stood by his principles and brought goodness into the world around him. Really, no loss in life even if death is the end. If he is right, then he has gained everything. Believing in God is a win/win.
    It was an interesting perspective on life and faith.

    A weird coincidence: I am working on a post on a related subject, which I thought came to me out of the blue, and here you are writing on a similar tangent of thought . . .

    • I’m not going to knock O’Reilly’s approach, because on the one hand, it leads him to practice the faith and live a virtuous life; on the other, it is a matter of his personal faith. It does seem pragmatistic to me, which is one of the reasons why I cannot ultimately agree with it. The problem with pragmatism — “whatever works” or whatever delivers the best results — is that it does not work all the time, from an ethical standpoint. I would not want to suggest that the “wager” is immoral, however. It just might bring some people closer to God. In that case, it’s a win/win/win.

      Looking forward to your post on a related subject. God bless!

  2. Another interesting comment caught my eye in your reply: “whatever delivers the best results . . .does not work all the time, from an ethical standpoint.” That is true, isn’t it. From the standpoint of a pregnant fourteen year old, abortion might look like the most practical/best for her immediate personal results. Definitely not ethical, though. Maybe that is too simplistic, I often am very literal. Hmmm. I will think more about it

    • The connection between pragmatism and people’s attitude toward abortion certainly exists. I don’t think your picking up on it is simplistic at all. This correlation might not have much to do with the “wager,” but the calculated type of moral reasoning is still quite similar.

  3. I’m a little uncomfortable with positing God as some type of mysterious jukebox. We drop in the quarter and we find out whether the “God song” plays on the other side.

    There is also a tinge of making God – to roll out another metaphor – some sort of passive wall flower – hoping that we will ask Him to dance.

    God comes after us. He pursues us. We don’t simply give Him a thumbs up or thumbs down.


    John 15:16

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