It’s true. This is “the most simplest” question to answer. Pascal didn’t even buy his own wager. It’s a pretty good guess that within thirty minutes of the first person reading Pascal’s Wager, the first person had refuted it. The really fun thing for a logician is how many different ways there are to illustrate the absurdity of it all. It’s possibly the worst of all justifications for God-belief.
And yet, it’s one of the most pervasive and stubborn of all justifications, even in a post-industrial world where 9 out of 10 Americans could access the internet and find a thousand pages explaining it away. Why is that? Is it really possible that so many people are too dumb to understand it?
No. That answer might be emotionally satisfying to a few atheists who’d like to put themselves on a pedestal, but we simply can’t overlook the fact that lots of perfectly intelligent folks fall back on Pascal’s Wager. To find the true answer, we need to stop thinking of language and cognition in such linear and literal terms. We need to recognize that words often represent something other than what they mean, and that the words people use give us insights into their innermost feelings.
Take the girl in this video as an example. Assuming she’s asking the question honestly (perhaps she was throwing Dawkins a softball question?) I think we can safely say that she didn’t leave the lecture an atheist. She went back to church the next Sunday, and probably got support from her flock. They probably praised her for being brave enough to stand up to a big bad atheist. They comforted each other in the certainty that they’re not wrong.
Even if I’m not right about this particular girl, we can say the same thing about thousands of others just like her who have asked the same question of their friends, families, and pastors. The people who ask, “what if you’re wrong” are not looking for an answer to the question. People who are looking for answers accept them when they’re acceptable, and the response to Pascal’s Wager is among the most cut-and-dried and obvious answers that can be given. Asking “what if you’re wrong” isn’t about getting the answer. It’s about receiving comfort.
Most believers have said to themselves, “What if I’m wrong?” In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the more intelligent — the more thoughtful — a believer is, the more likely he is to have considered the possibility that he’s wrong. Granted, we are remarkably insulated in America, and it’s possible that lots of Christians haven’t considered the chance that Allah is the true god, but some have. And honestly, that’s a very, very scary thought. Furthermore, once a person has been indoctrinated into the Christian paradigm that being non-existent after death is terrifying, and a fate worse than death itself, the possibility that there simply is no god can be terrifying.
When a Christian asks me what it means if I’m wrong, what they’re really doing is seeking validation. They are trapped by several of the cognitive dissonances inherent in their beliefs, and are forced to take comfort from the emotional support they get when they are assured that theirs is the more reasonable position. Most Christians in America have not been confronted by atheists. They lead very insular lives in which all of their friends are either Christians or silent atheists who have been afraid to come out of the closet. Until the recent explosion of atheist authors and everyday atheists becoming more vocal in their disbelief, it was quite possible for a Christian to live their whole life and only get answers to Pascal’s Wager from other Christians. In other words, they would always receive a pat on the back and a reassurance that their beliefs are true.
When we view this as something akin to a ritualistic question and response — like the recitation of scripture — we can see it in a more accurate light. Its persistence is no longer a mystery. Like the lie that is told so often that the liar believes it himself, Pascal’s Wager is recited by the believers, and then answered by other believers, and becomes part of the social and emotional glue that cements belief! It becomes a safe little compartment in the corner of a believer’s mind — a place they can go to reassure themselves when they are afraid.
That’s the primary mechanism, by the way. Fear. Go back and read my entry on reassurance. Here’s the salient point:
We don’t need reassurance for things that we genuinely, deeply believe to be true. We simply go about our life without even thinking of things like this. Do any of us go around reassuring each other that the sun will still be around tomorrow? No! Because we all firmly believe it to be true — so much so that it seems crazy to even mention it.
On the other hand, things we’re not sure of make us uneasy. We seek reassurance. President Obama does get up in front of the nation from time to time to reassure us that the economy is on its way to recovery, and that the health plan will actually do some good for poor Americans.
This is a very, very valuable psychological principle. If we are looking for insecurity, we need only look as far as that for which people seek reassurance. If we are looking at religious beliefs, we can say that in general, the things shouted the loudest or most often are the things most doubted. So when we marvel that Pascal’s Wager somehow seems to sneak into 8 out of 10 conversations with theists, we are really marveling at the pervasiveness of Christians’ fears that they might be wrong.
Pascal’s Wager also sheds light on the real psychological effects of the fear of hell. (My article on hell is far and away the most read entry on religion I’ve ever written. Just so you know…) When a Christian invokes Pascal, she’s reassuring herself that even if she is wrong, she won’t go to hell. Being non-existent may be scary, but being tortured for all of eternity is far scarier. Christians take comfort in the fact that they are not exposing themselves to the threat of hell, and marvel at the atheist’s ability to blithely disregard warnings of eternal punishment. Remember, the irony of hell is that it is only a threat to people who presumably aren’t threatened by it!
The threat of hell only bears any weight for those who believe the threat to be credible. It is not designed to convert the unbelievers. After all, unbelievers don’t believe, so the threat is empty to them. It is designed to scare believers into obedience.
So the next time you hear a theist trot out the tired old line, try to feel sympathy for them instead of frustration. They’re not too stupid to understand the logic. They’re too scared to accept it. And that is a pity.