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Pascal Would Weep

This morning's Boston Globe has a column by one James Carroll, who cites the recent survey that showed just how ignorant many Americans are on the subject of religion. It was fascinating to see how this Catholic discusses his faith in the Globe, normally a remarkably secular venue.

(You can take the survey questions here -- I scored 14 of 15; I guessed on that last one about the First Great Awakening.)

One line, though, just jumped out at me -- so much that I left a comment, then decided I wanted to expand on it here.

I am a religious person because I believe that religion can be a way of resisting violence.

That, to me, said so much.

For those who missed it first several thousand times I've mentioned it, I'm an agnostic. I hold no particular faith whatsoever. I don't do this out of hostility to religion or as a conscious rejection of God, but because I think I just lack the "faith" gene. I have a Missouri attitude towards the Almighty -- "Show Me!" -- and simply can't make the leap of faith He requires. (And I'm infamously rude to those who try to evangelize me after I politely decline interest, as I'm doing here and now pre-emptively).

But I've known quite a few people of faith, and they have a unifying element: they are religious first and foremost because they have a personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Their reasons for being religious are less concerned with temporal matters, and more into furthering and exploring that relationship.

On the other hand, I've also encountered quite a few people whose motivations for being religious (or, more precisely, appearing religious) are a bit more secular. They don't talk about the personal nature of their faith, or the hereafter, but almost exclusively on the secular and temporal aspects of their religion (and God seems often an afterthought).

One such person (who I've never met personally, but I think we all feel like we know him pretty well) spent 20 years attending a church, participating fully, is President Barack Obama. He sat in the pews, was married there, had his children baptized there, bought sermons on tape for when he couldn't attend, and even cited the powerful, forceful, charismatic minister in one of his books -- including borrowing a phrase from him for a title.

And in all that time, never once quite caught on to how Reverend Jeremiah Wright was an America-bashing, race-baiting, racial separatist and conspiracy nut until someone helpfully pointed out what Obama hadn't noticed over all those years.

Mr. Carroll and Mr. Obama are the kind of "religious" people who I respect least. They strike me as the types of people who take a very shallow view of Pascal's Wager.

I once encountered it in a very simplistic form, and was immediately repulsed. It was explained to me as this:

There either is or is not a God. You can choose whether or not to believe. That leaves a 2x2 matrix, with four outcomes for the afterlife:

1) You believe, and there is a God: you go to heaven.
2) You believe, and there is no God: oblivion.
3) You don't believe, and there is a God: you go to Hell.
4) You don't believe, and there is no God: oblivion.

By that formula, there's no real down side to believing, and one nasty one if you don't, so why not play it safe?

It took me a while, but eventually I found out that book that tipped me off to Pascal's Wager had simplified it -- so much that it had utterly perverted it and removed its value.

Pascal didn't say "believe," or even "profess belief." His original Wager told us to "live as if we believed." He didn't counsel false belief; he simply said to act as if we believed that there was a God.

And he didn't say that would be sufficient to win one's way into Heaven. He thought that living that way would be more likely to actually bring about a change in the individual, that through their behavior they might find a genuine faith.

And even if they didn't, there are worse ways to live one's life and perceive the world.

For years, I found myself living Pascal's Wager while loathing it. My theological perspective has been to live my life as best I could, to let my own conscience be my guide, to try to "do the right thing" without professing any false faith, and in the end hope that -- if there is a higher power -- He will take into account my inability to believe and see that I tried to live my life as best I could.

And I've found that, in many cases, my decisions have been pretty compatible with what others of a more spiritual bent do. I'm pretty comfortable with people of deep, sincere faith -- right up until they start to evangelize me.

On the other hand, those who wear their religion on their sleeve, who want everyone to know just how important God is to them, and those who use their professions of faith as a shortcut to temporal benefit -- those annoy me. I hold religion as far, far too important to trivialize. I find it offensive that they think their God is so foolish as to be deceived by their professions of faith -- professions so shallow that even I can see through them. No God worthy of His divinity would accept that, and I would reject any God who would.

Thanks for the insight into your faith, Mr. Carroll. It was most enlightening and educational.


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Comments (32)

I have never liked Pascal's... (Below threshold)

I have never liked Pascal's wager, it seems to me to be dishonest. Pretend to be a member and expect the privileges of membership but never commit.

"You don't believe,and ther... (Below threshold)

"You don't believe,and there IS a God;you rot in hell"
I don't think this is how this scenario would play out if you didn't believe but still lived a good life that helped rather than harmed your fellow man. If this were the case,I think you might get to heaven same as a believer.
Although this belief may just be a lingering aspect of the concept of "purgatory"

"You don't believe,and ther... (Below threshold)

"You don't believe,and there IS a God;you rot in hell"
I don't think this is how this scenario would play out if you didn't believe but still lived a good life that helped rather than harmed your fellow man. If this were the case,I think you might get to heaven same as a believer.
Although this belief may just be a lingering aspect of the now discarded concept of "purgatory".

had to change a little word... (Below threshold)

had to change a little wording there at the end.

Jay, for what it worth, I l... (Below threshold)

Jay, for what it worth, I live pascal's wager as well and I was born with the "faith" gene...

For those knowledgeable wit... (Below threshold)

For those knowledgeable with the Word of God (the Bible), the way you 'show' your faith is a very substantial topic. More of walk the walk than talk the talk.

Amen, Jay!... (Below threshold)

Amen, Jay!

Why was I not surprised tha... (Below threshold)

Why was I not surprised that the most knowledgeable were Mormons, Jews and agnostic/atheists?

I just wanna know how many of the agnostic atheists were raised Jewish or Mormon versus the other religions. I suspect that its not many. I bet they're mostly from Protestant, and Catholic, (in that order of precedence) training. Would that mean "the smart ones" find it harder to believe dogma in those religions than the others ( or is it the dumb or close minded ones find it easier to believe)? The Mormons are very centered on both education AND social control - so I think its harder for them to become or declare themselves non-believers. Plus I suspect that many are strong Pascal's Wagerites. Now for the Hebrews, well, the culture and history are just so strong.

[ducking and running]

Pascal was not quite as cyn... (Below threshold)

Pascal was not quite as cynical as you might think. But his message was indeed very clear, as in, what do you have to lose!

Also, Pascal was trying to ... (Below threshold)

Also, Pascal was trying to wake people up, and he lived in a society of passionate gamblers. He used the example of a wager to try to get through to them. He wanted people to become seekers.

Why? Because he believed that seekers will be saved. That was the point of his comment that the "unhappy atheist" will be saved. Jesus promised that those who seek will find. (Mt 7:7-8) The unhappy atheist is one who is not contented with his condition, who is still hungry for truth. (More here.) (And here.)

Pascal himself didn't have a strong "faith gene." He was one of the great scientists, and faith did not come easily to him. I'd guess he would have been optimistic about Jay Tea.

Also, his Pensees is a collection of notes for a book he was planning to write. It's not a finished work. Which is why it's one of the few 17th Century books we still enjoy reading. His jottings are very fresh and alive. Peter Kreeft's edition is good.

Sorry, I miss the point of ... (Below threshold)

Sorry, I miss the point of Carroll's piece and your essay. If I'm a Protestant Christian it doesn't matter one whit whether I know or understand Catholic ceremony or "know that the Koran is the Islamic holy book, the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, or Joseph Smith was Mormon." You may refer to me as uninformed or ignorant of other religions but to say that I'm ignorant of ALL religions is illogical.

The point of Pascal's wager... (Below threshold)
jim m:

The point of Pascal's wager is that there is no downside to believing. It was not intended to be an argument for hypocrisy.

In the case of Mr.Carroll, like many libs, he uses religion to cloak parts of his agenda with a sense of moral authority. They do not believe in an all powerful God that is the foundation of morality. Nor do they believe that they have any obligation to follow any moral code other than their own personal convenience.

As to #2: The message of Christianity is that no one could lead a life that would qualify you for entry into heaven, hence the need for Christ's sacrifice. To say that you think that you could 'earn it' on your own would make Christ's sacrifice unnecessary and would render the whole of Christian faith pointless. While the Bible allows that people can follow God and be saved without having heard the gospel, that is not what you seemed to be saying.

Gott Mit Uns. That'... (Below threshold)

Gott Mit Uns. That's what was on Nazi Germany's army uniform belt buckles, and that's what Carroll was writing about. Sorry you missed the point, or maybe you approve drafting God into state-sponsored aggression. After all, as you say JT, "war is good for the economy."

The fewer nutbar fundies praying for Armageddon, and working and voting to bring it about so they can escape their lousy lives in the Rapture (and kill millions), the better.

The premise of Carrol's pie... (Below threshold)

The premise of Carrol's piece is flawed: knowledge 'of' religion is not the same thing as 'being religious', 'having faith' or 'believing in God'.

One can be an atheist and know all about who started the Mormon Church and that the Jewish sabbath starts on Friday night and still live as good a life as anyone else on the planet. Conversely, one can truly believe in God (whatever that means) and yet not have a clue as to what animal Hindus are proscribed to eat. And the reverse is true, getting 15 out of 15 doesn't mean that one is someone I would hold up as a role model.

Nor is attending church or going to confession or naming your kids after some saint (or the opposite thereof) indicative of the life one leads.

There was a movie some years back, Keeping Faith, where the character played by Edward Norton (if I have it right) made a distinction between having faith and believing in religion. The two don't necessarily go together and it is pretty slimy for Carroll to try to tar as bad those who don't know their religious history.

Carroll's piece is just ano... (Below threshold)
jim m:

Carroll's piece is just another typical liberal screed against Americans and religion. It's an apology for islam and saying that Americans are ignorant of how it is really a religion of peace. He blames America for the war in Afghanistan.

The article is a denial of the realities of islamic fundamentalism. He glosses over serious issues with islam such as the concepts of Taqiya and hudna. He allows his own ignorance of culture and religion and creates an equivalence between western/Christian culture and islamic culture. In reality there is a tremendous abyss between the two.

The concepts of honesty and fairness in western society apply equally to all mankind. These concepts in islamic culture are conditional and their application varies depending on whether you are muslim or not and whether you are male or female.

The concepts of salvation are similarly different. Christian faith says that one cannot earn your way into heaven while islam teaches the exact opposite.

It is not ignorance of islam that fuels the war. It is ignorance that prevents us from truly understanding the nature of the enemy. It is ignorance that leads us to think that these people can be reasoned with. It is ignorance that leads us to take their pronouncements as honest when they subscribe to a faith which teaches that it is not merely acceptable to lie to the infidel but it is religious duty to do so. And it is ignorance of modern history which causes libs to fail to understand that we have repeated examples of this behavior from middle eastern leaders over and over again for the last 60 years.

As for the test I scored 15 out of 15. I was raised atheist, became an evangelical Christian and became disgusted with the shallow and hypocritical nature of many believers who feel it necessary to put up a front of being pure and sinless.

Open letter to any evangeli... (Below threshold)

Open letter to any evangelists:

My life is password protected. If God sent you to evangelize me, He'll have given you the password. Your message will be given due consideration upon receipt of the proper password. If said password is not forthcoming, have a nice day.

As a senior in HS I got a p... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

As a senior in HS I got a permanent pass from study hall to a small library featuring works of the great thinkers. I gave the French-Pascal, DesCartes, Montaigne their due along with Kant, Spinoza, William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, Berkeley, Hume, ...

Have returned many times to re-read the others, especially the Scots, but the Fwench?


Jay, my good buddy.<p... (Below threshold)

Jay, my good buddy.

Here I am to evangelize you! Ha! Ha! It wouldn´t do any good right now because your mind is already made up.
But I digress:

It is said, and I am a firm believer in it, that "Love is a decision". Love is far more than an emotion, a physical attraction, or having something in common with another person. True love is a conscious decision we make and then follow through on.

To believe or not believe in God, or in any other thing we believe in in life is also a decision we make. Once we look at the available evidence (a thing many people never do, and thus are considered religiously ignorant), we must make a decision based on that evidence. The main evidence is not in religion, but in the very creation around us. A native of the Amazon often knows more about God than a native of New York City or many theological seminaries. We reject the evidence we don´t like or is not convincing, and accept the evidence we do like. Everyone makes a choice.
Science is no different than the realm of religion because the scientist must read his often conflicting evidence and make a conclusion. He then puts his conclusion (hypothesis) to various tests until he gathers more evidence, and tries to refine his conclusions.
There is no overwhelming, humanly-measurable evidence for anything, much less the existence of God. It is worth saying, however, that the evidence for the existence of God is stronger than the evidence for anything else. Sooner or later, we must decide what we are going to believe. If we don´t like the God-evidence, we discard it and choose to believe something else.
Jay has decided one way, and others have decided another way. God doesn´t force anyone to believe. He is not like the radical Muslims, Catholics of times past, some Protestants of the Reformation, and other religions that allow no freedom of belief.

The people who think that God is going to appear to them and appeal for belief will never see Him until it is too late. Jesus said to the rich man in Sheol (similar to Hell), that people who did not believe Moses and the Prophets would also not believe even if someone they know were to rise from the dead and tell them the truth.
If your only excuse on judgment day is that the evidence wasn´t convincing, you are going to be in a peck of trouble, especially if you never stopped to check things out.
Hell is being separated from God and all His beauty. Lots of people will go there due to their own sin and stubbornness, but they will all be alone for ever.
Nobody has to go. Like for the Chilean miners, god has provided a way of escape. You don´t have to live in darkness now nor forever.

"said password is not forth... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

"said password is not forthcoming, have a nice day."

Oh, yeah, and we have the great lights of Shaw, Russell, Mill, Huxley, Voltaire, Nietzshche, Lenin, Marx, Mao and Kevorkian on our side.

No need for further enlightenment, surely.

Love God with your whole he... (Below threshold)

Love God with your whole heart, soul and body and love your neighbor as you would yourself. They are the two greatest commandments.

JT is correct in that a person's relationship with God is one on one and needs to be worked on everyday through prayer. The more time that passes, the more at peace I become. I sincerely feel sad for people that do not have that all encompassing peace. I was raised in a very unreligious family and did not believe in God until I was in my mid twenties but if you were to ask me to explain how or why it happened, I could not. It just did.

The commenter above is correct about love. It is a decision. ww

Love God with your whole... (Below threshold)

Love God with your whole heart, soul and body and love your neighbor as you would yourself. They are the two greatest commandments.

. . . or I'll torment you in Hell for eternity." - God/Yahweh/Allah

Yeah, that makes consistent moral sense.

"Yeah, that makes consisten... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

"Yeah, that makes consistent moral sense."

Well, start with intellectual integrity and consistency and perhaps moral sense will follow.

The Torah regails us with the instruction that Hathor, Baal, Dagon, Molech, Chemosh, Asherah,..., gods all, are not Yahweh, and that their worship he detests.

Why even attempt to equate Allah with Yahweh or the Atman, or the Ground of Being? Because you prefer to have no god at all.

Why even attempt to equa... (Below threshold)

Why even attempt to equate Allah with Yahweh or the Atman, or the Ground of Being? Because you prefer to have no god at all.

Because "Allah" is from the same Semitic linguistic root as "Yahweh," and Islam is derived more from Judaic sources than any other? A lot of the Koran is a rehash of the Torah, same prophets and stories and rules, including the ban on pork and the stoning of adulterers.

Allah is a lot closer to Yahweh than to a Vedic Atman.

Because "Allah" is from ... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

Because "Allah" is from the same Semitic linguistic root as "Yahweh"

RE: 'Allah;, I believe you're thinking of the Semitic 'el', or 'god'. Etymology is not a particularly strong argument.

Better would be to establish that their words are similar or have the same import, their characters are equivalent.

Islam is demonstrably drawn from the Talmud, rabbinic speculation, collected and published beginning in the 3rd century, on the stories found in the Torah, e.g., Abram trashing the gods of Terah or Solomon, Sheba and the hoopoe bird.

Yes, the Talmud derives from the Torah, but one does not need the Torah at all to derive the Quran, the converse cannot be asserted.

Yahweh: "the earth will pass away but My Words remain".

Allah: "None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: knowest thou not that Allah hath power over all things?".

viz., "In religion there is no compulsion" becomes "Kill the infidel wherever you find him."

The equation of these two gods is indefensible.

RE: 'Allah;, I believe y... (Below threshold)

RE: 'Allah;, I believe you're thinking of the Semitic 'el', or 'god'. Etymology is not a particularly strong argument.

Yes, Elohim, Eloi, Allah.

Islam is demonstrably drawn from the Talmud, rabbinic speculation, collected and published beginning in the 3rd century, on the stories found in the Torah, e.g., Abram trashing the gods of Terah or Solomon, Sheba and the hoopoe bird.

Okay. Then . . .

The equation of these two gods is indefensible.

Huh? You seem to state both points of view on your own.

" You seem to state both po... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

" You seem to state both points of view on your own."

Those darn words, they mean nothing at all, really.

Yahweh is the personal name of an 'el', rather like 'galoob'.

I see no reason to suppose that Allah refers to the same god as does Yahweh because the word 'god' might have been used in a sentence to refer to one or the other or a clay statue instead.

That is your claim, whether you can see that or not. It makes no sense.

Since Muslims revere the To... (Below threshold)

Since Muslims revere the Torah (Tawrat) along with the Gospels (Injil) as holy books, and all the prophets therein, it's pretty clear that they follow the same monotheism as Judaism, and are even more monotheistic than Christianity.

I've read that Yahweh does not appear in the New Testament, that the word there is Eloi.

In the end, it's one all-powerful God who imposes most of the same rules for all three religions.

Just because you don't like Muslims does not make the history or the texts and doctrines different.

I think I'm going to reread... (Below threshold)

I think I'm going to reread Hogfather.

What the Heck was the name of the philosopher who paraphrased Pascal, then died and found himself surrounded by angry gods wielding "nasty-looking sticks?"

Believers who attempt to us... (Below threshold)
Jim Au:

Believers who attempt to use Pascal's Wager on atheists fail to realize one important fact. It's the fact that, to most atheists, belief is NOT a voluntary mental process. As an atheist, I just can't force myself to believe something that I think is utterly absurd even if you point a gun at my head and threaten to kill me.

"Just because you don't lik... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

"Just because you don't like Muslims does not make the history or the texts and doctrines different."

No, the differences make them different.

Muslims do not read the Injil, or the Tawrat, because the Quran's stories do not appear in them. They therefore argue the both of them have been changed, unlike the Quran.

The Mormons at least carry Bibles and refer to them. Their gods, the Father and Son have physical bodies and live on the planet Kolob, four times larger than earth.

No doubt you'd say we all, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Mormons, Sikhs, ..., all worship the same 'god' because they're all derived from the Jews' god. Fine, pond scum.

JT,You might want ... (Below threshold)


You might want to take a look at the works of Martin Luther. He didn't see us a co-equals with God where we would me Him half way by believing in God and then God would judge if that was sufficient and complete the salvation bargain. Rather Luther saw it all coming from God and that God gives us the faith to believe.

I'm not sure how comforting that is if you don't have that faith ("Why didn't God give me the faith to believe?"), but it does take the onus on you trying to lift yourself up to God by working harder on believing.

Resting your salvation on yourself or any one else other than God inevitably leads to a slippery slope. The most you can do is ask the God you don't believe in to give you the faith to believe.

"I've read that Yahweh does... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

"I've read that Yahweh does not appear in the New Testament, that the word there is Eloi."

Yahweh doesn't appear anywhere in the OT either, it is an educated guess. The Jews considered the personal name of God so holy they never uttered it and substituted LORD, the tetragrammaton, for it everywhere, generally reading Adoni, 'my Lord', aloud instead. Eloi is the Aramaic equivalent of Adoni.

Not that knowing is important to faith, and only somewhat important to belief, JT and galoob are similar in that they know very, very little.






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