Pascal’s logic—to act like you believe in God even if you don’t—is convincing. The problem is, which God?
Pascal’s wager, formulated by the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, is based on the notion that if you give your life over to God, God will reward you—if not in this incarnation, then in the next; if not on earth, then in heaven; if not on this plane, then on a higher plane.
This proposition is at the heart of all God-centered religions. Of course, this spiritual carrot comes with a no-less-compelling stick: reject God and violate his commandments and you will be punished: if not in this incarnation, then in the next, if not on earth, then in hell, if not on this plane, then on a lower plane.
With this in mind, Pascal’s wager goes something like this: Even if you don’t believe in God, you should still confess a belief in God and follow his commandments because even if it turns out there is no God, you really haven’t lost anything, whereas if it turns out there is a God, and you chose not to believe in him, you are screwed. For all eternity.
Pascal’s logic is pretty convincing. The problem isn’t with his logic, however. The problem is that you have no way of knowing which God to believe in.
For Pascal there was only one God—the Catholic God— and only one set of commands: those mandated by the Roman Catholic Church. You and I live in a global community with many gods and many religions and many divine commandments, and we have no way of knowing which God, religion, or set of commandments is THE TRUE God, religion, or set of commandments.
For example, let’s say I accept Pascal’s wager and bet on the God of my youth: the Creator of Heaven and Earth who chose the Jews from among all peoples to receive his one and only revelation—the Torah—that obligates us to 613 commandments. And let’s say that this God—the God I’m betting on—isn’t God at all. Let’s say that the true God is the Catholic God, and the true religion is the Catholic religion, and there is no salvation outside this religion and the belief in Jesus as my Lord and Savior. Now what? I placed a wager, but I wagered wrong! I am going to hell not because I chose not to bet on God, but because I bet on the wrong God.
So, what to do? Change the paradigm. Don’t bet on a God or a religion out of habit or because of a carrot or stick. Bet on a God or religion because you find this God and religion makes you more kind, just, and loving. And if you choose wrong and you are punished despite being kind, just, and loving, know that any God who would do such a thing wasn’t worthy of your allegiance in the first place. Better to go to hell for love, then hang out in heaven with the haters.
Here’s the real deal: God or no God, kindness, justice, and love are what matter. Any religion that says different—leave it to Pascal.
More to ponder: Is immortality an intuitive belief?