One approach to this problem of “Is faith reasonable?” is to play the odds. I refer, of course, to Blaise Pascal’s infamous hedge known as “Pascal’s Wager,” since it appeared in his posthumous Pensees (1670).
Pascal was a teen math monster who invented the calculator and some fancy geometery, had a mystical moment following a near-death experience (three words: horse, bridge, ice) that caused him to give up math for philosophy and theology … a decision that he backtracked a bit and, at any rate, didn’t need to suffer long since he died eight years later at age 39.
Pensees is a weird book, assembled from paper fragments found in Pascal’s room after he died; it reads like the notes from the underground of the soul. And it’s remarkably modern. The world he assumes is full of people who doubt there’s a God, who know there’s no such thing, demand an explanation, claim religion is irrational, and so on … our New Atheists are “New” only if you start newness, like, 500 years ago.
T. S. Eliot said in an essay on the Pensees:
“… I can think of no Christian writer … more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.”
Like Aquinas, Pascal believed the distance between us and God was so vast as to be practically unbridgeable. “If there is a God,” he writes in Section 233, “He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us.” In other words, says Pascal, “we are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.”
Darn. In fact, he goes further, saying that to offer a so-called “proof” for the existence of God, like our friends Anselm and Aquinas, is to prove “foolishness.” But all is not lost. Like a good French aristocrat 100 years before the Revolution, he suggests we take a gamble.
“‘God is,'” says Pascal, “‘or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here.” Tracking so far. At the extremity of infinity, he tells us, “a game is being played … where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager?” The live bet is: God is, or He is not (Red vs. Black).
Whoa, bro! I’ll sit this one out. “Yes,” says bro Blaise, “but you must wager. It is not optional.” What he means is: our soul exists and has a destiny. We can not uncreate ourselves. By not choosing, we have chosen Black. We all make a stand. So he describes our options — in particular detail, like the statistician he was.
We must choose. If we choose Black (No God) and are wrong, we are doomed. If we choose Red (Yes God) and are wrong, we lose nothing but certain “poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury.” But aren’t we right to bet Black if, in fact, there is No God? Of course … but Pascal has already said we can not know for sure. God is infinitely incomprehensible to us. It’s a simple equation of expected value: Our loss (pleasures, etc.) is finite, but our gain is infinite (salvation, etc.). “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”
To bet Red, he says, is no more “transgressing against reason” than any gamble on an unknown outcome. “There is no time to hesitate,” he says. “When one is forced to play, he [or she] must renounce reason to preserve his [or her] life.” And to those who quite reasonably object that you can’t force yourself to believe in anything, Pascal has an oddly practical answer: fake it.