Most theistic arguments conclude that God exists. The conclusion of Pascal’s wager is slightly different. The wager concludes that you should commit to God, as there is much to gain, and little to lose. If you commit to God and God exists, you gain something infinitely good: going to heaven, being united with God, and having a relationship with God. If you don’t commit to God and God exists, you miss out on these infinite goods, and may even face an infinite loss—going to hell and being separated from God. If God doesn’t exist, then whatever you do has merely finite consequences. As long God’s existence is a live possibility, it is prudent to commit to God.
While there are many objections to the wager, here, we’ll focus on a specific objection that has to do with the motives associated with taking the wager. The idea is this: those that take Pascal’s wager are motivated by a fear of hell or a selfish desire to get the rewards of heaven. But these are bad reasons to commit to God. Thus, taking Pascal’s wager doesn’t result in a genuine theistic commitment—it’s just a gamble. And if God isn’t pleased with wagering, the wagerer might not get the benefits described above, anyway.
Here, I offer a response to this objection: taking Pascal’s wager need not reflect poor or selfish motives. I’ll also argue that there’s a way of taking Pascal’s wager that demonstrates genuine religious faith. I’ll elaborate on what it means to take the wager, and discuss the nature of faith. Finally, I’ll bring these two together, and show how someone might faithfully take Pascal’s wager.
2. The Reason for Taking Pascal’s Wager
Of course, it is possible to take Pascal’s wager with poor motives. But this isn’t a necessary feature of taking Pascal’s wager. The person I have in mind isn’t certain that God exists. They might even have some serious doubts about God’s existence. However, they reason as follows:
If God exists and I commit to God, that would be a very good thing. God (if God exists) is a powerful, good being who created the universe, and that is someone I would want to pursue and commit to. Thus, even the possibility that God exists provides a strong reason to pursue a relationship with God, because knowing such a being would be so incredibly valuable.
The wagerer maintains that committing to God if God exists would lead to a positive outcome—a relationship with God—and this is the primary reason that they wager. Once they commit, they think that God’s existence would be a good thing. After all, they’ve bet their life on it.
3. What Is Faith?
Now, we turn to a second question, that may at first seem unrelated to Pascal’s wager: what is faith? Here’s a first pass at how to understand faith:
(1) Faith has a belief-like component.
(2) Faith has a desire-like component.
(3) Faith involves a commitment.
(4) Faith is steadfast in light of counterevidence.
Let’s discuss these components in order. First, faith has a belief-like component. If you have faith that something is true, you have some confidence that it’s true: you think it’s somewhat likely or supported by evidence. Second, faith has a desire-like component. Suppose I claim to have faith that your basketball team will win their upcoming game. Then, I want them to win. Similarly, if I have faith that God exists, I want God to exist. This is because faith involves desire. Third, faith involves commitment. If I have faith that your team will win their upcoming game, I have some kind of commitment to your team. If I have faith that God exists, this involves a religious commitment. Finally, faith is steadfast in light of counterevidence, which helps us keep our commitments over time. If one of your starting five players gets injured—or if I come to question why a loving God would allow evil—faith’s steadfastness helps me maintain my commitment to your team—or to God.
4. Faithfully Taking Pascal’s Wager
So far, we’ve seen first that those who take Pascal’s wager commit to God, and they are motivated by the goodness of the outcome according to which they commit to God and God’s existence. We’ve also seen that faith that God exists is a mental state with four components: belief-like, desire-like, steadfastness, and commitment.
Those with faith that God exists and those who take Pascal’s wager, then, have much in common:
(1) They have a positive belief-like attitude toward God’s existence.
(2) They have a positive desire-like attitude toward God’s existence.
(3) They are steadfast in light of counterevidence to God’s existence.
(4) They commit to God.
We’ve discussed how these characterize faith. But do these characterize taking Pascal’s wager? Yes. The wagerer has a positive belief-like attitude toward God's existence—recall that the wagerer takes God's existence as a serious and live possibility, even if they have doubts. They also have a positive desire-like attitude toward God’s existence—they are motivated by the goodness of their committing to God, if God exists, and once they commit to God, they desire God to exist. The wagerer is steadfast in light of counterevidence, since their commitment to God is based (in part) on values, not just evidence. And finally, they commit to God.
Thus, if someone takes Pascal’s wager, motivated by the goodness of possibly knowing God, they demonstrate faith that God exists. This is significant because it shows that it is possible to take the wager with virtuous and honorable motives. Faith is a theological virtue and a central mark of a devoted religious life. Furthermore, if one isn’t confident enough in God’s existence to meet the belief-like component of faith, one may nonetheless hope that God exists. Hope is another commitment-justifying theological virtue, and theistic hope only requires thinking God's existence is possible. Then, our ultimate conclusion is that the virtuous wagerer demonstrates either theistic faith or theistic hope.
Therefore, taking Pascal’s wager can demonstrate virtuous motives that please God. Even if we have serious doubts about God’s existence, we might still have a good reason to commit to God—based on how good it would be to know the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Taking such a leap, even in the face of deep uncertainty, can be a faithful and virtuous thing.
Note that this is a summary of a longer article with the same title, forthcoming in The Monist. You can download that for free here: https://philpapers.org/rec/JACFTP-2.
See my paper “Salvaging Pascal’s Wager” for responses to many of the standard objections to the Wager. You can download that for free here: https://philpapers.org/rec/JACSPW.
For some videos on Pascal’s wager, see this playlist: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAVhJKYeHG-W3dZPU9nBnKuLPB1cjaxSR.
For more on the nature of faith, see this paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/JACFAR.
— Liz Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ryerson University. She completed her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Her main philosophical interests are in epistemology and philosophy of religion. Her first book, Applied Ethics: An Impartial Introduction, is coming out at the end of 2021. To learn more about her work, check out her website: http://liz-jackson.com and her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/lizjackson111.
(*The views expressed in the articles and media linked to do not necessarily represent the views of the editors of The Worldview Bulletin.)
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