Shades of Pascal

This story concerning Pascal's Wager is reproduced with kind permission from Dave Holloway. Please visit his website!

Preface

Pascal's Wager appears on the *.atheism groups with some frequency. In fact, I feel rather cheated if I don't see it at least once a week. One day, a Christian known only by the handle "justice" appeared, and offered the Wager in the format of a story. (It was obvious by the first paragraph that we were hearing from a theist. As you read the story, consider the signs: His consistent capatalization of the word "atheist," his preferential treatment of the word "God" and peripheral issues, and his transparent contempt for the atheistic protagonist, both in the narration and through the chracter of the old peasant woman.) Here is the story as it was posted.

The Atheist

A certain Atheist lecturer was parading up and down the countryside pouring out his verbiage against the very thought of God, and heaping ridicule upon all those foolish enough to believe in God, and in the Bible as the Word of God.

On one occasion, he addressed a group gathered in a large hall. His wordy eloquence stirred them to a high pitch and, deeming himself master of the situation, he hurled a challenge to Almighty God. If there be a God, he challenged Him to reveal Himself by smiting the lecturer to death. When God did not do this, the man turned to his audience and exclaimed: "See there is no God."

Whereupon a little peasant woman, with shawl about her head, arose to her feet. She addressed her remarks directly to the lecturer, as follows: - "Sir, I cannot answer your arguments; your learning is beyond me. You are an educated man while I am merely a peasant woman. With your superior intelligence will you answer me one question?"

"I have been a believer in Christ for many years. I have rejoiced in His salvation, and I have enjoyed my Bible. His comfort has been a tremendous joy. If, when I die, I come to learn that there is no God, that Jesus is not the Son of God, that the Bible is not true, and that there is no salvation or Heaven - pray, sir, what have I lost believing in Christ during this life?"

The room was very still. The audience quickly grasped the logic of the woman's question. Then they turned to the Atheist, who by this time was swayed by the woman's simplicity.

In quiet tones, he made an answer:

"Madam, you won't stand to lose a thing."

Hearing this, the peasant woman spoke again.

"You have been very kind and have answered my question. Permit me to ask another. If, when it comes time for you to die, you discover that the Bible is true, that there is a God, that Jesus is His Son, and that there is a Heaven and Hell - pray sir, what will you stand to lose?"

The Atheist was silent. He had no answer.

This story portrays, in a nutshell, Pascal's Wager. Either God exists or he doesn't; if you believe in him, you stand to gain everything, but will have lost nothing if he does not exist; whereas if he does exist, the nonbeliever has lost everything.

Included with the story in the theist's post was a handful of bible verses, starting with the obligatory "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God" (Psalm 14:1). Again, notice the author's contempt for the atheist -- and through it, his contempt for intelligence and education in general. One wonders why he would show such antagonistic hostility towards reason and intelligence if his own world-view indeed is the Truth.

Every so often, some of my best work is inspired by pieces such as the above. This particular Christian provided excellent groundwork for a response to Pascal's Wager. So it was that I took the liberty of revising his story. I think most people would agree that my version is far, far more realistic.

Shades of Pascal: An Atheological Tale

A certain atheist lecturer was travelling through the midwest, lecturing against the concept of God (The Judeo-Christian god, that is; one god-concept among many). Many people whom he adressed laughed at him and ridiculed him. One particular Christian wrote thus of the atheist's activities: "He paraded up and down the countryside, pouring out his verbiage against the very thought of God, and heaping ridicule upon all those foolish enough to believe in God, and in the Bible as the Word of God." The atheist smiled, and took this in good stride. He had heard it before, and knew that he would probably hear it for the rest of his career.

Sometimes he asked himself why he even bothered. Most people, after all, believed in their god for emotional rather than rational reasons.Oh sure, many people claimed to believe for rational reasons. Upon encountering such people, the atheist would ask, "Should your rational arguments for the existence of your god be shown to be incorrect, would you then relinquish your belief in that god?" Very rarely would he receive a yes answer; most of the time he would receive either a no answer, or a series of stammerings. Often the theist would reply that belief in God is a matter of faith. The atheist would then smile and say, "Sir, have you ever taken a stroll through a lunatic asylum? If you have, then you would know that faith proves absolutely nothing."

But still, most people would not listen.

On one occasion, he addressed a group gathered in a large hall. His straightforwardness and eloquence did not affect them greatly, and before long, he realized that rather serious measures were needed to regain their attention. The atheist had something of a spontaneous streak; presently he shocked the entire audience into complete silence and rapt attention by leaping onto the podium and shouting, "IF THERE EXISTS A GOD, MAY HE STRIKE ME DOWN WITH LIGHTNING!"

When a moment had passed without this happening, the atheist smiled slightly. "This does not, of course, demonstrate that God does not exist," he said as he climbed down; "merely that he shows contempt for man's ability to clearly and unambiguously find him. One must ask, if God is so benevolent, and if he wants people to believe in Him, why does he not show himself? Smiting me down just now, as I called upon him to do, would have been a good start. Something along the lines of, oh, a ten-mile cross of fire over Israel would be another. One must ask: If God does exist, why is He not more convincing about it?"

At this point, a little peasant woman, with shawl about her head, rose to her feet. She addressed her remarks directly to the lecturer: "Sir, I cannot answer your arguments; your learning is beyond me. You are an educated man while I am merely a peasant woman. With your superior intelligence, will you answer me one question?"

The atheist chuckled. "Madam, please don't think that I posess superior intelligence; I posess no more than, well, the pastor of your church. The difference between your pastor and myself, Madam, is that we choose to apply our intelligence . . . differently. As for your question?"

"I have been a believer in Christ for many years. I have rejoiced in His salvation, and I have enjoyed my Bible. His comfort has been a tremendous joy. If, when I die, I come to learn that there is no God, that Jesus is not the Son of God, that the Bible is not true, and that there is no salvation or Heaven -- pray, sir, what have I lost believing in Christ during this life?"

The room was very still. The audience turned to the atheist, who looked neither surprised nor particularly impressed by the woman's simplicity.

"What have you lost, Madam? Why, your life! The freedom to live your life as you choose, without fear, or guilt, or shame. Madam, if the notion of an infinite voyeurist who is constantly looking at every thought and every action in your life does not create a high degree of tension and anxiety, not to mention guilt, then I fear that nothing will.

"You see, Madam, Christ commands those who would become his followers to surrender the qualities of happiness, and efficiacy, and confidence. If you believe me not, rest assured that the New Testament is very clear on this. What remains after these qualities are surrendered? Nothing, Madam . . . except for a man without reason, without passion, without self-esteem. A man, in other words, that will find anything preferable to life on Earth. Such a man may claim that Christianity has given him a hope of happiness in some afterlife, but I believe that all that it has really given him is an elaborate excuse, draped in a banner of morality, to continue his blind stumbling through his life on Earth."

The atheist felt regret for a moment -- but only for a moment -- that he had spoken so harshly. He had exercised caution long enough, he then decided; the time had already passed to spare the other person's feelings at the expense of truth.

But presently, the old woman spoke again:

"You have been very kind and have answered my question. Permit me to ask another. If, when it comes time for you to die, you discover that the Bible is true, that there is a God, that Jesus is His Son, and that there is a Heaven and Hell - pray sir, what will you stand to lose?"

The atheist looked at her. She appeared quite old, and frail; she could have been anyone's beloved grandmother. But in her eyes, the atheist could see something else entirely . . . it wasn't until some time later that the atheist realized that it was a sense of triumph he had sensed; a sense of smugness. The atheist looked at the woman for a long moment before speaking.

"Madam, I stand to lose a great deal. But so do you, I fear."

Supressing a smile at the peasant woman's baffled look, the atheist went on: "You see, the Christian god, should he exist, has already shown himself to be an UNJUST god, by the fact that he will send people to eternal torture -- eternal, Madam! -- for a finite transgression. There can be no greater injustice than that, by our standards. Given that, what would stop him from performing other acts which are, by our standards, unjust? If your god is willing to send innocent people who rejected the existence of your god on a reasonable basis to hell, what makes you think that he will keep his promise to those who do believe in him? By our standards, there can be no greater injustice than that. But there can be nothing that would stop him from promising eternal life to believers, and then turning around and throwing them into the Lake of Fire -- if you'll pardon the expression, Madam -- just for the hell of it!"

"God keeps his promise to his children!" The peasant woman protested amidst the gasps of horror and disbelief which echoed through the audience.

"And what, Madam, makes you say that?"

"God has promised it!"

"So in other words, we know God -- a being whom we already know to have what any objective observer would call a sadistic streak -- will keep his promise merely on his say-so? I'm afraid, Madam, that you will have to do better than that.

"Here is another reason why you have much to fear, Madam. You have already proclaimed yourself to be a follower of Christ. Suppose you spent the rest of your life as such, and died in the comfortable knowledge that you were going to heaven. But the next thing you know after your physical death, you are in a lake of fire, with wailing and suffering all around you, there to spend the rest of eternity! You feel that your God has treated you unjustly, and so you scream for an appeal of your sentence, and without warning, you hear a deep, booming voice from above . . . in Arabic, the language of the Prophet Muhammed. Millions of people, Madam, believe in the gentle religion of Islam . . . what do you stand to lose if they are right, and you are wrong?

"There could also be something up there that is completely beyond our conception. For example, there could exist a being -- let us call him the Perverse Master -- which, for no other reason than his own amusement, sends into hell any creature who believes in any god at all, and sends to heaven any creature who has no belief in a god. Or perhaps there exists a sort of Anti-Perverse Master, who sends to hell all beings except those who believe in the Perverse Master! Madam, we simply have no way of knowing whether they exist or not. But can you say, Madam -- can you say with absolute certainty -- that none of these are the case? As improbable as they may seem, what do you stand to lose, Madam?"

The peasant woman was thoroughly baffled. She opened her mouth and uttered something about God's promises, before lapsing into silent incomprehensibility. The atheist smiled at her, not unkindly.

"If, Madam, I am indeed incorrect, and there does exist a god, then we can only hope that there exists a just God; one who does not punish an honest error of belief, but rather rewards one's consistent and consciencious use of the reasoning skills which He himself afforded us. Otherwise, Madam, I fear that we both may be in serious trouble."

Presently, the atheist finished the delivery of his written lecture. Most of the audience had left by this time. A few people remained at the end; including the old peasant woman, who sat there motionless, fuming. Most of the audience, in fact, was fuming. But a few people were looking at him with wonder in their eyes. The atheist smiled as he stepped out from behind the podium to a thin, cordial smattering of applause. He knew that if he had reached even one of these people; if he had gotten even one of them to eventually embrace reason and throw off the chains of theism; the entire ordeal will have been worth it.

The local pastor spoke to him as he was leaving the hall. "You seem to know your bible well, Sir," he intoned. "I wonder if you are familiar with the first verse of the fourteenth Psalm. 'The fool hath said --'"

"'in his heart that there is no God.' Yes indeed, Sir. Do you believe what your bible tells you?" the atheist inquired as he put on his winter coat.

"I believe every word that is written in the Holy Bible," the pastor said as defiantly as he could manage.

"Of course you do. Perhaps, however, you need a refresher from time to time. May I suggest that you consult the book of Matthew, chapter 5, verse 22. Good evening, Sir."

And the atheist, humming a pleasant tune under his breath, departed from the hall.

Sources:

Martin, Michael. "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification."

Smith, George H. "The Reasonableness of Atheism" (audio recording)

Copyright 1998 by Dave Holloway. All rights reserved.

Home  -  Submitting Your Work  -  Contact Me  -  Further Reading  -  About Me  -  Sign My Guestbook
Hosting by WebRing.