If you want to get a large segment of fundamentalist atheists stirred up when you are dialoguing with them, mention good ol’ Pascal and his wager; it works almost every time. Quite frankly, I can’t blame them really, I used to react in a similar fashion as a believer, albeit with humor rather then mocking disdain. When I first read about and studied Pascal’s idea, I laughed. I completely understood what Pascal was getting at, but my first thought was that I could not believe that anyone would come to faith by it, and my second was; what faith would they come to? Many of my college students ask the same thing in my Intro to Philosophy course.
However, over time, I’ve changed my mind. Why? Interestingly enough, I “met” someone online who came to believe in God because of the wager. And, the person is a well known (not extremely famous) actor from Hollywood. (He’s a full fledged and post-happy member of one of the smaller message boards I used to frequent daily, if not hourly.) He’s a “good” man; smart, witty, nice, great sense of humor, and very into politics…and happens to have come to belief via the wager. So, if it turns out that there is but even one soul that winds up being saved because of the wager, it is worth it.
The second reason I no longer laugh good naturedly at the wager, is that I finally looked at it for what it was, and only as what it claimed to be within the limits of Pascal’s own philosophy (which I don’t entirely agree with). The key is remembering that it is supposed to be a wager…it is placing a bet. When placing a bet, it is logical to look at all known possible outcomes, factor in known variables, and then place your bet. Here’s a quote from Blaise himself,
“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? …You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”
So, to avoid Pascal’s fallacy of begging the question; you basically have two main splits: the side that says the world is purely materialistic; naturalistic philosophies come under this heading. The other side says there is indeed something beyond the mere physical. The first choice, or cut, is clear…if you believe something exists and nothing really does, you haven’t lost a thing. So, you might as well come down on the side of “something.”
Once you are there, it is a logical matter of exclusivity. Out of known religions (it doesn’t make logical sense to entertain unknown ones) which ones have deity/deities that desire acknowledgment, or perhaps worship, or else you get a bad ending? We can cross many religions/spiritual beliefs off the list right off the bat; for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha’i, many of your native/aboriginal peoples’ beliefs…even Judaism, for Gentiles at least, etc…
Then, if I’m going to place my bet (which is basically one’s soul), then I’m probably going to do some research and see which faiths are still viable. If God is God, you’d want to wager on one that can keep a religion going, or at least I’d logically rather bet on one that could… and the list gets narrowed down quite a bit. Which religion has the most evidence for the truth of it? Many claim to have sacred scripture; which of those has reliable, historical documents, if prophecies are contained therein, which have come true, etc… Blaise Pascal, from all appearances, would have been betting on the Christian God, this is one of the reasons that many criticize Pascal’s wager, but I believe if people do the logical reasoning, it does come down to a clear choice.
Now, I don’t believe in God based upon Pascal’s wager, and I don’t recommend anyone else place all of their eggs just in that basket as Pascal left it; though if the logic works for you, by all means do! But, his basic idea of betting on an outcome, does have logical grounds, if looked at as an actual gamble. I don’t believe that Pascal’s wager, in and of itself, offers an airtight basis for believing, but I do think it is enough to make people think, at least it should; I think it is an interesting way to get people to at least contemplate the afterlife. From there it is a matter of research, study, and yes, perhaps a bit of prayer.