• Sean O'Leary

Always Bet on Belief

If it’s reasonable to believe in God, why do reasonable people become atheists? This question is not easy to answer. However, one prominent scientist attempted to answer this question by using probability theory and decision theory; pragmatism; voluntarism (i.e. belief is a matter of the will); and the use of the concept of infinity.

Blaise Pascal was an extraordinary genius. In the 17th Century, Pascal contributed to the mathematical theory of probabilities as well as to work in the physical sciences on hydrostatics. In honour of his scientific achievements, the unit of pressure is the Pascal, which also became the name of a programming language. Following a purported brush with death in his early thirties, Pascal’s religious faith was revitalised. Soon after, he began writing on philosophical and religious topics.

In Christian apologetics, Pascal’s Wager is well known. According to Pascal, reason alone cannot prove either the existence or non-existence of God. Therefore, a person must wager or bet by weighing up the possible outcomes. Pascal then demonstrates that the wisest course of action is to wager on God’s existence.

If you’re correct, you gain eternal life. If you’re incorrect, you lose nothing. The thinking behind Pascal’s Wager doesn’t prove that God exists, nor does it tell us much about God or the real challenges of faith experienced by people who struggle to believe. However, the Wager does help us to understand the limitations of logic when thinking about God.

Pascal did not construct the Wager to convince unbelievers of the benefits of faith. During Pascal’s lifetime many intellectuals, influenced by the philosophy of René Descartes were in awe of the power of human reason to master the world. Descartes’ famous phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’ is suggestive of the power of human rationality to define humanity.

Pascal was dubious about the elevated status of rationality in the intellectual climate of the time. For Pascal, anxieties, fears, desires and longings were highly influential in human affairs. In one sense, the Wager shows us why unbelievers choose not to believe in God. It is not a simple matter of reason.

Based on reason alone, people would choose to bet on the existence of God. It is clearly the logical choice to make. When a person chooses not to believe, it is not because they are being rational. It is because belief is inconvenient. People who choose not to believe prefer to think that God doesn’t exist. As Pascal notes in the Pensées (Thoughts): ‘At least get it into your head, that if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so’.

For Pascal, ignoring reason was as foolish as clinging to the notion that it is only reason that dictates our decisions. When we realise that reason is not the only factor that influences our choices, we become more open to the possibilities of faith. The Wager was designed to demonstrate that we are not the purely rational beings we like to think we are.

Even today, there are many reasons why we might prefer to think that God doesn’t exist. The world is full of distractions and vices. When it comes to reasoning about God, we might be influenced by the thinking of prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. But, militant atheism is not just about reasoned disbelief. Instead, it promotes a passionate anti-theism dressed up to look like intellectual honesty. Clearly, we are much more complex that erudite rationalists lead us to believe.

In his life’s work, Blaise Pascal shows us that scientific thinking can go hand in hand with religious faith. He also shows us that when it comes to life’s deepest questions, we need to consider the importance of rationality as well as seriously consider the possibility that we can use reason to convince ourselves of something that we wish to be true. Belief or unbelief is not simply a matter of reason. As Pascal himself writes: ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’.

Pascal’s Wager is a good reminder that God cannot be known merely in our minds but must also be known in our hearts and souls.

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