Pascal’s wager—believing in God because the potential rewards of doing so greatly outweigh the cost—is a simple bet. There are no odds to contemplate. There is no under or over to ponder. You don’t have to consider playing a parlay or placing a proposition bet, both of which are affectionately referred to as sucker bets by those in the gaming industry.
Pascal’s wager is as straightforward a bet as you’ll ever get. The reward for getting it right is as appealing as it gets too: eternal bliss. Consequently, according to rabid believers in the afterlife, if you get it wrong, your life will be a never-ending hell.
Heads you win—tails you lose. It’s as simple as that.
So said the seventeenth-century French philosopher and oddsmaker Blaise Pascal, who was also a physicist and a theologian. Nowadays the latter two are like oil and water—they don’t, or ought not, mix. But back then, when we were still trying to figure a few things out, like predicting the weather, only a few dared to bet against God. Pascal was hell-bent on converting them, and enticing the non-bettors, by using a simple argument that made it easy for them to take the leap of faith.
Pascal basically posited that it is better to live life believing in God because, if you’re right, you’ll receive TSA PreCheck status and be given clearance to head straight to your first-class seat for your flight to Heaven (or be sent straight to Hell if Saint Peter trumped the TSA and placed you on a celestial No Fly List).
In other words, if you believe in God and you’re right, you get everything. But if you believe in God and find out that God does not exist because you did not end up anywhere after you died, you only lost a few earthly pleasures that your faith in God forbade you to partake in.
Like . . . well, never mind. I better not incriminate myself. But while God may forgive, Uncle Sam has a vested interest in vengeance by allowing lobbyists to profit from prison sentences.
The point of Pascal’s wager is this: the perceived gains outweigh the actual losses. In other words, only a fool would bet against God.
I cannot count the number of times in my life when Christians unknowingly used Pascal’s wager to convert me into joining the faithful’s flock. Luckily I always had my own borrowed and augmented logic: a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. In other words, I’ll take bliss now in case it doesn’t exist after I draw my last breath.
I like betting on sure things—regardless of its perceived shelf life. When I ponder Pascal’s wager, a Mark Twain quote comes to mind: “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” In Twain’s scenario, you gain something either way, and you lose something. Well, you can’t have everything. As comedian Steven Wright pointed out: “Where would you put it?”
I’ve been doing a lot of pondering, focusing my thoughts on the decision-making of the people who knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to Pascal’s wager. If the bet centers on some abstract concept like the existence of God, they readily side with Pascal and accept that it’s better to believe in God because of the perceived gains. But when it comes to the here and now, to the reality and security of their current existence and their offspring’s existence, they become blasé about the wager.
That idiosyncrasy in their thinking dawned on me while I was busying myself with my self-imposed community service. I monitor and occasionally edit Wikipedia pages. I enjoy visiting Hunter S. Thompson’s page, but mainly I focus on a page concerning a former teenager who hails from Sweden. It is the rejection of her stance by those who happily agree with Pascal’s wager when it comes to God while outright dismissing the gains of her version of the wager that triggered this essay.
Greta Thunberg graduated from high school and is now an adult. She is a lovely young lady who is as gentle and ferociously focused as she was when she was thrust onto the world stage. In the five years that have passed since she silently sat outside of Sweden’s parliament building with a “School Strike for Climate” sign, her message has not change one iota. It is basically a modern Pascal’s wager.
It is better to believe that climate change is real and take immediate action by listening to the best available science than to dismiss climate change as an unproven theory or hoax. Because either way—whether climate change is real or not—by acting as if it is real and taking immediate action, we gain a healthier planet. But if climate change is real and we do not act, we lose everything. In that case, you better hope God forgives us for throwing an epic party and then not cleaning up after ourselves.
If God exists, after She surveys the damage that we have done to Her creation, I’d be willing to wager everything that Her last words to us will be “How dare you!” before She places us on Her No Fly List.