Most believers and nonbelievers are familiar with Pascal’s Wager, the argument designed to persuade us that the only rational thing to do is believe that God exists. If you do believe, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. If you don’t believe, you’ve got nothing to gain and everything to lose. This is the “safe bet” strategy.
Although a devotee of rationality, I have imagination. When I think of Pas cal’s Wager, I like to indulge in a flight of fancy. Let the reader come along: Assume that God exists and that His existence cannot be demonstrated through reason or sense experience, that is, neither rationally nor empirically. Now, consider the appearance of three fictitious characters at the final bar of justice: (1) the knee-jerk theist, (2) the knee-jerk atheist, and (3) the thoughtful, reflective agnostic. What might be the destinies of the three? Would God prefer the knee-jerk theist to the reflective agnostic? Most traditional theists would say, “Absolutely!” I’m not sure.
In the ensuing discussions, let K-J T stand for “knee-jerk theist,” K-J A for “knee-jerk atheist” and RAG for “reflective agnostic.”
First, our knee-jerk theist:
God: Did you always believe in me?
K-J T: My faith never wavered.
K-J T: My parents said so, and later all my teachers too; and all my life, my friends, family, coworkers agreed.
God: Didn’t you ever question your beliefs?
K-J T: Not really. I was told that questioning might get me in trouble.
God: Sorry, kid, you’re headed that way!
* * *
Next, our knee-jerk atheist:
God: Did you believe in me?
K-J A: No, but I was wrong.
God: Why didn’t you believe?
K-J A: I was rebellious, a free spirit. I just wanted to piss people off, especially my parents.
God: Didn’t you ever think much about your self-styled atheism?
K-J A: No.
God: See that gentleman in front?
* * *
Finally, our reflective agnostic:
God: Did you believe in me?
God: Why not?
RAG: Even in adolescence, I couldn’t quit questioning whether you existed. I thought about it a lot, considered all the arguments pro and con. I couldn’t satisfy myself one way or the other. I see I was wrong but . . . I gave it my best shot. Should I follow those two gentlemen?
God: No, you’re coming with me. You know, I gave you rationality for a purpose.
In fairness, there remain two hypothetical figures in the wings, patiently waiting their turns—and their fates: the rational theist (RT) and the rational atheist (RA). Let’s see how they fare.
First, the rational theist:
God: You believed in me, right?
RT: Well, I was never completely convinced. The problem of evil alone kept me awake many a night. I examined all of the standard arguments closely, but found none definitive, although some had merit. I thought belief and action could be beneficial, so I put all of my eggs in your basket, and tried to follow your moral dictates. That’s all I have to say.
God: I’m impressed by what you said at the very end, your reference to moral behavior. Sit over there while I speak with this last fellow.
* * *
Now, the rational atheist:
God: So, you didn’t believe in me?
RA: I’m sorry, I didn’t. Now I see I was wrong. But I still don’t regret what I did. I examined all the arguments and evidence provided by my theistic contemporaries, but, in the end, I found them all wanting. However, I tried to conform my life and actions to your moral teachings which, I discovered, mostly squared with those of other sacred traditions. And these, I felt, stood on their own; they did not require any transcendental support. Do you want me to get in line with those first two, the K-J T and K-J A?
God: No, I want to join your brothers [the rational theist and the reflective agnostic]. Take my hand and follow me. I’m going to show you the most delicious and exciting experience of your life—I mean, lives—a life grounded and guided by reason and science, a world where all will flourish! How’s that for Paradise?
RAG, RT, and RA (in unison): Lead the way!
Returning to Pascal’s Wager, it is instructive to hear what three historical figures have to say about this “betting strategy”—the three R’s, that is: the rational theist, rational atheist, and rational agnostic.
John Hick is the greatest philosopher of religion in the twentieth century in the English-speaking world and an excellent representative of rational theism. He writes:
. . . Pascal’s Wager amounts to a rational form of self-insurance. It assumes that God will be pleased by such a calcuat-ing and self-regarding attitude. This assumption has seemed profoundly irreligious to many religious believers. . . .
One of the most brilliant, flamboyant and provocative figures of that same century, Bertrand Russell, stands in nicely for our rational atheist:
How do you know that there isn’t a God who respects sincerity and the weighing of evidence so much that He will punish forever anyone who joins a certain party just to be on the winning side?
Finally, when choosing someone to speak for the rational agnostics, there are many illustrious figures to choose from. Let’s take Charles Darwin, who wrote in his Autobiography:
I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved, as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.
Far-fetched? Who cares? An exercise in idle speculation? This is sometimes called food for thought. At any rate, whereas Pascal’s Wager seemed to be the best (read: safest) bet at the outset, it now appears to be perhaps the worst. Don’t bet on it!
Arthur Miller is professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.