Pascal Would Weep

This morning’s Boston Globe has a column by one James Carroll, who cites the recent survey that showed just how ignorant many Americans are on the subject of religion. It was fascinating to see how this Catholic discusses his faith in the Globe, normally a remarkably secular venue.

(You can take the survey questions here — I scored 14 of 15; I guessed on that last one about the First Great Awakening.)

One line, though, just jumped out at me — so much that I left a comment, then decided I wanted to expand on it here.

I am a religious person because I believe that religion can be a way of resisting violence.

That, to me, said so much.

For those who missed it first several thousand times I’ve mentioned it, I’m an agnostic. I hold no particular faith whatsoever. I don’t do this out of hostility to religion or as a conscious rejection of God, but because I think I just lack the “faith” gene. I have a Missouri attitude towards the Almighty — “Show Me!” — and simply can’t make the leap of faith He requires. (And I’m infamously rude to those who try to evangelize me after I politely decline interest, as I’m doing here and now pre-emptively).

But I’ve known quite a few people of faith, and they have a unifying element: they are religious first and foremost because they have a personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Their reasons for being religious are less concerned with temporal matters, and more into furthering and exploring that relationship.

On the other hand, I’ve also encountered quite a few people whose motivations for being religious (or, more precisely, appearing religious) are a bit more secular. They don’t talk about the personal nature of their faith, or the hereafter, but almost exclusively on the secular and temporal aspects of their religion (and God seems often an afterthought).

One such person (who I’ve never met personally, but I think we all feel like we know him pretty well) spent 20 years attending a church, participating fully, is President Barack Obama. He sat in the pews, was married there, had his children baptized there, bought sermons on tape for when he couldn’t attend, and even cited the powerful, forceful, charismatic minister in one of his books — including borrowing a phrase from him for a title.

And in all that time, never once quite caught on to how Reverend Jeremiah Wright was an America-bashing, race-baiting, racial separatist and conspiracy nut until someone helpfully pointed out what Obama hadn’t noticed over all those years.

Mr. Carroll and Mr. Obama are the kind of “religious” people who I respect least. They strike me as the types of people who take a very shallow view of Pascal’s Wager.

I once encountered it in a very simplistic form, and was immediately repulsed. It was explained to me as this:

There either is or is not a God. You can choose whether or not to believe. That leaves a 2×2 matrix, with four outcomes for the afterlife:

1) You believe, and there is a God: you go to heaven.
2) You believe, and there is no God: oblivion.
3) You don’t believe, and there is a God: you go to Hell.
4) You don’t believe, and there is no God: oblivion.

By that formula, there’s no real down side to believing, and one nasty one if you don’t, so why not play it safe?

It took me a while, but eventually I found out that book that tipped me off to Pascal’s Wager had simplified it — so much that it had utterly perverted it and removed its value.

Pascal didn’t say “believe,” or even “profess belief.” His original Wager told us to “live as if we believed.” He didn’t counsel false belief; he simply said to act as if we believed that there was a God.

And he didn’t say that would be sufficient to win one’s way into Heaven. He thought that living that way would be more likely to actually bring about a change in the individual, that through their behavior they might find a genuine faith.

And even if they didn’t, there are worse ways to live one’s life and perceive the world.

For years, I found myself living Pascal’s Wager while loathing it. My theological perspective has been to live my life as best I could, to let my own conscience be my guide, to try to “do the right thing” without professing any false faith, and in the end hope that — if there is a higher power — He will take into account my inability to believe and see that I tried to live my life as best I could.

And I’ve found that, in many cases, my decisions have been pretty compatible with what others of a more spiritual bent do. I’m pretty comfortable with people of deep, sincere faith — right up until they start to evangelize me.

On the other hand, those who wear their religion on their sleeve, who want everyone to know just how important God is to them, and those who use their professions of faith as a shortcut to temporal benefit — those annoy me. I hold religion as far, far too important to trivialize. I find it offensive that they think their God is so foolish as to be deceived by their professions of faith — professions so shallow that even I can see through them. No God worthy of His divinity would accept that, and I would reject any God who would.

Thanks for the insight into your faith, Mr. Carroll. It was most enlightening and educational.

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