Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Betting Against Pascal

This post is not an attack on any person's belief or lack thereof. Though I do not understand Christianity, I respect those who practice it so long as they respect others in turn. This about the backfiring of a popular apologetic argument, which ended my brief foray into Christianity.

I grew up in Taiwan, immersed in Chinese culture where philosophy, science, and religions of various sorts coexist without any sense of contradiction. This mentality of syncretism and non-exclusivity makes it difficult for me to grok the appeal of Christianity.

It was in part my failure to understand Christianity and curiosity about its success that encouraged me to 'give it a try'. I chose Roman Catholicism because it is the faith practiced by the Irish American side of my family. My beloved aunt, who is a sister (nun) and a lifelong educator, gave me guidance and reading materials, and I found an enthusiastic sponsor at Saint Jude's Shrine in downtown Baltimore.

If Pascal is right, I would side with this guy
The details of my experience are for another post, but suffice to say that Christianity and I did not part on good terms. I came away from it even more mystified by the popularity of Christianity than I was before. Catholic theology in general and apologetics in particular made little sense to me, no matter how my mentors framed it. The single most obnoxious argument in their arsenal was Pascal's Wager.

Seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal posited that, with no rational means to prove or disprove the existence of the Christian god, it is safer to bet on his existence, as one has everything to gain by believing (i.e. Heaven) and everything to lose by not believing (i.e. Hell). This is known as Pascal's Wager, or Pascal's Gambit.

There are a number of serious problems with this argument--false dichotomy being the most immediately obvious--but the one that really put me off was its implications on the character of the Christian god. Pascal's Wager hinges on the assumption that the Christian god, if he exists, saves those who believe him and damns those who do not. 'Believing in the Christian god' entails acknowledging him as an omnipotent being and the creator of the human species, if not the entire Universe.

However, Christianity originated only two thousand years ago, within a rather small ethnic tradition. In order to preserve Pascal's premise, then, we must conclude that the Christian god intentionally withheld his revelation--and therefore salvation--from the vast majority of humanity for most of history. If so, he is a negligent parent at best and an egomaniacal despot at worst.

Given Pascal's conditions, I would wager against the existence of the Christian god. If he exists and would damn anyone who did not believe in him, then I want no part of his kingdom. If he exists and is the just and loving god some modern Christians make him out to be, then he would presumably save anyone who leads a good life, believer or nonbeliever. If he does not exist, then it makes no difference whether I believe in him or not.

When I left the Church without ever being baptized or confirmed (they do it in one big ceremony for adult converts), my sponsor was not surprised. My aunt kept a brave face, though I knew she must have been devastated. She told me to "follow your own Light", to which I replied that I did, and always would.

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