The House Always Wins

October 3, 2008

Christians often gain a false sense of security from a line of reasoning known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In short, it is an argument for belief based on possible consequences: If Christianity is false, you don’t lose anything for believing it; but if it is true, the reward for belief is immeasurable and the cost is similarly expensive. So, the argument goes, why not believe since a cost-benefit analysis clearly favors Christian faith? Thus, Pascal’s Wager is an often cited motivation for belief in Christianity.

I found this convincing—or more precisely, reassuring—in earlier days while I was a Christian. It seemed obvious that I could gain so much and risk nothing. It wasn’t until I began to consider the issue from the outside that I started to see the problems here.

Pascal’s Wager presents a false dichotomy. His options are:

(BELIEF)  Risk nothing in this life (cost); Gain everything in the next life (benefit).

(NON-BELIEF)  Risk everything in the next life (cost); Gain nothing in this life you wouldn’t have otherwise (benefit).

Each of these statements includes a cost and a benefit (or lack thereof).

For (BELIEF): cost = 0; benefit = ∞.

For (NON-BELIEF): cost = ∞; benefit = 0.

I would challenge the “cost” portion of (BELIEF) first on the assumption that there is nothing risked. Life as a Christian makes large demands on one’s life! Luke 14:26 has from Jesus’s mouth that a Christian (follower of Christ) must “hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also.” Even given a faithful/charitable understanding of this passage and granting that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, his point is that there are great demands on anyone who would follow him. Again, in the story of the rich young man of Matthew 19, Jesus’s point again and again is that the costs of discipleship are extreme! There are many more examples of “counting the cost.” So it can be fairly said that what it costs a Christian is far from nothing, and Pascal’s “cost” of (BELIEF) is wholly inaccurate.

As a real example of one such cost of Christianity, I offer a story from my recent life. Like myself, several of my non-Christian friends are friends with Christians. I have lately been hearing from these non-Christian friends how their friendships with Christians are suffering due to Christian faith. I understand their frustrations because I have been experiencing the very same thing with some of my Christian friends. The experiences we are independently having is that a Christian friend can build and maintain a friendship only as long as there is hope that the non-Christian will convert to Christianity. After enough time, the Christian comes to realize that the non-Christian friend does in fact understand Christianity and is still certain they don’t want to convert. Invariably, this has led to the Christian friend withdrawing from the relationship—much to the sad bewilderment of the non-Christian friend. Whether as an article of faith or just as a social/personality side-effect, Christians seem to inherently limit their relationships that cross religious lines. I think this is unquestionably a cost to Christian faith—or at very least, it is an example of something that could be gained in this life, contrary to Pascal’s “benefit” of (NON-BELIEF).

Aside from costs in this life, there is another elephant-sized objection to Pascal’s Wager: Rewards of the next life. Pascal assumes that options for the next life are binary based on faith in Christ: either reward or punishment; either eternal life or eternal suffering; either Heaven or Hell. Setting aside the belief of many Christians in the “middle ground” of Purgatory or something similar, one should at least admit the logical possibility of the truth of other religions’ claims. The options are far greater than belief or non-belief in Jesus’s redeeming work. They include all the other options of other religions. What if Islam were true? Then the “cost” of (BELIEF) in this life would result of the “benefit” of (NON-BELIEF) in the next life. Or consider if Christianity were true enough that Christians were rewarded with eternal life, but also—as C. S. Lewis suggests in Mere Christianity—people of other beliefs were also “saved” through Jesus. In this case, a person could live with (NON-BELIEF) in this life and still have the “benefit” of (BELIEF) in the next life.

Finally, the reason this argument might have its initial persuasive quality is because it executes a category confusion to allow begging the question and sets the “benefit” of (BELIEF) up against the “cost” of (NON-BELIEF), and vice versa. I’ve hinted at this confusion in the preceding paragraphs by sliding in the terms “this life” and “the next life.” For Pascal, the “cost” of (BELIEF) is something in “this life” alone; the “benefit” of (NON-BELIEF) is also something in this life alone (and vice versa). We are inclined to inherently value the realm of “the next life” more than that of “this life,” because (presumably) “this life” is finite and “the next life” is infinite. On those terms, the greatest sacrifice in “this life” would inherently be worth the smallest gain in “the next life.” In fact, the only thing at all that matters is what happens in “the next life.” So in framing the discussion in those terms, Pascal wins before he begins. If, on the other hand, there is no reward in “the next life” or there is no life at all after this one, when the cost of anything in “this life”—great or small—is weighed against an empty set of potential rewards in “the next life,” even the smallest cost in “this life” is an immeasurable loss compared to gaining nothing in “the next life.”

All of this suggests why Pascal’s Wager is only convincing (reassuring) to Christians, and utterly without value to thinking non-Christians. If you presuppose a Christian view of “the next life,” then Pascal’s Wager works by definition of the terms; but if you don’t assume the certainty of reward in “the next life,” then Pascal’s zero-cost assumptions about Christian belief in “this life” forfeit parts of living which have incredible value! Since “reward in the next life” is exactly what is in question, Pascal pulls a fast one in assuming that to make his fallacious case.

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The Reason Against God

August 25, 2008

My reasons for leaving Christianity are exactly the same as Tim Keller’s reasons for why you should join it: There is no one overwhelming argument which can’t be denied; instead there are a lot of smaller reasons which, when taken together, provide an inductive force so compelling I couldn’t resist it. Also, like Keller, I like this story better.

Ironically, Keller’s book was fairly instrumental in my deconversion. As I’ve said other places, it was a long and gradual process which finally led me away from the faith. But the last lifeline I had was Tim Keller’s recent book, The Reason for God. I know and respect his work in many other places and was hoping that this book would provide me with the rationale I needed to counter credible unChristian arguments and sustain my Christian belief. The opposite happened.

Keller takes up a two-part strategy: First, he demonstrates how the objections to Christianity, or “defeater beliefs,” assume the same form which they intend to criticize. Second, the constructive portion of his argument can probably be accurately caricaturized1 as: “Christianity is a really nice story, so you should accept it.”

In the first half of the book, the “defeater beliefs” section, Keller astutely lays out the overall problem: there is no objective place from which to judge various worldviews. Kudos to Keller on this because many people never get this, especially many Christians! Unfortunately, the book is all down hill from here. Keller tries to illustrate the issue with his elephant analogy. A summary: Imagine several blind people touching a creature which they don’t know is an elephant. One says, “It’s long and flexible like a snake,” feeling the trunk. Another says, “No it’s thick and round like a tree trunk,” feeling its leg. Another touches the side and says, “No it’s large and flat.” Then Keller says:

In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? … How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?

As someone who was wrestling with this very question, I was thrilled when it looked like Keller would say something profound about it. Excitement turned sour when instead of the profound and rational thinking I’ve come to expect from Keller (and I have read/listened to his work many other places with the highest praise), I was given a very flimsy straw man and logic-less pebbles hurled in its general direction.

My immediate response to this particular analogy was first that it is probably a good analogy, and the many different religions do “feel” different parts of a single great reality. But to answer the last question in this quote above: We would know by listening to each other charitably, thinking clearly, and not by a theological imperialism that claims the perspective of omniscient narrator simply because we already proved no one can hold that position (sic).

The rest of Keller’s first section on “doubting your doubts,” is filled with more of the same: straw man arguments weakly attacked. No person who actually holds the various positions Keller represents would agree with his caricatures—evidenced by each of the non-Christians and even my Keller-loving Pastor friend who made up our book discussion group. By the end of the first half, our group continued reading out of astounded disbelief at what could possibly be in the second half that would redeem the first.

The second half of Keller’s book is nice. He starts with a smart approach which finally recalls his admission in the Introduction that no one stands in an objective position to evaluate other worldviews. So he suggests that instead of looking for airtight arguments, we look at the gestalt of small indicators like: The origin of the Big Bang, cosmological constants allowing for life, the regularity of nature, beauty, and “the clue-killer [that] is really a clue.” This is not meant to be a long book review, so I must deprive you of specifics, but as Keller went through his clues for God, each of them struck me as either having a simpler explanation short of God, or even as full support against his Christian suggestion.

To close, Keller morphs the last six chapters away from almost any rational argument at all. Instead, he describes features of Christianity that are nice and appealing, expecting to make the sale on ideal virtues. Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you paradise after you die? Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you a justification for morality? Isn’t it nice that God did such a dramatic thing as sending his son to “write himself into the story?” If you’re ready to convert, see the epilogue.

So Keller’s project is actually three-part: 1.) give reasons to doubt objections to Christianity, 2.) Present Christianity as something that “would be nice if it were true,” then 3.) Invite the reader to believe it.

My response to Keller’s book went like this: 1.) every single objection you raised has far deeper merit than you even begin to acknowledge, 2.) There are parts of Christianity which are great and really “would be nice if it were true,” but “want makes not.” 3.) I already want to believe Christianity is true, but it’s the real arguments which your straw men caricaturize that have twisted my arm away from belief.

After reading Keller’s book, I’m left at the last conclusion that Christianity is a nice story—and even my favorite religion—but it’s a long way from being true. But his book is very convincing: It has convinced many Christians that they should be Christians; and it has convinced many non-Christians that they should be non-Christians. But it has also convinced at least one Christian that he should be a non-Christian.


1 I use this word “caricaturize” several times despite my spell-check trying to make it “characterize,” because I mean it as: “a good natured exaggeration of the most significant features: to make a caricature.”