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Christopher Hitchens and the efficacy of Pascal’s Wager

When I studied philosophy in university I learned about Pascal’s Wager. Simply put, it reasons from the point-of-view of a rational person who does not know for sure if there is a God or not (the position many of us are in).   The gist of the argument is that if in the end there is no God then the fate of the believer and the unbeliever are the same (the bodies decay and that is all) and the difference in life while alive between the believer and the unbeliever is so minute that effectively, if, in the end, there is no God the in-life and after-life experience of the believer and the unbeliever are almost the same.  But, if, in the end, there is a God then the fate of the unbeliever is infinitely negative while the fate of the believer is infinitely positive.  So, since the fate of the believer is never really worse than that of the unbeliever in any of the possible final outcomes, and in some possible outcomes the fate of the believer is much better, than it is more rational, given the uncertainty to be a believer.  This can be expressed in a simple decision matrix where the possible combinations of beliefs and outcomes are matched.

God exists (G)God does not exist (~G)
Belief (B)+∞ (heaven)+1 (moral benefits)
Disbelief (~B)−∞ (hell)-1 (immoral consequences)

As wikipedia sums it up, “Given these values, the option of living as if God exists (B) dominates the option of living as if God does not exist (~B), as long as one assumes a positive probability that God exists. In other words, the expected value gained by choosing B is greater than or equal to that of choosing ~B.”

Interestingly, the professor who taught that philosophy course mocked Pascal’s Wager even as he taught it to us.  But around the same time, in an operations research course I learned about the concept of Expected Value (which I bolded in the wiki quote).  I realized as I studied this – as wiki has correctly pointed out- that Pascal’s Wager was a specific instance of what in probability theory is known as Expected Value.  In my Forest Operations Research I was taught to use Expected Values in decision making.  Yet in philosophy my professor mocked Pascal’s Wager, a specific instance of Expected Value, that applies to the only one area that each one of us will one day face – our death.  (It seemed ironic to me that in marginal life issues such as decisions involving forest fires and insect outbreaks we were taught to use decision theory of uncertainty, but in an issue of direct relevance to all of us, I was discouraged from applying the very same principles though they were based on reason and mathematics.)

Christopher Hitchens, who passed away last week, provides a great example of the efficacy of Pascal’s Wager.  He has either stepped into eternity, or he is annihilated.  And if he is annihilated, then so has the Apostle Paul – to pick someone who spent his life pursuing the gospel rather than opposing it – and so the outcomes for them in death are the same (as will be for us).  But if he has stepped into eternity, then so also has the Apostle Paul (and so will we).

All of us are different.  I could never believe based on such a cold, pragmatic reason as Pascal’s Wager.  But it certainly motivated me to inform myself.  The irony of Hitchens is that though he prided himself on being ‘intellectual’, as we saw in the previous post, he was needlessly misinformed on many basic points about the gospel that are readily verifiable.  Pascal’s Wager admonishes us to not be so cavalier on such an important topic.  Hitchens, as is true for the rest of us, would have done well to at least have informed himself of the textual reliability of the Bible, the case for the resurrection of Jesus, and the stunning prophetic fulfillments the Bible has demonstrated re. the person of Jesus as well as its eery foretelling of the Jewish people which is unfolding today before our eyes on the news.

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5 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens and the efficacy of Pascal’s Wager”

  1. love the way you presented it, Ragnar!

    though i do want to point out that most people don’t think the differences between the in-life experiences of the believer and the unbeliever are really so negligible…even Paul says that if the Good News is nonsense, then Christians are truly creatures to be pitied. of course any finite value should logically be overshadowed by a gap that spans -∞ to +∞, but it’s still a real deterrent, especially to people whose thinking is not predominantly rational.

    1. I am one Christian who did admire the tnteals and skills of Christopher Hitchens. Through out his years of being an anti-theist, he debated several Scholars, Theologians, Religious Leaders, Philosophers (William Lane Craig), and Apologist around the world. He even debated Tony Blair as to if Religion is good or bad for the world. Several people did their best to witness to him including his own borther Peter Hitchens. Many atheist continue to be in mourning for their fallen hero. I think the irony with Hitchens is that most Christians actually agree with his oppinions on forigen policy and politics while most atheist do never did agree with Hitchens in those regards. Anyways, just about every debate he ever had against religion can easily be found on Youtube. They are a good idea to listen to because many of his fans will continue to use his arguments against us and we should be ready for it.

      1. Hitchens’ was indeed brilliant in his ability to use rhetoric mostly to twist history and facts to pander to a gullible fanclub that eventually made him very rich! His use of circular reasoning to deny miracles is legendary. It is rather sad in his defense of atheism and oft’ quoted hatred of Christianity, however, that Hitler and the Nazis were espoused as believers. Why would such a brilliant mind as his, need to lie? And yet many cynics hang off his every word. Anyone who takes the time to read any biography of Hitler will see they paint quite the opposite view: Just look at Hitler’s insane agenda. Nothing could be further from the teachings of the Nazarene. Alan Bullock; Hitler: a Study in Tyranny; Harper Perennial Edition 1991; p219: “Hitler had been brought up a Catholic and was impressed by the organisation and power of the Church… [but] to its teachings he showed only the sharpest hostility… he detested [Christianity]’s ethics in particular”. Ian Kershaw; Hitler: a Biography; Norton; 2008 ed; pp. 295–297: “In early 1937 [Hitler] was declaring that ‘Christianity was ripe for destruction’, and that the Churches must yield to the ‘primacy of the state’, railing against any compromise with ‘the most horrible institution imaginable'” Richard J. Evans; The Third Reich at War; Penguin Press; New York 2009, p. 547: Evans wrote that Hitler believed Germany could not tolerate the intervention of foreign influences such as the Pope and “Priests, he said, were ‘black bugs’, ‘abortions in black cassocks'”. Evans noted that Hitler saw Christianity as “indelibly Jewish in origin and character” and a “prototype of Bolshevism”, which “violated the law of natural selection”. Richard Overy: The Dictators Hitler’s Germany Stalin’s Russia; Allen Lane/Penguin; 2004.p 281: “[Hitler’s] few private remarks on Christianity betray a profound contempt and indifference”. A. N. Wilson; Hitler a Short Biography; Harper Press; 2012, p. 71.: “Much is sometimes made of the Catholic upbringing of Hitler… it was something to which Hitler himself often made allusion, and he was nearly always violently hostile. ‘The biretta! The mere sight of these abortions in cassocks makes me wild!'” Laurence Rees; The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler; Ebury Press; 2012; p135.; “There is no evidence that Hitler himself, in his personal life, ever expressed any individual belief in the basic tenets of the Christian church” Derek Hastings (2010). Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 181 : Hastings considers it plausible that Hitler was a Catholic as late as his trial in 1924, but writes that “there is little doubt that Hitler was a staunch opponent of Christianity throughout the duration of the Third Reich.” Joseph Goebbels (Fred Taylor Translation); The Goebbels Diaries 1939–41; Hamish Hamilton Ltd; London; 1982; ISBN 0-241-10893-4 : In his entry for 29 April 1941, Goebbels noted long discussions about the Vatican and Christianity, and wrote: “The Fuhrer is a fierce opponent of all that humbug”. Albert Speer; Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs; Translation by Richard & Clara Winston; Macmillan; New York; 1970; p.123: “Once I have settled my other problem,” [Hitler] occasionally declared, “I’ll have my reckoning with the church. I’ll have it reeling on the ropes.” But Bormann did not want this reckoning postponed […] he would take out a document from his pocket and begin reading passages from a defiant sermon or pastoral letter. Frequently Hitler would become so worked up… and vowed to punish the offending clergyman eventually… That he could not immediately retaliate raised him to a white heat…”

  2. Suppose that a non-believer feels the logic behind Pascal’s wager is compelling, i.e., that a believer *is* better off in all outcomes than a non-believer. How can recognition that the believer happens to be better off help the non-believer change to a believer. I’m asking because I don’t feel as though I choose what to believe based on what’s best for me.

    (I also don’t find the logic of the wager compelling, but that’s not what I’m curious about.)

  3. Hello there,

    I read the first part of the “Pascal’s Wager”. I think I may have inadvertently applied that same principle to keeping the Sabbath. It goes something like this:

    I have seen Christians shy away from “keeping the old law” because they are afraid any adherence to any of the “old law” would make them guilty of “crucifying Jesus”. You might hear, “If you keep the Sabbath, you might as well sacrifice lambs and goats.”

    So, Christians feel safe worshiping on Sunday, “the Lord’s day”. In many cases, especially in the past, many of the “old laws” were transferred to this new “sabbath” day. Many Christians would avoid working or buying things on Sunday. Alcohol is still not sold in some places on Sunday in respect of this “holy day”.

    However, most Christians, though they may well observe some of the same “old laws” on Sunday will readily tell you that Sunday is not the sabbath. Yes, “EVERY day is a sabbath” they will say.

    I had a discussion with a teacher at a Bible college in Capetown a few years ago. I had just been learning about Christian sabbath keepers and my wife and I were just then getting our feet wet in sabbath/feast keeping. This Bible teacher rolled his eyes and said an “oh, one of them kind” type comment and then told me about how I was going back to the “old law” and told me further that every day was a sabbath day.

    I asked him if Sunday had to be the day on which we were to worship. Of course, he said, “No”. I asked if Thursday or Monday or Tuesday would be just as suitable as any day to rest or worship. Of course, he said, “yes, any day will do as we are under the ‘new covenant'”.

    Then I said, “So just because I chose Saturday as that day of rest and, if I chose, to worship, and I call that day ‘the sabbath’ then, somehow, I am ‘going back to the old law’ ?” It really makes no sense that we are free to worship or rest on any day but Saturday in order to be in compliance with the New Testament.

    So, going back to Pascal’s Wager. I do not see where Jesus specifically said do not keep the sabbath after his death. I DO see where God chose to rest on the seventh day for some very good reason and He seemed to think it important. Regardless, if there is no particular day to rest on according to the freedom of the NT, then I am free to take a day of rest on the seventh day. I am actually safer doing so. If the sabbath is still in effect, then God approves of it and disapproves of keeping Sunday as a sabbath while working on Saturday. If the seventh day of rest is not in effect and any day will do, then it really doesn’t matter, does it? That seems the same sort of reasoning as Pascal’s Wager. So, why not let’s just all keep the sabbath and be safe?

    Of course, this conclusion is all in good fun. I believe it points out how we can so easily ditch one set of laws for another one and put people in bondage even in New Testament times.

    By the way, my wife and I DO keep the Sabbath. We try to rest on Saturday. If some poor folks need help or we need to speak the Word to someone, that is what that day is for. For the most part we try to spend the day together as a family. Then on Sunday we meet with folks(who accept us even in our nuttiness) for fellowship and worship in Jesus’ name. I personally believe that there is blessing in resting on the seventh day as YHVH did and commanded. But I sure do appreciate fine Christians living the life of Jesus and showing the fruits of the Spirit regardless if they agree with me or not.

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