Winning Pascal’s Wager by H. V. Grey (November 1996)

Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician and scientist (for whom “Pascal’s Law” of fluids is named), is most famous in philosophical and religious circles for his “Wager”– sort of “the gambling man’s proof for the existence of God.”

According to Grolier’s Encyclopedia, Pascal was a child prodigy who mastered Euclid’s geometry by age 12, invented and sold the first adding machine before he was 21, and invented both the syringe and hydraulic press. (My hat’s sure off!) But he suffered from very poor health and was advised to seek “diversions” from study. He thus went to Paris and for a time attempted to live in a “deliberately frivolous manner,” which included a lot of gambling. (One rather gets the impression that, because of his understanding of probability theory, he was the kind of gambler who, in modern-day Las Vegas, would be escorted to the door with his winnings and told never to come back.) At age 30, after several months of severe depression, Pascal had a profound religious experience which changed his life and prompted him to enter a very strict monastery. He died at age 39 in intense pain from cancer.

His most famous philosophical work is the Pens?es, a set of deeply personal meditations on human suffering and faith in God. Meditation 233 contains his famous “Wager,” about whether or not the “odds” favor believing in God. His presentation is actually rather complex and mathematical, and I have always preferred this simplified version:

Two men are sitting next to each other on a commercial airliner when the plane develops serious engine trouble. One man asks the other if he believes in God. No, he does not. The first man says that he does, because if they crash then he has everything to gain and nothing to lose: If there is a god then he has the kingdom of heaven and life everlasting. On the other hand, if there is no god, he stands to lose nothing by having believed. The atheist, however, stands to gain nothing by disbelieving if there is no god and to lose everything if there does turn out to be one. (I sort of picture the Wrath of Khan.)

But what if they don’t crash? you may be tempted to ask.

Everybody “crashes” sometime. As Pascal points out: the wager is not optional.

Until just recently, about the best defense that I could come up with of the atheist’s position in the wager was something along the lines of: “The atheist stands to gain the one thing that he does have for certain — this life, and the rational interpretation of it. Unlike the theist, the atheist doesn’t waste his time reciting a lot of religious mumbo jumbo or cloud his thinking processes with a lot of irrational, unsupported beliefs.”

Pretty thin, huh? Well, that’s what I thought — until just recently, when my . . . “airliner” began to develop “serious engine trouble.”

Though no rational person deliberately courts disaster, when the disaster just happens along all by itself, without any effort on your part, it seems a shame just to let it go to waste. After all, the religionists are always claiming that there aren’t any atheists in foxholes, and that until and unless you have been in a foxhole, you can’t claim otherwise.

Thus I argue that when a beloved family member up and dies unexpectedly, one might as well check to see if one’s atheistic philosophy of “all humans are mortal” / “no life after death” holds water. For example, I was curious to note that after my father’s sudden death a couple of years ago (we think he was out jogging the afternoon he died), at the Episcopalian ceremony my stepmother wanted, the attitude of the church was that a death –even that of an elderly person who has outlived the average life expectancy for his gender — is a terrible, unexpectable tragedy at which one has every right to be angry, shocked and taken by surprise.

It finally dawned on me that, not only are these religious types expecting to live forever in the “hereafter,” they expect to live forever in the here and now! (My father was confidently planning to live to be at least 100; he died at 72.6 years, beating the male average in this country by a whopping 0.3 years.)

Of course, the theist can still claim that one’s reaction to the death of a loved family member doesn’t prove anything about atheists in foxholes, since it was somebody else’s foxhole that got blown to hell. Well, all right then, if I have to get “shot at” myself to prove anything.

Thus I argue that when at age 38 one is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) — a debilitating, incurable, chronic/terminal disease of the central nervous system — it’s a golden opportunity for philosophy testing that a hardcore atheist simply shouldn’t pass up!

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, most newly diagnosed people go through stages of “denial” and “anger.”

Well, here’s an atheist’s reaction: I marched into the neurologist’s office six weeks ago with the attitude of –“Hey, look, I have so many classic symptoms of MS that it should be patently obvious even to a first-year medical student that that’s what I’ve got, and, in fact, I feel stupid for not having figured it out sooner.” (Of course, perhaps I am just “denying denial” in a sort of double-negative fashion — by embracing acceptance of the disease so vigorously. . . I do not not have MS?)

As for the apparently common feeling of righteous anger, of being shortchanged, of “Why me?!” Somehow, I got the impression that my neurologist (who is also board certified in psychiatry) didn’t believe me when I said that the combination of “probability and statistics” and “viruses gotta eat, too” was a perfectly satisfying answer for me emotionally. But then I realized that many people, because of their religious indoctrination, not only expect to live forever in the “here and now” (and in perfect health no less), but would also not be assuaged by a “how come” rather than a “what for” answer to the question of “why me?”

Religionists, in contrast, because they believe in the purposeful design of an all-powerful creator, are likely to be tortured by questions of “what for?” And not only the MS person himself (“Why did God allow this to happen me?”), but his family, as in: “Why did God allow this to happen to my child? He could have prevented it — but He didn’t! Is my child being punished for some trivial sin of commission — or omission? Or perhaps my child is being punished for something I did –twenty years ago — because, after all, doesn’t the Bible tell us that retribution for the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons unto the third or fourth generation?”

If the religionists do truly believe in an omnipotent god, then, at some point, their thinking (if they think) must inevitably lead them to these kinds of questions. It is particularly the sincere and honest ones who will suffer. I am nothing short of appalled at the cruelty of both the questions and the answers with which self-searching theists must ultimately torture themselves.

Here’s another trap the theists fall into: the faith-healer trap. Several kindly intentioned friends have invited me to go with them to faith healers, or urged me to “heal myself” by daily “blessing my body” (? la Deepak Chopra and his ilk), or even suggested that MS is “only a name,” that it’s “not real,” and that if I just ignore it and keep repeating to myself over and over that it’s “not real,” maybe it will go away. (Yeah, right. Meanwhile tripping all over the furniture.)

I don’t want to be rude to these people, but I finally have to point out to them that, whether they realize it or not, the ultimate logical implication of their philosophy is that “if it is possible to faith-heal away the disease, then if I don’t faith-heal it away, it’s my fault; furthermore, if it is possible to faith-heal away the disease, it should have been possible to faith-prevent it in the first place, so the fact that I am sick at all is all my fault.”

There is a condescending superiority in their attitude; they consider as corroborating evidence for their faith-healing/faith-prevention theory the fact that they don’t have MS: “See? Faith-healing/faith-prevention must work because I’m not sick!” (The logical fallacy of “Confirming the Consequent.”)

In other words: Blame the victim. If it isn’t her fault that she got sick because God is punishing her for having been bad, then it’s her fault because she isn’t “worthy” enough in God’s eyes, or spiritually and mentally strong enough to transmute matter at will — or some such nonsense.

Of course, being well-armored by atheism and the scientific method, I don’t fall for any of this, but I shudder to think of the religious types who do, and who thus carry a burden of guilt along with their symptoms. Combine that with all the futile praying that goes on, and it starts to add up to a staggering total of unnecessary psychological torment. (I just got a printed card from some “intercessory” prayer group at my mother’s Methodist church: they are going to start praying for me. . . I’m sure these kindly old men mean well and that it’s supposed to make me feel better [mentally, if not physically]. But I have to wonder if this isn’t actually –in deep, dark reality — a case of sympathetic magic, of hoping that if they show sympathy for others and “do one good deed every day thus accumulating treasures in heaven,” that they themselves won’t be stricken with some horrible disease or other disaster. . .)

When I first went to the neurologist, I had familiarized myself with the section on MS in my 1992 Merck Manual (a handy, compact 2800-page, technical medical diagnostics text, which doesn’t pull any punches: if a malady is terminal and incurable, it comes right out and says so in no uncertain terms; no home should be without one!). To me, for an opening diagnosis, my numerous symptoms seemed very advanced and in practically every bodily system affected by the disease. But not having any clinical experience with the disease, I had no way of judging just how “advanced” my symptoms were. I was braced for the fact that I might have as many as 25 years, but on the other hand, I might well go downhill quickly and be dead in a year.

Well, I thought, I’ve lived a very full life — climbed mountains and volcanoes, piloted airplanes across the Gulf Stream, dived spectacular underwater caves that very few people in the world have ever seen, read lots of great books, known lots of great people, etc. I have no complaints. And, after all, let’s not be greedy: 38 years isn’t too shabby. I never thought I was entitled to immortality on any plane, and I had followed my father’s advice:

“Organize your priorities: make a list of all the things you need or want to do, in order of their importance, and then proceed to do them in that order. Then if you run out of time before you are finished, you will have accomplished what most needed to be accomplished. Bearing in mind that you are not immortal, what could be more desirable?”

Nevertheless, there were practical aspects to consider. Such as making last-minute adjustments to one’s will (I swear: every time I go into it, I raise the age at which my niece gets her measly little trust fund; funny how “trusts” are for people you don’t trust. . .). Such as writing personal farewell messages to family members and friends (the messages that my siblings and I wished my father had left): A statement, a summation, a message composed with the thought that it will be read after your death and speak for you from beyond the grave. (Messages I now realize that I would like to have on hand in my safety-deposit box –updated every year or so, or whenever necessary — so that if I am hit by a truck next week, I will be able to send a posthumous message of love and gratitude and approbation to the important people in my life. “You’ve been a great brother; if I’ve never told you that, I’m saying it now, and for all time. . .”).

And then there was the practical aspect of money management. Decisions, decisions. Do I have to make my resources last a quarter of a century with debility, or do I quit my job immediately and start partying full time?

After confirming my self-diagnosis, the neurologist said, “Oh, by the way, did you know that multiple sclerosis is no longer the bleak, ‘nihilistic’ disease it used to be? In the last couple of years some new medications have been developed that can slow it down.” Hmmm, I thought, unexpected bonus points!

But then I got to reading the fine print on the medications, examining my health insurance, doing a little arithmetic, etc. I decided that even with health insurance, I simply couldn’t afford treatment — not while continuing to enjoy any kind of quality standard of living.

Most religionists would probably brand as ruthlessly cold-blooded, if not downright immoral, my decision not to slowly bankrupt myself by opting for the frightfully expensive new medications (upwards of $11,000 a year) that have not been shown to cure or even halt the disease, but only to slow it down a little–maybe if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who responds to the drugs (and aren’t overwhelmed by the side effects).

My neurologist had the good grace not to argue with my decision —

although he did say, with a knowing expression (no doubt his psychiatrist’s face), that I should call him when I was ready to cry uncle and start some form of medication. (Ready to pray to God yet? No. Are you ready to admit that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for one and that it is irrational to believe in the absence of such evidence?)

But the doctor’s reaction was not too surprising considering that my attitude flies in the face of the enculturated religious notion that high-quantity/low-quality life is preferable to low-quantity/high-quality life — because of the prevailing religious belief in this country that there is an innate moral virtue to suffering.

Thus suicide is deemed immoral (if not illegal) even when the joy of living is outweighed by unremitting pain. Hanging on in unspeakable agony, if not poverty, to the bitter end is deemed an act of moral courage –doubtless to be rewarded in the afterlife.

With regards to the frightfully expensive medications, I am free to reason that there isn’t much point to being able to play the piano for an additional three months if you had to sell the piano three years ago. (More to the point, I reason: Do I want to be sick and pissed off? Or do I just want to be sick?) But here again, the theist may be cringing with the thought of divine wrath if he opts for the “easy, less painful” way out. Maybe “Somebody Up There” won’t like it if he isn’t willing to sign up for the full course of mental and physical agony, and will punish him even further. He may be theologically afraid not to exhaust every resource (both literally and figuratively) trying to extend his life even by a few weeks or months. What a tangled web! Yet religion is advertised as a helpful salve for life’s difficulties. . .

I present this “success” story to other Freethought Today subscribers because this little episode in my life has made me realize personally just how strong and valuable an atheistic, scientific approach to interpreting the universe and how one’s life fits into it, can really be when push comes to shove. I had been “testing” atheism all along. But until a few weeks ago, I had really encountered only minor little potholes, but no foxholes.

The view from this particular foxhole has made me come to appreciate that atheism is by no means a “fair-weather” belief that only works when . . . all the engines are running smoothly. But that it can make facing difficult life problems and griefs as painless emotionally as it’s possible for them to be; that all the crises in which religion is supposed to be so comforting, atheism can handle even more powerfully and effectively.

Indeed, looking back, I would have to say that it was probably this totally atheistic/mechanistic attitude that has saved my life underwater more than once. Because when cave-diving emergencies have struck (and in these instances, your available problem-resolution time before you drown is often measured in seconds, not minutes), there has been absolutely no temptation to drop into the mental irrationality of prayer. It is simply not a . . .”viable” option. (In an underwater cave, any refusal to accept the full nature of reality, such as wasting time to pray, can get you killed in very short order.)

So, Monsieur Pascal, while it’s true that we can’t either of us, the atheist or the theist, know the outcome of the wager while we’re still alive, I’m quite willing to “sign the check and let the theist fill in his own figures.” He can collect his reward in some mythical land over the rainbow; I’ll collect mine now. Because atheism sure works while the plane’s still in the air!

H. V. Grey has been an atheist since age 13, has an M.A. in philosophy, has co-authored three textbooks on cave diving, and works as a typesetter on the west coast of Florida.

Freedom From Religion Foundation