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#102 Is Belief in God Good Bad or Irrelevant

March 30, 2009

Dear Dr. Craig,

My question concerns the infamous and much maligned ‘Pascal’s Wager’. While reading through the Religious Epistemology section of my copy of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, I remembered Christopher Hitchens’ objection to the Wager. His contention is that even if the Wager is valid, one cannot merely bring oneself to believe something through sheer willpower. If one sees no evidence for the existence of God, one cannot force oneself to ‘just believe’ it for the sake of its benefits. Furthermore, Hitchens posits that surely God would be able to root out those who had forced themselves to believe for benefits and those who had truly believed on the basis of revelation or evidence etc...

So I guess my question is, how would you respond to this charge? Perhaps Mr. Hitchens is here confusing the truth-dependent pragmatic warrant for belief in God and the truth-independent pragmatic warrant for belief in God?

Also, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your work and let you know how much I have benefited personally from your life and writings. I am about to enter college and since I started listening to your podcast last year, you have inspired me to major in philosophy and then apply to Talbot School of Theology for my graduate work then Oxford for another degree in philosophy. I just wanted to let you know that what you are doing has an impact on people of all ages and I hope to see you at Talbot in five years time!

Thanks again and God bless you and your ministry.

In Him,


P.S. If Pascal’s Wager comes up in your debate with Hitchens in April, I think you can be sure he will raise this objection!

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Dr. craig’s response


Is belief in God good, bad, or irrelevant?

Jonathan, I’m thrilled about your vision for your life! Best wishes for your future studies!

For those who are not familiar with Blaise Pascal’s famous Wager, let me explain that Pascal argued, in effect, that if we find ourselves in a situation of uncertainty concerning God’s existence, then even in the absence of any warrant belief in God is pragmatically justified because we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from holding that belief. One of the objections to Pascal’s Wager is Hitchens’ claim that belief in God is not under our control and therefore we cannot simply bring ourselves to believe as the Wager requires.

Pascal himself took cognizance of this objection and explicitly addressed it. The objection is not philosophical in nature but psychological. Therefore, Pascal proposes a psychological remedy. His imagined conversation partner protests, “Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager and am not free. I am not released and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?”

To which Pascal answers:

True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began, by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe and deaden your acuteness—“But this is what I am afraid of.”—And why? What have you to lose? (Pensées # 233)

Is belief in God good, bad, or irrelevant? – Spiritual actions will produce sincere faith

Pascal’s advice is that the person who wants to believe but finds himself unable to do so should attach himself to a Christian community and begin to take part in the same spiritual activities that believers engage in. Eventually, faith will come. This is sound advice. What Pascal understood is that behavior strongly influences belief. I’d advise such a person to begin to pray regularly (yes, to the God whose existence he doubts) and to read his Bible and meditate on it, to attend a church where the Gospel is proclaimed, and to join a small group of Christian believers where he can experience friendship and interaction.

Such a person needn’t be regarded unsympathetically as pursuing a selfish agenda. Even if initially motivated by the pragmatic benefits described in the Wager, the person who seeks and ultimately finds God will come to a genuine, saving faith which adores God for Who He is. Of course, if his faith is a mere sham, then, as Hitchens rightly notes, God will know his hypocrisy and not be fooled by it.

I doubt that these concerns will surface in our April 4 debate, since I don’t usually appeal to Pascal’s Wager, being convinced, unlike Pascal, of the value of natural theology (arguments for God’s existence).

- William Lane Craig