Pascal and Dawkins

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Pascal and Dawkins

Post  VicarJoe on Fri Jul 10, 2009 8:35 am

Just an interesting (to me) observation from my reading last night:

Pascal's wager, in its popular form, goes like this: If you bet that there is a God, and you're wrong, well, you'll have a good life and never know the difference upon death, but if you're right, you win eternal life in perfect bliss. Whereas if you bet that there's not a God, and you "win," well, you win death and oblivion and really nothing at all, but if you lose, you lose Heaven and embrace eternal misery. So, as the wager goes, it's a smarter bet to bet on God than to bet on no God.

Dawkins makes an insightful critique of Pascal's wager, at least as it's popularly understood, but one that has interesting, unintentional consequences for his militant atheism. Dawkins points out that the problem with Pascal's wager is that it seems to presume that one can calculate and decide to believe in God, but, Dawkins points out, that is not how people come to belief at all. No one believes in God because they've decided it's the safer bet or because they have calculated its in their self-interest to believe in God. One might very well conclude that it is "smart" to believe in God, but that is hardly the same thing as believing in God. So, Dawkins triumphantly concludes, Pascal's wager can't be an argument to believe in God because no one believes in God as a result of rational, self-interested calculation.

Dawkins is actually perfectly right, though had he thought it through a bit more, he'd likely be unhappy to be so. It's straightforward orthodoxy that faith is not the result of intellectual conclusions or calculated self-interest, but rather the effect of grace. So in that sense, Dawkins confirms the orthodox Christian position.

But what he's done in criticizing Pascal's wager (and this would really cause your militant atheist to become quite dejected) is this: he has severed the quality and calculations of intellect from faith itself. That is, he acknowledges explicitly that one could intellectually conclude that faith in God is in one's self-interest, but that is NOT the same thing as having faith. Conversely, and this must also be true, one could intellectually conclude that faith in God is unwarranted as a rational conclusion to draw from available evidence, and yet one could still believe in God anyway.

Put another way, and even allowing Dawkins' a priori hatred of religion to inform our language, someone could draw the wrong intellectual conclusion and still be an atheist, or one could draw the right intellectual conclusion and still be a theist. Because, as Dawkins insists in his "demolition" of Pascal's wager (while unwittingly agreeing with Christian orthodoxy), belief and intellectual conclusions about whether one should or should not believe are not the same thing. Not at all.

The necessary conclusion to be drawn from Dawkins' argument is that one's faith or lack thereof has really nothing to do with the quality of one's intellect or any calculations or reasoning one has done. One could find it perfectly reasonable to be a believer without being a believer, and too one could find it perfectly reasonable to be a non-believer while maintaining a devout faith in God.

Alas, for Dawkins and his acolytes this must come as bad news. Because it takes away the central appeal of the new atheism, which is its constant bellowing about how believers are stupid and naive and gullible and mentally unfit, while atheists are savvy and brilliant and skeptical and in every way the intellectual superiors of theists. That kind of supremacist rhetoric informs every last page of the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al. But in deconstructing Pascal's wager, Dawkins has deconstructed his own supremacist claims.

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