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Dr. Charles G. Cogan Headshot

The End Game: Taking the Bet of Pascal

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In the Sunday Review section of the New York Times on Jan. 6, Susan Jacoby, a self-described atheist, secular humanist and freethinker, wrote an op-ed entitled, "The Blessings of Atheism: It is Here & It is Now." In it she argues that atheists should be more assertive about spreading their point of view, and she makes the claim that "the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth."

The "blessing" of atheism, Jacoby seems to say, is that death puts an end to suffering: "atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. Those we love suffer no more." The author of a forthcoming book on Robert Ingersoll, the well-known American freethinker, she quotes from Ingersoll to reinforce her point: "The larger and the nobler faith ... tells us that death, at its worst, is only perfect rest ... the dead do not suffer."

Those who lack the atheists' certitude that there is no afterlife, and who have never seen, and never will see, proof of the existence of God, are the thousands of agnostics -- those who do not "presume to know." Some are tempted toward the notion that underlies the famous bet of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher.

The reasoning of Pascal is the following: in the absence of any proof of the existence of God, reason does not indicate to us whether to believe in Him or not. Since the choice is free, it is reasonable to lean, by calculation, against agnosticism: in effect, to decide to believe in God and live in consequence of that decision. If one leads a life in conformity with a belief in God, this guarantees inestimable benefits if it is revealed, after death, that God exists -- and costs nothing if he does not exist. Whereas agnosticism, in the latter case, does not bring any benefits, and on the other hand it is met with infernal punishment if God indeed does exist. Thus, it is rational to put faith in a belief in God and to lead a life that conforms to it.

Consequently, it is rational to act as though God exists and to decide to believe that he exists. But is this too deceptive, too "utilitarian"? Not really, given the fact that one is operating from a state of total ignorance as to what comes after life. In this regard, it is interesting to recall that Francois Mitterrand, a noted secularist, asked to be given the sacrament of extreme unction shortly before his death.

Richard Dawkins, one of the leading writers in the "new atheism" current, and the author of "The God Delusion," brings an implacable reasoning to this dilemma that haunts the many -- especially those approaching the end game:

"As long as there is no certitude either for or against the existence of God, a number of intelligent men will continue to believe in him, just as other intelligent men will believe in other things for which they do not have a convincing argument ... What evidence could verify or falsify the hypothesis of God? ... The only thing that can resolve the question is an experience beyond the grave ... If the options after death are either a beatific vision (God) or nothingness (no God), it is therefore poignant to consider that believers will never discover that they are wrong, whereas atheists will never discover that they are right."