Can We Learn to Believe in God?

Source: The New York Times

By Agnes Callard

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

So runs Blaise Pascal’s famous wager. His thought is simple: If there is a God, believing in him ensures an eternity of happiness, while denying him secures an eternity of suffering. If there is no God and you believe in him, the downside is relatively minimal. Even if the chance he exists is tiny, believing is the right bet.

This argument has produced few converts, as Pascal would not have been surprised to learn. He knew that people cannot change their beliefs at will. We can’t muscle our mind into believing something we take to be false, not even when the upside is an eternity of happiness. Pascal’s solution is that you start by pretending to believe: attend church, speak the prayers, adopt religious habits. If you walk and talk like a believer, eventually you’ll come to think as one. He says, “This will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”

But many of us recoil at this suggestion. We don’t want to lie to ourselves. Say there were a pill that would do the trick: Pop it in your mouth and you’ll be a religious believer. Someone convinced by Pascal’s argument — at least to the extent of thinking that believing is the best bet — might nonetheless refuse to take this pill. She might be repulsed by the thought of going behind her own back to acquire this belief.

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Categories: Faith, The Muslim Times

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