An Empty Wager? A Response to Sam Harris: Part I

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In a Washington post article, atheist Sam Harris criticizes the classical Pascal’s Wager argument, which he thinks “was never more than a cute (and false) analogy.” He offers what appears to be three arguments against the wager: 1) that the cost of religious belief is underestimated, 2) that the wager is powerless to adjudicate between rival religious claims, and 3) that a rational person cannot knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence.

Now Harris is flat out wrong on all three points. However, his second argument is key and so we need to address this one first.

 The “Wager Only” Fallacy
 Does the wager intend to adjudicate rival religious claims? Harris seems to think so:

If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell); Buddhists could use it to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth; and the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.

It is a very common error to extract Pascal’s wager from the rest of his Pensees. Granted, the Pensees was never completed by Pascal before his death, nevertheless, a fair interpretation of the wager needs to look at the other sections of the work to establish the context of the argument. And when we do that, we see that Pascal’s work is full of other arguments that do in fact adjudicate between rival religious claims! Pascal doesn’t seem to intend for his wager to be taken in isolation, hence it is difficult to understand why so many people who should know better make this fundamental error.

In other words, given the context of the Pensees, the wager can come at the end of a longer apologetical argument for the divinity of Christ. In fact, Pascal explicitly says “Had it not been for the miracles, there would have been no sin in not believing in Jesus Christ.” (Pascal Pensées 811). Pascal himself frequently makes appeals to messianic prophecy and the miracles of Jesus indicating that the wager should be taken in the context of a larger apologetical effort.

So ala Pascal, the wager can utilized at the end of a series of Christian apologetic arguments. Take for example what I call the “Big Three” arguments for Christianity; namely Christ’s divine claims (if he was wrong then he was either lying or crazy) the fulfillment of messianic prophecy and the resurrection of Jesus. A proponent of the wager can use these arguments to adjudicate between rival religious claims and hold that these arguments show that Christianity is more plausibly true than belief in Odin, or Ra, or Santa Claus for that matter. There are no good reasons to think that the Hindu god “Shiva the destroyer” exists, or that the Roman god Jupiter runs the universe, or that there is a Great Pumpkin god that will damn you to hell for eating pumpkin pie. The reasons on behalf of the truth of Christianity then are simply better, indeed enormously better,  than the reasons offered on behalf of other religions (if these other religions even offer reasons – which they usually don’t).

Former atheist and non-Christian philosopher Antony Flew is surely right when he says:

“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most other supposedly miraculous events.” – Antony Flew (Antony Flew and Gary Habermas, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism To Theism: A Discussion Between Antony Flew and Gary R. Habermas” Philosophia Christi 6 (2004), p. 209)

So we have good enough reasons to make belief in Christianity rational, and there are no equally persuasive reasons for belief in any alternative god. But the important point here is that we don’t reach this conclusion through the wager, we reach it through the standard apologetical arguments! Thus trying to use the wager by using it to decide between say Christianity and Islam is a abuse of the argument. The wager doesn’t do that and isn’t intended to – and so it cannot be faulted for failing to do so.

Hence unless Harris (or anyone else for that matter), has any good apologetic arguments for the truth of a non-Christian religion, these rival religions are not live options in the wager. If Christianity is the only rational game in town, then the choices do boil down to Christian theism or atheism, and that means the wager stands.

Simply put, Harris’first argument against the wager fails because it  commits the straw man fallacy. Recognition of this point is crucial in answering Harris’ second argument against the wager as well, which will be covered in a separate post.