Wednesday, September 06, 2006

If Pascal Were A Jew

Pascal argues that it is always a better "bet" to believe that a god exists, because the expected value to be gained from believing that such a deity exists is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief. With his wager he sought to demonstrate that believing in the existence of a god is more advantageous than not believing, and hoped that this would convert those who rejected previous theological arguments. Pascal is like the card shark down on the corner enticing you into choosing the magic card with the lure of reward should you bet correctly, and the fate of everlasting doubt should you fail to seek out those possible rewards.

Due to its relative simplicity, Pascal’s Wager (or Gambit) still serves as the most popular argument for belief in some sort of deity that rewards or punishes in the hereafter. As I see it, this wager works out great for most Christians, who have little to actually do to fulfill their religious requirements, having shed themselves of the “law” through faith in Jesus. It is fair to ask as to what would the average Christian lose or gain by accepting Christianity on a bet? Surely, his life would change little. Even the most secular society demands respect for parents, fidelity in marriage, and even when it comes to the ‘Seven Deadly Character Flaws’, society already provides the means to overcome or to deter those behaviors, be it through social pressures, education, or the rule of law. If the Christian dies to find there is no god, his life was still meaningful, even in the secular sense, and he has lost little for his gamble.

For the Jew, however, to accept Pascal’s proposition is quite another matter. We Jews, in order to be 100% true to the rules of this wager, must accept all 613 commands of the Torah (though most do not apply and others are situational and never come up), the edicts and additions of the Rabbis, and the entire body of Jewish Law which govern our lives from dusk until dawn, waking to sleep, and even into our dreams. There is no aspect of human life that Judaism doesn’t seek to govern. Judaism, as a religion, is not merely about belief, but concerns itself with practical application; belief itself is considered to be an application of thought and emotion. Belief is essential, but belief without action is meaningless and is not considered Judaism at all. Even the proposed Seven Noahide Laws require an active participation on the part of Gentiles. So were I to accept Pascal’s Wager in Jewish terms, the stakes would be much, much higher than for my Christian neighbor.

The Christian who hedges his bets really loses nothing by doing so. He will, if he follows the best of what his faith demands, remain faithful to his wife, do honest business, and perform acts of charity when needed. He will be kind and respectful of his neighbors. In other words, he would fulfill the definition of good common citizen and had he not announced his faith in public by church attendance, no one would be the wiser as to his true religious leanings. The Jew, however, takes on a whole other set of rules that sets him apart from the rest of society, so much so that he is required to restrict his interactions with the world in order to fulfill the laws of his faith. This comes at what appears to be a much greater sacrifice to the non-believer. Should I accept the rules, and then find out there was no such god to command them, I would have altered my whole existence to the extent of tremendous personal self-sacrifice for what? So I would never taste pork? Have sex with a non-Jewish woman? Take a bus ride on Saturday? Not eat a cheeseburger?

This is why I spin Pascal’s Gambit the other way around. As a Jew betting with Pascal's logic, I would become inundated with rules, regulations, restrictions, etc. that control almost every aspect of my life, be it dietary, literary, or mortuary; since even in my death there are rules to be strictly followed. In terms of how I would have to alter my life and thinking to accommodate the religion, the stakes are just too rich for my blood. The Jewish Pascal wants me to bet on there not only being a god, but a god that wants everything from me in exchange for a ‘possibility.’ I am not the sort of betting man that would sacrifice the freedom and liberty of the secular life without evidence and good reason. To accept what, in my estimation, are meaningless rules and regulations based upon another’s suspicion that there may be a vengeful or rewarding god in the afterlife is a bit more than I am willing to wager. Frankly, I have seen e-mail scams more convincing than Pascal’s Wager.

To me, it appears somewhat analogous to buying a lottery ticket (except that with the ticket there is a definite possibility of a winner). It’s all about hope or fear and what one is willing to give up hoping that the fears don’t ever materialize. For the person to wager a few dollars on the chance of winning millions, it seems quite reasonable. (I do it every week.) This is the extent of the Christian commitment to Pascal’s Wager. As they say “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” For the Jew to play this lottery, however, he must invest all the capital he has available to him, notwithstanding that in the end, his odds aren’t really much better than those who wagered much less.

Had he been an Orthodox Jew, or had Christianity been more demanding of its followers, it is likely that Mr. Pascal never would have taken those odds either.

Kol Tuv

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