I spent a fair bit of money on the hardcover edition of Julian Barnes’ reflections on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, so I feel I am entitled to an extended quote.
There is this section that begins with Barnes’ memory of a Frenchman (De Goësbriand) who has just celebrated twenty-five years as a priest and confides to Barnes “You don’t think I’d go through all this unless there was Heaven at the end of it, do you?”
That sets Barnes off:
At that time, I was half impressed by such practical thinking, half appalled at a life wasted in vain hope. But Père de Goësbriand’s calculation had a distinguished history, and I might have recognized it as a workday version of Pascal’s famous wager. The Pascalian bet sounds simple enough. If you believe, and God turns out to exist, you win. If you believe, and God turns out not to exist, you lose, but not half as badly as you would if you chose not to believe, only to find out after death that God does exist. It is, perhaps, not so much an argument as a piece of self-interested position-taking worthy of the French diplomatic corps; though the primary wager, on God’s existence, does depend on a second and simultaneous wager, on God’s nature. What if God is not as imagined? What, for instance, if He disapproves of gamblers, especially those whose purported belief in Him is dependent on some acorn-beneath-the cup mentality? And who decides who wins? Not us: God might prefer the honest doubter to the sycophantic chancer.
All very sensible but Barnes isn’t done yet:
The Pascalian bet echoes down the centuries, always finding takers. Here is an extreme, action-man version. In June 2006, at the Kiev zoo, a man lowered himself by rope into the island compound where the lions and tigers are kept. As he descended, he shouted across to the gawping crowds. One witness quoted him as saying, “Who believes in God will be unharmed by lions”; another, the more challenging, “God will save me, if He exists.” The metaphysical provacateur reached the ground, took off his shoes, and walked towards the animals; whereupon an irritated lioness knocked him down, and bit through his carotid artery. Does this prove a) the man was mad; b) God does not exist; c) God does exist, but won’t be lured into the open by such cheap tricks; d) God does exist, and has just demonstrated that He is an ironist; e) none of the above?
Great questions. It would not hurt to develop these into a discussion.