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The Reasons to Believe


In this article, Peter Kreeft outlines the arguments from cause and effect, from conscience, from history, and the argument known as Pascal's Wager.


Why do you believe all the things you believe as a Catholic? Because of the reliability of the Church which teaches them, of course.

You didn't figure out the Trinity and Transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception all by yourself. But why believe in the authority of the Church? Because it was founded and guaranteed by Christ, and Christ is not a fallible man but the infallible God-become-man.

The teachings are the Church's, the Church is Christ's, and Christ is God. But why do you believe in God? Sooner or later that primary question comes up.

There are many arguments for God's existence. They're like roads, starting from different points but all aiming at the same goal. In this article, we'll explore the arguments from cause and effect, from conscience, from history and from Pascal's Wager. But first of all, let's concentrate on the ''argument from design.

The argument starts with the ''major premise'' that where there's design, there must be a designer. The minor premise is the existence of design throughout the universe. The conclusion is that there must be a universal designer.

Why believe that all design implies a designer? Because everyone admits this in practice. For example, suppose you came upon a deserted island and found S.O.S. written in the sand. You wouldn't think the waves had written it by mere chance, but that someone had been there, someone intelligent enough to write the message. If you found a stone hut on the island with windows, doors and a fireplace, you wouldn't think a hurricane had piled up the stones by chance. We immediately infer a designer when we see design.

When the first moon rocket took off from Gape Canaveral, two U.S. scientists stood watching it, side by side. One was a believer, the other an unbeliever. The believer said, Isn't it wonderful that our rocket is going to hit the moon by chance? The unbeliever objected, What do you mean, chance? We put millions of man-hours of design into that rocket. Oh, said the believer, You don't think chance is a good explanation for the rocket? Then why do you think it's a good explanation for the universe? There's much more design in a universe than in a rocket. We can design a rocket, but we couldn't design a whole universe. I wonder who can?

Later that day the two were strolling down a street and passed an antique store. The atheist admired a picture in the window and asked, I wonder who painted that picture? No one, joked the believer, it just happened by chance.

Is it possible that design happens by chance without a designer? There is perhaps one chance in a trillion that S.O.S. could be written in the sand by the wind. But who would use a one-in-a-trillion explanation? Someone once said that if you sat a million monkeys at a million typewriters for a million years, one of them would type out all of Hamlet eventually, by chance.

But when we read a text of Hamlet, we don't wonder whether it came from chance and monkeys. Why then does the atheist use that incredibly improbable explanation for the universe? Clearly, because it's his only chance of remaining an atheist. At this point we need a psychological explanation of the atheist rather than a logical explanation of the universe. We have a logical explanation of the universe, but the atheist doesn't like it. It's called God.

There is one especially strong version of the argument from design that hits close to home because it's about the design of the very thing we use to think about design: our brains. The human brain is the most complex piece of design in the known universe. In many ways, it's just like a computer. Now just suppose there were a computer that was programmed only by chance. For instance, suppose you were in a plane and the public address system announced that there was no pilot, but the plane was being flown by a computer that had been programmed by a random fall of hailstones on its typewriter keyboard, or by a baseball player in spiked shoes dancing on computer cards. How much confidence would you have in that plane? But if our brain computer has no cosmic intelligence behind the heredity and environment that program it, why should we trust it when it tells us about anything even about the brain?

Another uniquely strong aspect of the design argument is the so-called anthropic principle. The universe seems to be specially designed from the beginning for human life to evolve. If the temperature of the primal fireball that resulted from the Big Bang some 15-20 billion years ago which was the beginning of our universe had been a trillionth of a degree colder or hotter, the carbon molecule that's the foundation of all organic life could never have evolved. The number of possible universes is trillions and trillions. Only one of them could support human life: this one. Sounds suspiciously like a plot.

But doesn't evolution explain everything without a divine Designer? Just the opposite: Evolution is a beautiful example of design, a great clue to God. There's very good scientific evidence for the evolving, ordered appearance of species, from simple to complex. But there is no scientific proof of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. Natural selection explains the emergence of higher forms without intelligent design by the ''survival of the fittest'' principle. But this is sheer theory. There is no evidence that abstract, theoretical thinking or altruistic love make it easier for man to survive. How did they evolve, then?

Furthermore, how could the design that obviously exists now in man and in the human brain come from something with less or no design? It violates the principle of causality, which states that you can't get more in the effect than you had in the cause. If there is intelligence in the effect (man), there must be intelligence in the cause. But a universe ruled by blind chance has no intelligence. Therefore there must be a cause for human intelligence that transcends the universe: a Mind behind the physical universe. (Most great scientists have believed in such a Mind, by the way, even those who did not believe any revealed religion.)

How much does this argument prove? Not all that the Christian means by God, of course no argument can do that but it proves a pretty thick slice of God: some designing intelligence great enough to account for all the design in the universe and the human mind.

If that's not God, what is it? Steven Spielberg?

If the cosmic rays had bombarded the primordial slime at a slightly different angle or time or intensity, the hemoglobin molecule necessary for all warm-blooded animals could never have evolved. The chance of this happening is something like one in a trillion trillion. Add together each of the ''chances'' and you have something far more unbelievable than a million monkeys writing Hamlet.

There are relatively few atheists among neurologists and brain surgeons or among astrophysicists, but many among psychologists, sociologists and historians. The reason seems obvious: the first study divine design, the second study human undesign.

Does God really exist? The argument from conscience 'first cause'

The most famous arguments for God's existence are the ''five ways of Thomas Aquinas. One of them is the argument from design, which we looked at last week. The other four are versions of the ''first cause argument, which we explore here.

The argument is really very simple: Everything needs an explanation. Nothing just is. Everything has some sufficient reason why it is.

Example: My parents caused me, my grandparents caused them, etc. But it's not that simple. I wouldn't be here without billions of causes, from the Big Bang through the cooling of the galaxies and the evolution of the protein molecule to the marriages of my ancestors. So the universe is a vast and complex chain of causes.

But does the universe as a whole have a cause? Is there a First Cause, an uncaused Cause, of the whole process?

If not, then there's an infinite regress of causes, with no first link in the great cosmic chain. If so, then there is a First Cause, an eternal, independent, self-explanatory Being with nothing above it, before it or supporting it. It would have to explain itself as well as everything else for if it needed something else as its explanation, then it wouldn't be the First Cause.

Such a Being would have to be God. If we can prove there is such a First Cause, we'll have proved there is a God.

If there is no First Cause, then the universe is like a railroad train moving without an engine. Each car's motion is explained, proximately, by the motion of the car in front of it: The caboose moves because the boxcar pulls it: the boxcar moves because the cattle car pulls it: etc. But there's no engine to pull the first car, and thus the whole train. That would be impossible, of course. But that's what the universe is like if there is no First Cause.

There's one more analogy: Suppose I tell you there's a book that explains everything you want explained. You want that book very much. You ask me whether I have it. I say no, I have to get it from my wife. Does she have it? No, she has to get it from a neighbor. Does he have it? No, he has to get it from his teacher, who has to get it... etcetera, adinfinitum. No one actually has the book. In that case, you will never get it. However long or short the chain of book-borrowers may be, you will get the book only if someone actually has it and doesn't have to borrow it.

Well, existence is like that book. Existence is handed down the chain of causes, from cause to effect. If there's no First Cause, no Being who is eternal and self-sufficient, who has existence by His own nature and does not have to borrow it from someone else if there's no such Being, then the gift of existence can never be passed down the chain to the others, and no one will ever get it.

But we did get it! We exist. We got the gift of existence from our causes, down the chain, and so did every actual being in the universe from atoms to archangels. Therefore, there must be a First Cause of existence a God.

Dependent beings cannot cause themselves. They are dependent on their causes. If there's no Independent Being, then the whole chain of dependent beings is dependent on nothing and could not exist. But they do exist. Therefore there is an Independent Being.

Aquinas has four versions of this basic argument.

First, he argues that the chain of movers must have a First Mover because nothing can move itself. If the whole chain of moving things had no First Mover, it could not now be moving but it is. If there were an infinite regress of movers with no First Mover, no motion could ever begin, and if it never began, it could not go on and exist now. But it does go on: it does exist now. Therefore it began, and therefore there is a First Mover. (Motion here refers to any kind of change, not just change of place.)

Second, he expands the proof from proving a cause of motion to proving a cause of existence. He argues that if there were no cause for the universe coming into being, then there could be no second causes, since second causes (i.e.caused causes) are dependent on a First Cause. But there are second causes all around us. Therefore there must be a First Cause.

Third, he argues that if there were no eternal, necessary and immortal being: if everything had a possibility of not being, of ceasing to be, then eventually this possibility of ceasing to be would be realized for everything. In other words, if everything could die, then given infinite time, everything would eventually die. But in that case nothing could start up again; we would have universal death, for a being that has ceased to exist cannot cause itself or anything else to begin to exist again. But if there is no God, then there must have been infinite time; the universe must have been here always, with no beginning and no First Cause. Yet this universal death has not happened and things do exist. Therefore there must be a necessary Being which cannot not-be and cannot possibly cease to be. That's a description of God.

Fourth, there must also be a First Cause of 'perfection,' or goodness, or value. We rank things as more or less perfect, good or valuable. Unless this ranking is false, unless souls don't really have any more perfection than slugs, there must be a real standard of perfection to make such a hierarchy possible. For a thing is ranked higher on the hierarchy of perfection only insofar is it is closer to the ideal. Unless there is a Most Perfect Being to be that real standard of perfection, all our value judgments are meaningless. Such a Most Perfect Being, or real-ideal standard of perfection, is another description of God.

There is a single, common, logical structure to all four proofs. Instead of proving God directly, they prove Him indirectly, by refuting atheism. Either there is a First Cause or not. The proofs look at not and refute it, leaving the only other possibility that He is.

Each of the four ways makes the same point for four different kinds of cause: first, cause of motion; second, cause of a beginning to existence; third, cause of present existence; and fourth, cause of goodness or value. The common point is that if there were no First Cause, there could be no second causes, and yet there are second causes (moved movers, caused causers, dependent and mortal beings, and less-than-wholly perfect beings). Therefore, there must be a First Cause of motion, beginning, existence and perfection.

How can anyone squirm out of this tight logic? Here are four ways in which different philosophers try:

First, many say the proofs just don't prove God, but only some vague first cause or other. God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of philosophers and scholars, cries Pascal, who was a passionate Christian but did not believe you could logically prove God's existence. It's quite true that the proofs do not prove everything the Christian means by God. But they do prove a transcendent, eternal, un-caused, immortal, self-existing, independent, all-perfect Being. That certainly sounds more like God than like Superman. It's a pretty thick slice of God, at any rate much too much for any atheist to digest.

Second, some philosophers, like David Hume, say that the concept of cause is ambiguous and not applicable beyond the physical universe to God. How dare we use the same term for what clouds do to rain, what parents do to children, what authors do to books, and what God does to the universe? The answer is that the concept of cause is analogical; that is, it differs somewhat but not completely from one example to another. Human fatherhood is like divine fatherhood, and physical causality is like divine causality. The way an author conceives a book in his mind is not exactly the same as the way a woman conceives a baby in her body either, but we call both causes. (In fact, we also call both conceptions.) The objection is right to point out that we don't fully understand how God causes the universe, as we understand how parents cause children or clouds cause rain. But the term remains meaningful. A cause is the sine qua non for an effect: If no cause, no effect. If no creator, no creation; if no God, no universe.

Third, it's sometimes argued (e.g by Bertrand Russell) that there is a self-contradiction in the argument, for one of the premises is that everything needs a cause but the conclusion is that there is something (God) which does not need a cause. The child who asks, Who made God? is really thinking of this objection. The answer is very simple: The argument does not use the premise Everything needs a cause. Everything in motion needs a cause, everything dependent needs a cause, everything imperfect needs a cause.

Fourth, it's often asked why there can't be infinite regress, with no First Being. Infinite regress is perfectly acceptable in mathematics. Negative numbers go on to infinity just as positive numbers do. So why can't time be like the number series, with no highest number either negatively (no First in the past) or positively (no Last in the future)?

The answer is that real beings are not like numbers. They need causes. For the chain of real beings moves in one direction only, from past to future, and the future is caused by the past. Positive numbers are not caused by negative numbers.

There is, in fact, a parallel in the number series for a First Cause: the number one. If there were no first positive integer, no unit one, there could be no subsequent addition of units. Two is two ones, there is three ones, and so on. If there were no First, there could be no second or third.

If this is getting too tricky, the thing to do is to return to what's sure and clear: the intuitive point we began with.

As C.S. Lewis put it, I felt in my bones that this universe does not explain itself.

Does God really exist? The argument from conscience

Almost no one will say that we ought to sin against our conscience. Disobey the Church, the state, parents, authority figures but do not disobey your conscience. Thus people usually admit though not usually in these words the absolute moral authority of conscience.

Such people are usually surprised to find out that Thomas Aquinas, of all people, agrees with them to such an extent that he says if a Catholic comes to believe the Church is in error in some essential, officially binding doctrine, it is a mortal sin against conscience, a sin of hypocrisy, for him to remain in the Church and call himself a Catholic, but only a venial sin against knowledge for him to leave the Church in honest but partly culpable error.

So one of the two premises of an argument for God's existence is already established: Conscience has an absolute authority over us. The second premise is that the only possible source of absolute authority is an absolutely Perfect Will, a divine Being. The conclusion follows that such a Being exists.

How would someone disagree with the second premise? By finding an alternative basis for conscience besides God. There are four such possibilities:

  1. something abstract and impersonal, like an idea;
  2. something concrete but less than human, on the level of animal instinct;
  3. something on the human level but not the divine; and
  4. something higher than the human level but not yet divine.

The first possibility means that the basis of conscience is a law without a lawgiver. We are obligated absolutely to an abstract ideal, a pattern of behavior. The question then comes up: Where does this pattern exist? If it does not exist anywhere, how can a real person be under the authority of something unreal? How can More be subject to Less? If, on the other hand, this pattern or idea exists in the minds of people, then what authority do they have to impose this idea of theirs on me? If the idea is only an idea, it has no personal will behind it; if it is only someone's idea, it has only that someone behind it. In neither case do we have a sufficient basis for absolute, infallible, no-exceptions authority.

The second possibility means that we trace conscience to a biological instinct. We must love one another or die, writes the poet W.H. Auden. We unconsciously know this, says the believer in the second possibility, just as animals unconsciously know that unless they behave in certain ways the species will not survive. That's why animal mothers sacrifice for their children, and that's a sufficient explanation for human altruism too. It's the herd instinct.

The problem with this explanation is that it, like the first, does not account for the absoluteness of conscience's authority. We believe we ought to disobey an instinct any instinct on some occasions. But we do not believe we ought ever to disobey our conscience. You should usually obey instincts like mother-love, but not if it means keeping your son back from risking his life to save his country in a just and necessary defensive war, or if it means injustice and uncharity to other mothers' sons. There is no instinct which should always be obeyed. Instincts are like the notes on a piano (the illustration comes from C.S. Lewis); the moral law is like sheet music. Different notes are right at different times.

Furthermore, instinct fails to account not only for what we ought to do but also for what we do do. We don't always follow instinct. Sometimes we go to the aid of a victim even though we fear for our own safety.

A third possibility is that other human beings, or society, are the source of the authority of conscience. That's the most popular belief. But it's also the weakest of all four possibilities. For society does not mean something over and above other human beings.

Society is simply other people like myself. What authority do they have over me? Are they always right? Must I never disobey them? What kind of blind status quo conservatism is that? Should a German have obeyed society in the Nazi era?

The fourth possibility remains: that the source of conscience's authority is something above me but not God. What could this be? Society is not above me, nor is instinct. An ideal? But that's possibility number one, already dealt with. It looks like there are simply no candidates in this area. And that leaves us with God.

To sum up the argument most simply: Conscience has binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous Divine Will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore, conscience is the voice of the will of God.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we always hear that voice aright. Our consciences can err. That's why the first obligation we have, in conscience, is to form our conscience by seeking the truth especially the truth about whether this God has revealed to us clear moral maps (Scripture and Church). If so, whenever our conscience seems to tell us to disobey those maps, it is not working properly, and we can know that by conscience itself, if only we remember that conscience is more than just immediate feeling.

Does God really exist? The agrument from history

There are at least eight different arguments for the existence of God from history, not just one.

First, history, both human and prehuman, shows a story line. It is not just random. If atheism is true, there are no adventures; life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But life isn't like that. Life is a story. And stories aren't told by idiots.

Rather, a story points to a Storyteller. Thus, the general argument from history is a version of the argument from design.

A second argument concentrates on history's moral design. The historical books of the Old Testament are an argument for the existence of God from the justice displayed in the history of the Jewish people: They're an invitation to see the hand of God in human affairs. Whenever God's laws are followed, the people prosper. When they're violated, the people perish.

History shows that moral laws are as inescapable as physical ones. Just as you can flout gravity only temporarily, then you fall, so you can flout the laws of God only temporarily, then you fall. Great tyrants like Hitler flourish for a day, then perish. Great saints suffer apparent failure, then emerge into triumph. The same is true of nations. History proves you can't cut the corners of the moral square.

Now, is this fact which the East calls karma mere chance, or the design of a wise lawgiver? But no human lawgiver invented history itself. So, the only adequate cause for such an effect is God.

A third argument flows from providential coincidences, like the Red Sea parting (moved by an east wind, according to Exodus) just at the right time for the Jews to escape Pharaoh. Our own individual histories usually have similar bits of curious timing. Unprejudiced examination of these coincidences will bring at least a suspicion, if not the conviction, that an unseen divine hand is at work.

The writers of the Bible often shortcut the argument and simply ascribe such natural events to God. Indeed, another passage in Exodus says simply that God parted the sea. This is not a miracle: God worked here, and continues to work, through the second causes of natural agents. But it is God who works, and the hand of the Worker is visible through the work if we only look.

A fourth argument from history, the strongest of all, is miracles. Miracles directly show the presence of God, for a miracle, in the ordinary sense of the word, is a deed done by supernatural, not natural, power. If miracles happen, they demonstrate God's existence as clearly as rational speech shows the existence of thought.

If I were an atheist, I would study all published interviews of any of the 70,000 who saw the miracle of the sun at Fatima; I would ransack hospital records for documented, impossible, miraculous cures.

Yet nearly all atheists argue against miracles philosophically rather than historically. They are convinced a priori, by argument, that miracles can't happen. So they don't waste their time on empirical investigation. Those who do, soon cease to be atheists like the skeptical scientists who investigated the Shroud of Turin, or like Frank Morrison, who investigated the evidence for the myth of Christ's resurrection with the careful scientific eye of the historian and became a believer. (His book Who Moved the Stone? is still a classic and still in print after 60 years.)

God provided just enough evidence of Himself for any honest seeker whose heart really cares about the truth of the matter. But not so much that hardened hearts will be convinced by force. Even Christ did not convince the world of His divinity by His miracles. He could have remained on earth, impervious to death, indefinitely. He could have come down from the cross, and then the doubters would have believed. But He didn't. Even His resurrection was kept semiprivate. The New Testament speaks of only 500 who saw Him. Why did He not reveal Himself to all?

He will on the Last Day, when it's too late to change sides. His mercy gives us time and freedom to choose. Jesus is like a lover with a marriage proposal, not a cop with a warrant.

A fifth argument is Christ Himself. Here is a man who lived among us and claimed to be God. If Christ was God, then, of course, there is a God. But if Christ was not God, He was a madman or a devil a madman if He really thought He was God but was not; a devil if He knew He was not God and yet tempted men to worship Him. Which is He Lord, lunatic or liar?

Part of the data of history is the Gospel record of His life. Reading the Gospels is like reading Boswell's account of Dr. Johnson: an absolutely unforgettable character emerges. Christ's personality is compelling even to unbelievers, even to enemies like Nietzsche. And the character revealed there is utterly unlike that of a lunatic or a liar. So if it's impossible for a lunatic to be so wise or a liar so loving, then He must be the One He claims to be.

A sixth argument is the saints, especially their joy. Chesterton once said that the only unanswerable argument against Christianity was Christians. (He meant bad and sad Christians.) Similarly, the only unanswerable argument for Christianity is Christians saintly Christians. You can argue against Mother Teresa's theology if you're skeptical of mind, but you can't argue against Mother Teresa herself, unless you're hopelessly hard of heart.

If there is no God, how can life's most fundamental illusion cause its greatest joy? If God didn't do it, who put smiles on the lips of martyrs? By their fruits you shall know them. Illusions don't have the staying power that the faith has.

And that brings us to our seventh argument from history: the conversion of the world. How to explain the success of the faith in winning the hearts of men? Hard-hearted Romans give up worldly pleasures and ambitions and often life itself, and take a leap in the dark; worldly men pin their hopes on otherworldly goals and do it consistently, en masse, century after century, until the whole civilized Western world is converted if Christianity is not true and there are no miracles, then this record is an even greater miracle.

Greek philosophy won converts through rational proofs, and Mohammed through force of arms in the jihad or holy war. But Christ won hearts by the miracle of amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

(I almost believe it's our high and holy duty to loudly sing the original wretch line that our liturgical experts have bowdlerized out of that great old hymn whenever the congregation sings today's sanitized version instead. God in His wisdom saw that the American Church lacked persecutions and so sent her liturgists.)

The eighth and last argument from history is from our own life experiences. The Christian faith is verifiable in a laboratory, but it's a subtle and complex laboratory: the laboratory of one's life. I always tell a skeptic to pray The Prayer of the Skeptic if he really wants to know whether God exists. It's the scientific thing to do: to test a hypothesis by performing the relevant experiment. If God exists, He wants to get in touch with us and reveal Himself to us, and He has promised that all who seek Him will find Him. Well then, all the agnostic has to do is to sincerely seek, honestly and with an open mind, and he will find, in God's way and in God's time. That's part of the hypothesis.

How to seek? Not just by arguing but by praying, not just by talking about God, as Job's three friends did, who did not find Him, but by talking to God, as Job did, who found Him. Go out into your back yard some night and say to the empty universe above you: God, I don't know whether You exist or not. Maybe I'm praying to nobody, but maybe I'm praying to You. So if You're really there, please let me know somehow, because I do want to know. I want only the truth, whatever it is. If You are the truth, here I am, ready and willing to follow You wherever You lead.

If our faith is not a pack of lies, then whoever sincerely prays that prayer will find God in his or her own life, no matter how hard, long or complex the road, as Augustine's was in the Confessions. All roads lead to Rome if only we follow them.

Pascal's wager: Betting on eternity

Suppose someone precious to you lay dying, and the doctor offered to try a new miracle drug that he couldn't guarantee, but which seemed to have a 50-50 chance of saving your loved one's life.

Would it be reasonable to try it, even if it cost a little money? And suppose it were free wouldn't it be utterly reasonable to try it and unreasonable not to?

Suppose you hear that your house is on fire and your children are inside. You don't know whether the report is true or false. What's the sensible thing to do to ignore it or at least phone home in case the report is true?

No reasonable person can be in doubt in such cases. But deciding whether or not to believe in God is a case like these, argues Pascal. It's therefore the height of folly not to bet on God, even if we have no guarantee that our bet will win.

To understand Pascal's Wager we have to understand its background. Pascal lived in a time of huge skepticism. Medieval philosophy was dead, and theology was sneered at by the new intellectuals of the 17th century's scientific revolution. The classic arguments for the existence of God were no longer believed. What could the Christian apologist say to the skeptical mind of this era? Suppose such a mind lacked both the gift of faith and the confidence in reason to prove God's existence: Could there be a third ladder out of the pit of unbelief?

Pascal's Wager claims to be that third ladder. He knew well that if we believe in God only as a bet that is certainly not a mature or adequate faith. But it's a start. The Wager appeals not to a high instinct, like love or reason, but to a low one: self-preservation. But on that low, natural level, it has tremendous force. Thus he prefaces his argument with the words, Let us now speak according to our natural lights.

Pascal says, Either God is, or He is not. But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. (Pascal's Wager is an argument for skeptics.) Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance (death), a coin is being spun which will come down heads (God) or tails (no God). How will you wager?

The most powerful part of Pascal's argument comes next, and it's not his refutation of atheism as a foolish wager (that comes last) but his refutation of agnosticism as impossible. After all, agnosticism not knowing, maintaining a skeptical, uncommitted attitude seems to be the most reasonable option. The agnostic says, The right thing is not to wager at all.

Pascal replies, But you must wager. There is no choice. You are already committed (or 'embarked'). We are not observers of life, but participants. We're like ships which need to get home, sailing past a port that has signs on it proclaiming that it is our true home and happiness. The ships are our own lives and the signs on the port say God.

The agnostic says he will neither put in at that port (believe) nor turn away from it (disbelieve), but stay anchored a reasonable distance until the weather clears and he can see better whether this is the true port or a fake (for there are lots of fakes around). Why is this attitude unreasonable even impossible?

Because we're moving. The ship of life is moving along the waters of time and there comes a point when our fuel runs out. The Wager works because of the fact of death.

Suppose Romeo proposes to Juliet but Juliet says, Give me some time to make up my mind. And suppose Romeo keeps corning back, day after day, but Juliet keeps saying the same thing: Perhaps tomorrow. There comes a time when there are no more tomorrows. Then maybe becomes no. Romeo will die. Corpses do not marry.

Christianity is God's marriage proposal to the soul. To keep saying maybe and perhaps tomorrow cannot continue indefinitely because life doesn't continue indefinitely. The weather will never be clear enough for the agnostic navigator to be sure whether the port with the signs on it is true or false just by looking at it through binoculars from a distance. He has to take a chance, or he'll never get home.

Once it is decided that we must wager; once it is decided that there are only two options, theism and atheism, not three, theism, atheism and agnosticism; then the argument is simple. Atheism is a bad bet. It gives us no chance of winning.

You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other.

But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then: Wager that He does exist.

If God does not exist, it doesn't matter how we wager, for there's nothing to win after death and nothing to lose after death. But if God does exist, our only chance of winning eternal happiness is to believe, and our only chance of losing it is to refuse to believe. As Pascal says, I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true. If we believe too much, we neither win nor lose eternal happiness. But if we believe too little, we risk losing everything.

But is it worth the price? What must be given up to wager that God exists? Whatever the correct answer it is only finite, and it's very reasonable indeed to wager a finite bet on the chance of winning an infinite prize. Perhaps we must give up autonomy, or illicit pleasures, but we'll gain infinite happiness in eternity, and I tell you that you will gain even in this life purpose, peace, hope, joy the things that put smiles on the lips of martyrs.

It's fitting that Pascal next imagines the listener offering the very practical objection that he just cannot bring himself to believe. Pascal answers this with stunningly practical psychology: with the suggestion that the prospective convert act into his belief if he cannot yet act out of it. It's the same advice Dostoyevsky's guru Father Zossima gives to the woman of little faith in The Brothers Karamazov:

If you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by multiplying proofs of God's existence but by diminishing your passions. You want to find faith and you do not know the road. You want to be cured of unbelief and you ask for the remedy: Learn from those who were once bound like you and who now wager all they have... they behaved just as if they did believe.

The behavior Pascal mentions is taking holy water, having Masses said, and so on. Father Zossima counsels to the same end an active and indefatigable love of your neighbor... I am sorry I cannot say anything more comforting to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. In both cases, living the faith can be a way of getting the faith. As Pascal says, That will make you believe quite naturally and will make you more docile.

But that is what I am afraid of.

But why? What have you to lose?

An atheist once visited the great rabbi-philosopher Martin Buber and demanded that Buber prove the existence of God to him. Buber refused, and the atheist got up to leave in anger. As he left, Buber called after him, But can you be sure there is no God?

That atheist wrote 40 years later, I am still an atheist. But Buber's question has haunted me every day of my life.

The Wager has just that haunting power.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



Kreeft, Peter. The Reasons to Believe. National Catholic Register (May 1988).

Published by permission of the author and the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1988 National Catholic Register

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