Charlie's Blog: Reasonable Doubt and Pascal's Wager


Reasonable Doubt and Pascal's Wager

If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit.

With that single line, the Dream Team of attorneys that OJ Simpson hired took their client to victory in his criminal murder trial. I remember when it happened and how I became acquainted with the concept of reasonable doubt. By the preponderance of the evidence, OJ Simpson was guilty. I believe he was guilty. But the defense only had to establish a reasonable doubt. An ill fitting glove did the trick, and the rest is legal history.

There is a reason we use the reasonable doubt standard in a criminal trial as opposed to the preponderance of the evidence standard in a civil trial. If there is an error to be made, it must be made on behalf of the accused. The reasoning is that it is better to allow a guilty man to go free than to condemn an innocent man to prison or to execution. It is not a rule of logic but a rule of betting. This is why there is a greater burden of proof in criminal trials.

When it comes to believing in God or being an atheist, I can honestly and without reservation claim that the preponderance of the evidence is on the side of God's existence. I have been on both sides of that debate and have collected and considered enough arguments to make that claim. In a civil trial, I would win. In a criminal trial, I would lose. This is because I cannot prove God's existence beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you have ever stubbed your toe, that provides enough evidence to reasonably doubt the existence of God. Why does a good God allow this suffering? There are worse things in the world than this such as murders, rapes, thefts, and on and on. The existence of evil and suffering in the world is the best argument for atheism. These are the sorts of things one would expect from a purposeless universe guided by chance and evolution.

On the flip side of this argument, if the universe is guided by chance and evolution, why is there order? Why do we perceive a natural law underpinning it all? If you consider the five arguments of Thomas Aquinas, this puts the atheist in the conundrum of having to deal with five reasonable doubts to his position versus the one reasonable doubt for the believer. It doesn't matter if you believe in God, or you are an atheist. You will always be left with a reasonable doubt. This is why atheists and Christians have argued back and forth for centuries now with a sort of stalemate between them.

The reason for the stalemate is that both sides are striving to make an argument that is beyond all reasonable doubt. This can never be attained in the debate concerning God's existence. To have absolute certitude about anything would require omniscience which is a trait that belongs only to God. Even an atheist can agree on this point. To this day, we do not know with absolute certainty that OJ Simpson was guilty or innocent. The only thing we can know with absolute certainty is that we are not omniscient.

In the absence of certitude, all of our arguments are reduced to being contingent. I could change my mind about OJ's guilt if new evidence surfaced that exonerates him. Likewise, scientists may discover some fact that would make the existence of God less probable. Regardless, we marshal the best contingent arguments for both sides. This always leads to making a bet. Which side is most likely the correct one? That depends upon the outcome which brings us to Pascal's Wager.

Pascal's Wager is very simple. If God does not exist, both the atheist and the believer will die and go to the grave not even knowing if they were right or wrong. If God does exist. the atheist goes to Hell while the believer goes to someplace much better. The smart bet to make is to gamble on God.

I have never been a fan of Pascal's Wager. This comes from the fundamental gut reaction of people that sincere faith can't come from what amounts to a betting rule. By itself, Pascal's wager is insufficient. But if you add Pascal's wager to the arguments of Aquinas, you have an unbeatable package. You can strengthen your faith with the safe knowledge that you have nothing to lose by believing except the opportunity to acquire a sexually transmitted disease through immorality in this short life. Since being moral and good have their own rewards, you lose nothing by gambling on God. To put it another way, there is nothing worthwhile to be gained from atheism in this life or the next.

Whenever we hit a reasonable doubt or even a long period of discouragement, we should turn to Pascal and his wager. The only thing that should ever make us abandon our faith is the absolute certitude that God does not exist which we can never have. The benefit of all doubts should be given to believing in God. When you do this, this banishes all anxieties that you have made the wrong choice. This is something the atheist can never enjoy with his own reasonable doubts.

The only argument that the atheist can make is to cite that we may be gambling on the wrong God. If it turns out that Allah is God, the Christian will face eternal damnation and vice versa. The atheist does not recognize that the wager is still solid against atheism since the atheist is guaranteed a spot in Hell regardless of who the right God may be. A probable path to Hell is always to be preferred over a certain path to Hell. Like I said, this is a betting rule.

I believe in Jesus Christ and Roman Catholicism, but that is a separate set of arguments from the ones concerning atheism. I have never been tempted by the claims of some other religion like Buddhism and Islam. For me, the choice has always been binary--atheism or Christianity. Either Jesus Christ was the Son of God or religion is a total sham. Because of this, Pascal's Wager is a solid strategy for me.

I think you can take great consolation from the many arguments for God's existence. But when that consolation is absent, I recommend Pascal's Wager. You keep believing because choosing atheism makes no sense. Atheism is a dumb bet and will always be a dumb bet. If we must risk error, let us err on the side of God.