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Pascal’s Wager and Heathenry

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher offered a defense of Christianity called Pascal’s wager:

“If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).”

Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, but was working off a few flawed assumptions, and blind to a few of his own.  Pascal, as a Christian, accepted a few fundamental assumptions without thinking that left deep flaws in the argument.  One of the assumptions accepted by Pascal is that the only two choices available were belief in Jehova, and atheism.  As Heathen, we accept that there are other gods than Jehova and his corpse child. The second fundamental assumption is actually more important, and more insidious; the acceptance of meta-ethics.  Meta-ethics is the acceptance that right or wrong is not determined by the deed itself, but by how it agrees with the will of god (Jehova).  What might be viewed as an immoral act on its own, can become moral, if it represents god’s will.  The classic examples are the parable of Issac.  Abraham was ordered by god to sacrifice his only begotten son.  He bent his child over the alter, as he did his sacrificial lambs, and began the killing stroke when god stopped him.  This is described as a wonderful thing in Christianity, the great good of the proof of Abraham’s perfect submission to the will of god. In meta-ethics, conformation to the will of god defines good, and violating the will of god defines sin.  In ethics, a good is right or wrong by its nature; by its intent and effect.  Killing your child because someone asked you to is wrong for heathens, and for atheists.  To us, killing a child is killing a child; and there is no god, no state authority, that can make a wrong action correct.

Heathens understanding of worth is based on frith, or behaving appropriately to honour our relationships.  For us doing the right thing is honouring our duties to our family, our job, our community, our environment.  Our worth is built by the choices we make, by our deeds.  We offer to the gods, and our ancestors, offering the gift of praise in return for the gifts we ask guidance and instruction.  We don’t receive rules to obey from them, we are left to chose for ourselves, for reasons of our own relationships and duties.  From our understandings flow our choices, not from external rules, but from our understanding of our responsibilities.

If you erroneously believe in god(s) you lose nothing by obeying anyway, as you still end up dead. 

 

Heathen: You will still have lived an honourable life, and leave behind a legacy to be proud of.  You followed the dictates of your own conscience, and would change none of your decisions knowing now that you were wrong.

 

Christian: You have done many times things that you felt were wrong because you were told god demanded it.  You have chosen obedience over your own personal ethics.  At the moment of death, you will know you chose to do wrong to please a lie.  You will go down into the dark with that knowledge.

 

If you disbelieve in god(s) and are right

 

Heathen: Your worth will depend on your actions, death holds only an ending.

Christian: You did what you thought was right, death holds only an ending.

 

If you believe in god(s) and are right

 

Heathen: You have chosen to do what you felt was right as best you could.  You have built your worth through your deeds.  When you die, you will get to find out if there is anything else.  Will you rejoin your ancestors in Hel?  Does Valhalla await the chosen?  Who knows, the gods promised us only that:

“Cattle die, kinsmen die

You too will die,

One thing alone will not die

The fame of a good man’s deeds.”

What we do in life is eternal, is fixed in time, will have effects that last far beyond our own span when our choices, decisions, and accomplishments have touched and changed the lives of others.  This alone we are promised.  The rest we really will have to wait until death to discover.

 

Christian:  You have done what was the will of god, even when you felt it wrong.  You will get to live in eternity for the price of submitting to the will of another instead of choosing for yourself.

 

For a Heathen, the wager is a safe bet.  We choose for ourselves, and if we chose as we know we should our legacy will be a bright one that benefits our family, our community, and our name.  If the gods exist, we have won honour in their eyes, as well as the communities.  If the gods do not exist, we have won honour in the eyes of the community, and left our name and our world brighter than we found it.  There is no way for a Heathen to lose this wager.

 

For a Christian the wager is dangerous.  If they do what god wants instead of what they feel is right, if god doesn’t exist, they did evil out of fear of death.  They died anyway.  If they do what god wants, and not what they feel is right, out of fear of death, and are right, they spend an eternity in submission to a god that demanded they do what they knew was wrong, or be punished forever for choosing morality over obedience.  It seems hard for a Christian to win and remain worthy.

 Our ancestors did not live their lives as the Egyptians, Jews, or contemporary Christians and Muslims do; attempting to secure a theoretical afterlife.  Rather than spending an entire life that is real, making choices to purchase a place in an afterlife which is a theory at best, our ancestors chose to embrace this life, to do with every moment the very best they could.

I am alive now, I have choices to make today that will affect real people.  It is my responsibility to do the best that I can that those choices are good ones.  I do this not to buy a place in Valhalla; honestly my family have been soldiers for many generations and focus strongly on letting the other side do the dying for their country.  I do this because real people benefit or lose on my decisions, and my own personal worth depends on making the best of the possible choices open to me.  This is real, this is testable concrete reality.  This also agrees with the world accepting teachings of my heathen faith.  If the gods exist, they expect me to make the best possible choices for those who depend on me.  If the gods do not exist, I still have people depending on my making good choices.  I will do my best, and the gods will have to be happy, or not with that.  If I can be said to have faith, it is that my gods did not teach me what my responsibilities are, if they expected me to neglect them.  For this reason, even should Jehova appear in smoldering shrubbery, or shattering thunder, he is still cordially invited to pound sand.  I would not trade my honour in this life for an eternity forsworn and enslaved.  Our own gods and goddesses only need to point out what we mortals miss, and trust us to figure the rest out for ourselves (or not).  That I can work with.

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5 thoughts on “Pascal’s Wager and Heathenry

  1. Wow, a really good post. I will present this argument next time someone tries Pascal’s wager on me (which they have many times done in the past).
    I didn’t really understand before why our ancestors thought that fame through deeds is the most important thing of all. Now I realize, after reading, that it is not so much about reputation, but how people that you knew will remember you after you die. The people you loved, the people you hurt, things you built or destroyed. And that a part of you will live on in the memory of the ones who loved you.
    Thank you for that.

  2. Nicely put in general, but you’re incorrect to throw Jews in among those who seek an afterlife by submission. There has never been any certain claims in Judaism about what lies beyond death, nor are we instructed to focus much on it. Our goal is to make the life we live now the best, most honorable one we can; much as yours is. Afterward will take care of itself, one way or another. There are legends, mostly adapted from Christian concepts within the millennia of exile… but none of them are doctrine (and doctrine isn’t especially important in Judaism anyway; law is).

    Jews don’t submerge our own judgment to that of HaShem. Instead, we have a contract with it — two equally independent actors choosing to make limited commitments to each other in exchange for concessions specified from the other. We were to get land and protection. In exchange, we agreed to obey 613 specific laws… not “whatever God wills,” but those particular rules and nothing more. And *we*, not HaShem, got to run the courts of judgment which interpret those laws. There’s a famous story in Talmud, in which the rabbis were meeting to decide a case. All of them believed it should go one direction except a single dissident, who insisted God wanted it the other way. He kept calling on miracles to prove he was correct — and getting them!! — and the majority ignored him. Finally, he demanded that, if he were right about the interpretation, HaShem’s own Voice ring out in the chamber, saying so explicitly.

    And the Voice came and told them he was right. And the rabbis conferred briefly. And then they politely told the Voice to go away — this wasn’t Its jurisdiction. 😉 Citing specific scriptural language which gave them the right to decide these matters, they told God that he couldn’t fairly take back the authority he’d delegated to them, and they were standing by their interpretation.

    The Voice laughed mightily, saying, “My children have bested Me!” and vanished. The majority opinion stood.

    I leave you with a quote which sums up the rational person’s approach to Pascal’s Wager… it’s usually attributed to Marcus Aurelius, but it’s pretty clearly not his. I can’t find an accurate source attribution, but the statement itself is worthy of attention:

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

    • As my own experience with Judaism and its teaching comes from Christian scholars, whose bias I admit does not withstand scrutiny where my own faith is concerned, I will bow to your expertise on this. Your comments represent what a Heathen would consider to be a healthy relationship with your god.

      • Thank you. In my experience, very few Christian scholars understand Judaism. Not only is there plenty of bias preventing honest and dispassionate description in many cases, but even those Christians who truly mean well approach the world through a set of axioms which are radically different from our own. That makes it very difficult for them to understand Jewish thought accurately.

        My Shamanic husband, on the other hand, ‘gets’ Judaism pretty well. So do many other shamans/heathens/pagans I know. I suspect there is rather more similarity between the mental framework involved in Judaism and that in many modern polytheistic faiths than there is between either one and the universalist religions. 🙂

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