I first heard of this book when the author was a guest on the radio show Unbelievable. In that episode he debated an atheist on the merits of his updated version of Pascal’s wager. I was not impressed. Being a Christian myself, it was somewhat uncomfortable to find myself agreeing with the atheist. At times I thought the atheist guest was too nice in his criticism; he could have gone farther and really torn the argument down.
A few days later I saw that the book was on sale on Amazon and it was less than 100 pages. I figured I’d read it to try to get a better grasp of his argument. To my surprise, the more I read the more sympathetic I became to Moore’s argument. Having read the book, I think he simply did not do a good job presenting the primary points on the radio show.
Taken as a whole, Moore is arguing that a wise person will choose the path that avoids the worst sort of end. In other words, in a godless universe the worst end is simply death but in a universe with god there is the distinct possibility of life, and judgment, after death. So the wise person ought to live as if there is a God in the hopes of avoiding this afterlife punishment.
One vital point in grasping Moore’s argument is that he is not talking about belief. He is not saying that you ought to believe in God, or the Christian faith, to avoid hell. Part of the reason for this is that Moore says changing your beliefs is not that easy. You cannot simply choose to believe differently then you do, all of a sudden. I think this is one common critique of Pascal – if you are told to believe in order to avoid hell, are you simply expecting to lie about what you believe? Would any God accept such a fake belief anyway?
For Moore, the point is to live as if there is a God. I recall the specifics of how this living might play out were left sort of vague. The point is that while it is not easy to change what you believe, you can change the actions you take on a daily basis. As your actions change and you build new habits, it seems Moore is confident in the idea that you will over time come to faith in God and change of belief.
Throughout most of the book Moore’s language remains vague, talking only about God. Near the end he shares that he is a Christian, which is certainly not surprising to any reader. I think this does reveal one flaw in the book. Moore seems to desire to offer an objective argument, seemingly apart from his own personal faith commitments. I do not think such a tactic is wise. I could go on a whole tangent here, but I’d rather just point those interested to the works of people like Myron Penner and James K.A. Smith.
Moore is a professional philosopher and I am not even close. But I have read Charles Taylor and I think what he says about this sort of objectivity is apt. He talks about how Christian apologetics, in an attempt to appeal to skeptics, ends up giving us such a watered down God that rejection of this God is not difficult. Smith, in his book on Taylor, summarizes Taylor’s position (Honestly, I do not have the book in front of me and I cannot recall if these are quotes from Taylor, or summaries by Smith):
“The scaled down God and preshrunk religion defended by the apologists turned out to be insignificant enough to reject without consequence” (53)
” The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity – as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice” (51)
Another problem in the book, potentially, is that traditional Christianity would not give us a God who accepts the wise person who chooses to live as if there is a God. That person would appear to be pursuing salvation by works. Moore’s version of Pascal’s wager is still not going to lead to salvation, on traditional terms, for the hypothetical person who takes the wager. Moore might respond, as he did on Unbelievable, that he is not offering a “Christian” argument. If so, tht is precisely the problem. If we are Christians it does no one any good for us to hide that fact in hopes of slipping Jesus in the back door.
Along with that, a wise person may recognize that simply choosing to live as if there is a God is not enough. Such a person may recognize this as merely Deism. Why not go the next step and choose the religion whose hell is the worst, in order to avoid the worse punishment? Perhaps Christianity gives a tame enough version of hell to reject in favor of some other religion?
Finally, like I said, I am no philosopher. But I have read Pascal’s Pensees and I think there is an important order to how Pascal presents his arguments. Pascal did not lead off with this argument. Instead he brought it in at the end, after realizing that both a universe with god and a universe without god make equal sense. In this quote Pascal says that both sides may be valid and reasonable:
This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.
Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.
For Pascal, at least as I understood in reading, it was when you came to this point, where reason seems to fail in offering a way forward, that you bring in the wager. If both a world with god and one without can make sense, logically, then move beyond logic.
On Unbelievable the atheist guest was not at this point. He found a universe without god unreasonable. Moore plowed ahead with the updated wager argument. The atheist had no problem ignoring it because he saw no evidence for a god.
Overall, I do appreciate this book and think arguments like Moore’s do have a place. There are flaws in it, but applied in the right situation it may be helpful.