I’ve always found Pascal’s wager to be very interesting.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Pascal’s wager is an argument for the belief in a higher power (or technically, a belief in a religion). If you break it down to its most basic levels it says that it’s in your best interest to believe in a higher power because the reward (heaven) far outweighs the risk (nothing).
By sticking in the faith and “work” toward a specific religion, you are rewarded with paradise. Pascal argues that this “reward” greatly outweighs the risk. After all, if you die and it turns out there is nothing, you probably won’t care too much — however if it turns out there is a God then your life of sin and treachery will stick you in an unpleasant place. Using this logic, it is clearly in someones best interest to have belief in a higher power.
Of course, there are a few strong pieces of criticism against this argument.
The first is simply that their are more religions in the world than one, so you have to account for that too. What if you put your eggs in the wrong basket? It is impossible to know which religion is “right” so this adds another unpredictable variable to the equation which throws off the solution. Likewise the concept of “faith” is considered a large part of many religious beliefs, so if your faith is contrived and not genuine then perhaps you aren’t better off at all.
Pascal’s wager never seems like it was designed to account for such things. Instead, it seems like it was designed to defend faith in a world where two states exist — with religion and without. In this sort of vacuum, it does work — but in the “real” world it simply does not seem to work, at least not in the realm of philosophy.
I like to look at it a different way, though. I don’t see it as a good defense for religion — but I do think it works for spirituality. In order to explain exactly why, let me differentiate between religion and spirituality.
When someone follows a religion they belong to a group of people who have spiritual beliefs that line up with whoever determines the ideals of the religion. Their beliefs are defined by the religion rather than the individual. While many within the group have slight differences of belief, most of them are extremely minute and kept personal — after all, deviation from the norm within a religious group often gets you cast out.
In contrast, spirituality (or someone who describes themselves as “spiritual” for the sake of this article) is a very personal thing. While a religion controls the principles of religious belief, spirituality is controlled by the individual. Two individuals can be spiritual and not have a single thing in common yet they can both describe themselves in the same exact way. The “purpose” of being spiritual is finding the same inner peace that religion is supposed to bring you but essentially without the strings. Another person describing themselves as spiritual cannot declare your beliefs to be false nor would doing so have any advantageous impact on either set of beliefs.
Religion also often serves as a way for people to explain the unexplained in their lives. While spirituality can serve this purpose, its true goal is to allow the adherent to achieve a sort of inner peace. When there is trauma in someone’s life it is their spirituality that soothes them and brings them back to where they need to be. In this way spirituality doesn’t even have to have any mysticism at all. Someone can be spiritual simply by looking outside and seeing the seasons shape the landscape, the constant cycle of the Earth calming them from whatever sort of struggle they are facing.
Likewise, someone who is “religious” can be spiritual — but I would argue that it is not their church or place of worship that soothes them, but their personal link with whatever higher power they put their faith in.
If we apply Pascal’s wager to spirituality instead of religion the “prize” of belief is not necessarily heaven, but instead a sort of peace gained from inner faith. While someone who is religious has something to lose if he or she picks the wrong religion, someone who is spiritual loses nothing at all because at the end of the day it does not matter if they are right or wrong in what they choose. What matters is that they are personally satisfied with the result.
Essentially, it is the discovery and the process that matters. It is waking up and breathing in the air and having that sense of calm that specifically comes from belief that matters, not the actual belief itself. As long as it is worthwhile to the person who practices it then it is sound.