Tortured Belief

In section II of “The Will to Believe,” a lecture that was later published in a book of essays, William James takes apart the renowned “Pascal’s Wager.” As he explains it, its logic sounds kind of like that of the “ticking time bomb” scenario of the “torturing for Jesus” sadists: it may sound good superficially, but on closer examination it is ridiculous.

Pascal’s Wager is traditionally interpreted as a balance of infinite gain for no risk versus no gain for a small but definite risk. That is, the atheist has merely to believe in God’s existence in order to gain eternal salvation, risking nothing if he turns out to be wrong. On the other hand, denying God’s existence gains the atheist nothing, and there is still at least one chance out of an infinity that he could be wrong.
James writes:

Surely Pascal’s personal belief in masses and holy water had far other springs; and this celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the unbelieving heart.

No one actually believes that belief in God is sufficient for salvation, in other words; either they require faith in something additional, or they require good works, or they require nothing at all. Nowhere in the Bible is the mere belief in God’s existence promoted as adequate for any of God’s purposes, and the belief that it is adequate serves only to increase people’s vanity. Moreover, James points out the lack of sincerity in Pascal’s Wager:

We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted wilfully after such a mechanical calculation would lack the inner soul of faith’s reality; and if we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern from their infinite reward.

Not all who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Thus it is not just pointless, but deceptive and vain, to obsess about how many books promote atheism, how many atheists are popular this week, how many times congressmen or presidential candidates say “God” in a speech, how many different places the federal and state governments print the word “God,” whether atheism is increasing, how many people in a particular survey claim to believe in “God,” and so forth.

Just as with the tortuous arguments for torture, false premises are presented in order to justify pursuing political objectives.

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