Pascal's wager

Why believing in God has always been a wise bet.

Jeanne Meinke

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.

(The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about)

Blaise Pascal, from "Pensées"

When I was writing about "the lives of great men" in a piece a few weeks ago, one of the great men who came to mind was Pascal (1623-1662), the French mathematician-philosopher famous for his wager on the existence of God. His most practical contribution, however, may have been the creation, in Paris, of the first inner-city bus lines. Pascal's birthday falls on Father's Day this year, so we'll drink a toast to the confirmed bachelor, though the French "à votre santé" (to your health) seems cruel referring to one who was painfully sick from stomach cancer most of his short life. Probably a simple "Merci" would be best. Merci pour le bus. One year we went to the French Open and Paris was easy to get around in, thanks to him.

Pascal's religious beliefs wavered during his life, but his "wager" proposition states that, since there's no way to prove God's existence, any rational person would bet that He exists, and live accordingly: If you're right, you'll go straight to your reward and avoid the pains of hell; if you're wrong, there's no penalty — and you'd have lived a decent life.

Today, Pascal's argument may not work so well, statistically speaking, because it depends on a belief in an afterlife with reward and punishment. Although most Americans believe in some kind of God, and maybe even in a heaven where we'll meet our loved ones, we don't see pitchforks and burning tar waiting for us, even if we are Liberals. (Even the Tea Party Fundamentalists are arguing about this now.) Still, as Pascal said, betting on God's existence is never a bad bet. What's to lose? (But how old will we be in heaven? I'm already 50 years past my prime.)

What turns people away from religion isn't religion itself — the world's a miracle, after all: just check out Kai, our new grandson — but the way its leaders have behaved. The Church (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim) is still, generally speaking, a male-dominated sexist and segregated organization; and, from the pulpit, the promoter of right wing politicians and causes, with certain noble exceptions, like the Catholic nuns recently defying their bishops to support universal health care, or Archbishop Martin of Dublin exposing the sexual cover-ups in the Irish Church.

Pope Benedict XVI's unseemly rush to make a saint of Pope John Paul II is a case in point. Jeanne and I are both fans of John Paul: we were in Victory Square on June 2, 1979, when he rallied Poland by returning to Warsaw to lead a mass for millions, while soldiers nervously fiddled with their rifles in the surrounding alleys. He was a charismatic man, but when the pedophilia scandal broke, his first actions were to protect the Church and the predatory priests instead of the victims.

Billy Graham's anti-Semitism, Pat Robertson's homophobia, Jerry Falwell's segregationist diatribes, not to mention anti-American Mullahs, lead a long list of misguided clerics — who after all were prominent as far back as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. These "leaders" add up algebraically, and have taken their toll on faith.

So, Happy Birthday, M. Pascal. If there's really such a thing as a saint, I'm betting on you! An inquiring mind is a holy thing.

Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies;—

Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower—but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.

"Flower in the Crannied Wall" by

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Peter & Jeanne Meinke's latest collaboration is the chapbook. Lassing Park, published by Yellow Jacket Press (

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