Attending a liberal arts college in the U.S., I always had the impression that religion was a dirty word and spirituality a taboo subject.
For most of those four years, these topics came up in conversation with only a few friends.
One such conversation stands out in my memory when a friend and I were talking as we waited for a dance performance to begin. We sat facing the stage, music blaring in the background, people filing in behind us, and we discussed doubt.
My friend presented me with Pascal’s wager:
“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is… [So] you must wager. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.”
Akin to game theory and rooted in Christianity, Pascal’s reasoning essentially boils down to the fact that we can’t know if God exists or not. If God exists and we do not have faith, we go to hell. If we believe, to heaven. If God does not exist, we lose little by believing anyways.
But I argued something slightly different (and with a much broader definition of God).
In my opinion, in the presence of doubt—when (s)he who questions may choose between faith and non-belief, when there is no harm in faith and quite possibly some good—why not choose belief for the realms of possibility it opens in our present life?
Forget about possible repercussions in the afterlife, or future lives. The distinction is small but important, focused on the potential for beauty in faith, as opposed to the potential for reward or punishment.
More recently, I finally watched the movie version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and besides being visually stunning, the movie struck me for its profundity, especially at the end:
Pi Patel has just finished an account of his survival at sea accompanied by a Bengal tiger. A story replete with magic and miracles—and animals.
Then, he tells a second story, almost too horrendous to put to words, let alone to remember. This story involves cannibalism and despair—and no animals. In both stories, he survives.
He asks his listeners, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba: “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question?”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
Pause for a moment, please, and let that sink in.
Yann Martel articulates, with more lyricism and grace than I could have done several years ago, exactly my response to Pascal’s wager.
Replace God with Magic, the Divine, the Yeti, Grace or any other title of your choosing. The vocabulary is of little importance. Focus instead on that philosophy: In the face of doubt, we have total liberty to choose between belief and disbelief. We can never prove the existence of such forces beyond a shadow of a doubt, nor can we disprove it.
Which story do you prefer?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Toby Israel
Apprentice editor: Katarina Tavčar / Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr