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Dealing with Pascal's Wager on Life after Death

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Dealing with Pascal’s Wager on Life After Death

Posted on 25 October 2021, 9:03

“We all die,” is the subject line of a recent email sent by the Secular Student Alliance. The message following the subject line urges members to leave a donation – a legacy – that will make the world a better place for others.  It goes on to say that the “legacy gift is a charitable vision that serves as a permanent force for good for generations of nonreligious youth to come.”  The home page of the organization says it is the largest atheist, humanist, and non-theist organization in the United States. Its goals are to empower secular students to proudly express their identity, build welcoming communities, promote secular values and set a course for lifelong activism. A photo of a dozen or so joyous, liberated young faces is shown – liberated, of course, from the fetters of religions imposed upon them by parents and their culture. They appear totally elated in their nihilistic mindset.

My first thought upon seeing the photo was to wonder if they will have the same joyous smiles in 40 or 50 years, when their loved ones and friends start dying off and when they, too, are so in decline that they struggle to visualize the abyss of nothingness they have imagined not far ahead.  But they aren’t supposed to think that far ahead.  Eat, drink, shop, play with electronic toys, have sex, escape into fantasyland with fiction, be merry, and thoroughly enjoy the moment is the philosophy instilled in them by Hollywood, the advertising industry, and the secularist worldview.

Most of those I have met or whose comments I have read on the internet seem locked into an angry god and a monotonous heaven. If they’ve heard anything about the strong evidence suggesting that consciousness survives death in a greater reality, absent an angry God and angels singing praise, they’ve checked with Wikipedia and discovered that it is all just so much bunk.  “I believe in science,” they haughtily shout, echoing “all-knowing” college professors who have helped them overcome the “false” teachings of their parents. “If you can’t replicate it, it’s fake.”  They ask for proof, not really understanding the difference between proof and evidence or realizing that such evidence is not going to reach absolute certainty. (See prior blog on the question of absolute certainty.) 

When told by the prime movers of secularism that life is all about making life better for future generations, they don’t stop to think about what “better” means. Is there a point at which life will be as it was for Nero, who fiddled as Rome burned?  To which generation full fruition? How much more comfortable and rewarding can we make things for future generations?  To what end the progeny? Why is it that I see so many older people on the internet yearning for a return to the lifestyles of the 1950s? 

You’d think the young nihilists would at least buy into Pascal’s Wager, which, in effect, says that if you can’t prove that God exists, you are better off betting that “He” does exist.  That wager, offered by seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, holds that God and an afterlife are concomitants; that is, if there is a God, there must be an afterlife and that such an afterlife must be superior to the material life and to extinction.  So many people, both religious and non-religious, approach it deductively, figuring they require proof of God before accepting an afterlife, rather than taking an inductive approach by first examining the evidence for an afterlife and then looking for the God behind it all.

The Fear of Death

The young secularists, atheists, humanists, materialists, rationalists, nihilists, whatever label they prefer, should ponder on the story of John von Neumann (1903-1957), a Hungarian-born American mathematician, physicist, engineer, computer whiz, and overall a polymath and genius.  An internet search reveals that he was a professor of mathematics at Princeton, wrote extensively on quantum mechanics, was involved with the Manhattan Project in producing the atomic bomb, and was a pioneer in computer technology.  He was born into a Jewish family, one with “ambivalent” religious attitudes. He made a nominal conversion to Catholicism to satisfy his first wife, but continued with an agnostic belief system.  He was divorced in 1937.  Hans Bethe, a Nobel Laureate, is quoted as saying, “I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man.”

After being diagnosed with bone or pancreatic cancer in 1956, Neumann (below) is said to have expressed great fear of death. He despaired to some visitors that “he could not visualize a world which did not include himself thinking within it.”  He began having frequent visits from Father Anselm Strittmatter, a Catholic priest, telling the priest that he sided with Pascal and opted for a belief in God over extinction or, as the Church might have preached, eternal damnation. In spite of the visits, his great fear of death continued to his earthly end.


As William James, (below) one of the founders of modern psychology, put it: “The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well – morality suffices.  But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind.”


It has been my observation that the pillars of humanism erode and crumble as one ages. “Living in the moment,” which is what humanists advocate, is much more difficult as they see themselves nearing “extinction” or “obliteration.”  The escape mechanisms they have used to repress the idea of death simply don’t work like they did when they were in their young adult years and so occupied with establishing themselves in careers and raising a family – when there was little or no time to do any real deep thinking about what life is all about and what might or might not come after.  When the grandchild gets her tongue pierced, her hair dyed purple, and a full sleeve of tattoos, doubts about progressive progeny enter the mind and the legacy comes into question. It’s when loved ones and friends start dying that the crumbling really accelerates. Finally, when the terminal prognosis is given, the complete collapse takes place.

Humanism to Hedonism

There is much to be said for “living in the moment,” “living in the now,” “living in the present,” “living for today,” “carpe diem,” however it is worded.  But so many young people seem to interpret that to mean “have fun at any cost.”  Moreover, they do not appear to make a distinction between fun and happiness.  Without a moral compass, they don’t know where to draw the line between humanism and hedonism, between self-discipline and self-gratification. They opt for short-term pleasure seeking over long-term peace of mind.

The problem with Pascal’s Wager, as I see it, is that the focus is on a belief in God rather than a belief in an afterlife.  It is much easier to come up with evidence for consciousness surviving death than for the existence of God. Pascal lived before the evidence for survival was being thoroughly examined by esteemed scholars and scientists. Unfortunately, the nihilists still assume that one must fully identify and prove God before giving any credibility to the evidence supporting survival, and since God is apparently beyond human comprehension they never get to the real evidence. 

One would think that a man of Neumann’s intellect might have examined some of the evidence and would have made a distinction between believing in a Higher Power and consciousness surviving death in a greater reality, but indications are that he bought into the possibility that a non-belief in God meant eternal damnation, as taught by some denominations, and that was his primary reason for going with Pascal’s Wager.  I doubt that his belief or non-belief had much of an effect on him after leaving the physical body, other than possibly a slower merging of the lower consciousness with the higher consciousness and thus a slower awakening to the greater reality. As Professor James put it: “If religion be a function by which either God’s cause or man’s cause is to be really advanced, then he who lives the life of it, however narrowly, is a better servant than he who merely knows about it, however much. Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life with its dynamic currents passing through your being is another.” 

I don’t blame the secular students for rejecting religions that teach a wrathful God and a humdrum heaven. Why take Pascal’s Wager if it means curbing an Epicurean lifestyle only to spend eternity floating around on clouds, strumming harps, and praising God twenty-four-seven?  And why spend this life doing nothing but preparing for the next life? But that is not what I interpret from the psychical research and related studies being ignored by both orthodox religion and mainstream science.  The research and studies suggest a much more dynamic afterlife, one that gives meaning to this life while providing that moral compass. I lament the fact that the secular students have been kept from this knowledge by both religion and science and feel their future anguish – when those smiling faces on the website turn to distress and torture, further condemning God because “He” permits such suffering.

To end by again quoting Professor James:

“The luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with.  Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in; and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values.  Place around them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular-science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.”

It might take secular students a few decades to grasp all that and thereby avoid the trembling, but I fear that it will be too late for some of them to change course.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

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