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Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me A Mercedes-Benz?

Martin Tyrrell on lotteries, religion and Pascal’s Wager.

Every week, throughout the United Kingdom, millions of people take part in a lottery. Their chances of winning are not small. They are non-existent. No matter how long or how often they participate; no matter their dedication; no matter how much or how little they invest, all will end up with exactly the same thing. Nowt. Nuffink. Diddly squat.

This lottery is called religion. It exists in numerous, generally incompatible categories and sub-categories. Some of these differ radically, some subtly but all of them tease their adherents with the chance of winning a blissful eternity provided that they first make some personal sacrifice here and now. But which religion, if any, should we follow? And how great a sacrifice should be made in following it? Make the wrong choice and the consequences are catastrophic. Ditto if we are insufficiently sacrificial. And if, as all evidence suggests, there is no ‘prize’ to begin with, then any level of adherence, however small and half-hearted will have been a waste. Therein lies the lottery.

There is another, quite separate lottery. It, too, has millions of followers. Their chances of winning are small. But they are not nonexistent. Anyone who buys a ticket, whether it is the first they have ever bought or the thousandth; whether their choice of numbers is purely random or the result of a painstaking analysis of previous winning combinations; whether they strongly believe that they will win or are resigned to the fact that, almost certainly, they will not, has the same slim chance of winning at least ten pounds, at most, tens of millions. And though the chance is slim, it is indestructible. Only by not playing at all or by playing incorrectly (which amounts to the same thing) is this chance eliminated. Such is the National Lottery.

These are the two lotteries that I want to look at. Is each equally worth playing? Are both or either of them dangerous? And do they, on balance, promote values which are are worth promoting?

That choosing religious belief over nonbelief is something of a gamble was not lost lost on the Jansenist writer and mathematician Blaise Pascal. ‘Pascal’s Wager’ sets out an elegant, if somewhat pat, case for belief. The non-believer, Pascal says, stakes his entire life on the chance that religion is false; the believer, on the possibility that it is true. Imagine, then, that it is in fact the case that religion is false. There is no afterlife, no eternity, no day of reckoning. Once is all we get. If that is so, then the religious believer has lost and the nonbeliever has won. But what has this nonbeliever won? In the long run when, as John Maynard Keynes observed, we are all dead, both the believer and the non-believer will be dead. And though the non-believer will have won, he will not be dead in some superior kind of way. His fate will be identical to that of the believer who has lost. He will not even get to crow in satisfaction.

Now imagine that religious belief is true. If it is, then, in the long-run, the believer will be rewarded handsomely for his faith and dedication while the non-believer will commence an eternity of unimaginable torment. Such is the consequence of losing with an atheism ticket in the lottery of religion. Back religion, counsels Pascal, then even if you lose you will be no worse off than an atheist who has won. And if you win, you will be a whole lot better off than an atheist who has not. Put this way, the odds seem stacked against atheism. But are they really?

In the end, the argument of Pascal’s Wager cannot convince. For one thing, the choice is not a simple one between belief and non-belief for there are many varieties of both and of belief in particular. Pascal’s Wager thus rests on assumptions which we know to be false: either that the true religion is so obvious that it stands out among all of the pretenders or that all religions are somehow fundamentally true. Pascal’s own life suggests that he himself ruled out the latter, improbable possibility. A Catholic, he submitted to the disciplines of one of his Church’s more rigid and puritanical sects when easier, more mainstream options were available. To Pascal, Jansenism was the true path. Anything else was, at best, dubious, at worst, downright deceitful.

In their pristine state, most religious systems are like that. Few grant much validity to the ‘competition’ even, or perhaps, particularly, where they and the competition are highly similar. And where they have little in common, religions are obviously irreconcilable. Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are all blasphemy by the standards of Christianity for all deny a key Christian tenet – that there is only one God. And Christianity, with its doctrine of the Trinity, is blasphemy by the standards of Islam which is even more serious in its monotheism. But even if all religions were somehow fundamentally valid, it is far from clear what might give them their essential, shared validity although, if such a quality existed, there is every reason why it might be shared by certain types of atheism as well.

What, then, of the alternative possibility? That only one religion is the genuine article. Again, it is far from clear which it might be. Fail to spot it, however, and your fate could be as grim as that of any atheist. But even if the choice could be made accurately, there would be a further decision regarding how much commitment the religion should receive. Too low a commitment might result in perdition. Paradoxically, too great a commitment has often been looked upon as likely to have the same result. Frequently, those who seem the most committed to a particular religion have been widely disparaged as fanatics even by their coreligionists, some of whom say that this fanaticism is, itself, a sin.

Take Christianity. Look at how suspect it makes the piety of the Pharisees and how favourably it treats religious slackers who go in for last minute repentance – the Prodigal Son, the meek, the poor in spirit. These days, while its fundamentalists argue that there is little or no chance of salvation beyond the faith, more ecumenical Christians have suggested that even atheists can share in the Christian prize. Increasingly, in this liberal rewrite, eternity belongs, not to Christians alone or even especially, but to the moderates of all faiths and of none. But where the atheist can finish ahead of the Christian, what disincentive is there to non-belief? Why should anyone persevere as a Christian when any ticket or even none at all might win a prize? We are back to the wimpish claim that almost everyone is, in some implau-sible way, righteous. If anything, the lottery element in Christianity has been increased by all this absurd agnostic bonhomie. In contrast, if Christianity could be demonstrated to be valid, the path to salvation would become more like a game of skill than a game of chance, and dedication and commitment would become more akin to an athlete’s training schedule. Pascal himself believed this. Sure that his own particular version of Christianity was correct, he recommended that non-believers go through the motions of its prayer and ritual. Were they to do so for sufficiently long, he argued, they would build faith like a man who works out in a gym every day builds muscle.

Ultimately, then, Pascal is dismissive of the idea that salvation is a game of chance. On the contrary, he says that the game is winnable but only so long as we observe the prescribed schedule. It is John Calvin who says that the prospects for salvation are only ever chancy. God, he argues, is omniscient; no Christian denies that. And no Christian denies that God is the creator. But if the creator is omniscient, he must, necessarily, know in advance the destiny of his creations – whether they are going to Heaven or Hell – and must know it better than they know it themselves. Even the most self-righteous, says Calvin, are wrong to believe that they are safe for all of the people all of the time are in a state of sin. In the end, he reckons, God alone knows which of them he has damned and which he has saved.

If Calvinist predestination follows logically from the characteristics Christians ascribe to God (and I think it does) it also paradoxically seems to negate much Christian practice. Why pray, for instance? “I know I’m a sinner but make me a winner”, that quintessential Christian prayer, becomes redundant if winners and losers are decided aeons in advance of the game. Should we pray in thanks just in case we are, unwittingly, part of the Elect? Hardly. Whether we are or are not elected, prayer is a waste of time. Likewise, why be charitable or abstemious? Why be good at all? Hitler, Louis Althusser, even Barry Manilow; all might be saved. And Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer and Anthea Turner might be damned. These are the kinds of problem that will not go away once God is defined as extravagantly as he is in Christianity. And there’s more. Arthur Schopenhauer, accepting the logic of the predestination argument, questions why anyone at all should be damned. After all, if, as Christians say, God is all-powerful, he scarcely needs to damn anyone. If he damns, he does so capriciously, neither to deter nor to reform but out of pure revenge. And those whom he damns are his own creations, created in full knowledge of the punishment to come. This, Schopenhauer argues, removes “revolting” Christianity’s claims to be moral.

Is the National Lottery any better? After all, Morissey reckoned it “one of the worst things ever to happen to England” and, more recently John Cole called it “a symptom of our greed and decadence.” Contra Gordon Gekko, greed is bad. But what is ‘greed’? The Little Oxford Dictionary (1983 edition) says “insatiate desire for food or wealth.” On that definition, most people are not greedy. All that most people want is more or better than they have at present, more of the things they like; a better life. Money and other material goods are simply means to such ends and almost never ends in themselves. Material things, in fact, are inherently valueless. Any value lies in their eventual consumption and is entirely in the mind of the consumer. This is as true of a twenty pound note as it is of the prospect of a twenty million pound payout on the National Lottery.

People who imagine themselves winning the Lottery, then, usually contemplate the kind of life it will help them live. In a way, Christians are similar. They contemplate the kind of (eternal) life they someday hope or even expect to live. Which of these desires is greedier, more insatiate? The desire for thirty or forty odd years of the good life or the desire for an eternity of it? And which is the more selfish; to desire the Lottery prize which can be shared around or the Christian prize which cannot? Whereas Lottery winners can be charitable, Christian ‘winners’ must spend Eternity aware that millions of ordinary, inoffensive people, including some of the people they once loved, are suffering unimaginable torments. How will these Christians cope? Surely not, as Thomas Aquinas believed, by gloating perpetually at the fate of the damned, the afterlife equivalent of waving ‘loadsamoney’ at a dole queue. And then again, how else? With its wise and foolish virgins, its parable of the talents and its rich man and the beggar, Christianity is the cult of deferred schadenfreude. He who laughs last, laughs longest, is its motto, Who’s Sorry Now?, its theme song.

If, then, the National Lottery is morally questionable because of whatever little bit of greed and selfishness it encourages, Christianity is, I believe, unquestionably worse. What Christianity fosters is a great deal more insatiate and a great deal more selfish than any game of chance. And whereas Christianity is always played to win, I doubt that any numerate person plays the Lottery with a serious eye on the jackpot. The Lottery is played less for the money and more for the very small and very accessible thrill of taking part; for that brief moment when everyone with a ticket comes equally close to ten or twenty million pounds of free money.

Perhaps that is what makes the lottery morally questionable; the fact that it offers something for nothing. Many people believe that success achieved by chance is somehow bogus whereas success achieved through skill is more genuine. This is what informs the widespread view that inherited wealth, unlike earned income, is fair game for punitive taxation. In practice, however, it is not easy to separate out which aspects of any person’s good fortune reflect his or her skill and which reflect luck. Talent or skill might be down largely to nature or to nurture, for example, but in either case they are a form of inheritance, a lucky break. Friedrich von Hayek thought that people deluded themselves by over-attributing any personal successes to their own efforts. Success, he argued, relied on the interplay of so many factors that no-one could know for certain what lay behind it. Chance undeniably does, probably to a considerable extent. And if so, the Lottery, as a perfect game of chance, offers a metaphor for a world of random fortune. It humbles our delusions of complete personal control and encourages some much needed modesty. So come Saturday, and Wednesday, let us play….

© Dr M. Tyrrell 1997

Martin Tyrrell once won ten pounds on the National Lottery.

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