Was Pascal right about belief?

This piece was published at Christian Today.

Pascal’s Wager has become a notorious reason to believe in God. The French mathematician and philosopher proposed that it’s rational to believe in God because if you’re wrong it won’t make any difference, but if you’re right it might make every difference as to where you spend eternity. It’s as if he was suggesting it’s better to hedge your bets and believe, only that seems duplicitous and inauthentic.

However, there is more to the wager than just abstract logic. Pascal simultaneously argued that what you do makes a difference to what you believe. “If you perform religious rites with enthusiasm… you will come to be devoutly religious,” he wrote.

In other words, when he talked about believing in God, he was talking about actions as well as words. He intuited the two were linked, and the striking truth is this insight is finding growing support in science.

I recently attended a meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion. Evidence that could be used in support of Pascal dominated the conference. The psychologist, James Jones, is a distinguished professor in the department of religion at Rutgers University. He discussed what it might mean, as he also does in his book, Living Religion: Embodiment, Theology and the Possibility of Spiritual Sense.

For example, if individuals look down when trying to remember something, their powers of recall are boosted. Memory also improves when associated with places, which is why recollections come flooding back when you visit an old haunt or home.

Alternatively, there’s good evidence that a sluggish body posture amplifies depressed feelings, whilst sitting up or standing straight gives a boost to self-esteem. Going for a walk enhances thought, too, with the implication that going on a pilgrimage to work out what you believe is very sensible.

Another experiment that shows the link between motion and mentation can be done at home. Try explaining something to a friend whilst keeping your arms by your sides. When you can’t gesture, it is very much harder.

The last point nudges towards harder evidence for the connection between body and mind. Consider the fact that blind people gesture when they speak to other blind people. Clearly, the gestures can’t be seen but they help the exchange, nonetheless. The reason is that parts of the brain associated with movement are also associated with communication. In other words, gestures are bodily correlates of thoughts, as well as actions that help us think. They are not an optional extra.

A parallel link is caught in language. Time and time again, the words we use associate physical and mental experience. Consider just one example. We can say that a lemon is bitter and that a departure was bitter. The word “bitter” makes perfect sense in both cases, which is why we might also remark that a difficult event left “a bitter taste in the mouth”.

To add more evidence may feel like labouring the point. (You may notice that the word “labouring” has a physical and psychological meaning.) But my purpose is to emphasize the richness of the connections between actions and cognitions. They can be almost magical.

For instance, if you imagine doing something, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to do it. A person who visualizes lifting a heavy weight stands a better chance of being able to lift it. “Thought is a whole body activity,” Jones stresses.

It’s why activity is part and parcel of religious life. Singing, dancing, standing and sitting; breathing, visualizing, bowing and hand-raising; sacred places, holy spaces, pilgrimage sites and special seasons. They are ubiquitous and they work with the connection between mind and body. Such rituals do not just support belief, they deepen belief.

But can they make you believe, as Pascal implied?

There is evidence that people who practice meditation in a wholly secular context for entirely secular reasons, perhaps to reduce stress, show an increased interest in the religious side of the practice, over time.

Similarly, doing something religious like going to church at Christmas is likely to make you less hostile or wary of Christianity. I wonder if this is why cathedrals remain popular in modern Britain when regular church-going has become a niche activity. Cathedrals enable people to perform a religious gesture, even if they’re as minimal as looking up at a gothic arch or walking thoughtfully along a cloister. Nothing need be said or affirmed, but the movement is itself a kind of wordless confession. It may be a first step, pun intended, towards more overt belief.

That said, faking it until you make it or simply going through the motions is not enough. Engaging with a religious practice in itself won’t make you believe. There is no ritual that guarantees conversion. For an action to precipitate change, it must bring together openness of mind and willingness of body.

But that is only to stress the main point. We are whole people, composed of body, mind and spirit. The mistake is to stress the intellect alone.

Neuroscience suggests what might be going on. It’s widely recognised that the brain runs two cognitive systems. Daniel Kahneman captured the model in the title of his bestselling book: Thinking, Fast and Slow. The fast system is the more embodied one. The slower one tends to reason. But exercising the fast one can help the slow one. Hence, practices can open up new possibilities for belief.

I think we can conclude that Pascal was, in fact, right. The error has been to take his wager as a piece of disembodied logic. But that doesn’t seem to be what he meant. He understood that belief is about what we do as well as what we say. “If you perform religious rites with enthusiasm… you will come to be devoutly religious.” In many instances, he was right.

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