It's still Christmas Day in the U.S., but don't forget the "12 Days of Christmas": this is just day one of 12. Therefore, I won't consider this posting late, even for my European and Asian friends and readers.
Some readings for the day - or days - of Christmas:
"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings"; what can this mean? A short reflection from one of my favorite Christian philosophers.
While some of what Jesus of Nazareth said can be appreciated from a wholly secular perspective, and even more so the sorts of things he did, the truth claims of Christianity are in large part claims about history. For some reflections on the topic, see this essay (and I would commend the entire site to those who are interested in further research - this is a good place to start). As for historical evidence and argument for Jesus, this is a very good, very readable book.
A final reference, to an interesting article on a slightly quirky topic: people who have had religious experience but haven't felt compelled to convert based on that experience or even necessarily to consider doing so.
In the last piece, the author makes a passing reference to Blaise Pascal's famous, infamous "Wager", which he (Ross Douthat, not Pascal) mischaracterizes in a common way. The wagerer is often seen as betting that God exists, but that's not quite right. In what follows I'll offer a short sketch of what Pascal is really doing in the Wager, and we'll see that on this interpretation it's much more sensible than it might seem on the short, caricatured model.
The caricature essentially goes like this: a person should believe in God. Why? It pays: if God exists and you believe, you win eternal bliss. If you believe but God doesn't exist, then your life is still going to pretty decent most of the time, so the cost is minimal. If you don't believe and God doesn't exist, then your "payoff" won't be too different from the theist in the second case: you'll live an ordinary life with its ups and downs, and that will be the end of it. However, if one chooses not to believe and there is a God, then at best someone fails to "win", and at worst, well, uh oh. Therefore, it is rational in terms of expected value to believe in God, even if the evidence is terrible. If one has a one in a million chance of winning an infinite payoff, the strictly rational thing to do is to make the bet.
Plenty of objections have been raised to this. Here are what I take to be the four main objections: the many gods objection, the minimal evidence objection, the bad faith objection, and the argument from doxastic involuntarism. (If you get nothing else from this post, you can at least impress your friends with that phrase.)
The many gods objection notes that with different god-candidates, each or at least some of which are incompatible with each other and make mutually exclusive claims, one cannot reasonably choose between them. Christianity tells us to bet on Jesus, Islam proposes a different bet, and still other theistic religions can offer their own, similar arguments. Ultimately, they all cancel each other out, at least practically.
The minimal evidence objection suggests that if one takes the evidence for Christianity (or for God as expressed in some other religion promising an afterlife) to be extremely poor, then it is still irrational to bet on it, the infinite payoff notwithstanding. None of us would wager on a freshly invented religion proposing a blissful eternity for all who put their trust in the Great Pumpkin, and this even if we granted that there was an incredibly minsucule but nonzero chance of its truth.
The bad faith objection argues that the "faith" expressed in the Wager is not the genuine article. Belief in God for the sake of goodies is not the sort of faith the Bible speaks about, and I doubt there is any other major religion that call such faith the real thing, either.
Finally, the objection from doxastic voluntarism is this: a person cannot just make himself believe that something is true. Try, for instance, to produce in yourself the belief that a red elephant in a tutu is riding on a small pony in the room where you're reading this. You can try to imagine it, but believe it? No, and this would be true even if I offered you $100 to believe it. In the same way, one can't just make oneself believe in God, even if one agrees that it's the practically rational thing to do, on the Wager.
I think these are pretty good arguments against the quick version of Pascal's Wager; fortunately, I think they all fail when put up against what seems to be the Wager as he actually intends it.
In the Pensees (the book including the Wager) Pascal spends a fair amount of time offering evidence for God in general and the biblical faith in particular. (For instance, he often refers to Old Testament prophecies of the first coming of Jesus.) So this suggests that he does care about evidence. When Pascal writes things like "reason cannot decide", he doesn't mean that there is no evidence for the Christian faith, but that it may not be enough to absolutely compel belief. But this is true of many things in our lives where we're forced to "bet": a choice of university, which job or career we pursue, who we marry, and to give a very humble example relevant to this blog's usual content, we often don't even know what move to make in a chess game. We have reasons for a given move, but sometimes we have reasons for other moves, or reasons to doubt the candidate move. But we have to do something, if only because doing nothing entails an inevitable loss on time.
This takes care of the minimal evidence objection, because Pascal assumes that belief in God is at least roughly on a par with its denial. Moreover, in the context of his book the many gods objection can also be dispensed with: he's offering evidence for the truth of the Christian faith. Now, that won't help someone who finds the evidence for competing religions on a par with each other, but the point is that what Pascal has in mind is one particular religion (Christianity, in the Pensees) being roughly as likely as not.
What about the argument that the Wager is religiously inappropriate, a case of bad faith? This can be answered while simultaneously addressing the objection from doxastic voluntarism. What Pascal prescribes for the person who agrees, based on the expected value of the Wager, is not that he or she somehow spontaneously produce the requisite belief and thereby 'win" the heavenly lottery. Pascal recognizes that belief doesn't work this way. What he proposes instead is that the wannabe-believer "bet on God" in the sense of trying to live the sort of life that will tend to produce genuine faith. The person will go to church, pray, read spiritual works, hang around with mature believers, and so on.
When we speak about doxastic voluntarism, we must make a further distinction between two species: direct and indirect. Direct doxastic voluntarism is acknowledged by pretty much everyone who has considered it to be false: aside from philosophically jokey cases (e.g. I can make myself believe that I'm going to make myself believe something [namely, that proposition itself]) I can't spontaneously make myself believe things. At any given moment, I simply find myself believing certain things, disbelieving others and remaining unsure or unaware of the rest.
By contrast, indirect doxastic voluntarism, the thesis that one can (often, typically) do something such that a new belief will come to be held, is most likely true. And Pascal recognizes this, and thus when addressing someone who doesn't yet have faith, but recognizes that belief in God isn't irrational and is worth having, he proposes that they embark on a course of life likely to bring that faith about. We recognize the legitimacy and effectiveness of this approach in everyday life, as a way to overcome irrational thoughts and prejudices, or as a way to gradually change one's mind on disputed matters. To someone who can't help but reflexively feel that members of group X are vicious, even when he knows that this feeling must be mistaken, we would suggest that he spend time with members of that group, to read about them - especially their exemplars - and to engage in reflective activity likely to erode his prejudices.
Likewise, this slow, lifestyle approach will fix the "bad faith" worry. Embarking on the kinds of practices that are likely to lead to a change of belief will typically lead to a change of attitude as well. Being a part of a well-functioning (say) Christian community will tend to produce the appropriate sorts of attitudes, at least once faith is formed in the wagerer.
To say all of this isn't automatically to say that everyone should wager on Christianity. For that, one should first think that Christianity is a live option; that is, that even if one doesn't yet find him- or herself believing it, one does at least think it's a rational option. (To try to determine that, a first step might be consulting some of the works and sites mentioned above.) But once one reaches that point, then the Wager makes sense.
Finally, one might use a version of the Wager, even in something like its caricature form, as an impetus to investigate the evidence. If you investigate it and find it compelling (or at least compelling to Wager in Pascal's true sense), then you "win" big if you come to believe and it's true. If you investigate and believe, but turn out to be wrong, then no harm done (assuming death is the permanent end of one's existence). If one doesn't investigate and death is the end, then the slight gain in time taken by not investigating is only a small boon at best, while if one fails to investigate and is wrong it could prove costly. So the rational thing to do is to investigate.