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Book Reviews

Book Review: “Taking Pascal’s Wager” by Michael Rota

tpw-rotaMichael Rota’s Taking Pascal’s Wager is an introduction to the defense of Pascal’s Wager, one of the most maligned arguments for the truth of Christianity.

One of the things that makes Pascal’s Wager most intriguing is the fact that, unlike many theistic arguments, the Wager seems uniquely suited for reasoning with the skeptic. That is, it is intentionally put forward in such a way as to convince the skeptic that Christianity is a good idea. Rota highlights this aspect of the Wager, particularly in two places: first, where he analyzes the probability behind the argument to demonstrate that, on the whole, the Wager is more beneficial taken than not, and second, in the last section of the book which shows practical outcomes of taking the Wager.

The sections on the probability behind the Wager are excellent. Rota condenses down a lot of probability theory and philosophical reasoning based on probability in ways that are easy to understand. This alone makes the book worth a read because it will allow those interested to explain and defend the Wager much better than they may otherwise. Rota also addresses some of the most common objections to the Wager, noting that things like the many gods challenge fail to make a convincing case against the Wager.

The last part of the book utilizes people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to highlight the practical consequences of the wager. Bonhoeffer lost his life in the pursuit of Christian faith. Was it worth it? Rota’s examples give insights into lives that readers might not otherwise know about, and show that even lives that are full of sorrow are worth it, supposing God does exist.

I did think that the book somewhat seemed to get off track in the middle section, as Rota proceeded from speaking of Pascal’s Wager into discussion of various reasons to think Christianity is more likely true than not. I understand that this was part of his project, but given the amount of works that have been offered with a general introduction to things like the moral, cosmological, and other arguments, I think the space would have better been filled with a deeper look at Pascal’s Wager and the probability theory behind it. Further, more space dedicated to objections to the wager would be helpful.

Taking Pascal’s Wager is a worthy read. It introduces readers to the strength of Pascal’s Wager while also providing–uniquely, I think–a look at the practical outcomes of taking that wager. Although it could be improved by a deeper discussion of the probability behind the Wager and various objections to it, I believe this is an important book for anyone who wants to become more acquainted with one of the most unique arguments for Christianity. Readers interested in Pascal’s Wager ought also check out Jeff Jordan’s phenomenal Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God.

The Good

+Real-life examples of the cost of discipleship highlight message
+Solid analysis of probability theory behind the argument
+Provides broad-spectrum defense of the Wager

The Bad

-Uses endnotes instead of footnotes
-Not quite as focused as one might like

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Source

Michael Rota, Taking Pascal’s Wager (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Book Review: “Taking Pascal’s Wager” by Michael Rota

  1. I don’t think Pascal’s Wager is the best apologetic argument but I have always liked it.

    Posted by The Isaiah 53:5 Project | August 17, 2016, 7:44 AM
  2. I am assuming the “many gods” objection is that if you guess the true religion incorrectly you might get sent to hell by the God of another religion? Why doesn’t that work? If I applied the wager I would become Muslim. I am fully persuaded that the Bible teaches the destruction of the lost whereas the Quran clearly teaches eternal torment. So the bigger risk for me is rejecting Islam.

    Posted by Giles | August 17, 2016, 5:50 PM
    • Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. The many gods objection is basically as you summarized it. Rota argues against it by applying the math of expected gain across the board and urging it ought to be used when applied to other religions as well. I know he specifically uses Islam as an example in this but don’t currently have access to the book (son is napping next to room with it and if he senses my approach it’ll be a rough afternoon for us). IIRC, his argument is more along the lines of showing that it is rational to affirm Christianity–and perhaps more rational than other religions.

      The core of his argument is that if Christianity may be assigned a probability of at least one-half, then it is rational to embrace it. He uses the other arguments for the truth of Christianity in its favor. Thus, for Islam, its denial of clear historical evidence that Jesus is crucified kind of sinks the ship. For Rota, the wager is not merely which one has a bigger payoff vs. negative, though that is certainly part of it; instead, it is also which one might be more rational. Again, I am summarizing as I remember.

      Jeff Jordan’s book I linked in this post also has a lengthy–and very technical–discussion of this objection. He argues, in effect, that at the least one can form an “ecumenical” version of the Wager and thus show naturalism is clearly not as rational as theistic alternatives (thus leaving it to other arguments to explore those alternatives). Jordan also ultimately argues that the many-gods objection is based upon fallacious reasoning from the get-go, but I’m not going to try to summarize that argument here, not without the book in hand and a few hours to double-check my memory.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 18, 2016, 12:48 PM
    • Just so you know, I did go back and look this up and, yes, Rota’s response would largely be that the Wager does not necessarily stand alone but we have to take into account other possible evidence when it comes to other religions. He also does a good job, I think, of noting that atheism is not just purely negative if it turns out to be false–after all, much fun could be had if one decides they don’t have to be bound by religious strictures.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 22, 2016, 12:52 PM

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