The cynical proof of the existence of God

I’m reading sections of Pascal’s Pensées in preparation for teaching him in a couple days. When reading the whole thing this summer, I was overwhelmed by the tedium — particularly the biblical proofs that Jesus was the messiah (surely this has been tackled before, as satisfactorily as one could hope for…). The selections, for which I am following a colleague’s suggestions, cut right to what people seem to find most appealling about Pascal: his cynical psychological “realism.” I’ll admit, for example, that I find his meditations on the need for diversion pretty compelling as I have been coping with a bit of listlessness of late.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if Pascal’s cynicism and his tendency toward what we would anachronistically call “fundamentalism” are necessarily linked. In particular, I wonder if the famous “wager” (also included in the selections, for a second day of discussion) represents a variation on The Girlfriend’s “negative” proof of the existence of God. One could paraphrase it as such: you can’t really know anything for sure about arguably the most important question in the world, and I know you’re a calculating piece of shit who’s only out for his own advantage — so why not bet on God? And then he cynically assumes that one will “get into the habit” of being a Christian, which will effectively lead to becoming a “sincere” believer — whatever that could possibly mean in his terms.

I wonder if this is what ultimately motivates reactionary strains of Christian theology. You have a general lack of satisfaction with modern thought, which somehow “doesn’t take account” of an important fact, and you also have an exhortation to practice Christianity that feels strangely cynical. And invariably, there’s an earthly authoritarianism that comes along with this, as in Pascal’s thesis about the “mystical foundations of authority.”

It’s as though all the talk of transcendence amounts to little more than an impotent gesture of dissatisfaction. Does anyone read Chesterton and really get a sense of a vibrant relationship with God, for instance? It seems more like his embrace of Christianity is a platform for sneering.

As for visions of social justice, the unworkability of the reactionary Christian’s program is a feature, not a bug — as we can see when someone like Ross Douthat consecrates one of his columns to praising the transcendent genius of papal social teaching in confounding all our usual ideological divides, etc., when in reality, papal social teaching is completely incoherent, amounting to little more than a cynical attempt to keep the Church’s impossibly contradictory constituencies “on board” by providing something for everyone. All these stupid secular people with their actual informed plans! How immature of them! How nihilistic! They don’t account for transcendence! Or, to translate it into more accessible terms: they don’t account for the fact that they suck because they’re not on our fucking team.

28 thoughts on “The cynical proof of the existence of God

  1. Was La Rochefoucauld a fundamentalist (in the Pascalian sense)?

    Talking to a member of my committee about Nietzsche and Montaigne, and specifically the latter’s cheerfulness, and the occasional invocation the former makes of the latter’s comment about what a comfortable pillow doubt makes for a well-made head, and also what Pippin occasionally refers as Nietzsche’s “Montaigne problem” (namely: how to have Montaigne’s clear-eyed view of humanity without succumbing to Pascal’s biliousness)—talking, as I said, about this, he said something interesting about Pascal’s outsize cynicism being adopted precisely to combat or undermine Montaigne. Or something like that, much more articulately and interestingly put. Apparently this is a view held among some Pascal scholars.

  2. I remain in hopeful in those such as Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, the Berrigan Brothers, and even the Open Door Community in Atlanta — which has been called ‘Protestant’ Catholic Worker House ( — who live out the best of Catholic Social teaching in their daily life. I see this same spirit in the best of the New Monastic movement ( But I can also appreciate your hermeneutic of suspicion that, “papal social teaching is completely incoherent, amounting to little more than a cynical attempt to keep the Church’s impossibly contradictory constituencies ‘on board’ by providing something for everyone.” Thanks for the food for thought.

  3. Obviously there are principles people like us would view as good in Catholic social teaching — the whole point is for a lot of people to find points in there that they like. Lefties like us get the Dorothy Day-style stuff, while Douthat gets the sexual issues, etc. It’s all in there!

    I don’t think a papal proclamation deserves the credit for the good the people you name have done, in part because it’s not at all clear to me that they’ve been doing “all” of Catholic social teaching. Do we have an example of a group that’s been equally involved in anti-abortion crusades — or anti-birth control even! — and social justice? Would putting those two things together even make any sense? It’s the same with the “total ethic of life” thing — is there anyone who is, in point of fact, putting just as much effort into abolishing the death penalty as into advocating for fetus rights? I would be surprised, and not because I’m trying a “hypocrisy critique” — I really think it’s a stretch, objectively speaking, to say that opposition to the death penalty and opposition to abortion “go together” in any really strong way.

  4. It’s the same with the “total ethic of life” thing — is there anyone who is, in point of fact, putting just as much effort into abolishing the death penalty as into advocating for fetus rights?

    Anscombe, maybe?

  5. Without taking the time to ground the below claims with citations, my recollection is that Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa are both twentieth-century examples of people who did “all” of Catholic social teaching. Granted, Day had an abortion early in her life, but she and Teresa were both strong practitioners of the Catholic ‘Works of Mercy’ while also advocating traditional orthodox theology and pro-life positions. I’m sure there are many other examples if I took the time to research them, although I’m sure also that these exemplars of the Catholic tradition are still well in the minority. I do think there is something to the “seamless garment of life argument.” However, as you say, I’m a Lefty, and I basically celebrate the extent to which I can walk down the same road with Catholic Social Teaching, while recognizing that my Protestant individualism kicks in if I walk too far toward Rome.

  6. And, notably, the stuff you like inclines you to have some kind of loyalty toward “Catholic Social Teaching” as such (i.e., to want to defend it against me), despite disagreeing with other stuff. That would be a good outcome for an institution primarily focused on getting people to feel loyal to it.

  7. I’m saying that I like it when the pope talks ‘social justice’ to me. And I’m hopeful that it could help some Catholics out there get more on board with ethics beyond the ‘pelvic issues.’ I grant your point that the institution benefits, but hopefully so too could the cause of social justice, perhaps particularly some priests perhaps feeling more empowered to push the progressive aspects of Catholic Social Teaching. I said from the beginning that I definitely grant your hermeneutic of suspicious has legitimacy. I’m just perhaps more hopeful some good can still come out of the messiness of the institution. But you don’t have to scratch me hard to agree with Sarah Silverman to “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World”:

  8. I never found Chesterton to be all that into sneering, but perhaps that’s because I usually don’t find myself at the receiving end of his criticism. A vibrant relationship with God? Perhaps not, but certainly a vibrant relationship with human existence and life as such, whereas Pascal seems more world weary. Still, I think you’ve identified how Christianity for him means that the life of the imagination and fantasy can continue despite ‘the modern age.’

  9. The reason the Vatican doesn’t sell all it has and give to the poor is that the RCC doesn’t exist to promote a social agenda — it exists to promote its own reputation and freedom of operation. Once you have that in mind, everything they do makes sense, including the child abuse cover-ups, or the lack of support from the hierarchy in El Salvador, or… or…. They cover up wrongdoing by clergy because it would hurt the reputation of the church if it got out. (They miscalculated on the child abuse scandal, but that doesn’t mean preserving the church’s reputation wasn’t their goal — they just did a bad job.) They cooperate with fascist dictatorships because they don’t want to risk getting shut down in a given country.

    I’m also going to call bullshit on the idea that Mother Theresa was practicing the whole of Catholic Social Teaching, because she explicitly opposed any effort to ameliorate the conditions that produce poverty. And there’s also a difference between “signing on” for a doctrinal statement and actively advocating for it. Did Dorothy Day picket abortion clinics or do anything remotely like that?

    It may well be that the historical sorting process that has put some priorities on the “left” of the spectrum and others on the “right” has been basically accurate in producing priorities that fit together. The grab bag approach works well for people trying to preserve a given status quo — for instance, centrist liberals or the Vatican — but it’s not very promising as a way to get people on board for progressive change. I’m pretty sure that strategies of the type “we’ll soften our stance on abortion to get you to care about economic justice” have virtually never worked in all of human history. And maybe there’s a reason for that! Maybe the people for whom sexual morality issues are primary are just never going to be able to care in any serious way about economic justice. You can’t just build alliances through sheer force of will.

  10. I certainly have major problems with the RCC including its absurd view of its place in history and theological significance. And your critiques of Day and Theresa are probably right on. For what it’s worth, however, I just stumbled over an article via Google Reader from Reuters that, “Catholics are more likely to support government intervention in the economy than Protestants and also have a stronger preference for sharing wealth equally, a European Central Bank study said” ( So maybe that Catholic Social Teaching does make a positive difference.

  11. Roman Catholic Social Teaching is also rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus, as well as in the Hebrew Prophet tradition more generally.

    I would also thrown into the mix that although the RCC should absolutely be criticized for its power-mongering, narcissism, and pride, I would also qualify that far too many of us on the left in the First World could stand to “live more simply that others may simply live,” pace Peter Singer and others. So, at least speaking for myself, the RCC aren’t the only ones not embodying their espoused values.

    I should hasten to add that I agree with your related post from a few weeks back “On Hypocrisy.” And that we should definitely cry foul on that places that the RCC espouses bad values, perhaps in addition to highlighting hypocrisy, which, indeed, liberals love to do.

  12. Hmmmm. Catholic Social Teaching, as is commonly recognised, emerges after the 19th century and a series of intense labour conflicts. Certainly, Catholic thought on politics has a history going back to Christ, but what most people talk about when they use the words is this – the church reacting to the ‘new things’ – somewhat late to the party.

    In the face of socialism and communism, it affirms the principle of private property against its detractors. Its no wonder that the early neoliberals were quite so enthusiastic about Rerum Novarum seeing it as on ‘their side’. The lines in Quadrisimo Anno condemning all forms of socialism make this point even clearer, though on pretty idiotic grounds. Later encyclicals are more subtle in making it clear that the right to property must be directed towards the universal destination of ends (their use by everyone in humanity as the ownership is secondary to their ends for the good of humanity) and to the common good. But early stuff is pretty coldly for the status quo if you read it without the softening and nuancing (to the good) that happened afterwards. Don’t forget – distributism is about widely spread private property, not about a form of socialised property. As Chesterton said, the problem is there are not enough capitalists. Little wonder later Conservatives saw this as the proto-Thatcherite formulation of the ‘property holding democracy’.

  13. @Alex, thanks for those insights. I come at this whole situation backward through the Social Gospel, which also emerged around the same time as the RCC timeline you describe — although I would add, again, that there is strong precedent for social justice in the Hebrew prophets. So I don’t think the Social Teachings are quite as simple as “the RCC is living up to what it actually values”; however, certainly you are correct that behavior is believable. Indeed more believable than statements of beliefs. And many of us academic types are also much more in our head than on the street community organizing — which isn’t to say that theory is unimportant.

    And just FYI, not that this insight is new to you, but a new visualization of biblical/Qur’anic word count ( shows that:
    –“Poor” and “poverty” appear 446 times in 384 separate verses in the Bible
    –“Wealth” can be found 1,453 times in 1,273 verses
    –“Justice,” in contrast, appears 1,576 times in the Old and New Testament in 1,379 separate verses.
    –Justice is mentioned twice as many times as “love” or “heaven” — and seven times more often than “hell.”

  14. I’m reminded of Rorty’s* (supposed) quip to a student: “Truth is what you can get away with.”

    Looking at history that seems like the motto for the RCC.

    *I’m not a Rorty fan at all, he just reminded me of the RCC for a second.

  15. At the risk of sounding like a dick on this, I have two degrees with studied political theology and I am waiting for the viva for my PhD, also concerning political theology. I am pretty much aware of the precedent in the Christian and Hebrew scriptures for social justice – indeed I have myself rattled out those very statistics over the last few days to people concerning the Occupation outside St Pauls Cathedral. I recognise these calls are part of the motivation in many Christians whose politics and work for this cause is exemplary and deserving of respect.

    The formulation of Catholic Social Teaching that people respect as a ‘third way’ critique of capitalism and socialism and so on is a distinctive modern invention though. If we are talking about the wider tradition of Christianity, then sure. But what people are asked to respect is CST as a specific formation and this is what this discussion is about – a discussion that must begin by its historicisation and recognising the kind of “grab bag”, Adam talks about above.

  16. Hatcher: “The aim of all such explanations [of how “thought” can mirror “reality” etc.] is to make truth more than what Dewey called ‘warranted assertibility’: more than what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying.” – p.176 of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”

    Note that it’s what our peers will *let us* get away with saying, not what we *can* get away with saying. If the only reason nobody objects to what I say is that I’ve succeeded at hoodwinking everyone, I have not reached the low bar Dewey set for warranted assertibility. Nobody has *let* me get away with saying something in that case; I simply *have* gotten away with it. CST-style cynicism is not Rortyan.

  17. Fair enough. Historically speaking, I see the ‘best of’ the tradition (prophetic/social justice) flaring up as a minority voice throughout Christian history from the Hebrew prophets to the historical Jesus, to the description of koinonia at the end to Acts 2; from the Franciscans (who quickly became corrupted post-Francis) to the Beguines; from the Catholic Worker Houses to the New Monastic Movement. I see the CST as just one more recapitulation/reiteration/evolution of this same spirit, as it were. But certainly each must be seen in its own historical context as well — and Adam’s critiques are a helpful framework as well. Thanks for the conversation.

  18. At no point does Carl seem to be looking at CST as a whole — he seems to just take the term as synonymous with “the parts of CST I agree with.” Does an anti-gay agenda go back to the Hebrew Prophets and ministry of Christ, too?

  19. I’m definitely not advocating for CST as a whole. I’m saying that one should both criticize all the parts of the RCC (and any other group) with which one disagrees and celebrate (even partner with) those aspects with which one agrees. But I definitely take seriously your comment that, “The grab bag approach works well for people trying to preserve a given status quo — for instance, centrist liberals or the Vatican — but it’s not very promising as a way to get people on board for progressive change.”

  20. …and I just saw you latest post “On ‘grab bag’ politics.” Thanks for the clarification of your views — although I realize the post was principally written to work out your own views, not for me. Thanks for the conversation.

  21. I more or less agree with your analysis, but the claim that the Vatican is an advocate for the “status quo” seems either far-fetched or so ill-defined as to not mean anything. Sure they don’t want to be worse off than they are now, but who does?

  22. I’m doing my best to avoid the suggestion of father killing here, but the fact that your characterizations of it tend towards the unbelievable at times reflects a pattern of a different sort.

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