Ordering Sensible Pains and Pleasures

Discussing the avoidance of pains and the seeking of pleasures, St. Thomas says:

I answer that, The desire for pleasure is of itself more eager than the shunning of sorrow. The reason of this is that the cause of pleasure is a suitable good; while the cause of pain or sorrow is an unsuitable evil. Now it happens that a certain good is suitable without any repugnance at all: but it is not possible for any evil to be so unsuitable as not to be suitable in some way. Wherefore pleasure can be entire and perfect: whereas sorrow is always partial. Therefore desire for pleasure is naturally greater than the shunning of sorrow. Another reason is because the good, which is the object of pleasure, is sought for its own sake: whereas the evil, which is the object of sorrow, is to be shunned as being a privation of good: and that which is by reason of itself is stronger than that which is by reason of something else. Moreover we find a confirmation of this in natural movements. For every natural movement is more intense in the end, when a thing approaches the term that is suitable to its nature, than at the beginning, when it leaves the term that is unsuitable to its nature: as though nature were more eager in tending to what is suitable to it, than in shunning what is unsuitable. Therefore the inclination of the appetitive power is, of itself, more eager in tending to pleasure than in shunning sorrow.

But it happens accidentally that a man shuns sorrow more eagerly than he seeks pleasure: and this for three reasons. First, on the part of the apprehension. Because, as Augustine says (De Trin. x, 12), “love is felt more keenly, when we lack that which we love.” Now from the lack of what we love, sorrow results, which is caused either by the loss of some loved good, or by the presence of some contrary evil. But pleasure suffers no lack of the good loved, for it rests in possession of it. Since then love is the cause of pleasure and sorrow, the latter is more the shunned, according as love is the more keenly felt on account of that which is contrary to it. Secondly, on the part of the cause of sorrow or pain, which cause is repugnant to a good that is more loved than the good in which we take pleasure. For we love the natural well-being of the body more than the pleasure of eating: and consequently we would leave the pleasure of eating and the like, from fear of the pain occasioned by blows or other such causes, which are contrary to the well-being of the body. Thirdly, on the part of the effect: namely, in so far as sorrow hinders not only one pleasure, but all.

He adds in response to a saying of St. Augustine,

The saying of Augustine that “sorrow is shunned more than pleasure is sought” is true accidentally but not simply. And this is clear from what he says after: “Since we see that the most savage animals are deterred from the greatest pleasures by fear of pain,” which pain is contrary to life which is loved above all.

In other words, people avoid physical pain because it is related to damage to the body and ultimately to death, and great physical pain to great damage and thus possibly immediate death. In this sense, people will avoid such pain first, in preference to seeking any physical pleasure.

Once one has avoided such immediate damage to the body, human nature is preserved in basically two ways, in the individual by way of food and drink, and in the species by reproduction. Thus St. Thomas says that the virtue of temperance is related to the pleasures related to these modes of preservation:

I answer that, As stated above, temperance is about desires and pleasures in the same way as fortitude is about fear and daring. Now fortitude is about fear and daring with respect to the greatest evils whereby nature itself is dissolved; and such are dangers of death. Wherefore in like manner temperance must needs be about desires for the greatest pleasures. And since pleasure results from a natural operation, it is so much the greater according as it results from a more natural operation. Now to animals the most natural operations are those which preserve the nature of the individual by means of meat and drink, and the nature of the species by the union of the sexes. Hence temperance is properly about pleasures of meat and drink and sexual pleasures. Now these pleasures result from the sense of touch. Wherefore it follows that temperance is about pleasures of touch.

Thus we could divide physical pleasures into three kinds: general physical pleasures, such as the feeling of sitting in a comfortable chair, which are not directly related to the preservation of human nature, but are at least opposed to physical pains; pleasures of eating and drinking, which are related to the preservation of the individual; and sexual pleasures, which are related to the preservation of the species.

Just as people will accept the deprivation of physical pleasures in order to avoid pain, so people would accept the deprivation of sexual pleasures in order to avoid starvation.

We could look at this in terms of the more necessary and the better. Avoiding damage to the body is more necessary than nourishment, but nourishment is better; and avoiding the deprivation of nourishment is more necessary than reproduction, but reproduction is better. Consequently the pleasures of food and drink tend to be physically more intense than general physical pleasures, and sexual pleasures more intense than those of food and drink.

Causality and Free Will

We have argued that there is a first efficient cause, and that there is only one such cause. It follows that nothing can escape the causality of this cause, not even things that we would usually think of as caused by chance or by free will.

It is clear from experience that human beings make choices. However, whatever we might say about our freedom in these choices, we cannot avoid admitting that the first cause not only causes us to exist, but also to make the choices that we make. St. Thomas describes this situation:

The divine will imposes necessity on some things willed but not on all. The reason of this some have chosen to assign to intermediate causes, holding that what God produces by necessary causes is necessary; and what He produces by contingent causes contingent. This does not seem to be a sufficient explanation, for two reasons.

First, because the effect of a first cause is contingent on account of the secondary cause, from the fact that the effect of the first cause is hindered by deficiency in the second cause, as the sun’s power is hindered by a defect in the plant. But no defect of a secondary cause can hinder God’s will from producing its effect.

Secondly, because if the distinction between the contingent and the necessary is to be referred only to secondary causes, this must be independent of the divine intention and will; which is inadmissible. It is better therefore to say that this happens on account of the efficacy of the divine will. For when a cause is efficacious to act, the effect follows upon the cause, not only as to the thing done, but also as to its manner of being done or of being. Thus from defect of active power in the seed it may happen that a child is born unlike its father in accidental points, that belong to its manner of being. Since then the divine will is perfectly efficacious, it follows not only that things are done, which God wills to be done, but also that they are done in the way that He wills. Now God wills some things to be done necessarily, some contingently, to the right ordering of things, for the building up of the universe. Therefore to some effects He has attached necessary causes, that cannot fail; but to others defectible and contingent causes, from which arise contingent effects. Hence it is not because the proximate causes are contingent that the effects willed by God happen contingently, but because God prepared contingent causes for them, it being His will that they should happen contingently.

We could compare this situation to the situation of an author with respect to the imaginary world that he creates. Thus I can write the following story:

Peter Smith was out for a walk with Michael Jones. They came to a fork in the path. Peter, having the freedom to go to the left or to the right, freely chose to go to the right. Michael, however, was under the mental influence of aliens and had no choice in the matter. They compelled him to go to the left, and so he and Peter parted ways.

Note that in this story, Peter is free and Michael is not. And this happens because I decided that it was going to happen that way. Since I am responsible for whole of their imaginary existence, I am also responsible for the fact that one of them has an imaginary free existence, and one does not. In the same way, the first cause is responsible not only for the things that exist, but for everything which is true about the things that exist, including whatever kind of freedom or contingency that they might possess.

Orestes Brownson vs. John Newman on the Development of Doctrine

Not all Catholics were pleased by Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine. Many were hesitant regarding it, or rejected it outright as completely mistaken. Orestes Brownson provides an example of the latter opinion. Not long after the publication of Newman’s book, he writes:

The book before us [Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine] appears to have been designed to indicate, to some extent, the process by which its gifted author passed in his own mind from Anglicanism to Catholicity, and to remove the principal objections to the Catholic Church, which he himself had raised in his previous publications. As the production of a strong, active, acute, and cultivated mind, enriched with various but not always well digested erudition, brought up in the bosom of heresy and schism, nurtured with false learning, false philosophy, vague and empty theories, gradually, under divine grace, working its way to the truth which gleams from afar, but which the intervening darkness renders fitful and uncertain; it is a work of more than ordinary interest, and one which the enlightened and philosophic few, fond of psychological researches, and of tracing the operations of sectarian or individual idiosyncrasies, may read perhaps with profit. A Protestant, ignorant, as Protestants usually are, of Catholicity, may even fancy the work substantially Catholic, and regard its theory as a convenient one for the Church, and one which she may, without prejudice to any of her claims, if not accept, at least tolerate. It is evident, from the first page of the work, that the author has made up his mind; that he is writing under the full conviction that he must seek admission into the Roman Catholic communion; and that, in his judgment, the theory he is putting forth in justification of the step he has resolved to take is, to say the least, perfectly compatible with Catholic authority and infallibility. He frankly accepts, and in some instances elaborately defends, the principal dogmas and usages of the Catholic Church, and especially those which are in general the most offensive to Protestants; and so little suspicion has he of the unsoundness of his work, so orthodox does he hold it, that he does not scruple, even after his conversion, to publish it to the world. And yet we presume he himself is now prepared to concede, that, when he was writing this book, he was still in the bonds of Protestantism; that he had not as yet set his foot on Catholic ground; that he had not crossed the Jordan, had not even surveyed the promised land from the top of Mount Pisgah, and that he knew it only by vague rumor and uncertain report. All, to his vision, is dim and confused. He stumbles at every step and stammers at every word. He puts forth a giant’s strength, but only to wrestle with phantoms; and gives us learned and elaborate theories to explain facts which he himself shows are no facts, — ingenious and subtle speculations, where all that is needed, or is admissible, is a plain yes or no. From first to last, he labors with a genius, a talent, a learning, a sincerity, an earnestness, which no one can refuse to admire, to develop Protestantism into Catholicity. Vain effort! As well attempt to develop the poisonous sumach into the cedar of Lebanon.

There is an extremely black and white view of Catholicism and Protestantism here. According to Brownson, Catholicism is pure truth while Protestantism is pure error. So there is no reasonable way to get from one to the other. Protestants and Anglicans are simply stumbling around in the darkness. If they end up in the light of Catholicism, it is by pure chance, or at best by divine providence, but either way, it is not because there was anything valid about their previous opinions which could have led them there. You could be virtually certain, then, in advance of reading Newman’s book, that it must be false, at least in its essential aspects. And Brownson is quite sure of this:

It is but simple justice to Mr. Newman to say, that it is not for his sake that we are about to point out some objections to his theory of developments. The circumstances under which he wrote, his acknowledged learning and ability, the presumption that he had thoroughly surveyed his ground, and the apparent favor with which his essay has been received by the Catholic press in England, are not unlikely to convey to Protestant, and perhaps to some partially instructed and speculative Catholic minds, the impression, that, if the theory set forth is not exactly Catholic, it at least contains nothing which a Catholic may not accept. The fact, that the author – whether legitimately or not – comes to Catholic conclusions, that he ends by entering the Catholic communion, that he puts forth his theory expressly for the purpose of removing the obstacles which others may find in following his example, and with this view publishes it to the world even after his conversion, can hardly fail to produce in many minds the conviction that the theory and conclusions are necessarily or at least legitimately connected. And several Protestant reviewers seem actually to entertain this conviction; and they, therefore, hold the theory up to condemnation as the “Romanist” theory; or, as they express themselves, “as the ground on which modern Rome seeks to defend her manifest corruptions of Christian doctrine.” It is therefore due both to the Church and to Protestants to say, expressly, – and we do so with the highest respect for Mr. Newman, and with warm admiration for the truth, beauty, and force of many of the details of his work, – that his peculiar theory is essentially anti-Catholic and Protestant. It not only is not necessary to the defence of the Church, but is utterly repugnant to her claims to be the authoritative and infallible Church of God. A brief examination of some of the principal features of the theory will justify this strong and apparently severe assertion.

In the first place he objects to the very idea of formulating a theory concerning Christianity:

We waive, here, all considerations of this theory so far as it is intended to apply to Christian discipline and theology, and confine ourselves to it solely as applied to Christian doctrine. Under this last point of view, we object to the theory that it is a theory, and not a revealed fact. The truth of an hypothesis can never be inferred from the fact that it meets and explains the facts it is invented to meet and explain; and therefore the admission of any hypothesis into Christian doctrine would vitiate the doctrine itself. Mr. Newman begins his work by telling us that:

“Christianity has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world’s history. It may legitimately be made the subject-matter of theories: what is its moral and political excellence, what its place in the range of ideas or of facts which we possess, whether it be divine or human, whether it be original or eclectic or both at once, how far favorable to civilization or to literature, whether a religion for all ages or for a particular state of society, – these are questions upon the fact or professed solutions of the fact, and belong to the province of opinion.”

But in this he must be mistaken. Whether Christianity be divine or human is not a question of opinion, but a question of fact, and so is it with all the questions he enumerates. Christianity is a fact in the world’s history; this is a fact. But is Christianity what it professes to be? Is this a question of opinion, to be answered only by a theory? or is it a question of fact, to be taken up and settled, one way or the other, as a fact? If it is a matter of opinion, and if it is answerable only by a theory, what foundation is there or can there be for faith! Christianity is a fact, not only in the world’s history, but in itself, or it is not. If it is, it cannot legitimately be made the subject matter of theories, any more than may be the fact that it is a fact in the world’s history. Christianity, if received at all, must be received, not as a theory, but as a revealed fact; and when we have established it as a revealed fact, no theory is needed or admissible, for we must then believe the fact precisely as it proposes itself.

To some extent the disagreement here is a verbal one. Newman distinguishes between fact and opinion in a fairly common manner where a fact is something established so definitively that there is no substantial disagreement about it, and opinion is something where there is a substantial amount of disagreement. In this sense, whether Christianity is divine is a matter of opinion because large numbers of people believe that it is, and large numbers of people believe that it is not. But there is no significant disagreement concerning whether Christianity exists and has a history. When Brownson says that, “Christianity is a fact, not only in the world’s history, but in itself, or it is not,” on the other hand, he means that the doctrines of Christianity are either true or they are not. Of course this is true, but it does not follow that Newman’s distinction is invalid.

Verbal disagreements, however, typically result from diverse motives of the speakers, and less often because one speaker understands the language and the other does not. It is unlikely that Brownson does not understand the typical distinction between fact and opinion, and it is unlikely that Newman does not know that “this is a fact or it is not,” sometimes means, “this is true or false.”

In this particular case, Brownson speaks the way he does because he wishes to draw the conclusion that Christianity “cannot legitimately be made the subject matter of theories.” And here he has a real disagreement with Newman. Newman had stated, “An argument is needed, unless Christianity is to abandon the province of argument; and those who find fault with the explanation here offered of its historical phenomena will find it their duty to provide one for themselves.” Brownson’s response is that Christianity should indeed abandon the province of argument. According to him, if it is subject to arguments, faith is impossible: “What foundation is there or can there be for faith!” At the end of his critique, Brownson says:

But we say not this for Mr. Newman’s sake. He is no longer outside of the Church, seeking to find reasons to justify him in asking admission into her communion. His doubts and misgivings, his advances and his retreats, have given way to firm faith and filial confidence. He does not now, as in his book, believe the Church because by private reason he has convinced himself of the truth of her teachings; but he believes what she teaches because he believes her, and he believes her because she has received the formal commission from Almighty God to teach all nations to observe whatsoever Christ commanded his apostles, and because he has received, through divine grace, the virtue of faith. He has broken with the past, and sees that his present is not a continuation of his former life; for he now understands that Catholicity is not Protestantism developed. His present and his past are separated by a gulf which grace alone can bridge over; and he needs not that we tell him he can more effectually serve those he has left behind by his prayers than by his hypotheses, however ingenious or elaborate. We take our leave of him with the assurance, that, if we have criticised his book somewhat severely, it has been with no improper feeling towards him; and that, when he shall be disposed to address the public again, and from his new position, he will find us among the most willing, the most eager, and the most respectful of his listeners. This elaborate essay belongs to his past life; let it go with all that Protestantism he abjured before he was permitted to put on the livery of Christ. It belongs not to his Catholic life, and is only accidentally connected with it, either in his own mind or in that of others. The essay he will write hereafter, out of the fullness of his Catholic heart, will breathe a different tone, and fetch another echo. It will refresh the Catholic soul, strengthen his faith, confirm his hope, and warm his charity. A noble career opens before him. May God give him grace to run it with success!

The idea is that if a person’s belief is caused by the grace of faith, it cannot be caused by a reason, and so arguments are irrelevant. Likewise, if they are thought to be relevant, faith becomes impossible. The problem with this is that grace, understood as he understands it here, would be a kind of efficient cause. And as we have seen, it is a mistake to suppose that having an efficient cause for a belief is in contrast to having reasons. And Brownson’s account is also problematic for various other reasons which we have looked at elsewhere.

Newman proposes a number of tests to determine whether a development is a reasonable development of Christian tradition. Brownson objects to the possibility of such a test:

Furthermore, before we can proceed to apply tests to determine whether this or that is a development or a corruption of Christian doctrine, we must have a clear, distinct, and adequate knowledge of Christian doctrine itself; for how can we say the original type or idea is preserved, if we do not know what it is? If we do know what it is, what is the use of the tests or their application? The whole process of the historical application of the tests is, then, at best, regarded as an argument, a mere paralogism. We need all the knowledge of Christian doctrine as the condition of concluding any thing from the application of the tests, which their successful application can give us; for there can be nothing in the conclusion not previously in the premises. Mr. Newman, like professors of natural science, has been misled by what in these times is called “Inductive Philosophy,” – a philosophy which had never had “a local habitation or a name,” more than other “airy nothings,” if it had been borne in mind that we have no logic by which we can conclude the unknown from the known. When your conclusions go beyond what you have established in the premises, they may, sometimes be a guide to observation, but they have in themselves no scientific validity.

Induction, of course, is not meant to establish a conclusion demonstratively. It establishes a probability. In any case, this is not his main objection. He continues:

But, waiving these considerations, we object to Mr. Newman’s theory, that it is an hypothesis brought forward to explain facts which are not facts. His problem is no problem; for it presupposes what no Catholic can concede, and what there is no warrant in the facts of the case for conceding. Mr. Newman proceeds on the assumption, that there have been real variations in Christian doctrine.

After quoting and discussing various passages from Newman regarding such variations, he says:

Now, in regard to all this, we simply ask, Does the Church herself take this view? Does she teach that she at first received no formal revelation, – that the revelation was given as “unleavened dough,” to be leavened, kneaded, made up into loaves of convenient size, baked and prepared for use by her, after her mission began, and she had commenced the work of evangelizing the nations? Does she admit her original creed was incomplete, that it has increased and expanded, that there have been variation and progress in her understanding of the revelation she originally received, and that she now understands it better, and can more readily define what it is than she could at first? Most assuredly not. She asserts that there has been no progress, no increase, no variation of faith; that what she believes and teaches now is precisely what she has always and everywhere believed and taught from the first. She denies that she has ever added a new article to the primitive creed; and affirms, as Mr. Newman himself proves in his account of the Council of Chalcedon, that the new definition is not a new development, a better understanding of the faith, but simply a new definition, against the “novel expressions” invented by the enemies of religion, of what, on the point defined, had always and everywhere been her precise faith. In this she is right, or she is wrong. If right you must abandon your theory of developments; if wrong, she is a false witness for God, and your theory of developments cannot make her worthy of confidence. If you believe her you cannot assert developments in your sense of the term; if you do not believe her, you are no Catholic. This is sufficient to show that Mr. Newman cannot urge his theory as a Catholic, whatever he might do as a Protestant.

Brownson does not give any particular support for these statements about the teaching of the Church about itself, but takes them for granted. Of course Brownson does not have the right to determine that Newman is “no Catholic,” no matter how strongly he disagrees with his opinions. And the Catholic Church evidently disagreed with this assessment, since he was made a Cardinal in 1879, and after his death, he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

The Coming Nuclear War

While I am generally against doomsaying, there is a reasonable argument in favor of the position that a nuclear war will likely happen in the foreseeable future. Whatever can happen sometimes does, in the sense that something that is not decreasing in probability over time will be sure to happen sooner or later. I do not see good reason to suppose that the probability of nuclear war over a fixed period of a year is going down in any significant way; and it may be increasing, due to the availability of the technology to an increasing number of nations, the increase in wealth leading to a greater ability to produce them, and so on.

The question is whether that probability is so low that our reasonable expectation would be that it pretty definitely would not happen during our lifetimes, like the probability of the earth being hit by an asteroid such as the one that destroyed the dinosaurs. The latter probability is so low that there would be no point in worrying about it.

However, nuclear war would be a human and political event, not a natural disaster, and should be judged differently. Since nuclear weapons have already been used, implicit and explicit threats of the use of nuclear weapons have been made time and time again, and there have been mistakes that could have started a nuclear war, it would be unreasonable to assign an extremely low probability to such an event. I would suggest that a chance of 1% per year would be a reasonable guess. If so, there is about a 40% chance that there will be a nuclear war within the next 50 years.

If this is a reasonable assessment of the probability, it is not something to simply dismiss. Pope Francis, citing Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John XXIII, argues for some kind of world government:

As Benedict XVI has affirmed in continuity with the social teaching of the Church: “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago”

“Integral and timely disarmament” likely refers at least in large part to nuclear weapons. The argument would be that the only way to reduce the probability of nuclear war to a reasonably low level would be to completely eliminate such weapons; and there is no reasonable possibility of doing this without a world government. For even if all current nuclear states eliminated their weapons, there would be a greatly increased incentive for small countries to build them, since it would provide them with a definitive advantage over their neighbors which currently does not exist.

In principle there could be other ways to resolve this problem, but there is no guarantee that such a solution will be worked out quickly enough in practice.

Development of Doctrine

John Henry Newman begins the introduction to his book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

CHRISTIANITY has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world’s history. Its genius and character, its doctrines, precepts, and objects cannot be treated as matters of private opinion or deduction, unless we may reasonably so regard the Spartan institutions or the religion of Mahomet. It may indeed legitimately be made the subject-matter of theories; what is its moral and political excellence, what its due location in the range of ideas or of facts which we possess, whether it be divine or human, whether original or eclectic, or both at once, how far favourable to civilization or to literature, whether a religion for all ages or for a particular state of society, these are questions upon the fact, or professed solutions of the fact, and belong to the province of opinion; but to a fact do they relate, on an admitted fact do they turn, which must be ascertained as other facts, and surely has on the whole been so ascertained, unless the testimony of so many centuries is to go for nothing. Christianity is no theory of the study or the cloister. It has long since passed beyond the letter of documents and the reasonings of individual minds, and has become public property. Its “sound has gone out into all lands,” and its “words unto the ends of the world.” It has from the first had an objective existence, and has thrown itself upon the great concourse of men. Its home is in the world; and to know what it is, we must seek it in the world, and hear the world’s witness of it.


The hypothesis, indeed, has met with wide reception in these latter times, that Christianity does not fall within the province of history,—that it is to each man what each man thinks it to be, and nothing else; and thus in fact is a mere name for a cluster or family of rival religions all together, religions at variance one with another, and claiming the same appellation, not because there can be assigned any one and the same doctrine as the common foundation of all, but because certain points of agreement may be found here and there of some sort or other, by which each in its turn is connected with one or other of the rest. Or again, it has been maintained, or implied, that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, none representing it as taught by Christ and His Apostles; that the original religion has gradually decayed or become hopelessly corrupt; nay that it died out of the world at its birth, and was forthwith succeeded by a counterfeit or counterfeits which assumed its name, though they inherited at best but some fragments of its teaching; or rather that it cannot even be said either to have decayed or to have died, because historically it has no substance of its own, but from the first and onwards it has, on the stage of the world, been nothing more than a mere assemblage of doctrines and practices derived from without, from Oriental, Platonic, Polytheistic sources, from Buddhism, Essenism, Manicheeism; or that, allowing true Christianity still to exist, it has but a hidden and isolated life, in the hearts of the elect, or again as a literature or philosophy, not certified in any way, much less guaranteed, to come from above, but one out of the various separate informations about the Supreme Being and human duty, with which an unknown Providence has furnished us, whether in nature or in the world.


All such views of Christianity imply that there is no sufficient body of historical proof to interfere with, or at least to prevail against, any number whatever of free and independent hypotheses concerning it. But this, surely, is not self-evident, and has itself to be proved. Till positive reasons grounded on facts are adduced to the contrary, the most natural hypotheses, the most agreeable to our mode of proceeding in parallel cases, and that which takes precedence of all others, is to consider that the society of Christians, which the Apostles left on earth, were of that religion to which the Apostles had converted them; that the external continuity of name, profession, and communion, argues a real continuity of doctrine; that, as Christianity began by manifesting itself as of a certain shape and bearing to all mankind, therefore it went on so to manifest itself; and that the more, considering that prophecy had already determined that it was to be a power visible in the world and sovereign over it, characters which are accurately fulfilled in that historical Christianity to which we commonly give the name. It is not a violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.

Of course I do not deny the abstract possibility of extreme changes. The substitution is certainly, in idea, supposable of a counterfeit Christianity,—superseding the original, by means of the adroit innovations of seasons, places, and persons, till, according to the familiar illustration, the “blade” and the “handle” are alternately renewed, and identity is lost without the loss of continuity. It is possible; but it must not be assumed. The onus probandi is with those who assert what it is unnatural to expect; to be just able to doubt is no warrant for disbelieving.

His basic claim in these paragraphs is that we should assume that Christianity has remained substantially unchanged over time, and that the changes that have taken place are relatively minor ones, unless it is first proven otherwise.

Next, he contrasts this idea with Protestant forms of Christianity:


Accordingly, some writers have gone on to give reasons from history for their refusing to appeal to history. They aver that, when they come to look into the documents and literature of Christianity in times past, they find its doctrines so variously represented, and so inconsistently maintained by its professors, that, however natural it be à priori, it is useless, in fact, to seek in history the matter of that Revelation which has been vouchsafed to mankind; that they cannot be historical Christians if they would. They say, in the words of Chillingworth, “There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age:”—Hence they are forced, whether they will or not, to fall back upon the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine. This is a fair argument, if it can be maintained, and it brings me at once to the subject of this Essay. Not that it enters into my purpose to convict of misstatement, as might be done, each separate clause of this sweeping accusation of a smart but superficial writer; but neither on the other hand do I mean to deny everything that he says to the disadvantage of historical Christianity. On the contrary, I shall admit that there are in fact certain apparent variations in its teaching, which have to be explained; thus I shall begin, but then I shall attempt to explain them to the exculpation of that teaching in point of unity, directness, and consistency.


Meanwhile, before setting about this work, I will address one remark to Chillingworth and his friends:—Let them consider, that if they can criticize history, the facts of history certainly can retort upon them. It might, I grant, be clearer on this great subject than it is. This is no great concession. History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicæa and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.


And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Ante-nicene as its Post-tridentine period. I have elsewhere observed on this circumstance: “So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing: so that ‘when they rose in the morning’ her true seed ‘were all dead corpses’—Nay dead and buried—and without grave-stone. ‘The waters went over them; there was not one of them left; they sunk like lead in the mighty waters.’ Strange antitype, indeed, to the early fortunes of Israel!—then the enemy was drowned, and ‘Israel saw them dead upon the sea-shore.’ But now, it would seem, water proceeded as a flood ‘out of the serpent’s mouth, and covered all the witnesses, so that not even their dead bodies lay in the streets of the great city.’ Let him take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless.”

That Protestantism, then, is not the Christianity of history, it is easy to determine, but to retort is a poor reply in controversy to a question of fact, and whatever be the violence or the exaggeration of writers like Chillingworth, if they have raised a real difficulty, it may claim a real answer, and we must determine whether on the one hand Christianity is still to represent to us a definite teaching from above, or whether on the other its utterances have been from time to time so strangely at variance, that we are necessarily thrown back on our own judgment individually to determine, what the revelation of God is, or rather if in fact there is, or has been, any revelation at all.

Newman uses Chillingworth as an example of someone who disagrees with that Christianity has actually possessed historical continuity. There is no real continuity, says Chillingworth, because Christians throughout history have contradicted each other in every possible way. So we are left to our own devices, and to the Bible, if we want to know the teaching of Christ.

Newman responds that Protestantism is also not the “Christianity of history.” It is likely enough that Chillingworth would not find this a meaningful objection, since his whole point would be that history does not matter. However, Newman points out that such a situation would suggest that Christianity is not a revelation of God at all, but a matter of human opinion.

He goes on to acknowledge that Chillingworth has a certain point about the history of Christianity, and begins to discuss the explanation for this point offered by Anglicanism, which he considers as though a kind of mean between Catholicism and Protestantism.


Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. They are not sufficient to interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise the question how they came about, and what they mean, and have in consequence supplied matter for several hypotheses.

Of these one is to the effect that Christianity has even changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons; but it is difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth, and in fact its advocates more or less abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity; so it need not detain us here.

A second and more plausible hypothesis is that of the Anglican divines, who reconcile and bring into shape the exuberant phenomena under consideration, by cutting and casting away as corruptions all usages, ways, opinions, and tenets, which have not the sanction of primitive times. They maintain that history first presents to us a pure Christianity in East and West, and then a corrupt; and then of course their duty is to draw the line between what is corrupt and what is pure, and to determine the dates at which the various changes from good to bad were introduced. Such a principle of demarcation, available for the purpose, they consider they have found in the dictum of Vincent of Lerins, that revealed and Apostolic doctrine is “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus,” a principle infallibly separating, on the whole field of history, authoritative doctrine from opinion, rejecting what is faulty, and combining and forming a theology. That “Christianity is what has been held always, everywhere, and by all,” certainly promises a solution of the perplexities, an interpretation of the meaning, of history. What can be more natural than that divines and bodies of men should speak, sometimes from themselves, sometimes from tradition? what more natural than that individually they should say many things on impulse, or under excitement, or as conjectures, or in ignorance? what more certain than that they must all have been instructed and catechized in the Creed of the Apostles? what more evident than that what was their own would in its degree be peculiar, and {11} differ from what was similarly private and personal in their brethren? what more conclusive than that the doctrine that was common to all at once was not really their own, but public property in which they had a joint interest, and was proved by the concurrence of so many witnesses to have come from an Apostolical source? Here, then, we have a short and easy method for bringing the various informations of ecclesiastical history under that antecedent probability in its favour, which nothing but its actual variations would lead us to neglect. Here we have a precise and satisfactory reason why we should make much of the earlier centuries, yet pay no regard to the later, why we should admit some doctrines and not others, why we refuse the Creed of Pius IV. and accept the Thirty-nine Articles.


Such is the rule of historical interpretation which has been professed in the English school of divines; and it contains a majestic truth, and offers an intelligible principle, and wears a reasonable air. It is congenial, or, as it may be said, native to the Anglican mind, which takes up a middle position, neither discarding the Fathers nor acknowledging the Pope. It lays down a simple rule by which to measure the value of every historical fact, as it comes, and thereby it provides a bulwark against Rome, while it opens an assault upon Protestantism. Such is its promise; but its difficulty lies in applying it in particular cases. The rule is more serviceable in determining what is not, than what is Christianity; it is irresistible against Protestantism, and in one sense indeed it is irresistible against Rome also, but in the same sense it is irresistible against England. It strikes at Rome through England. It admits of being interpreted in one of two ways: if it be narrowed for the purpose of disproving the catholicity of the Creed of Pope Pius, it becomes also an objection to the Athanasian; and if it be relaxed to admit the doctrines retained by the English Church, it no longer excludes certain doctrines of Rome which that Church denies. It cannot at once condemn St. Thomas and St. Bernard, and defend St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen.

This general defect in its serviceableness has been heretofore felt by those who appealed to it. It was said by one writer; “The Rule of Vincent is not of a mathematical or demonstrative character, but moral, and requires practical judgment and good sense to apply it. For instance, what is meant by being ‘taught always‘? does it mean in every century, or every year, or every month? Does ‘everywhere’ mean in every country, or in every diocese? and does ‘the Consent of Fathers‘ require us to produce the direct testimony of every one of them? How many Fathers, how many places, how many instances, constitute a fulfilment of the test proposed? It is, then, from the nature of the case, a condition which never can be satisfied as fully as it might have been. It admits of various and unequal application in various instances; and what degree of application is enough, must be decided by the same principles which guide us in the conduct of life, which determine us in politics, or trade, or war, which lead us to accept Revelation at all, (for which we have but probability to show at most,) nay, to believe in the existence of an intelligent Creator.”

Once you realize that Christianity has in fact changed throughout history, he says, you need to explain that fact. He dismisses the explanation that Christianity is simply a changeable thing, since he says that the adherents of this view either abandon the idea of divine revelation, or at least have a tendency to abandon it.

The Anglican view, he says, is that there is a common body of more or less unchanging doctrine which is the true revelation of Christ, and we should accept this common body of doctrine while rejecting whatever is added to it. He points out that there is a problem with this explanation: the body of doctrine accepted by Anglicans is not in fact historically more common than doctrines which imply the truth of Catholicism. He cites various examples such as the following:


One additional specimen shall be given as a sample of many others:—I betake myself to one of our altars to receive the Blessed Eucharist; I have no doubt whatever on my mind about the Gift which that Sacrament contains; I confess to myself my belief, and I go through the steps on which it is assured to me. “The Presence of Christ is here, for It follows upon Consecration; and Consecration is the prerogative of Priests; and Priests are made by Ordination; and Ordination comes in direct line from the Apostles. Whatever be our other misfortunes, every link in our chain is safe; we have the Apostolic Succession, we have a right form of consecration: therefore we are blessed with the great Gift.” Here the question rises in me, “Who told you about that Gift?” I answer, “I have learned it from the Fathers: I believe the Real Presence because they bear witness to it. St. Ignatius calls it ‘the medicine of immortality:’ St. Irenæus says that ‘our flesh becomes incorrupt, and partakes of life, and has the hope of the resurrection,’ as ‘being nourished from the Lord’s Body and Blood;’ that the Eucharist ‘is made up of two things, an earthly and an heavenly:’ perhaps Origen, and perhaps Magnes, after him, say that It is not a type of our Lord’s Body, but His Body: and St. Cyprian uses language as fearful as can be spoken, of those who profane it. I cast my lot with them, I believe as they.” Thus I reply, and then the thought comes upon me a second time, “And do not the same ancient Fathers bear witness to another doctrine, which you disown? Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not? How are you casting your lot with the Saints, when you go but half-way with them? For of whether of the two do they speak the more frequently, of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or of the Pope’s supremacy? You accept the lesser evidence, you reject the greater.”

The Anglicans, or at least those with whom Newman once agreed, accepted the doctrine of the Real Presence, but of course rejected the idea of the authority of the Pope. This is not consistent, he says, because the Fathers who testify to the Real Presence also testify to the Pope’s authority, perhaps even more clearly.

After discussing briefly one other hypothesis which he dismisses as insufficient, he proposes his own:


The following Essay is directed towards a solution of the difficulty which has been stated,—the difficulty, as far as it exists, which lies in the way of our using in controversy the testimony of our most natural informant concerning the doctrine and worship of Christianity, viz. the history of eighteen hundred years. The view on which it is written has at all times, perhaps, been implicitly adopted by theologians, and, I believe, has recently been illustrated by several distinguished writers of the continent, such as De Maistre and Möhler: viz. that the increase and expansion of the Christian Creed and Ritual, and the variations which have attended the process in the case of individual writers and Churches, are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and heart, and has had any wide or extended dominion; that, from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation. This may be called the Theory of Development of Doctrine; and, before proceeding to treat of it, one remark may be in place.

It is undoubtedly an hypothesis to account for a difficulty; but such too are the various explanations given by astronomers from Ptolemy to Newton of the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies, and it is as unphilosophical on that account to object to the one as to object to the other. Nor is it more reasonable to express surprise, that at this time of day a theory is necessary, granting for argument’s sake that the theory is novel, than to have directed a similar wonder in disparagement of the theory of gravitation, or the Plutonian theory in geology. Doubtless, the theory of the Secret and the theory of doctrinal Developments are expedients, and so is the dictum of Vincentius; so is the art of grammar or the use of the quadrant; it is an expedient to enable us to solve what has now become a necessary and an anxious problem. For three hundred years the documents and the facts of Christianity have been exposed to a jealous scrutiny; works have been judged spurious which once were received without a question; facts have been discarded or modified which were once first principles in argument; new facts and new principles have been brought to light; philosophical views and polemical discussions of various tendencies have been maintained with more or less success. Not only has the relative situation of controversies and theologies altered, but infidelity itself is in a different,—I am obliged to say in a more hopeful position,—as regards Christianity. The facts of Revealed Religion, though in their substance unaltered, present a less compact and orderly front to the attacks of its enemies now than formerly, and allow of the introduction of new inquiries and theories concerning its sources and its rise. The state of things is not as it was, when an appeal lay to the supposed works of the Areopagite, or to the primitive Decretals, or to St. Dionysius’s answers to Paul, or to the Cœna Domini of St. Cyprian. The assailants of dogmatic truth have got the start of its adherents of whatever Creed; philosophy is completing what criticism has begun; and apprehensions are not unreasonably excited lest we should have a new world to conquer before we have weapons for the warfare. Already infidelity has its views and conjectures, on which it arranges the facts of ecclesiastical history; and it is sure to consider the absence of any antagonist theory as an evidence of the reality of its own. That the hypothesis, here to be adopted, accounts not only for the Athanasian Creed, but for the Creed of Pope Pius, is no fault of those who adopt it. No one has power over the issues of his principles; we cannot manage our argument, and have as much of it as we please and no more. An argument is needed, unless Christianity is to abandon the province of argument; and those who find fault with the explanation here offered of its historical phenomena will find it their duty to provide one for themselves.

And as no special aim at Roman Catholic doctrine need be supposed to have given a direction to the inquiry, so neither can a reception of that doctrine be immediately based on its results. It would be the work of a life to apply the Theory of Developments so carefully to the writings of the Fathers, and to the history of controversies and councils, as thereby to vindicate the reasonableness of every decision of Rome; much less can such an undertaking be imagined by one who, in the middle of his days, is beginning life again. Thus much, however, might be gained even from an Essay like the present, an explanation of so many of the reputed corruptions, doctrinal and practical, of Rome, as might serve as a fair ground for trusting her in parallel cases where the investigation had not been pursued.

If you simply consider the abstract idea of “truth revealed by God,” Newman is saying, you would not necessarily expect that to change over time. Since Christianity does change over time, you need to explain that fact, and especially if you wish to believe that Christianity is composed of truths revealed by God. This has led to a situation where “infidelity itself is in a different,—I am obliged to say in a more hopeful position,—as regards Christianity,” and where “infidelity has its views and conjectures, on which it arranges the facts of ecclesiastical history; and it is sure to consider the absence of any antagonist theory as an evidence of the reality of its own.” In response, Newman has formulated his own theory, which he calls the “theory of the development of doctrine,” since he sees the other theories as inadequate. His theory ultimately implies that Catholic Christianity is the correct development of the Christianity handed down by the Apostles. In the above quotation Newman excuses himself for this, when he says,

That the hypothesis, here to be adopted, accounts not only for the Athanasian Creed, but for the Creed of Pope Pius, is no fault of those who adopt it. No one has power over the issues of his principles; we cannot manage our argument, and have as much of it as we please and no more. An argument is needed, unless Christianity is to abandon the province of argument; and those who find fault with the explanation here offered of its historical phenomena will find it their duty to provide one for themselves.

Above, Newman compared this discussion with development in other sciences such as the development of geology. This is probably a justified comparison. Just as Philip Gosse pointed out that Christian geologists wished to avoid the conclusion that the earth was ancient, but were forced by the facts to accept this, so Newman himself wished to explain the facts of Christian history in a form which would make Anglicanism acceptable, but ultimately he found this impossible.

Other Wagers

While no one believes the ridiculous position that only atheists go to heaven, not even Richard Carrier himself, many people do believe things which allow for the construction of wagers in favor of things besides Christianity.

Other real religions would be a typical example. Thus Muslims probably generally believe that you are more likely to go heaven if you become a Muslim, and some of them believe that all non-Muslims go to hell. So they can argue that you should choose to believe that Islam is true, in order to increase your chances of going to heaven, and to avoid going to hell.

Similarly, some Catholics who hold a Feeneyite position hold not only that you must be a Catholic, externally and literally, in order to be saved, but that you also cannot be saved unless you accept this position. Since there is some chance that they are right, they might argue, you should choose to accept their position, in order to be more sure of getting to heaven and avoiding hell.

Likewise, a Catholic could argue that the Church teaches that the religious life is better than married life. This probably means that people choosing to embrace religious life are more likely to go to heaven, since it is unlikely that the chances are completely equal, and if getting married made you more likely to go to heaven, it would be better in an extremely important way. So if you are a single Catholic, you should choose to believe that you have a religious vocation, in order to maximize your chances of going to heaven.

It is instructive to consider these various wagers because they can give some sort of indication of what kinds of response are reasonable and what kinds are not, even to Pascal’s original wager.

A Christian would be likely to respond to the Islamic wager in this way: it is more likely that Christianity is true than Islam, and if Christianity is true, the Christian would increase his chances of going to hell, and decrease his chances of going to heaven, by converting to Islam, and especially for such a reason. This is much like Richard Carrier’s response to Pascal, but it is reasonable for Christians in a way in which it is not for Carrier, because Christianity is an actually existing religion, while his only-atheists-go-to-heaven religion is not.

A Catholic could respond to the Feeneyite wager in a similar way. The Feeneyite position is probably false, and probably contrary to the teaching of the Church, and therefore adopting it would be uncharitable to other people (by assuming that they are going to hell), and unfaithful to the Catholic Church (since the most reasonable interpretation of the Church’s teaching does not allow for this position.) So rather than increasing a person’s chances of going to heaven, adopting this position would decrease a person’s chances of this result. Again, the possibility of this answer derives from the fact that there are two already existing positions, so this answer does not benefit someone like Carrier.

It is more difficult for a Catholic to reject the religious vocation wager in a reasonable way, because the Church does teach that the religious life is better, and in fact this most likely does imply that Catholics embracing this form of life are more likely to be saved.

A Catholic could respond, “But I don’t actually have a religious vocation, and so I shouldn’t choose to believe that I do.” This is no different from a unbeliever saying, “But Christianity is not actually true, and so I shouldn’t choose to believe that it is.” And this response fails in both cases, because the arguments do not purport to establish that you have a vocation or that Christianity is true. They only intend to establish that it is better to believe these things, and such a response does not address the argument.

The Catholic could insist, “But if I don’t actually have a religious vocation, God does not want me to do that. So if I choose to believe in a vocation and follow it, I will be doing something that God does not want me to do. So I will be less likely to be saved.” This seems similar to the unbeliever responding, “If God exists, he does not want people believing things that are false, and Christianity is false. So I will be less likely to get anything good from God by believing.”

Both responses are problematic, basically because they are inconsistent with the principles that are assumed to be true in order to consider the situation. In other words, the response here by the Catholic is probably inconsistent with the teaching of the Church on religious vocations, and likewise the response by the unbeliever is obviously inconsistent with Christianity (since it denies it.) The reason the Catholic response is likely inconsistent with the teaching of the Church on vocations is that given that someone asserts that he has a religious vocation, the Church forbids other people from dissuading him from it on the supposed grounds that he does not have a real vocation. But if it were true that someone who chooses to believe that he has a vocation, and then acts on it, is less likely to be saved given that he did not really have a vocation, then it would be extremely reasonable for people to dissuade him. Since the Church forbids such dissuasion, it seems to imply that this answer is not correct.

Both responses can be modified so that they will be consistent with the situation under consideration. The Catholic can respond, “I very much do not want to live the religious life. Granted that the religious life in general would make someone more likely to be saved, I would be personally extremely miserable in it. This would tempt me to various vicious things, either as consequences of it, as snapping angrily at people, or in order to relieve my misery, as engaging in sinful pleasures. So despite the general situation, I would be personally less likely to be saved if I lived the religious life.”

It is not clear how strong this response is, but at least it is consistent with accepting the general teaching of the Church on vocations. Likewise, the unbeliever can modify his response to the following: “Even if Christianity is true, it seems false to me, and from my point of view, choosing to believe it would be choosing to believe something false. The Bible makes clear that people rejecting the light and choosing darkness are doing evil, so that would mean God wouldn’t be pleased by this kind of behavior. So choosing to believe would make me less likely to go to heaven, even given that Christianity is true.”

Once again, it is not clear how strong this response is, but it is consistent with the claims of Christianity, and no less reasonable than the response of the single Catholic to the argument regarding vocations.

Scott Alexander, in the comment quoted previously, is dissatisfied with such arguments because they do not provide a general answer that would apply in all possible circumstances (e.g. if you were guaranteed that God did not object to your choosing to believe something you think to be false), and it seems to him that he personally would want to reject the wager in all circumstances. He concludes that his desire to reject it is objectively unreasonable. However, he does this under the assumption that the value of getting to heaven and avoiding hell is actually infinite. As we have seen, it is not infinite in the way that matters. However, he also assumes in his comment that the probability of Christianity is astronomically low. If this were correct, then since the value of salvation is not numerically infinite, it would be right to reject the wager in all circumstances. But since it is not correct to assign such a low probability, this does not follow.

The implication is that it is not possible to give a reasonable response to the wager which implies that it would never be reasonable to accept it. Likewise, the implication of the possible responses is that it is not possible to propose the wager in a form which ought to be compelling to anyone who is reasonable and under all circumstances. In this sense, Scott Alexander is right to suppose that his desire to reject the wager under all possible circumstances is irrational. Real life is complicated, and in real life a person could reasonably accept such a wager under certain circumstances, and a person could reasonably reject such a wager under certain circumstances.

Richard Carrier Responds to Pascal’s Wager

Richard Carrier attempts to respond to Pascal’s Wager by suggesting premises which lead to a completely opposite conclusion:

The following argument could be taken as tongue-in-cheek, if it didn’t seem so evidently true. At any rate, to escape the logic of it requires theists to commit to abandoning several of their cherished assumptions about God or Heaven. And no matter what, it presents a successful rebuttal to any form of Pascal’s Wager, by demonstrating that unbelief might still be the safest bet after all (since we do not know whose assumptions are correct, and we therefore cannot exclude the assumptions on which this argument is based).

If his response is taken literally, it is certainly not true in fact, and it is likely that he realizes this, and for this reason says that it could be taken as “tongue-in-cheek.” But since he adds that it seems “so evidently true,” it is not clear that he sees what is wrong with it.

His first point is that God would reward people who are concerned about doing good, and therefore people who are concerned about the truth:

It is a common belief that only the morally good should populate heaven, and this is a reasonable belief, widely defended by theists of many varieties. Suppose there is a god who is watching us and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to discover the truth. For all others are untrustworthy, being cognitively or morally inferior, or both. They will also be less likely ever to discover and commit to true beliefs about right and wrong. That is, if they have a significant and trustworthy concern for doing right and avoiding wrong, it follows necessarily that they must have a significant and trustworthy concern for knowing right and wrong. Since this knowledge requires knowledge about many fundamental facts of the universe (such as whether there is a god), it follows necessarily that such people must have a significant and trustworthy concern for always seeking out, testing, and confirming that their beliefs about such things are probably correct. Therefore, only such people can be sufficiently moral and trustworthy to deserve a place in heaven–unless god wishes to fill heaven with the morally lazy, irresponsible, or untrustworthy.

But only two groups fit this description: intellectually committed but critical theists, and intellectually committed but critical nontheists (which means both atheists and agnostics, though more specifically secular humanists, in the most basic sense).

His second point is that the world is a test for this:

It is a common belief that certain mysteries, like unexplained evils in the world and god’s silence, are to be explained as a test, and this is a reasonable belief, widely defended by theists of many varieties.

His next argument is that the available evidence tends to show that either God does not exist or that he is evil:

If presented with strong evidence that a god must either be evil or not exist, a genuinely good person will not believe in such a god, or if believing, will not give assent to such a god (as by worship or other assertions of approval, since the good do not approve of evil). Most theists do not deny this, but instead deny that the evidence is strong. But it seems irrefutable that there is strong evidence that a god must either be evil or not exist.

For example, in the bible Abraham discards humanity and morality upon God’s command to kill his son Isaac, and God rewards him for placing loyalty above morality. That is probably evil–a good god would expect Abraham to forego fear and loyalty and place compassion first and refuse to commit an evil act, and would reward him for that, not for compliance. Likewise, God deliberately inflicts unconscionable wrongs upon Job and his family merely to win a debate with Satan. That is probably evil–no good god would do such harm for so petty a reason, much less prefer human suffering to the cajoling of a mere angel. And then God justifies these wrongs to Job by claiming to be able to do whatever he wants, in effect saying that he is beyond morality. That is probably evil–a good god would never claim to be beyond good and evil. And so it goes for all the genocidal slaughter and barbaric laws commanded by God in the bible. Then there are all the natural evils in the world (like diseases and earthquakes) and all the unchecked human evils (i.e. god makes no attempt to catch criminals or stop heinous crimes, etc.). Only an evil god would probably allow such things.

He concludes that only atheists go to heaven:

Of the two groups comprising the only viable candidates for heaven, only nontheists recognize or admit that this evidence strongly implies that God must be evil or not exist. Therefore, only nontheists answer the test as predicted for morally good persons. That is, a morally good person will be intellectually and critically responsible about having true beliefs, and will place this commitment to moral good above all other concerns, especially those that can corrupt or compromise moral goodness, like faith or loyalty. So those who are genuinely worthy of heaven will very probably become nontheists, since their inquiry will be responsible and therefore complete, and will place moral concerns above all others. They will then encounter the undeniable facts of all these unexplained evils (in the bible and in the world) and conclude that God must probably be evil or nonexistent.

In other words, to accept such evils without being given a justification (as is entailed by god’s silence) indicates an insufficient concern for having true beliefs. But to have the courage to maintain unbelief in the face of threats of hell or destruction, as well as numerous forms of social pressure and other hostile factors, is exactly the behavior a god would expect from the genuinely good, rather than capitulation to the will of an evil being, or naive and unjustified trust that an apparently evil being is really good–those are not behaviors of the genuinely good.

It is not completely clear what he thinks about his own argument. His original statement suggests that he realizes that it is somewhat ridiculous, taken as a whole, but it is not exactly clear if he understands why. He concludes:

Since this easily and comprehensively explains all the unexplainable problems of god (like divine hiddenness and apparent evil), while other theologies do not (or at least nowhere so well), it follows that this analysis is probably a better explanation of all the available evidence than any contrary theology. Since this conclusion contradicts the conclusion of every form of Pascal’s Wager, it follows that Pascal’s Wager cannot assure anyone of God’s existence or that belief in God will be the best bet.

This might express his failure to see the largest flaw in his argument. He probably believes that it is actually true that “this analysis is probably a better explanation of all the available evidence than any contrary theology.” But this cannot be true, even assuming that his arguments about good and evil are correct. The fact that very many people accept a Christian theology, and that no one believes Carrier’s suggested theology, is in itself part of the available evidence, and this fact alone outweighs all of his arguments, whether or not they are correct. That is, a Christian theology is more likely to be true as a whole than his proposed theology of “only atheists go to heaven”, regardless of the facts about what good people are likely to do, of the facts about what a good God is likely to do, and so on.

It is a common failure on the part of unbelievers not to notice the evidence that results from the very existence of believers. This is of course an aspect of the common failure of people in general to notice the existence of evidence against their current beliefs. In this sense, Carrier likely does in fact actually fail to notice this evidence. Consequently he has a vague sense that there is something ridiculous about his argument, but he does not quite know what it is.

Nonetheless, although his argument is mistaken as a whole, there are some aspects of it which could be reasonably used by an unbeliever in responding to Pascal’s wager in a truly reasonable way. Such a response would go something like this, “My current beliefs about God and the world are largely a result of the fact that I am trying to know the truth, and the fact that I am trying to know the truth is a part of the fact that I am trying to be a good person. Choosing to believe would be choosing to abandon significant parts of my effort to be a good person. If there is a good God, I would expect him to take these things into account.”