[PT 11.1 (2010) 136-140] doi:10.1558/poth.v11i1.


Political Theology (print) ISSN 1462-317X Political Theology (online) ISSN 1473-1719

The ATheisT WAger Slavoj Žižek
Institute of Sociology University of Ljubljana Ljubljana 1000 Slovenia

This is a response to John Milbank that further unfolds our debate published as The Monstrosity of Christ edited by Creston Davis and published by MIT Press, 2009. My response to Milbank takes its point of departure from Pascal’s wager. Keywords: Bee Season, God, Kaballah, Milbank, Blaise Pascal.

When, at the beginning of his reply to my reply, Milbank claims that, in my previous reply, I merely reiterated my main points, without properly engaging with his specific arguments, my reaction is that this, exactly, is what he is doing in his second reply—a clear sign that our exchange exhausted its potentials. So, since we are both reduced to reiterating our positions, the only appropriate way for me to conclude the exchange is to add a footnote on Pascal’s notion of wager, confronting (Milbank’s) theist wager and (my) atheist wager.1 The first thing that strikes the eye is that Pascal rejects all attempts to demonstrate the existence of God: he concedes that “we do not know if He is,” so he seeks to provide prudential reasons for believing in God: we should wager that God exists because it is the best bet:
“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than 1. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/. I rely here extensively on this entry.

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Žižek The Atheist Wager
the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God.


Pascal appears to be aware of the immediate objection to this argument, for he imagines an opponent replying: “That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” In short, if I put my wager on God, and God does not exist, then I really do lose something—when one wagers for God, one does stake something, which presumably one loses if God does not exist: truth, the respect for one’s worldly life… (It is strange how utilitarian-pragmatist Pascal’s reasoning is.) There is then a series of other objections: 1. Pascal assumes that the same matrix of decision and reward applies to everybody—but what if the rewards are different for different people? Perhaps, for example, there is a predestined infinite reward for the Chosen, whatever they do, and finite utility for the rest? 2. The matrix should have more rows: perhaps there is more than one way to wager for God, and the rewards that God bestows vary accordingly. For instance, God might not reward infinitely those who strive to believe in Him only for the utilitarian-pragmatic reasons that Pascal gives. One could also imagine distinguishing belief based on faith from belief based on evidential reasons, and posit different rewards in each case. 3. Then there is the obvious many-Gods-objection: Pascal had in mind the Catholic God, but other theistic hypotheses are also live options, i.e., the “(Catholic) God does not exist” column really subdivides into various other theistic hypotheses (…but the Protestant God exists, Allah exists, there is no God). The obverse of this objection is the claim that Pascal’s argument proves too much: its logical conclusion is that rationality requires believing in various incompatible theistic hypotheses. 4. Finally, one can argue that morality requires you to wager against God: wagering for God because of the promise of future profits violates the Kantian definition of moral act as an act accomplished for no “pathological” reasons. It was already Voltaire who, along these lines, suggested that Pascal’s calculations, and his appeal to self-interest, are unworthy of the gravity of the subject of theistic belief. Underlying all this is the basic paradox of belief as a matter of decision: as if to believe something or not is a matter of decision and not of an insight. So, if we read Pascal’s wager together with his no-less-known topic of customs:
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Political Theology
You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc…

One can argue that the core of his argument does not directly concern belief but acting: one cannot decide to believe, one can only decide to act AS IF one believes, with the hope that belief will arise by itself; perhaps, this trust that, if you act as if you believe, belief will arise, is the wager. Perhaps, the only way out of these impasses is what, in his unpublished “secret” writings, Denis Diderot elaborated under the title of the “materialist’s credo.” In “Entretien d’un Philosophe avec la maréchale de ***,” he concluded: “Après tout, le plus court est de se conduire comme si le vieillard existait… même quand on n’y croit pas./After all, the most straightforward way is to behave as if the old guy exists…even if one doesn’t believe it./” This may appear to amount to the same as Pascal’s wager apropos the custom: even if you don’t believe in it, act as if you believe… However, Diderot’s point is exactly the opposite one: the only way to be truly moral is to act morally without regard to God’s existence. In other words, Diderot directly turns around Pascal’s wager (the advice to put your bets on the existence of God): “En un mot que la plupart ont tout a perdre et rien a gagner a nier un Dieu renumerateur et vengeur. /In a word, it is that the majority of those who deny a remunerating and revenging God has all to lose and nothing to gain./”2 In his denial of the remunerating and vengeful God, the atheist loses everything (if he is wrong: he will be damned forever) and gains nothing (if he is right: there is no God, so nothing happens). It is this attitude which expresses true confidence in one’s belief, and makes me do good deeds without regard to the divine reward or punishment. Authentic belief is to be opposed to the reliance on (or reference to) a(nother) subject supposed to believe: in an authentic act of belief, I myself fully assume my belief, and thus have no need of any figure of the Other to guarantee my belief—to paraphrase Lacan, an authentic belief ne s’authorise que de lui-meme. In this precise sense, authentic belief not only does not presuppose any big Other (is not a belief in a big Other), but, on the contrary, presupposes the destitution of the big Other, the full acceptance of the inexistence of the big Other. This is also why a true atheist is at the opposite end of those who want to save religion’s spiritual truth against its “external” dogmatic-institutional
2. Denis Diderot, “Observations sur Hemsterhuis”, in Oeuvres, vol. I (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994), 759.
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Žižek The Atheist Wager


set-up. A profoundly religious friend once commented on the subtitle of a book of mine, “the perverse core of Christianity”: “I fully agree with you here! I believe in God, but I find repulsive and deeply disturbing all the twist of celebrating sacrifice and humiliation, of redemption through suffering, of God organizing his own son’s killing by men. Can’t we get Christianity without this perverse core?” I couldn’t bring myself to answer him: “But the point of my book is exactly the opposite one: what I want is all those perverse twists of redemption through suffering, dying of God, etc., but without God!” Bee Season (directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, based on a novel by Myla Goldberg), one of the better Hollywood melodramas, can be of some help to make clear this crucial point. The film focuses on a modern American family whose picture-perfect surface conceals an underlying world of turmoil. Initially, the Naumanns are presented as a harmonious family living in a great Craftsman house outside of Oakland. Saul Naumann is an ardent religious studies professor at Berkeley; though he’s a bit of a control freak and an intellectual bully, he is also a warm, loving father and husband, a good cook, and a classical violin player. When he realizes that his 11-year-old daughter, the almost eerily quiet, self-effacing Eliza, is a spelling champion, he takes an aggressive interest in her future wins and starts to coach her: for him, Eliza’s triumph is a sign that she possesses a metaphysical gift he may be lacking. Saul’s obsessive interest in Eliza (or really, his own success, by proxy) leads him to take over his daughter’s training in the secret science of permutation; his once-favoured son Aaron, a socially awkward adolescent, is left to make his own spiritual discoveries. Saul’s wife Miriam doesn’t notice that her husband is turning her daughter into an ancient mystic, nor that her son is becoming a Hare Krishna, as she is too busy stealing objects from other people’s homes to recreate the flawless world shattered years ago by the death in a car accident of her parents. It is thus as if Eliza’s over-human perfection in spelling triggers a family explosion, disturbing its surface order, compelling all of them to confront the broken pieces of their life. All this takes place against the theological background of tikkun olam, the Jewish notion of healing or repairing of the world. According to Kaballah, God—pure perfection— in his goodness wanted to share his perfection, so he created a receptable that would receive his gift; however, unable to endure the divine light, the receptable shattered into thousands of pieces, and it is our duty and universal responsibility to fix what has been shattered, to attempt to restore what has been damaged. In an (all too obvious) metaphor, this is what also the Neumann family needs: the restoring of unity, order and harmony. With her family disintegrating before her eyes, it’s up to
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Political Theology

Eliza to put the broken pieces of her family’s world back together in an unexpected act of selflessness and love. This act is the movie’s final epiphany: the entire film drives toward Eliza’s momentous decision, a choice which enables catharsis for the whole family. So how does Eliza order the family chaos? At the climactic moment of the spelling competition, in front of TV cameras, when the right answer would make her national champion, she decides to get a word wrong on purpose. While the father is broken, the other two members of the family are relieved, happily smiling, and even Eliza herself, till now a kind of catatonic monster, manages a spontaneous mischievous smile— what really happens here? Even such a mainstream figure like Roger Ebert got it right here: “Eliza’s decision to insist on herself as a being apart from the requirements of theology and authority, a person who insists on exercising her free will. This is a stick in the eye of her father. What Eliza is doing at the end of Bee Season is Eliza’s will. Does that make her God? No. It makes her Eliza.” Her act allows her to break out of the enslavement to father’s desire: no longer her father’s instrument, she creates a space for herself and for the family to restore its free balance. It is thus the mistake itself, the crack of disharmony which interrupts the perfect series of her correct answers, which restores harmony. However, the film gets its theology wrong (or, at least, it presents its highly sanitized version): in Kaballah, God first withdrew into himself to open up the space for creation; then, he bungled the job of creation, making a deeply flawed and fractured universe—THIS is what we, humans, have to patch up. Happily, the story itself corrects this wrong theology: what if God’s mistake was to create a flawless universe, and what if humans patch things up by introducing into it imbalance and disharmony? One might venture here another problematic speculation: this insight goes beyond the limits of Judaism and brings us into the central paradox of Christianity.

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