Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about God. That’s a strange thing to spend time doing, given that the very existence of God, and God’s nature if God does exist, has been seriously and vigorously debated since someone first looked into the sky and wondered if anything is out there. What sorts of evidence count for or against?images Is certainty possible? And if God exists, which God are we talking about? I am a skeptic both by nature and profession, but I also believe that God exists. How does that work?

I was recently reminded by the usual random confluence of events of a way proposed close to five hundred years ago to establish belief in God while at the same time doing an end run on all of the questions above. PascalThe proposer was the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal; the proposition has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager,” one of the most debated and controversial arguments any philosopher has ever offered. Pascal was a world-class thinker who found himself knocked on his ass one night by what he interpreted as a direct message from the divine. It changed his life, moving him strongly in a religious direction and causing him to put his mathematical theories on the shelf.

Pascal lived in a time of skepticism; the medieval worldview had crumbled, Montaignethe Scientific Revolution was in full swing, and religious wars were being fought all over Europe. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most eloquent and brilliant skeptics who ever lived, was the most widely read author of the time. Pascal had no doubts about God’s existence—his “Night of Fire” had burned away any uncertainty—but he was smart enough to know that not everyone has such experiences. Lacking direct experiential evidence, and knowing that every philosophical, logical argument for the existence of God has been disputed by other philosophers using logical arguments, what would a betting person do?

Consider the options, says Pascal. Either you believe that God exists or you don’t, and either God exists or God doesn’t. That means there are four possibilities

1. I believe in God, and God does not exist

2. I do not believe in God, and God does not exist

3. I believe in God, and God exists

4. I do not believe in God, and God exists

Options 1 and 2 are essentially a wash. Believer 1 will probably live her life somewhat differently than Non-believer 2, but at the end of their lives they both are dead. End of story. But if it turns out that God does exist, then everything changes. Believer 3 is set up for an eternity of happiness, while Non-believer 4 is subject to eternal damnation. On the assumption that we cannot know for sure whether God exists but we still have to choose whether to believe or not, it makes betting sense to be a believer than to be a non-believer. As the handy chart below indicates, the believer either lives her life and dies or gets eternal happiness, while the non-believer either lives his life and dies or gets eternal damnation. So be smart and believe. QED.


Many silent assumptions are woven into the argument, assumptions that have driven analysis and critique of Pascal’s Wager ever since. For instance, the argument assumes that there is about a 50-50 chance that God exists. evil and sufferingBut it could be argued that the preponderance of direct evidence from the world we live in (evil, disease, natural disasters, etc.) counts against God’s existence—the likelihood of God’s nonexistence is far greater than 50 percent. Others have pointed out that the difference between 1 and 2 is not negligible at all. Believer 1 might spend her life denying herself all sorts of experiences and pleasures in the mistaken belief that a nonexistent God doesn’t like such experiences and pleasures, while Non-believer 2 will enjoy such experiences and pleasures to the fullest. And what if God exists but is of an entirely different nature and character than we think? What if the things we believe will please God actually piss God off?

I find such critiques to be compelling and do not find Pascal’s Wager to be an attractive argument at all, but I believe in God’s existence so what do I know? I am far more interested in what Pascal says after the options are laid out to the person who buys the argument but is currently a non-believer. If I don’t believe in God’s existence but am convinced that a smart betting person does believe in God’s existence, how do I make that happen? just believeHow does one manufacture belief in something one does not believe in? Pascal’s advice is revealing.

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. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. What have you to lose?

Pascal is borrowing a technique from Aristotle, who once said that if you want to become courageous, do the things that courageous people do. In this case, do the things believers do and one day you may find you’ve become one.

Pascal came to mind when I read a reader’s comment on my blog entry “The Imposter” a few days ago.

The Imposter

In response to my discussing imposter syndrome and our general human fears about inadequacy and lack of importance, the reader wrote

“Fake it until you make it” is actually almost a principle in Judaism, although not in those words. The medieval work seferSefer Hahinuch, which goes through the 613 commandments of the Torah according to traditional rabbinic calculation, states that a person is affected by his actions. If you do the right thing, little by little it can make you on the inside more like the act you are playing on the outside. Of course you can’t just do it to fool people. You have to intend to fulfill G-d’s will in the world and do things pleasing to Him according to what He has given us to work with. We do our job and keep refining it, and the work, the very inner struggle is pleasing to G-d because we are getting closer, because we are striving to be true to ourselves and Him, even though we know we aren’t there yet and never will be totally. But that is called doing His work.

Although this principle in Judaism reminded me of Pascal’s wager, it is actually very different. The Jewish principle supposes that one accepts that it would be good to live according to the rules and guidelines in the Torah but is not naturally inclined to do so. By putting these rules into action they become my own, all the time believing that becoming a person who does such things habitually is pleasing to God. But whether they are pleasing to God or not, they are arguably making me a better husband, father, son, Bros Kneighbor and contributing member of society.

Pascal’s suggestion is far less demanding, requiring nothing more than going through the motions of certain rituals on a daily or weekly basis. This is not likely to make me a believer or a better person so much as just a person with a very busy Sunday morning every week. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Father Zossima’s advice to an unbeliever who wants to believe is quite different: he recommends the “active and indefatigable love of your neighbor.” Much like the Sefer Hahinuch, Father Zossima provides no shortcuts to belief in God. Rather he recommends the difficult prescription of transforming one’s heart and mind by one’s actions. This doesn’t establish any metaphysical truths, but it does open the door to the good human beings are capable of. Whether God exists or not.belief

5 thoughts on “Fake It ‘Til You Make It

  1. James

    I agree with the concept of fake it ’til you make it. The same principle is employed in other paths and systems besides the ones you mention here. However, I was never impressed with Pascal’s wager. Belief alone, or saying one believes, may not accomplish much for most people. There’s something behind the phrase “seeing is believing.” The question is how does one change one’s consciousness so that blind belief isn’t necessary. As you point out, Pascal himself didn’t need belief since he had experiences which erased all doubt. Jesus says to a man who approaches him about healing his son, “except ye see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” That can of course be interpreted as a gentle rebuke. But look at the examples of Jesus performing miracles for his disciples to see: they were shown things and then told that faith would be needed later, when the signs and wonders were no longer right in front of them. For example, not everyone at the wedding of Cana was aware that it was Jesus who had turned the water into the wine; only his mother and the disciples knew. Similarly with the loaves and fishes: the people being fed weren’t aware that food supply was short, only the disciples. The people knew they were satisfied with less food than expected but didn’t know why. But the close disciples were told to take what they had seen and remember it later when Jesus was no longer in the body with them on earth. Faith seems to have more to do with trust than with belief. And then you have Paul’s discussion of “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There is so much in the New Testament discussing the concept of faith, and it doesn’t seem that Pascal’s wager on belief touches on that. But leaving Pascal alone for now, fake it ’til you make it … yeah, in the bigger picture there’s a lot to that.

    1. vancemorgan Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts–I agree with you. Pascal’s wager is insipid and weak, but a vehicle to start thinking about better ways to “fake it until you make it.’ The passage from Hebrews is my favorite definition of faith. I use it with my students all the time to illustrate that faith is not just a leap in the dark.

  2. James

    And isn’t it interesting about Hebrews 11:1, for the Greek-Freaks out there, how well the King James Version renders that line?

    Back to fake-it-’til-you-make-it: there is a Hindu story known as “The Hunter Who Became a Saint.” The basic idea is that a cruel man who enjoys shooting animals for sport, who is used to all creatures and birds avoiding him, happens upon a saint sitting in the forest, with wild animals and birds resting on and around him. The hunter thinks to himself, “I could dress and act like this saint, and the animals would flock to me, allowing me to kill them all very easily. But as the hunter imitates the saint, he must learn to become very still, and begins to appreciate the calm and quiet of the forest. The more like the saint he becomes, the forest creatures and birds continue to come closer. Finally his goal is reached with the animals and birds treating him the way they did the saint, as the hunter’s consciousness is one with the saint’s, and he no longer has any desire to harm the animals in any way, but has learned to love them. In short, he faked it (having the sincere desire to be like the hunter inasmuch as he wanted to attract the animals to the love of the saint) until he made it.

    It is an illustrative story, and there are those who will claim that the hunter couldn’t have had real sincerity, because he initially had imperfect intentions. But it is important not to miss the point, which is although we are conscious of imperfections along the way, Jesus instructed us in his Sermon on the Mount to overcome that consciousness, and to “Be ye therefore perfect, as is thy Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:48)

    Another thing is that changing one’s self is the best way to influence everyone else. So it isn’t your own consciousness you are changing.


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