Byline: Jon Meacham
Later, when Blaise Pascal tried to get it all down on paper, he wrote in bursts, capturing flashes of what he thought he had seen in the vision--a vision that, by empirical standards, could only be called fantastical. There was no doubt in Pascal's mind, though, that it had happened, and happened in time and space, in a way his mathematically trained brain conceived of things as happening. Pascal remembered the exact time--between the hours of half past 10 and half past midnight on Monday, Nov. 23, 1654, the feast day, in the Christian calendar, of Saint Clement, pope and martyr. Jesus appeared to him; God was real; the Christian story true: "Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. " In a collection of writings found after his death, published as "Pensees," Pascal blended his two passions, mathematics and faith, to lay out what has come to be known as Pascal's Wager. It is rather simple: it is smarter to bet that God exists, and to believe in him, because if it turns out that he is real, you win everything; if he is not, you lose nothing. So why not take the leap of faith?
Because, atheists say, religious belief of any kind is irrational, and the faithful are living in a fairy-tale world. As Jews and Christians commemorate Passover and Holy Week in the coming days, the ancient debate over whether God exists goes on. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 91 percent report they believe in God, with 82 percent identifying themselves as Christians. Yet half those surveyed say they "personally know" an atheist, and 47 percent believe the country is more accepting of atheism than it has been in the past--which suggests there may be closet atheists who do not believe but do not wish to say so to a pollster. Other cultural indicators are unmistakable: books making the case against religious belief are selling briskly, evidence that many Americans are entertaining arguments against God and what these authors see as the destructive effects of faith.
That such questions--they date back to at least Homer and Plato--are gaining fresh force suggests there is growing worry that religion has too much influence on the world around us, from inspiring terrorists to shaping federal policy on embryonic-stem-cell research. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, more than a third of Americans (36 percent) think the power of organized religion has increased in recent years, and a plurality (32 percent) say religion has too much influence.
There is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun. The term atheos (a - means without; theos means god or gods) can be found in antiquity. As the modern era took shape in the 16th century, Copernicus' revelation that Earth was not the center of the universe inaugurated a new age of rising skepticism. By the 18th, Enlightenment thinkers celebrated (prematurely) the defeat of what Thomas Jefferson called "monkish superstition." In the 19th, Charles Darwin published "Origin of Species," and doubt was so pervasive that Matthew Arnold believed the "Sea of Faith" was in retreat. The tide was barely out before Nietzsche declared God was dead.
While debate over religion in America is not new, it is fierce. Broadly put, the left is prone to caricature the faithful as superstitious and power-mad, while the right can sometimes attack atheists and secularists with anything but Christian charity. Whether we believe or disbelieve, then, many of us would like to see a more measured conversation about faith, reason, and the role of religion in American life. In that spirit, NEWSWEEK invited Sam Harris, the author of two best-selling books advocating atheism, "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation," and Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and the author of the worldwide best-seller "The Purpose-Driven Life," to discuss the ultimate question: is God real?
If you know anything about the two men, you will not find their answers surprising. …