Pascal’s Bet: OCD and Scrupulousness

Source: Ric Rodrigues/Pexels

Source: Ric Rodrigues/Pexels

I was raised Catholic and suffered from severe, undiagnosed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If there’s one useful thing I’ve learned from this whole miserable experience, it’s this: only an asshole sells his soul to the devil.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is fixated on questions of life and death, on existential dangers. OCD does not tolerate uncertainty in matters it deems important. OCD does not allow you to forget the danger, to think about something else, even for a few minutes; anxiety is the only thing that matters, and so logically the only thing you are allowed to think about is whatever your greatest source of anxiety is at the time.

OCD also does not tolerate inactivity. OCD doesn’t care if you can’t do anything to solve the problem: it will invent tasks for you, often indirectly related to the problem. Given the choice between passive acceptance of a distant threat or senseless and unnecessary activity, OCD always demands action. And the repetition of this action. And the repetition of this action and another repetition again. OCD is not patient; it’s not nice. He is diligent and intolerant of imperfection and irrationality.

OCD and scruple

If you suffer from OCD, the line between religious devotion and obsessive-compulsive pathology is always a little blurred. But in times of great anxiety, OCD and religion are synonymous. There is no significant difference. Experts call this manifestation of the disorder “scrupulosity”. You do your best, but God might still judge you; there’s no way to know for sure. You say one last quick prayer, grit your teeth, and ask for another whiplash. And when it’s over, and you don’t feel better, you leave for someone else.

A mythical illustration

Namely, a few weeks ago I found a very nice antique credenza on Craigslist. I probably should have realized something was wrong when I agreed to meet the guy at a gibbet near a crossroads at the stroke of midnight. He had an immaculate goatee, a lobster-red complexion, and an ugly center-parted hairstyle covering two very suspicious bumps on his forehead. And he had the credenza, of course, but he immediately started trying to sell me an enchanted solid gold violin for the price of my immortal soul.

What kind of idiot would accept this deal? I’ll only be on earth for fifty, maybe sixty years – how the extremely tenuous benefits of owning a solid gold violin for fifty years come close to adequate compensation for an eternity of fire hellish and brimstone? (However, I bought the credenza. There is a huge scratch on the top of the table that you couldn’t see in the pictures, and I’m pretty sure it’s possessed by the spirit of the slayer in alleged serial Elizabeth Bathory, but it was only twenty dollars, so whatever.)

But I’ll give old Lucifer’s establishment exactly two-thirds of a Yelp star for one reason: their commitment to complete transparency. He spelled out all the terms and conditions, crystal clear: these were the services to be provided, and this was the price to be charged. In this area, at least, Hell is objectively a more ethical company than its main competitor. Because, believe me, I’ve been trying to talk to senior management about the alternative for decades, and none of their customer service reps will answer my questions, the only questions that matter in a theistic universe. Just give me a direct answer:

What is the cost? Where is the contract? What goods and services should I provide to make sure I don’t burn forever? How do I sell my soul to God?

This is what scruple looks like.

Pascal’s bet

The economy of sin and salvation was calculated by the 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal, who tackled the problem with comical and dispassionate pragmatism. God may or may not be real, Pascal argued, but there is no way of knowing for sure – so each individual must bet how much of their limited time on earth they are willing to devote to placating a possibly non-existent deity. If God is real, then when you die, the outcome of your wager is instantly, unmistakably clear: you fly, or you burn. “If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. So bet, without hesitation, that he is.

But I think the most interesting result, following Pascal’s logic, is that if God does not to exist. Pascal argued that a life “wasted” on piety instead of self-realization is a small price to pay, given the stakes at stake: “here is an infinity of an infinitely happy life to win, one odds of winning against a finite number of odds of losing, and what you bet is finite.”

Pascal is wrong. The price of Pascal’s wager is a life of scruples, and although human life is over, the pain of scruples is not. When we prostrate ourselves before the altar of uncertainty when we take the yoke of pathologized dogma, this anguish cannot be explained in finite terms. With each repetition, the victim experiences the indignity, exhaustion, and utter futility of Sisyphus, reeling in the gut as the weight of the rock shifts backward. You find damnation in the space between moments.

There is no easy solution to the diabolical arithmetic of an obsessive scruple. All religious ritual is (at least a little) neurotic; every believer must build his faith around (at least a little) doubt. But for those of you who struggle with scruple or other religiously inspired forms of OCD, I would ask you to take a moment and think about Pascal’s bet. Think about what the pursuit of spiritual perfection has taken from you, at the total cost of all those little moments of damnation.

A life well lived (I believe, at least) is not about scrupulously avoiding sin, but about courageously pursuing virtue, even in the face of uncertainty.

Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2022. Please credit the original author, Fletcher Wortmann, and Psychology Today.

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