Pascal’s Wager

Anyone that has engaged in theist/atheist discussions for any length of time has encountered Pascal’s Wager, possibly the most famous, and most easily stated, arguments for belief. Originally formulated by Blaise Pascal, the argument can be distilled as follows:

  1. If you believe in God and he exists, you are rewarded with eternal life in heaven.
  2. If you believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you haven’t lost anything significant.
  3. If you don’t believe in God and he does exist, you will be condemned to hell forever.
  4. If you don’t believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you don’t gain much.
  5. Therefore, a cost-benefit analysis says that you should believe in God.
Figure 1: Pascal's Wager

Figure 1: Pascal’s Wager

For such a short argument, there are a surprising number of problems with it. If you want to read extensive, detailed discussions of the Wager, I recommend the resources provided here. Below I am going to outline the criticisms of the Wager that I find particularly compelling.

Step 2: Is little lost by a false belief in God? Step 4: Is little gained by correctly believing that God doesn’t exist?

Atheists contend that there are in fact significant losses resulting from believing incorrectly in God. The most important loss is simply reality. It is hard to view living in a fantasy world as being preferable to living in reality. But important as that is, there are even more tangible losses. Consider how much time, energy, and money is currently spent on religion. Consider how much society could be bettered if that time, energy, and money were spent on solving the problems we as a society face instead.

Step 3: Will disbelieving God’s existence send one to hell?

There are numerous Christian denominations that believe that hell isn’t real. They often believe that the “penalty” is an end of consciousness or an eternity spent away from the presence of God. This particular issue doesn’t significantly change the outcome of the traditional analysis of the Wager, but I think it is important for two reasons. First, it is vital to explicitly recognize that Pascal’s formulation doesn’t capture the beliefs of many modern denominations. Second, it illustrates that the Wager is different for different denominations. This latter point raises a more fatal argument against the Wager, described below.

Are there really only two options on each side?

What happens if you believe in the Christian God, but it’s really the Islamic God Allah that exists? Or the Mormon God? Or Zeus? Or any of a hundred other deities that are currently believed on or once were? Or even a God that no one has thought up yet? Pascal’s Wager is a faulty argument because there is nothing in the argument that gives any indication of which God one should believe in. Choose wrong and one is still damned, right? So Pascal’s Wager misrepresents the choice.

Figure 2: Pascal's Wager, extended to include other possibilities.

Figure 2: Pascal’s Wager, extended to include other possibilities.

What about a reverse wager?

Imagine a universe whose God put the various holy books on the Earth, intentionally full of contradictions and implausibilities, as a test. This hypothetical God rewards you if you have enough intellectual integrity to resist the faith-claims of religions, and punishes you if you succumb to them. This type of wager assumes a world that is indistinguishable from our own, and yet provides a win/win scenario for the atheist and a lose/lose scenario for the theist.

Figure 3: Pascal's Wager, reversed.

Figure 3: Pascal’s Wager, reversed.

Is the Wager actually an argument for belief?

Suppose someone decides the Wager is correct and decides to try out believing in God. Think about what that person is therefore saying. “Ok, the evidence wasn’t good enough… if I were to just go based on the evidence I wouldn’t believe in God. But I’m too attracted by the carrot, or too scared by the stick, so I’m going to ignore the evidence and act like I believe.” Remember, the Wager isn’t an argument about the evidence. If the evidence were a sufficient argument, no one would need the Wager. The wager is about the consequences, and the consequences only.

Is God likely to be impressed by someone that believes simply out of fear of damnation or out of hope of reward? Is God likely to be impressed by someone that abandons their best reasoning because of fear or avarice?

If the answer to those questions is, “No,” then the Wager is a faulty argument for belief. If the answer to those questions is, “Yes,” then God isn’t someone worth worshiping.

Pascal’s Wager in the final analysis

Pascal’s Wager is usually presented by believers as a reason that atheists should believe in God. It is quite clear why believers would think this, because they already accept a series of unstated assumptions upon which the Wager is based. However, as I have shown above, the Wager is absolutely useless to an atheist, because it is a faulty argument in multiple ways.

Most interesting to me, however, is how horrible Pascal’s Wager is as an evangelical tool. Not only is it wrong, think about what it does to anyone that is actually convinced by it. Such a person, who decides to believe in God out of fear or avarice, is unlikely to be “saved.” The kind of belief that is intrinsically advocated by someone who professes that the Wager is good evangelism is insincere and manipulative belief. Pascal’s Wager, when used as an evangelical tool, is really an insult to God by the theist.

These ideas that I have described in this essay are far from new, and aren’t particularly difficult to grasp. This makes it all-the-more baffling that Pascal’s Wager is brought up as frequently as it is.

5 Comments

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  4. I find several faults with your analysis. However, I would first like to agree with you that this is not a good evangelistic tool. It can offer an explanation or a defense.
    My First disagreement: Is little lost by a false belief in God?
    First you argue that living in a “fantasy world” has a cost. I am not sure how you would measure that cost. The argument I would have on the flipside is that the atheist lives in a fantasy world where there is no God and the belief that humanity is the top of the existence chain is a waste of…of what? If Big Foot is not real, is there harm to society by the people who believe it is real? Is there harm to anyone for believing in aliens from outer space if they are in fact not real? How about ghosts? I do not believe I live in a fantasy world where there is a Supreme Being, but if I was wrong, I do not see how others are harmed, just as I do not see that others are harmed by you believing in what I see as the fantasy world. Perhaps Aldo Nova was right and “Life is Just a Fantasy.” Maybe we are all living the existence as portrayed in The Matrix. How is anyone harmed from another’s beliefs? I contend the only harm is a potential personal harm to some, as the argument states, but no real harm to others.
    Second, you argue that resources are wasted on religion that would otherwise be better spent on solving societal ills. I do not have time to gather the data and do a full analysis as I am only on a short lunch break, but I can tell you through the many thousands of tax returns that I have done, the Christian are far more charitable than the non-believers. Charity is not just measured in money given to churches, I also see much higher giving to secular causes, volunteer miles driven for many non-church related work (such as soup kitchens and animal shelters) and more “stuff” given to places such as good will. I would argue that most cities have missions for the homeless that provide meals, clothing, shelter and medical care. I would argue that the Catholic Church has significant investment in caring for the less fortunate. I would argue that Mother Teresa gave her life helping others because of her faith. I would argue that because of faith significant resources are spent on solving the problems of society.
    My second area of disagreement: Will disbelieving in God’s existence send one to hell? You contend that there are Christian denominations that do not believe in a literal hell. I will state I do not know for certain whether or not hell is actually a physical place that is full of fire and brimstone with a stench of sulfur and physical misery. The Bible might have described this place allegorically, or literally. If allegorical, then hell represents an eternity separated from God. It is at the very least the eternal separation from God, which, when the curtain is removed and all is revealed, is apparently miserable and unpleasant, if not a literal burning pit. I believe it is a physical place, but this is not a critical interpretation difference between denominations. All that matters, the only critical belief, is who is Jesus Christ in relation to God? If the belief is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, fully man and fully God while on this earth, and that through his death and resurrection an eternity with God is possible, then interpretations of other issues are not life or death critical. Some denominations hold that women should not cut their hair, wear jewelry, makeup or pants. I don’t believe this is what the Bible teaches, but it is their interpretation of some passages of scripture. Though we believe differently, we are still both in agreement about the only critical distinguishing belief of Christianity. This leads to my third disagreement.
    Finally, you raise question of picking the wrong God. Interestingly you chose to focus on the Christian God, the Jewish God, the Muslim God and the Mormon God. I believe these are all the SAME God. The difference is not in GOD, the difference is the belief of who is Jesus Christ? Was he a heretic, a prophet, the Son of God, brother of Satan but not actually God incarnate? This is the core difference between these religions. This is all that really matters. This is the life or death question. Others may raise the question as to the existence of the man named Jesus Christ at all, but most religions, even those who do not tie into the Judeo-Christian God, will believe that such a man did walk this earth. Usually they will relegate him to a great teacher, profit or wise man, much as Buddha was.
    You also argue about God being impressed. The nature of God is not about impressing. That is a human concept. I realize you are creating an alternative version of God that is essentially going to reward the nonbeliever because they did not get sucked up into religion, but I see no merit to this possibility. You talk about God being impressed by people abandoning their best reasoning because of fear or avarice. I contend that by not seeing past the limits of humanity that the atheist is abandoning best reasoning because faith is too intangible a concept to comprehend simply through the human reasoning. I see God and his presence and existence in science, nature, mathematics and logic. I have trouble comprehending how perfectly intelligent humans cannot see what to me is very clear. I see this in the explanations of the origin of the earth, in genetics, in the matter in which extremely complex formulas work, in how something simple like water can exist as ice, liquid and steam. I see this in weather and how things just “fit” together. It seems far too orderly to me to be random, without a director or creator.
    As I stated at the start, this wager is not an evangelical tool, because it ignores the condition of the heart. The only way to a relationship with God, a saving relationship upon which the wager discusses, is through a heart that is willing to be open to what God has to offer through Jesus Christ. No wager, no logic, no argument, will ever change someone’s heart. I see it as only useful to defend what I believe in the sense of if I am wrong, how are you hurt, but if I am right, I am so sorry for you that you are. That is not meant to change a mind, it is meant to simply explain. I hope that makes sense. I need to get back to work now…

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  5. You raise several objections to my analysis. As we will see in my responses below, none of them are valid.

    1) You object to my assertion that it is a significant loss to live in a fantasy world rather than to live in reality. This is a rather baffling objection. Science is about intellectual honesty and integrity. It is about believing what the evidence tells us, no matter how disconcerting. If you don’t see the value in that, then I don’t think we have enough common ground to even have a conversation.

    Several sub-point you make ARE addressable, however. You aren’t sure how we would measure the cost of living in a fantasy world? That’s beside the point. The fact that reality is lost is, by definition, a loss. Yes, there may be a value judgment involved in determining that this loss is “significant” rather than “insignificant,” but there is a loss. Such an attitude leaves no room for criticism of Charles Manson, or the 9/11 terrorists. Grounding ourselves in reality as opposed to delusion is our first line of defense against really bad ideas. Some delusions may appear harmless at first blush, but the higher-order question of reality vs. delusion opens doors that we as a society cannot allow to be opened.

    You also assert that it is the atheist who lives in a fantasy world, not the theist. Please note that I prefaced my statement with, “Atheists contend that….” The entire essay is about the use of Pascal’s Wager as an evangelical tool with atheists. Sure, of course you have a different view on who is deluded. The point, however, is that making the Pascal’s Wager argument to an atheist specifically puts forth assumptions that the atheist doesn’t buy. I am not arguing about who is right in this essay. I am arguing that the Wager is a counterproductive argument for a theist to make, because you should be able to tell right from the start that the atheist isn’t going to accept its assumptions.

    2) You assert that my point about the resources (time, energy, and money) spent on religion being wasted is false because of the higher incidence of charity in the Christian community. You are arguing a different point than I am. I am not talking about propensities toward charity. I am not talking about statistical giving rates. I am talking about available resources. Yes, religions do SOME things well, and one of those is to instill a sense of obligation to help those in need. Religions are not the ONLY thing that can do this, but yes, religions do in fact accomplish this. That is beside my point. My point is that if, when you had an urge to pray for someone, you instead spent that same time and energy doing something useful for them, you could make a difference. If instead of giving a fraction of your tithe to charity (with the rest supporting the church overhead) you gave all of it to the charity, that would also make a difference. Impressive as many cathedrals are, can you not agree that the money and energy used to build them would have been better spent dealing with hunger or sanitation problems in the third world?

    3) Your arguments about hell serve to further my point. Different people have different interpretations of the consequences of not believing, which changes the calculus of the Wager.

    4) On picking the wrong God, you criticized my arguments for the choice of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon gods because they are, in your view, the same God. That’s fine. They were merely examples. My argument is the same if we decided to substitute Ra, Zeus, and Anguta. Further, most practitioners of the four religions I listed don’t think think that practitioners of the other three will be saved, placing you in a distinct minority. My point is about the structure of the argument, not about the specific deities listed.

    5) You took issue with my contention that God would not be impressed by someone who professes belief out of fear or avarice on the grounds that being impressed is a human concept. It should have been clear that this was a colloquialism. I was not referring to God being literally “impressed by” a person, but to God choosing to reward or punish based on the stated behavior. I had thought that was clear from the context. You further seem to have issues with me positing a hypothetical version of God and exploring the implications of that hypothetical version, on the grounds that such hypothetical versions are clearly wrong. What you seem to be missing is that I am laying out all of the theoretical possibilities, and explaining why none of them make sense. That is how philosophical arguments are often structured. Notice the “if” portions of the statements.

    Beyond those five objections to my arguments, you then make several experiential claims that to you justify the God assumption, and express bafflement that others don’t see the same thing you do. Examples you list include the origins of the earth, genetics, water existing in three states, and so on. You find all of this too orderly to be “random, without a director or creator.” As a scientist, I have studied many of these issues. Water existing in three states is a great example. Imagine a bunch of objects, which we will call molecules, that have attractions among them. These molecules can have a wide range of kinetic energy (i.e., energy of motion). The amount of energy they can have falls into three regimes… (1) too little for the molecules to overcome their attractions at all, which leads to a solid, (2) enough energy to overcome the attractions somewhat, allowing the molecules to slide past one another, but not enough energy to escape each other entirely, which leads to a liquid, and (3) enough energy for the molecules to completely overcome their attractions to each other, which leads to a gas. There is nothing special about water in this regard… nearly any molecular material exists in those three phases, and for exactly the same reasons. Honestly, this is very basic physical chemistry. The origins of the earth and genetics are similarly well-explained by science, despite the religious propaganda to the contrary.

    You’re right on one count… these scientific observations and their explanations aren’t particularly random. They are quite orderly. But orderly does not mean designed. Crystals are quite orderly on a molecular level, but they don’t require design… they are a natural result of the interactions between the components of the crystal. This is a phenomenon known as self-assembly, and is quite well understood and described scientifically.

    While you state a couple of times that the Wager is not an evangelical tool, it is, in my experience, frequently used as such. And when confronted with arguments against its use in that manner, those trying to use it with me have often expressed surprise and bafflement. I’m glad you don’t consider it to be an evangelical tool. I wish others that I had discussions with were as enlightened.

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