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