Pascal’s Wager

If there’s anything that I dread, it’s having to memorize something.

Also, I really resent being challenged by an older male, especially Christian.  By this I am referring to a religious challenge, which I can generally handle.  But it has been imprinted on me that the older male knows more and is someone to be deferred to, especially in spiritual matters.  It doesn’t always happen that I feel like a deer in the headlights just because someone is asking me a bunch of questions.  I can explain why I don’t believe in gods.  But I’ve never had someone come up to me and, knowing I am an atheist, just say, “What about Pascal’s Wager?”  It put me off stride.  Mostly because, as I said, I hate memorizing things, and while I had studied Pascal’s Wager and rejected it (many times), I had not prepared a defense; and in this case, it was an older, intelligent, Christian, male friend who was asking me.

Hell, I rejected the validity of Pascal’s Wager even when I was a Christian.  It’s basically a logical magic trick as far as I’m concerned– it’s too easy, and anything that seems too easy is suspicious to me.  And when someone throws me an argument that seems suspicious, I am never sure how to respond, especially when it is someone that I generally respect and when the topic is one that I am not ready to debate.

So Pascal’s Wager makes the claim that it is only logical to believe in God because if you do believe and he doesn’t exist, then you don’t lose anything.  But if you do not believe and he does exist, then you go to Hell.

So here I am, ambushed (in a well-meaning, friendly debate sort of way) by an argument that sounds suspicious to me and I can’t articulate why.  Plus, my friend is a pretty smart guy and I was surprised that he thought Pascal’s Wager was so good when I had thought it was weak at best.  So that threw me off, too.

I start by trying to make my friend define God, and he evades this (I don’t remember how he did this, the clever bastard).

I end up agreeing, for the sake of argument, that it’s a 50-50 chance that there is a God– which I totally think is false, but  I could not come up with a reason off the top of my head (see above about memorizing things).  So then, my friend asks simply, “Why not believe?”

“You’re assuming I could just make myself believe,” I say.

“Oh, but you can make yourself believe; it’s easy,” my friend says, and something about cognitive dissonance.

I get more suspicious and I say, “even if I could make myself believe, I still don’t have a reason to believe– or a God to believe in, technically.” 

“Just any God,” my friend says, and I say “fine, just any God.”

“But why,” I continue, “Would God want me to be a hedge-betting fence-sitter?  How is that what God wants?  Why would that get me out of Hell?”

But at this point my friend starts to look a little frustrated.  I think it’s because he thought it was a simple argument, but I wasn’t buying his premises (or lack thereof), and he thought the math was easy.  So, why not believe? 

To him, this was like a game where there are 50 cards, 1/2 red and 1/2 blue, and you’ve got a 50-50 chance of guessing the right color of a card you pick at random.  But then you learn that you have to bet your life on being correct, and if you bet your life on blue but it turns out to be red, you are tortured forever; but if you bet your life on red and it’s really blue, you just fall asleep forever and never wake up.  So obviously, red is the only logical bet.  Anything else would be basically insane.

To me, it’s more like a game with a hundred cards, but God is holding all of them.  I ask him to show me the cards so I can understand my odds better, but he refuses.  And then tells me to guess which card he’s holding right now.  And then he disappears forever.  But I know I have to guess the right card before I die or else he will torture me forever.  So I can choose: either guess a card and hope it’s right, or say to myself, “That’s can’t be right.  The odds are too low of me picking the right card, I can’t believe God would do that to me!  It’s much more probable that I dreamed the whole thing.”  And then!  I have another dream (?) where someone tells me, “There’s a trick to beating God at his game!  All you have to do is say, ‘That one,” and it counts for all the cards and God won’t torture you forever!”  And when I wake up, I have to choose between saying “That one!” or “I need to quit eating Chinese food before I go to bed.”

Got it?  Good!

At this point the conversation took a turn because I started to talk about evidence as opposed to faith, so we started talking about how we could quantify and test God (or, more accurately, test the claims of religion).

But back to Pascal.  There’s only one thing his Wager assumes, and that is this: that the sort of God we are talking about will send everyone to Hell who does not believe in him.  That is counter-intuitive enough to need some supporting evidence and make God’s existence less likely.  If he sends people to Hell for being bad people, that makes sense, and then we wouldn’t need to believe in him.  But let’s take Christianity, and this God who cannot forgive the sin of disbelief even though there is no way to prove his existence.  Going into a bit more detail, we see that we all have the sin of disbelief or doubt because of Adam and Eve’s sin.  So not only are we punished (eternally) for something they did, but God directly caused them to do it because he is knows everything and therefore knew they would do it, and he made them curious and doubting regardless.  There was only one way this could go for Adam and Eve, and now everyone has to make this Wager that God will be impressed enough by our response to the mere threat of Hell (again without evidence).

Do you know how much everything in me rebels against the idea of a God who will torture me eternally because I can’t believe he would be willing to torture me eternally?

Enough to make me call myself an atheist, that’s how much.

Now, just a God related to no religion, a watchmaker God who doesn’t do anything or Spinoza’s God who does not exist outside Nature and Physics, is easy to say, “Fine, I can see how maybe that exists,” but there’s no point.  He won’t be offended if I don’t confess, he doesn’t demand any worship or acts if I do believe, so I can get on with my life.  It’s more-or-less atheism with a touch of agnosticism.  That’s close to the 50-50 sort of God.

But the one who knowingly sets in motion a chain of events that will damn my soul to eternal suffering– that makes me suspicious.  And when I get suspicious, I only want to say two words: “prove it.”  At this point statistics don’t convince me, and “Why not believe?” is not the right question.  The right question is, “Why believe?”

Because there’s still the problem of Hell and why God would condemn me to it; and if free will is so great, why would it send me to Hell; and if there is free will in Heaven, can people there sin and get sent to Hell; and if not, why couldn’t God make this world with no free will and just populate Heaven without making Earth at all?

Let me just say here that I’m sure you can come up with an internally consistent answer.  But the more explanations there are, the more unlikely it is– unless you have evidence.  And not just evidence that your religion’s claims can be verified, but evidence that your God is real.  Because if he’s not real, and I believe in him just in case, and if he puts me in Heaven just because I was afraid to go to Hell, I’m not sure that’s the sort of God I want to be spending eternity with.

Think about it.


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7 Responses to “Pascal’s Wager”

  1. Robaigh Says:

    This is a fascinating post. I’m glad I ran across it.

    I’ve been thinking a bit about belief and faith in terms of salvation, and surprisingly not finding as strong an argument in the Bible for linking those things together. Granted, I’ve not studied this in any depth yet, but some preliminary things I’ve noticed: In Matthew’ Gospel, Jesus performs a number of miracles – healing Peter’s mother-in-law, healing a paralytic, stilling the storm, healing the Gadarene demoniacs, etc. (Just a random sampling from chapter 9).

    In the case of the paralytic, the faith of those who bring the paralytic to Jesus causes him to do the healing. There’s no mention of faith in the mother-in-law story, and no faith in the demoniac story. When Jesus stills the sea, he rebukes the disciples for their *lack* of faith. But in each of these stories, whether faith is involved or not, Jesus still does the miracle.

    I find that interesting. It brings up for me the question about whether Jesus really demands that everyone have faith in him in order to be included in salvation – an idea that flies in the face of everything I’ve always thought about Christianity. I mean, it seems in these stories, that when faith is involved, it’s the faith of a third party that causes the healing for the one who suffers. That seems to say that not everyone needs to be a Christian in order to be saved.

    I know you’re thinking about this in broader terms: rather than contemplating salvation as a Christian, you’re thinking about the existence of God at a more fundamental level, without undertones of any particular religion. Still, your post called these thoughts to mind, and I thought I’d put them up here to give you something else to think about.



  2. shamelesslyatheist Says:

    Further to this well-written demonstration of the absurdity of Pascal’s Wager is that Believers usually attempt to incorrectly claim that they lose nothing in believing. This is simply not so. If we are correct as atheists and there is no heaven, no hell, and this is the one life we get, then the consequence of believing in error is living the only life there is based totally on a lie. That has to be the saddest thing I can imagine.

    We know about this life. We have no knowledge of any other (unless you are gullible enough to accept unverifiable (and therefore worthless) revelation). Why muck up what we know we have in order to get a better one we have no evidence for like it was Let’s Make A Deal? For me this afterlife thing seems to have been invented to keep serfs living in poverty happy in their place and not seek to improve their lives. Religious authority said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about how bad things are now. Obey us and you get into the exclusive club Heaven Plus (trademark).’ I think the video Kissing Hank’s Ass brought that point across quite well.

  3. notreallyalice Says:

    Robaigh, thanks for your comment. There are a couple ways for a Christian to be saved: by faith, by works, by predestination, and by hedging bets (Pascal’s Wager). Actually I don’t think that last one will cut it for most of the Christians I know. Faith, works, and predestination are supposed to be a package deal. But if you go by what Jesus said in his parable about the sheep and the goats, it looks like good works are all you really need. And the sheep in his story didn’t even have faith at all; on the contrary, they were surprised that their good works were being rewarded.

    As a side note, I don’t think Jesus meant “eternal suffering after death” when he said Gehenna (Hell), and Jews don’t even necessarily believe in any kind of afterlife, much less a Hell as we understand it today. It’s more probable that Jesus was talking about exclusion from “the world to come,” where God would reign on Earth over his Chosen People.

  4. notreallyalice Says:

    shamelesslyatheist, good point. I’m writing my next post along those lines. 🙂

  5. coogan607 Says:

    Of course I would have a comment about this. Pascal’s Wager is like the prisoner’s dilemma. You have a matrix of choices, and need to choose the best one–for you.

    The problem is that belief/faith isn’t just something you can turn on whenever you want. My god would see through such shallow “belief” as what Pascal seemed to be requiring. Intellectually, you can say you believe, but if you don’t feel it in your “heart,” you don’t really believe. It’s all a sham.

    Actually, my god wouldn’t condemn you to hell for not believing. It (my god) would see that you’re good and that you tried, and cut you some slack. If it wanted belief, then it could damn well find a way to make me do it. Yeah, believing in a deity might feel good, but what’s the purpose of it? Belief, that is. Why is it so damn important if it serves no earthly purpose. Pun intended. don’t tell me it’s for the afterlife, because my afterlife doesn’t do ANYTHING for me here, in this existence. Or for you, either.

    I’m with you. What matters is what we do with who we are and what we have. Here, right now. Being good to others now pays off in *this* life, not just later on. I find it eminently practical; no belief in the supernatural is required.

  6. shamelesslyatheist Says:

    “I’m with you. What matters is what we do with who we are and what we have. Here, right now. Being good to others now pays off in *this* life, not just later on. I find it eminently practical; no belief in the supernatural is required.”

    Are you saying that a reason for doing what we consider good involves expectation of reward? To paraphrase Sam Harris, there are good reasons (as you do imply) to do good already. To do so out of expectation of reward/fear of punishment is not one of them.

  7. Bible study: the day after « Not really Alice Says:

    […] it to the random people who will ask me what I believe.  (Like the random people who ask me about Pascal’s Wager.  […]

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