Home > atheism > Picking apart Pascal’s Wager – Part 2

Picking apart Pascal’s Wager – Part 2

19 August 2009

This article is continued from Part 1.

As agnosticism is the only intellectually honest, logical and justifiable position — regardless of whether you are a theist or atheist — there then often comes the argument that surely you should believe “just in case” there is a god. Enter Blaise Pascal‘s famous wager, considered by many to be a breakthrough in probability theory and apologetics in its time:

  1. If there is a god and you do believe, then you’ll go to heaven.
  2. If there isn’t a god and you do believe, then it has cost you nothing.
  3. If there isn’t a god and you don’t believe, then it has cost you nothing.
  4. If there is a god and you don’t believe, then you will go to hell.

Therefore, the logical conclusion is: You should believe… just in case. The implication is that at worst you will have wasted time and effort, but at best you’ve gained a place in heaven. As if an omniscient god wouldn’t know that you’re merely playing the numbers? In reality, points 2 and 3 above mean that you have wasted time, effort and potentially yours and other lives.

Unfortunately the Wikipedia entry for Pascal’s Wager has been edited by one or more of “the faithful,” diminishing its usefulness in providing a contrast. The fundamental argument against Pascal’s Wager is as follows (using just monotheism as an example):

  1. If you believe in one god, which out of an apparently infinite number will you choose from?
  2. Most gods declare they will punish you for eternity if you do not accept just them.
  3. If there is only one god and many imposters, how can you be certain to choose the correct one?
  4. Due to the near infinite number, you have almost no chance of choosing the “One True God.”
  5. The holy book of each god is full of lists of those who will never go to heaven — murderers, adulterers, covetors, the greedy, gluttonous, those who walk further than a number of paces on the sabbath, and any number of other mental and physical acts. Trust me when I say that you are on that list.

Therefore, the probability of you going to heaven, allowing for the possibility that it exists at all, is so infinitesimally small that it doesn’t matter whether you are religious or not (unless you’re the kind of person who thinks a 1:14,000,000 chance of winning the lottery jackpot means that at least 4 people out of a population of 61,000,000 must win it each week).

One criticism of Pascal’s Wager is the assumptions that it makes:

  • God will ignore (or is somehow unaware of) the fact that people are praying just to avoid hell.
  • Hell is a place of eternal misery, like Dante‘s medieval Inferno.
  • Heaven is a place of eternal pleasure.
  • Belief has no cost to the believer.
  • A loving god will damn you to hell if you don’t believe in him.
  • Sincere belief is a conscious act that can be changed at will.
  • God is the Judeo-Christian Abrahamic god.
  • God is loving, forgiving, and takes things seriously, rather than mischievous, cruel or ironic.
  • There is only One True God, not many gods. Monotheism excludes much older pantheistic and polytheistic traditions.

Another way to pick apart Pascal’s Wager is to ask the reader to conduct a thought exercise and consider that God is an imposter that they follow, and that Ugg (a name I pulled out of my head) — who only requires that you don’t worship anyone else — is really the One True God. This exercise is sometimes called Reversing the Wager:

  1. If you don’t believe in God and Ugg does exist, then you’ll go to heaven.
  2. If you don’t believe in God and Ugg doesn’t exist, then you have lived a good life.
  3. If you do believe in God and Ugg doesn’t exist, then you have lived under unnecessary restrictions, and wasted the time, effort and lives of yourself and others.
  4. If you do believe in God and Ugg does exist, then you’ll go to hell.

This shows that atheists will come out the best (heaven or a good life) and theists are toast (hell or wasted life). If you’re a Gnostic Theist, then this argument will go sailing over your head and you’ll snort derisively in your knowledge that God would never let that happen, but if you are able to think clearly or at least entertain other points of view, then you’ll see the point. It’s just a thought exercise, of course.

Last of all, there is the Agnostic Atheist Wager that is a simple and effective refutation of Pascal’s Wager that is, perhaps surprisingly, compatible with the message of Jesus, and states:

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe, when there is a significant lack of evidence of any one god’s existence.

Many religious texts state that by our actions we will be judged and, surely, it’s more beneficial to humanity and the Earth as a whole to act well rather than ensure that we speak the right words or bow to the right statue.

The more you learn of religions throughout human history — even if you just limit yourself to Abrahamic monotheism in all its forms — the more you realise that it is a wilful and conscious act to ignore all the other religions and gods in favour of just one. The religion chosen is usually the one in which your parents raised you or from the culture in which you grew up, probably based upon our tribal instincts, need to fit in, and from the assumption that our experience (or family, team, or nation) is the only or best one possible.

How can an accident of your location (or time in history, considering the spread of the “good news” around the world) of birth be the ultimate determining factor in whether a kind, loving god makes you spend an eternity in hell or heaven? Modern apologetics that glosses over that by saying that “those who haven’t heard it yet go to heaven” is dodging the real issue, and those who say it know it.

It’s all very complicated and requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance to adhere to one faith and exist with the natural world — and that applies even for members of religions that are mature or adaptable enough to accommodate scientific advancement (often called God of the Gaps). I’m hesitant to use Occam’s Razor

When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.

…as a kind of coup de grâce to this article, as I have seen it used successfully by both sides of this argument, and I’m not sure that it isn’t a non-sequitur in this context as neither science nor those without belief purport to have the answer to the origins of the universe (or even to have the answer to the origins of life, though there are a number of interesting scientific theories).

Rather, science seeks to find out as much as possible about as much as possible, and religions throughout human history have seen knowledge as a direct challenge to the unknowability of their gods (or worse). It is not the intent or goal of science to do away with religion; its goal is to gather knowledge. If that somehow challenges your faith or religion, then that is your problem and you must address it somehow — but not by attacking those merely trying to learn and discover the exciting mysteries of the universe.

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