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Pascal's Wager

A discussion of Pascal's Wager seems nearly obligatory for a blog that deals with skeptical themes. So, even though others have already covered this more eloquently than I could hope for, here's my take on this argument.

Coin TossIf you're the type that gets involved at all in religious discussions (and maybe even if you aren't), you've probably heard some version of Pascal's Wager before, even if you haven't heard it referred to as such. The argument is named for Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher. It appeared in The Pensées, a post-humous publication of a collection of Pascal's notes. However, the argument is simple enough that many people have no doubt come up with it independently. So, rather than discuss Pascal's original description of the "wager," I'll discuss the version that I've heard most often, personally. (And, in defense of Pascal, I'ver heard that he never intended this argument to be concrete logical proof, but rather as a way to get people thinking about the issue).

The argument goes something like this. There either is a God, or there isn't. You either believe in God, or you don't. That gives four possible outcomes (these are usually shown in a table, but I'm just going to list them):

  1. God exists & you believe - You'll get into heaven when you die, an infinite reward.
  2. God exists & you don't believe - You'll go to hell when you die, an infinite punishment.
  3. God doesn't exist & you believe - You'll lose nothing (or, according to some, even live a better life).
  4. God doesn't exist & you don't believe - You can do whatever you want during life, a finite reward.

Presented this way, belief in God would seem to be the logical choice. However, there are definitely problems with the argument.

The first problem I'll note is the one that first occured to me when I was still a Christian - people cannot simply choose to believe in something. Take for example, leprechauns. Many people have sincerely believed in them in the past, but no matter how much I may want to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, I can't make myself believe that leprechauns actually exist. It's the same way with God. If you've given serious thought to the issue, you can't simply make yourself believe (or disbelieve) just because you'd like the outcome. To claim belief in that way would be insincere, and, according to most people's concept of Yahweh, God doesn't merely want lip service. He wants actual, sincere faith.

The second problem I see with the argument is the assumption that you'll lose nothing if you believe in God but he doesn't exist. Assuming you accept that the Bible accurately represents what Yahweh wants of us (which most Christians do), there are plenty of rules in that book. Granted, many Christians have found ways to rationalize their way out of following a good deal of them (no more dietary regulations, people can work on the Sabbath, many seem to disregard Jesus's lecture about rich people and heaven being compared to camels getting through the eye of a needle, etc.), but there are still quite a few Biblical rules that people do follow. Probably two of the most relevant right now are attitudes toward homosexuals, and attitudes toward stem cell research. The former keeps a large number of people from leading happy lives, while the latter is preventing research with the potential to greatly reduce suffering in the world. One could argue that these are finite costs, compared to the infinite cost and reward of heaven and hell, but they are still costs, nonetheless.

However, the biggest problem with Pascal's wager must be that it leaves out many other possibities. This becomes clear if you imagine the argument with Allah instead of the Christian God. The argument would then seem to indicate that you should be a Muslim. Obviously, they can't both be right. The problem is in that first statement, that either God exists or he doesn't. It's not a simple either/or choice. There are many, many gods to choose from - three versions of Yahweh (Jewish, Christian, & Muslim - not to mention all the sects of those three), Vishnu, the Bahá'í God, Krishna, the Sikh God, Ahura Mazda, Anu, Ra, Odin, Quetzalcoatl, Gukumatz, or Zeus, to name just a few of the deities people have worshipped in the past, or continue to worship in the present (and as an aside, there are many traditions, like Buddhism which don't concentrate on deities).

Also left out are the possibilities of how a god will reward or punish belief and disbelief. The Christian conception of God will reward faith and punish doubt, but with all the possibilities of gods, the other deities may have different ideas. It's conceivable that a god would reward honest inquiry, and punish blind faith, favoring the process over the end result.

Even though Pascal's wager may appear clever at first blush, it's unlikely to convince people who have given much thought to the question of the existence of a deity.


It sounds like a great argument, until you realize the points you brought up. It's actually used quite a bit, or at least it has been used towards me a lot. I'm going on a business trip for two weeks tomorrow with the "triceratops is a unicorn" guy, and he has actually used his version of Pascal's wager on me twice! It's going to be an interesting trip, especially since it's going to be 14, 12 hour days. I'm bringing along The Portable Atheist by Christopher Hitchens to stir the pot. :) Anyways, I liked the post.

Most people I've actually heard use the argument (as opposed to reading it on the Internet) have used it as a sort of validation to themselves or other Christians, a way to help shore up their beliefs. They use it as an after the fact rationalization, not as a proselytization tool. Maybe now that I'm becoming more comfortable and open with my non-belief, people will start using it on me more.

Regarding the triceratops guy, I remember you mentioning him before, but can't recall if you ever said he was good natured about it or not. I discuss religion with a few of my Christian friends all the time*, trading quips back and forth, but it's always good natured. However, there are a few people that I do avoid those types of discussions with because it could turn ugly. If the triceratops guy doesn't get too offended by it, it could be a pretty fun week.

*It sounds odd calling them my "Christian friends," since almost all my friends are in fact Christian, and it's only a handful of people I know who are atheist, agnostic, or practice some non-Christian religion. With over 3/4 of the U.S. population being Christian, you'd have to try pretty hard to not have any Christian friends.

He's actually very good natured about it. He's genuinely interested in my non-belief. He actually tries to understand it from a different perspective than his own. We joke back and forth all the time. I say he doesn't believe in science, and he says I'm going to burn for eternity. That actually sounds bad in type, but the way that he says it is in a joking way (even if he really believes it).

Most of my friends are christian in one way or another too. I suppose it's inevitable. Most of them are only christian in name really. A lot of them seem to not really care, and don't talk about it either way much at all.

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