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by Jeff Lewis
If 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 posthumous 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. (In defense of Pascal, I've 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 traditionally shown in a table, but I'm just going to list them):
Presented this way, belief in God would seem to be the choice that offered the least risk. However, there are definitely problems with the argument.
The first problem I'll note is the one that first occurred 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 conception 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 possibilities. 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.