The Flaws Of Pascal’s Wager

An argument often used by religious people is that they have nothing to lose by believing in God and that Atheists are risking eternity in Hell for no gain. This is known as Pascal’s Wager. On the face of it, it is quite convincing but it falls apart once you seriously examine it.

The argument basically is you have 2 choices. Either believe in God or don’t. There are only 2 results. Either God exists or he/it doesn’t.

If you believe and God exists, you gain eternal reward.

If you don’t believe and God does exist, you face eternal torment.

If you believe and God does not exist, then you had wasted your time going to church etc.

If you don’t believe and God does not exist, then you have saved yourself time and effort.

The conclusion usually is that the risks of not believing outweigh the benefits and it’s safer to believe in God.

However, there are several problems. First of all, this wager does not in itself prove God exists. It merely says it is safer to presume he/it does. Secondly, it presumes you can force yourself to believe something you believe to be false. I fail to see how living a lie is the preferable option. Surely God could see through this dishonesty (and possibly punish you for it). A similar criticism is that if we are all designed by God, we are therefore designed so as not to believe in God. Atheists can hardly be blamed for being what God designed them.

Also, which God should we worship? There are thousands of religions each with their own God. What if we choose the wrong one? After all each religion believes that only its members are rewarded in the afterlife. Imagine if a Christian dies but is greeted by Muhammad (or Zeus or Odin etc) in the afterlife. Despite being very religious they are condemned to Hell because they choose the wrong religion. What if a Catholic dies and finds that the Presbyterians were right. Or a Baptist dies and finds the Mormons were right. The laws of probability say we have only one in several thousand chance of guessing the correct religion. Maybe God would forgive you for not choosing the right religion, but if he/it would do that surely he/it would forgive you for having no religion at all?

Instead let me replace this with what is known as the Atheist’s Wager. This states that you should live a good life and be a nice person, but leave religion alone. If God is loving and kind, he will forgive you for not believing in him and reward you in the afterlife. If God punishes you despite having been a good person all your life then god is unjust and you shouldn’t worship him.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Flaws Of Pascal’s Wager

  1. This is a great summary of a ridiculous proposition that is full of fallacious reasoning.

  2. Jomari Peterson (Bible Center)

    this response is not equivalent to Pascal’s Wager which relies on probability theory. This wager simply provides a rationale to make the belief in G-d irrelevant. However, this does not take into account what a good life would be according to G-d. Therefore, the metric is potentially irrelevant to G-d. Therefore, unless the good life lived is a good life according to the metric of the potential god, god(s) or G-d then this wager is invalidated. Thus, it is important to consider if there is a G-d to see if your actions align with what is good. The assumption of a potential G-d includes the assumption of creator who is the originator of and ruler (metric) for the universe. Therefore, to live a good life would be to live a life according to the Creator’s rule, whatever that may be. This wager just states that there is something to be gained by living a good life if there is a G-d that is loving and kind. Therefore, this qualifies as less than Pascal’s Wager which delineates cleanly two options that have a clear value proposition based on a premise that it is better to believe (or try to believe) than to not believe, statistically, if there is a good, kind and loving G-d. The Atheist Wager just shows that it is better to be good than be evil without qualifying, which is outside the scope of belief. In addition, Pascal’s Wager does not prove the existence of G-d, but the logic in believing or striving to believe in him. Pascal’s Wager puts the choice and onus on the individual, whereas, the Atheist Wager places the onus on G-d without a clear foundation.

    • I suppose I could have been more explicit here, though I do discuss it is the second last paragraph. Each religion has its own concept of what is good which makes the process infinitely more complicated. There are literally thousands of religions each with their own rules. I think a true Pascals Wager would not be as clean and clear as you suggest, but rather incredibly messy.

      I’m sorry this isn’t a full response but I didn’t quite get the point and meaning of your comment, could you try again?

      • Jomari Peterson (Bible Center)

        Part of my comment deals with the fact that Pascal’s Wager relies on probability theory. Thus, even choosing the god, god(s), G-d of any religion is better than not choosing any. The continuation of this line of thinking would lead one to choose the belief or faith that covers the most ground and probably has the most parallels to what is good in other faiths, at the minimum. From here, I guess you would make a separate judgement call.
        However, the scale/scope of what to gain or lose is much cleaner and quantifiable than this wager. Thus, this idea of just being good is of limited scope and seems to only be a subset of the larger discussion and wager.

        • The problem is that most religions are explicit that unless you believe their religion, you will not receive eternal reward. For example all Muslims are going to Hell for failing to believe in Christianity, the fact they believe in a God does not give them partial reward. All religions I am familiar with take an all or nothing approach.

          The core beliefs of most religions (as far as I can tell) is be a good person. Help other people. Be kind and generous. That seems to be the concept with most parallels.

          There is also the problem that there are thousands of religions so it is not possible to study all of them in depth and compare them all. I still believe Pascals Wager is not a simple two option choice but a choice with thousands of options.

          • Aaron

            I appreciate your thoughts about Pascal’s Wager, but I just want to take this opportunity to point out the misconception that many people have: “Christians believe that just because someone is not Christian means that they are condemned to hell.”

            The oldest traditions of the church believe that salvation comes from Jesus, but because one does not believe in Jesus does not mean they are going to hell. Unfortunately, the evangelical doctrine (brimstone and fire, aka Westboro Baptist) gets all the attention even though it starkly contrasts with what has been thought and believed for millennia now.

            http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/what-no-salvation-outside-the-church-means

  3. The atheist’s wager is not valid as it does not define good and evil. To that effect, how does an atheist know what is good versus what is evil? Is it based on each individuals interpretation of good/evil? And what happens what one person’s good/evil infringes on another – is there any consideration for that?

    Just some thoughts.

    • I don’t think there is an absolute definition of good and evil. It depends on the circumstance. For example murder is considered wrong, but there are cases where it is allowed (self-defence and war) or treated differently (manslaughter).

      For the wager, we have a rough idea of right and wrong (I’m leaving philosophical debates aside). Be friendly, considerate, helpful, basically follow the golden rule. This is obviously a crude measurement, but I don’t think its possible to have a “5 simple rules to follow to get you into heaven” guidebook

      • Thanks for the response and raising the topic for discussion. It is always a good idea to think about these matters.

        In any event, I would like to address a couple of points in your response, such as your view on murder. We agree that murder is wrong but I would ask why is murder wrong? Next, let me point out that murder is the killing of innocent human life for a reason other than something such as self defense – every person has the right to defend themselves but it certainly should be the last and final response. As for murder and war, well there is a collective defense of a nation and then there is indiscrimient killing in war, which would certainly be murder. Again, war being the last response and the action should be defensible as just.

        You are correct that there is “top 5 thing to do to get you to heaven” list on mashable.com but there are certainly 10 things not to do and 2 things to do at the very least to set you in the right trajectory. And one of those you mentioned, to so-called golden rule. This is one explicitly taught by Christ as a reiteration of that very same rule in Leviticus 19:18.

        I bring this up because were good/evil simply defined by one’s own opinion then we would have never made it this far. Our basic concepts of morality are written in our hearts – also known as natural law.

        Think about it.

  4. Pingback: 10 Questions For Atheists | Robert Nielsen

  5. Ben Dover

    All of you are just choosing the option that you find to be most self gratifying. The cynics choose atheism. The broken and/or needy choose religion. Which to say is better? Hopefully, God has the answer.

  6. The so-called ‘Atheists Wager’ is perhaps even more flawed….

    ‘If God is loving and kind, he will forgive you for not believing in him and reward you in the afterlife. If God punishes you despite having been a good person all your life then god is unjust and you shouldn’t worship him.’

    If you’re talking about the Christian God, the Christian teachings show us that he is fully 100% just, and that’s why the concept of sin and heaven and hell exists. God can’t allow sin to go unpunished, so if you’ve ever sinned (hint: if you’re reading this then you have), then you’re pretty much screwed. It’s not a ‘grey area’ kind of deal. It’s a digital ones-and-zeros kind of deal. If you’ve sinned, the Christian God, as described in the Bible, HAS to punish that sin, and the punishment is eternal death. That’s also why the Bible says that he’s loving and kind, because he punishes injustice but also provides a way out of it. This might sound counterintuitive, but really it’s as simple as a parent punishing a toddler for reaching out towards a hot stove.

    It’s therefore absolutely flawed to suggest ‘he is unjust if he punishes you having been a good person all your life’ (because nobody HAS been a good person all their life), and it’s absolutely pointless to suggest ‘you shouldn’t worship him’ because by that point, if it’s all true, you won’t even have the choice to worship or not worship because you won’t exist anymore.

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