Pascal’s Wager is one of the most popular defenses presented when you’re in an argument with a believer. It doesn’t really come up in formal debates, but it’s presented all the time in informal conversations, whether you’re visiting religious family or telling someone you’re an atheist for the first time. It seems to be sort of a reflex for theists. In my experience, they say it, almost involuntarily, usually immediately or after they don’t know what else to say. Superficially, it seems reasonable enough. What if you’re wrong? Doesn’t that mean you’re going to hell? Are you really so sure there’s no God that you’re willing to bet an eternity of suffering on it?
Belief on Demand
The first problem I have with this reasoning is the assumption that I can choose what to believe. This has been bothering me for quite a while now — why do Christians seem to think that you can choose your beliefs? It seems like God would want genuine belief and wouldn’t accept inauthentic belief. So it can’t be enough for me to just pretend to believe, but I can’t will myself to believe something that I think is untrue. I can’t control what I find compelling and believable and what I don’t. If you told me you could fly when no one was looking, it’s not a matter of me choosing to believe you. My disbelief in God feels analogous; I could no more believe in God than I could believe your assertion that you have the power of unaided flight. I can tell you that Earth actually has seventeen moons, and not just one, but you can’t just will yourself into belief. It kind of makes me wonder though, if Christians are accidentally telling us something about themselves. Do their struggles with faith feel to them like they’re choosing to believe in God? Why else would you need a leap of faith? Kierkegaard said, “I believe because it is absurd to believe.” So it’s not as if it’s lost on some of them how ridiculous theism appears to many of us. I wonder if their own doubt is strong enough that it feels like they could go either way and to them, which way they go feels like a matter of will.
If I say I can’t believe, and they insist that I fake it till I make it, are they saying that God can be fooled by my pretending to believe? Or are they saying that God just doesn’t care? So God prefers liars who pretend to believe out of self-interest over honest people who are so made that they can’t believe? So if Pascal’s Wager is valid, either God can be fooled or he rewards liars.
Part of what’s so annoying to me about this wager is that God could easily make himself known to me and everyone listening to this podcast and settle the matter. Sometimes people ask, “What would convince you there’s a God?” If God is omniscient, he would know exactly what would convince me. And if he’s omnipotent, he would have the means to do it. So why hasn’t he? The only options that really make sense to me are that God is planning on punishing me for something that’s ultimately his fault, or God is indifferent to my belief, or God doesn’t exist.
The Fear of Hell
There’s another big assumption embedded in Pascal’s Wager, which is that we all are absolutely terrified of hell. What does it say about the believer that their first defense of God is to try to scare you? If their first instinct, when challenged, is to appeal to fear, this says quite a lot about why they believe. What does it say that they’ve invoked an apologetic entirely based on fear? For one, it shows that the believer must be living in fear themselves. If they weren’t afraid of hell, they wouldn’t have thought that it would work on you as a reason. They’ve admitted that they’re afraid, and this says more about them and why they believe than they realize.
I’m not afraid of hell or any other fictional thing, but I think those who present Pascal’s Wager have a hard time understanding that I’m as afraid of He-who-must-not-be-named as I am of going to hell. This is the only life we know we have. So you need more than fear to convince me to change this life, the only one we know for sure is real, for the sake of the next life that there isn’t any evidence for.
The Price of Belief
The Wager assumes that to be a Christian is cost-free, to be an atheist has no benefit, heaven is a great reward, and hell is a terrible punishment. I would say that except for the latter, all of these are untrue.
You have to modify your behavior, sometimes pretty drastically, to be religious. And I do benefit from being an atheist. For one, I get pleasure from finding things out and from feeling like my beliefs are supported by sound reason and good evidence. It’s not just that I get to sleep in on Sunday or have guilt-free sex, but I have a much more fulfilling intellectual life than I would’ve otherwise had. Naturalism is the only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance and it drives me to learn new things about the universe. Being a Christian means setting limits on discovery and possible views I could have. Certain thoughts and certain conclusions are off-limits. There would be dozens of issues where I would be forced to start with my conclusion and ignore anything that doesn’t fit with my worldview. In several areas, my opinion would already have been decided for me ahead of time, having been mass-produced for anyone who gets with the program. This is not how free inquiry into the nature of reality and the honest search for truth is supposed to work.
In the Wager, hell is assumed to be a punishment, which it certainly would be, but heaven isn’t so obviously a reward. Heaven doesn’t exactly entice me. It’s obviously preferable to the alternative, but if I were to enjoy endlessly stroking the ego of the dear leader for trillions of years, it definitely wouldn’t be ‘me’. It would be a lobotomized half-version of me that would have different desires and a different will than the ‘me’ that exists right now.
Pascal’s Wager can’t work unless the only options are between non-belief and one version of one religion. But it’s not as if the choice is just between atheism and your favorite version of Christianity, since there are many religions, most of them mutually incompatible, and all of them could present Pascal’s Wager. And if you think Christianity is the only religion that has a chance at being true, there are many mutually incompatible versions of Christianity as well. But even if it were between atheism and Christianity, there’s not a 50/50 chance between the two. The wager can only work if there are only two choices that are equally likely, which is not the situation we are in. For one, there are many versions of theism and the Wager doesn’t take this into account. And second, even if we narrow the choices down between naturalism and classical theism, they’re not equally likely. We can use reason and evidence to assign probabilities to both ideas and they don’t fare equally well.
Let’s assume that we’re wrong and that a god exists. And we’ll even grant that it’s a theistic god. How does Pascal know which God is the right one? If he’s right about God’s existence but wrong about which God is real, he could be wrong about the nature of the afterlife and wrong about the criteria for getting in. Depending on which version of theism is true, there could be no hell at all, or heaven and hell are completely different than we imagined, or the criteria for going there could be different than what we thought. Theism may be true and there may still be no afterlife. There are theistic religions, including denominations of Christianity, that don’t have such a Johnathan Edwards afterlife. And there are also versions of classical theism, including versions of Christianity, that have different criteria for entering into the afterlife.
Even if I accept Pascal’s reasoning, it’s not clear which religion I should bet on. Really anyone could use Pascal’s Wager. If the negative consequences of being wrong are supposed to sway my decision one way or the other, should I bet on the one with the worst punishment for being wrong? If that’s the case, I could invent a religion right now with terrible punishments for being wrong and incredible rewards for believing in it and present you with Pascal’s Wager in support of it. This illustrates a crucial flaw in the Wager: the imagined intensity of the consequences of being wrong do not increase the likelihood of the belief in question. You can increase the consequences of being wrong and make it worse and worse, but you haven’t added any evidence that you’re actually right.
There are versions of the wager that try to correct for this, including the original wager; they try to say that reason and evidence could never settle, in principle, the question of God’s existence, and you have to choose your belief arbitrarily, so you may as well bet on the preferable belief. There are several problems with that, one being that you can’t choose your beliefs, another being that this only works if there’s only one religion out there. Also, there aren’t many believers who think there is no reason or evidence to support God’s existence or that it couldn’t even help in principle. Regardless, ramping up the negative consequences of disbelief doesn’t increase the likelihood of that belief. If it does, and Pascal actually believes his own wager, I can use this reasoning to manipulate him into doing anything. For example, I could say that his arms will fall off if he eats anything before tomorrow. It’s not very likely, but wouldn’t you rather go temporarily hungry than suffer the terrible consequences for being wrong? I could also claim that he’ll sneeze out all his teeth if he doesn’t give me 10% of his income. But the bad consequences of being wrong are not enough. You have to provide compelling evidence to win the argument. If you don’t, you’re really just threatening your opponent.
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Pascal’s Wager [wiki]
Tracie Harris on The Scathing Atheist [YouTube]
Matt Dillahunty on Pascal [YouTube]
Christopher Hitchens on Pascal [YouTube]