Pascal's Wager - A Child's Argument
Most believers and non-believers alike are more than familiar with the argument known as Pascal's Wager. This argument was first formulated by mathematician Blaise Pascal though most forms of it touted around these days are paraphrased versions of the actual argument.
Normally I wouldn't even bother bringing up this argument because, honestly, it's been refuted over and over again by people far more intelligent and eloquent than I am. However recently I receieved a comment on my hub: Jesus Saves? From What? Apparently written by a young Christian. In it, probably without realizing it, she utilizes a version of Pascal's Wager.
"It's better to live like there is a God, and come to find out their is not one, then to live like theirs not a God and come to find out their is one."
This is her version of Pascal's famous wager. It's funny because as I read her comment I found myself reminded very much of my own self when I was a teenage Christian. I can even remembering being fourteen or so and attempting to use Pascal's Wager on my best friend. I hadn't thought of the argument on my own, or even worked out something similar all by myself, I, like everyone else, heard the argument from someone else. In my case it was at a youth group in my local Church.
Pascal's Wager makes sense, but only if you already believe in Christianity or a God and only if you believe your particular religion is the only TRUE religion and your God is the only REAL god. This is because, even in its most elaborate versions, Pascal's Wager relies on their being a 50/50 COIN FLIP decision between there being a God and there being no God -indeed that is why it's called a Wager.
The thing that most easily brings this argument crashing down is the fact that there are many different beliefs regarding gods and regarding the salvation or assistance provided by those gods. Even within Christianity there are conflicting ideas about what you must do in order to be saved. In some scriptures it is suggested that all you have to do is BELIEVE to be saved, while in others you must also do WORKS to be saved. Some sects if Christianity believe you must be Baptized both in water and in the fire of the Holy Spirit, while others don't see any such requirement. Some believe you are judged by what you DID in life rather than what you BELIEVED.
Even the version of the wager in her comment disagrees with Pascal's version, as it stipulates that one is to live their life like there is a God rather than merely BELIEVE. Exactly HOW one lives their life - or is meant to - when there's a God is an issue that people disagree on, which brings me to the next can of worms:
The next can of worms is opened when you present the idea of other gods and other religions. There are thousands of versions of Christianity alone and yet that only scratches the surface when it comes to beliefs about the supernatural. What about a Muslim? Certainly Muslims believe in God right? Are they saved under Pascal's Wager? What if the Christian God isn't the same as the Muslim one, and the Muslim is wrong? What if a Christian believes in the Christian God but Zeus, Ares and Aphrodite, and the other Greek gods, turn out to be real?
There are thousands of gods and thousands of ways to believe in those gods. Pascal's coin would likely have HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF SIDES. In the end it'd be more like picking a Scratch Off Lottery ticket than flipping a coin.
Still image from God Checker
The Edges of the Coin
Pascal's Wager includes the assertion that you have to play the game, you literally HAVE TO place a bet. In other words it's an all or nothing scenario, you either believe or you don't. In a broader sense this is correct but we live in a far more nuanced world. So even if we grant Pascal his coin he is still ignoring the edge of the coin. Those that sit on the edge identify themselves by various names but most prefer the term Agnostic.
There are also ignostics, those who believe that the question of whether a God exists depends solely on how the God is defined. Some ignostics refuse to take sides on the atheist versus theist issue.
Then there are those who simply don't care in regards to the question, apatheists.
Truth and Consequences
Another commonly raised criticism of this commonly used argument is the idea that one can simply convince oneself to begin believing in God. This goes hand in hand with the complaint that, essentially, you are believing in God for artificial reasons. You are believing not because you love God, not because God has called you, but merely because you're afraid of the CONSEQUENCES of being wrong.
This implies that something bad will happen to you for the simple act of doubting God's existence. The argument inserts fear and dread. You better watch out, better not cry, better not doubt, I'm telling you why! Apparently it does not occur to believers that a God who punishes people for doubt and disbelief is wrong for doing so.
Let's imagine for a moment that I have a child, and I take that child and give them up for adoption. I have the child's adoptive parents write a book with all the rules that I want my child to follow. The child must believe everything in the book is true or else I am going to punish them severely for the rest of their life. Also, I offer no evidence that I actually exist and the book itself is obviously in the adoptive parent's hand-writing. The only thing the child has to go in is the authority and constant reinforcement of the adoptive parents (authority figures) and the words of the book that are supposedly my own.
Is it fair in that hypothetical situation to punish the child if that child question the things in the book or even questions my very existence? Is what I did in this scenario loving? Is it merciful? Is it GOOD?
Video Sums it Up Nicely
Gaming the System
Still another issue with Pascal's Wager is the idea that you are believing in God for completely selfish reasons. You are not a sincere believer who is actually convinced of God's existence, you are merely attempting to avoid Hell. In essence you are lying to yourself merely to avoid a POSSIBLE bad outcome. Do you honestly think that when you are standing before God, a being that knows everything you know and can feel everything you feel, that you're deception won't be found out? Or is this artificial belief for the sake of saving your own backside good enough for God?
Pascal's Wager is a cheat of self-deception, a bluff in gambling terms. Do Christians honestly believe a good poker face is all it takes to get past the Pearly Gates? The argument essentially states that it is better to lie to yourself and be wrong than to be honest with yourself and be wrong.
If this God fellow is actually real wouldn't you prefer to stand before Him/Her/It with your honesty and intellectual integrity intact? Pascal's Wager only works if you admit to yourself that there are no good reasons to believe in God. Re-read that sentence and think about it for a moment, especially if you're a believer. This is why Pascal's Wager is such a poor argument from the stance of those who do not already believe in your particular deity. If you had reasons to believe in God, if there was evidence for God's existence, would you need Pascal's Wager to convince you? Would you need to be reminded that it's beneficial to believe and that questioning will get you burned in the unquenchable fires of Hell?
I can't help the person who wrote that comment and honestly I can't imagine where I'd begin. At that age I was a passionate young Christian myself and would have had a similar knee-jerk anger reaction to the one she had. In fact just five or six years ago you would have caught me arguing against Evolution like Darwin was the anti-Christ and defending Christianity whenever I could. The issue was I didn't REASON, I merely REACTED, and that reaction was just a defense mechanism. I was masking my own doubts and my own inability to answer the questions I had with anger and smug certainty.
There is much more grace and humility in admitting when you don't know and truth cannot be found by declaring you already possess it.
More by this Author
A hub about the psychological quirks that form the foundation of superstitious belief in humans. Focuses on Animism, one of the earliest forms of supernatural belief and on agenticity.
A hub about the claim that atheists have faith in a Universe from absolute nothing. Also discussed is whether the idea of absolute nothing is even a coherent concept. What do atheists really believe?
A brief journey into the bizarre branch of New Age woo called Spirit Science. Can you tell real Spirit Science from stuff I just made up—take the quiz!