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Pascal's Wager - the Good, the Bad and the Costly

Updated on February 11, 2015

Pascal

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The Wager and it's Arguments

For those unfamiliar with the principle, Pascal’s wager is one of the fundamental, go-to arguments used by Christians in conversations with non-believers. Simply put Pascal’s wager states:

There are two possibilities. Either a god exists, or a god does not exist. If there’s a 50% chance that god does exist, it is more beneficial to believe in him to avoid the possibility of going to hell. In other words, you’d better believe in (insert theist’s god of choice) or else you’ll be sorry.

Even more simply, if a non-believer claims that they do not believe in a god, the theist often asks “what if you’re wrong?” This is especially valid when dealing with pre-suppositional apologists, who like to ask if you can truly know anything - and if not, then somehow "therefore god" comes into play. Dealing with some of these people can be infuriating, and often leads to a complete derailing of the debate process, rendering further communication practically impossible.


Problem 1:

Pascal’s wager fundamentally fails when you consider one of the most basic logical fallacies which is referred to as “begging the question”. The initial problem with the wager is that it assumes certain qualities and traits about the god that the theist is trying to promote. It assumes, for example, that their god is not only real, but that an eternal heaven exists only for people who believe in him and that an eternal hell exists for people who don’t.

If you accept the fact that it begs the question in the most basic sense, then you no longer have a limit on what you have to believe for no reason. In order to be logically consistent you would have to behave in a manner based on mental probabilities – to receive reward and avoid punishment with no basis for believing in either one.

The Wager Plays Out

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Problem #2:

The second problem with Pascal’s wager is that is uses emotion (primarily fear) to manipulate the minds of non-believers. All human beings would rather not suffer. Very few (if any) people actually enjoy suffering, and I would go so far as to say that NO human being enjoys suffering enough to willfully choose to go to hell for eternity.

Pascal does not present any evidence to prove that this supposed hell exists – or that the god that would send countless people there exists either. Fear is a powerful motivator, and that’s the key to this whole wager. If a believer can make you afraid, you may not need evidence or logic or reason to believe. When it comes right down to it, however, they manipulate and brainwash through fear because they don’t HAVE any of those other things.

Problem #3:

Not only are the two problems already listed practically insurmountable but the third problem – the creation of a false dichotomy – goes even farther. A Christian that resorts to Pascal’s wager in a conversation with an atheist or non-believer is ignoring the glaring inconsistency. The question itself is part of the problem. The theist in question has already applied critical thinking to every other religion in the world, past, present and future. They have either not learned about them or discarded them outright because they agree with the one they currently believe in. While it may be childish to turn the question around and ask the theist “what if you’re wrong” instead, it is indeed a tempting possibility.

The idea is that the believer has decided (probably based on fear, like they’re trying to impose on you) that their particular god is the true god, and has therefore indirectly decided that other god claims are false. If they believe in their god because they want to avoid his eternal punishment, what precludes them from fearing all the punishments found in other religion?

It is not about deciding between Christianity and flat-out atheism. There are hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of different religions throughout the world and just as many gods. By deciding to believe in the Christian god, you’re excluding all the other religions – that have their own versions of hell, the afterlife and punishment. It’s not a true 50/50 percentage. In actuality, there is a 50% chance that there is no god – and there’s a fraction of a percentage that every god that exists in the world exists. Therefore, there is a higher probability that atheism is true, and that ALL god claims are not, especially considering the lack of evidence for ANY of them.

The equation would look something like this:

If there is a 50/50 shot that a god does exist, each god claim would lay claim to a fraction of the affirmative 50%. Since there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of god claims throughout history and into the present, the likelihood of the Christian (or any other theist) being right is minuscule at best. So while the atheist still has a 50% chance that there is no god at all, the theist of any particular faith now has an (estimated) .0005134697 chance that their deity is the correct one out of thousands of options. So no, it is not better to believe in that god and risk offending any of the other possibilities. 50% is much better than a fraction of a single percentage point. It’s impossible to believe every deity claim out there. For survival purposes, most of them are mutually exclusive. Therefore, you’re probably going to offend someone, somewhere. Non-belief, on the other hand, offends no one – unless the particular deity is so egotistical (like the god of the bible, for instance) that the mere notion of someone not believing in him, despite having no compelling evidence to confirm its existence, would be sufficient to damn them to hell – eternally.

Problem #4:

The last problem with Pascal’s wager is that it assumes (incorrectly) that believing in a god to avoid eternal punishment has absolutely no cost, while a lack of belief can somehow end up costing you everything.

It’s never good to accidentally believe a lie, let alone believing a lie willfully. When faced with the abject lack of evidence or confronted with opposing evidence, your fear demands that you ignore it and continue on, regardless of whether or not your beliefs are true.

Most Christians pay a high cost for their faith. They go to church and spend a lot of time doing church-associated events. They tithe as dictated by scripture and pay money to support their church. They subscribe to a belief system with a bloody past and an intolerant present and future. They vote to enact laws that discriminate against others because it goes against their belief on morality, etc. They close their minds to what truth could be and cease to question or view things skeptically. A willful belief in god mandates that you no longer search for knowledge which could eventually lead to truth based on evidence – not dictated by your emotions.

A More In-Depth View of Pascal's Wager

Conclusion:

I would say that one more thing needs to be taken into consideration. Since Pascal’s wager is usually a main-stream Christian phenomenon, you need to consider their claims about god as well. Fundamentally speaking, a god who would damn people to eternal hell for using the brain that he allegedly gave them is not a god that is worth believing in. If the bible is true, and god did all the things that the book says he did, that is not a moral god. It is a totalitarian dictator that puts Hitler to shame. It’s an egomaniac with a fragile ego that flies off the handle at any sign of disobedience. It condones immoral acts like slavery, genocide and murder and believes that the only solution is to offer a sacrifice of himself to himself because of his lust for blood. No deity of this caliper deserves worship or adoration. Furthermore, this "god" who created hell and sends everyone who disagrees with him there seems more egotistical than god-like.

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    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 2 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thanks, Catherine. I'm always glad to read other hubs on the subject as well -after mine is published (it's a sound policy to formulate your own thoughts). The wager is so often used by so many people who refuse to see the inherent problems it contains. Bringing those problems to light is always beneficial.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I like your false dichotomy argument. I just wrote about Pascal's wager myself, and now I am reading the related hubs. I only read after I write to be sure I am not influenced.) Nice job. I've picked up a few new things on the topic.

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      cascoly - I think I addressed the cost of belief briefly in the fourth point. At that stage of writing, it was already much longer than I had intended, and I had to wrap it up. You're absolutely right, however, and I should add more detail to that point later on.

    • cascoly profile image

      cascoly 4 years ago from seattle

      Great hub - my take on the wager has always been opportunity cost - you address this above -- what if i spend my life catering to a god that doesn't exist rather than living the short span i have?

      besides, the god i don't believe in wouldn't consign me to hell if i live an otherwise good life but don't choose to 'believe in her

      as far as the 'no atheists in foxholes' claim, just ONE anecdote will prove that false, and i have a number of them - both from others and several personal when i've faced imminent death from avalanche or other mountain hazards; prayer is much less useful than active attempts to prolong life

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Paladin - you're right, i missed that point. It also misses the point, I'm realizing, that you're required to believe prior to death - and that you can't make the determination afterwards. If you come face to face with a deity, that's pretty undeniable. At that point, you could decide whether belief and/or worship is deserved.

      Eric - I appreciate your opinion. Thank you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      JM, I fully respect your opinion. It just does not apply to me. (please not I capitalized JM as you do, but the capitalized F seems odd - I am sure it is historical like God)

    • Paladin_ profile image

      Paladin_ 4 years ago from Michigan, USA

      An excellent hub, JM!

      Still, I propose that you missed one of the greatest flaws of Pascal's Wager: that God would presumably know whether or not one actually believed in him. If you're merely pretending to believe in order to avoid hell, God would know it. If the threat of hell is enough to convince you, you probably already believe. In either case, the wager is superfluous.

      As for capitalization, this is actually one of my pet peeves. Capitalization is required at the beginning of each sentence, and in the first letter of all proper nouns and names (Yes, I am a grammar Nazi ;-)

      Aside from that, well done!

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Eric - there's a difference, in my opinion, between calling something a lie - even if it's an unintentional lie - and calling someONE a liar. My parents are both still devout believers, and I don't think that they're liars. I think they're misinformed and that the skeptical thinking they use to throw out every other religious claim except for theirs should be applied one god further. In reality, everyone on earth is an atheist - unless they believe in every god claim that has ever existed. You're an atheist when it comes to islam. You're an atheist when it comes to Zeus, or Jupiter. You're just not an atheist when it comes to the god you believe in. You take skepticism to the point of your own faith and stop, and that's fine. You're entitled to your own belief. I don't have a problem with your faith, I have a problem when your faith imposes or dictates laws that affect others. No one lives in a vacuum.

      I don't have to capitalize a name to respect myself. I'm not sure I understand your point.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Thank you for your frankness. The foxhole comment was meant metaphorically. I have been in one or two and God was not on my list of priorities at that moment. Winning was.

      I do understand that calling someone a liar or something they say as a lie, is derogatory. It does not bother me so much as tell me something about the person doing it.

      Respecting another is not a matter of faith or even love, it is a matter of dignity for oneself. Capitalizing is a method of showing respect for another.

      Like I say, I do not do fear. There is a notion that fear just means respect like not touching a hot burner, that I get.

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Actually, you're just wrong. There are lots of atheists in foxholes. In fact I know many service men and women who have been in active combat who are atheists, and have no need to pray to any kind of supernatural being for help when they should be supporting their teammates on the ground, under fire. That premise is just patently absurd, sorry. I have no fear of hell, and I have no fear of any believer. When it comes down to it, faith is having a belief in something without a good reason. I don't fear them - I pity them.

      I don't capitalize deity's names. Ever. I have no problem not capitalizing buddha. Or allah. I don't care. I don't respect these imaginary beings because they don't exist. I will, however, capitalize proper names like Jacob or Isaac. I won't capitalize jesus because I don't he even existed. Calling something a lie is not uncivilized. It may not be pleasant to you, but it's not mean or insulting. I don't know why you don't understand that.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      There are no atheists in foxholes my friend. Fear often keeps a man loyal to his wife and fear has won many a football games. Personally I do not do fear but my wife does, poor soul.

      Pascal was not a great teacher or spiritualist. But he was really smart. A Christian that uses his wager as a convincing notion is stupid. I think that is the right term. If you however refer to a Christians' God as their God you should show understanding and capitalize it. Would you spit on a Buddhist? Calling things lies as opposed to civil terms meaning the same suggests an anger that is not justified against the reader. You may do more to suggest the correctness of problem four than teach of the inherent problems therein.

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      I'm not sure what you interpreted to be anger. I'm not angry at religion. If anything, I find it humorous. The only thing I find annoying about it at all is the willful ignorance that it often encourages.

      If I came across as upset or emotional, it was not my intent. However, that being said, this particular topic (Pascal's wager) has been shoved in my face more times than I can count, and it's a tired, worn out subject. It's not a proof for faith. It is not a justifiable reason or a rational response to questions posed to believers.

      More often than not, it a last ditch effort to appeal to emotion. No one has ever been saved by fear. If fear is a motivation for believing in a deity, it's not really faith at all.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      This is very well written except for what seeps through as anger. I think the premise is valid but the vitriolics make it hard to find. I get honesty and frankness, this went beyond somehow like a resentment. I do not truly understand why religions cause rational men to become emotional.