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