Libby Anne’s Wager

Have you ever heard of Pascal’s Wager? It has been used for centuries as an argument against atheism. I believe it is fatally flawed, and I have actually devised my own wager in its place.  

Pascal’s Wager

If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).

Basically, you might as well believe in God, because if you believe in God and he isn’t actually there you’ve still led a good life, but if you don’t believe in God but he is there, you will suffer huge consequences: eternity in hell. In essence, you must bet on the side of safety.

There are two main problems with this argument.
First, who is to say god cares about or values belief specifically? Perhaps he or she actually values good deeds, or animal sacrifices, and cares nothing about belief? Second, which God are we to believe in? There are hundreds to choose from. What if you choose to believe in Allah to hedge your bets, but it turns out that the Christian God is the real one, or vice versa? Pascal’s Wager, then, really is a silly argument.

After I became an atheist, I did quite a bit of thinking about Pascal’s Wager. I knew it didn’t hold water, but I wondered if there was a replacement I could find. After some time, I came up with one.

Libby Anne’s Wager

When it comes to the question of God, there are four basic options:
1. There is no God.
2. There is a God, but that God does not care about humans.
3. There is a God, and it is a good and loving God.
4. There is a God, and it is an evil and hateful God.

In the case of options one or two, what we do or do not do here on this earth does not ultimately matter in a cosmic sense and will have no consequences after death. In the case of option three, a truly loving God would care more about whether we live by love and help others than about whether or not we believe in him or her. In the case of option four, do we really want to serve a God who cares more about legalism than love, a God who sentences humans to eternal torture for not worshiping him or her? Therefore, whether one believes in a God, or in the correct God, matters less than does whether one lives by love.

There you have it. My conclusion is that what actually makes most sense is to live by love, seek to help others, and leave the world a better place. If that includes believing in a deity, so be it, but it doesn’t have to. And that is why I think Pascal was wrong.

Now you may wonder what I will do if the fourth option is correct, and it turns out that there is a God who values worship and belief over love and service, a God who believes that condemning people to infinite torture in return for finite sins is “just.” I do have a plan. I will start a rebellion.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • boomSLANG

    Honestly?… I love it. Your wager is the more comprehensive of the two, and it makes the most sense. And I'd further wager that in the case of scenario 3, that this God would not condemn people for using their supposed God-given sense.

  • shadowspring

    "In the case of option three, a truly loving God would care more about whether we live by love and help others than about whether or not we believe in him or her." Yes!!!I choose Door Number Three. If Door Number Four turns out to be correct, then methinks the rebellion has already begun, by those who follow Doors Number One-Three. But you can be out front if you want to be! =D

  • Jennifer Marie


  • Amanda

    You're super smart. And right.

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention, Pascal's Wager is predicated on the idea that you don't lose anything by being a Christian.Except that you DO lose something. At the bare minimum, you lose an hour a week going to church. You may lose money through tithing, or more if your church is cultish or spirtually abusive.And that's in a culture where being Christian is the norm. In other areas of the world, you may be persecuted and/or discriminated against. ACTUALLY persecuted, which is something many Christians in the US don't get. Which of course is largely irrelevant in the face of the dubious claim that a good, loving God is going around condemning people to burn forever because they had the bad luck to be born in an area or in a family where they were innocently raised to pray the wrong way. (And all that "it doesn't count if you don't know about it" bit doesn't hold up either. All that proves is that we should shoot missionaries on sight so we can't know about it! But now I'm quoting Pratchett, who, btw, does a great bit on Pascal's Wager in… I think Feet of Clay, but I could be wrong.)

  • Fina

    The most notable gap in Pascals Wager is the assumption that there is only ONE possible god.You already explained how this applies to assumptions about the christian god (either my version exists or none at all) – but what about all the OTHER gods around?At the very least you would have to be a Christian of some sort, but there are nearly as many Muslims, and their god also requires worship – so you would have to be a Muslim as well. Which is of course impossible, you can't be both.But what about all the other gods (or religions in general) that are being worshiped today? Some of them don't require worship, but most of them require you live a certain way. And it gets even MORE contradictory already.And what about all the other gods that have been worshiped in the past? You'd also have to worsip Thor and Zeus and Ra and so on and so on.And last but not least, what about all the denominations within those religions? You'd have to be a Catholic, a Protestant, a Baptist, a Mormon (etc.) and an orthodox christian all at the same time. Which is, again, impossible.Pascals Wager appears much more unreasonable if you consider all that. It's not a choice between two options – it's a choice between non-belief and thousands of different beliefs. And you're pretty much required to pick one, since following two different religions is almost impossible.

  • Katy-Anne

    I've never understood the idea Pascal's wager puts forth of hedging bets. Somehow I don't think it would even "count" if someone pretends to believe just to hedge their bets. Basically what Pascal wants is for people who don't believe in God to pretend to believe "just in case".

  • Libby Anne

    Katy-Anne – Yes, yes! I didn't even mention that point, but it's seemed odd to me to. Pretending to believe even if you think it's unlikely just to make sure you get to heaven? Like, what? Pretending is not the same as actually believing. It's just not.

  • katidyd

    I love it! I remember friends in high school being nervous for me because they didn't want me going to hell for not believing and giving me Pascal's argument (though not by that name). Didn't make sense to me then and i love your assessment. Spot on, as you often are!

  • Anonymous

    Let C be the configuration space of all possible beliefs in gods. Let H be the subset of all beliefs which … believe … you will be tortured forever for not believing. Pascal's wager indicates that the cost of believing in SOME x in C is the integral of (torture)(measure of H). This is true for every god in C. Therefore, believing in any god (or no god) is neither more nor less Argument: measure H = 0. C is clearly a Hilbert space. Let T: C to [0,1] be defined such that T(x) = 1/(1 + time you will be tortured). Observe that H is a subset of the preimage of {0}, hence has zero measure.Therefore, the integral of (torture time)(measure H) over H is zero, and disbelief is costless.

  • Anonymous

    Marcus Aurelius had trumped Pascal's wager centuries ago"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."

  • Anonymous

    @Anonymous: You're making the assumption that torture(x) defined on C is an integrable function. And that's after the assumptions that a generic measure-theoretic approach is a better model of the situation than a distributional one, and that torture can be meaningful quantified by real numbers for purposes of global analysis over the space of possible worlds. :)Very nice blog, Libby, I've enjoyed it immensely so far. I was linked here from Daylight Atheism (I believe it was). Sorry, but as an amateur mathematician I couldn't help but butt in.

  • Ana

    THIS! this is exactly what I thought that made me leave religion for good. I was raised a pentecostal evangelical, with lots of legalism, then stopped going to church but kept the 'values', then started realizing all the injustices and became a 'God of Love' hippie-style christian, and finally realized that I was just creating a god that was as I wanted it, and I couldn't have the pie and eat it: either the Bible was true, and I should go back to the unjust legalism of my youth, or love was all that mattered and God was completly useless in that picture. And so I created just the same wager as you did (altough I didn't have point 2). I try to live a happy life and do my best to make the world a better place, and if when I die God sends me to hell it will just prove he is neither just nor good!Anyways, I've been reading your blog (found it via Butterflies and Wheels) and you make some seriously good points a lot more articulately than I can manage. :)

  • Anonymous

    I don't think option 3 in your wager allows for god with boundaries (other than live in love towards others). Do you think that it's unreasonable for there to be such a thing?

  • Libby Anne

    Anonymous of 8:20 – Yes, I think making requirements besides living in love toward each other is unreasonable. My parents used to say that God is holy, so he can't tolerate anyone who disobeys his commands even in the slightest and those who disobey therefore MUST go to hell. But in that case, why create people in the first place knowing that you will HAVE to condemn some of them to eternal torture? A good and loving God would never do such a thing. So no, if a God has "boundaries" that necessitate him sending people to hell whether or not they are living in love toward others, he can't be a good God.

  • Aemi

    God deserves our obedience and worship because He is the one who made the whole entire universe. He is worthy of everything we can give him. He demands perfection because He is GOD. But He is showing me mercy by pardoning my sins. :) That is my perspective, and that is why I don't think much of either gamble.

  • quietpanther

    Option 5 — There are many gods (pantheism).A friend of mine recently pointed out the astonishing fact that THE BIBLE NOWHERE DISPUTES THIS IDEA. (No other gods BEFORE me, I am above ALL gods, etc.) Interesting.

  • Lionel

    Okay, I am not here in support of Pascals Wager because honestly, it does seem silly and flawed. However your wager really doesn't make sense either. It infuriates me when people use the argument you just used: "If God was a loving God, he would care more about people loving each-other then worshiping him." It's like you were raised Christian but know nothing about their beliefs. A Christian believes that God is a loving but also completely JUST God, and since we sinned, we DESERVE hell because that is what is JUST. You really can't argue with a Christian and prove their beliefs flawed. If God exists,he's a heck of a lot smarter then you are, so by using the said "humanly" argument proves nothing. It would be like me saying "well obviously if you put something at the BOTTOM of a ball, it falls right off, so the earth could NOT be round because those on the bottom would fall right off." From the point of view of someone who does not understand physics, that seems perfectly logical, doesn't it?

  • Libby Anne

    Yes of course I was raised with those arguments. The trouble is that punishing someone for finite transgressions with eternal torture is neither loving nor just. In absolutely no sense does someone "deserve" eternal torture, no matter what sins he or she has committed. As to claiming that my arguments aren't valid because God is smarter, don't you believe that he made us in his image, and that when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they gained the ability to tell good from evil? Genesis 3 says "And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil." This means that we have the same capacity for moral judgement that God does, so I don't think my arguments, which are based on simple morality, are out of line.

  • Rosie

    I suppose one could *define* “justice” to mean “whatever god says” (and some Christians will attempt this in order to maintain their argument), but any deity that will say “thou shalt not kill” and then shortly thereafter tell “his” people to go commit genocide isn’t one I want to have anything to do with, no matter how you “justify” it.

  • lara

    This has me thinking. What if their are other options? What if there is no heaven or hell, but there is still God. Would it then matter if you believed in It? Could it be beneficial to have interaction with this God, here and now? You talk a lot about love, but what about hope? What if the ancient Hebrews had a few real interactions with this real God and then made up the rest about him to fit into their cultural standards and norms? What if Jesus really had some sort of powerful spirituality, but he too only had his cultural upbringing in which to understand it? Could some parts be real and some parts false? What about the spiritual events from other religions? What if there is something there that is real, but everyone has been wrong about it so far? Should we continue to seek after knowledge of this unknown spiritual force? When I stopped believing in hell it opened up so so many more possibilities. It’s fun to think about them and to be free to think about them without worrying about being sent to hell.

  • Randomfactor

    A Christian believes that God is a loving but also completely JUST God, and since we sinned, we DESERVE hell because that is what is JUST

    Yeah. That’s a stupid belief. A religion built around that assumption is erroneous.