In A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, there is an article by Jeffrey Jordan on “Pragmatic Arguments”, that covers Pascal’s Wager. According to Jordan, there are at least three versions of Pascal’s Wager. In this post I will examine one of the three versions, which goes something like this:
1. Either God exists or it is NOT the case that God exists.
2. If God exists, then a person who believes in God will be much better off than a nonbeliever.
3. If it is NOT the case that God exists, then a person who believes in God will be no worse off than a nonbeliever.
4. In terms of practical considerations, a person who believes in God will in no case be worse off than a nonbeliever, and there is a chance (if God exists) that a person who believes in God will be much better off than a nonbeliever.
5. In terms of practical considerations, it is better to be a person who believes in God than a nonbeliever.
A similar argument can be made for the opposite conclusion:
1. Either God exists or it is NOT the case that God exists.
6. If it is NOT the case that God exists, then a nonbeliever will be better off than a person who believes in God.
7. If God exists, then a nonbeliever will be no worse off than a person who believes in God.
8. In terms of practical considerations, a nonbeliever will in no case be worse off than a person who believes in God, and there is a chance (if it is NOT the case that God exists) that a nonbeliever will be better off than a person who believes in God
9. In terms of practical considerations, it is better to be a nonbeliever than a person who believes in God.
Premise (6) asserts that nonbelievers have the advantage over people who believe in God, assuming that God does NOT exist. The most obvious point here is that nonbelievers can sleep in on Sunday morning, or as Steve Martin put it, we atheists can watch football in our underpants on Sundays:
Of course being a believer in God does not necessarily mean that one is a devout Christian who goes to church every Sunday, but a person who believes in God is subject to various religious appeals, traditions, and practices, while a nonbeliever has little or no interest in such religious traditions or practices.
A person who believes in God is likely to have various concerns and even anxieties about God:
a. What does God expect of me?
b. Does God care about the happiness and well-being of individual humans?
c. If God does care about the happiness and well-being of individual humans, then why do so many people suffer? Why do so many people die of starvation? Why do so many people die of cancer and other diseases? Why is there so much war and violence in the world?
d. If God does not care about the happiness and well-being of individual humans, then how can we consider God to be a perfectly good person?
e. Has God attempted to communicate to human beings? Is there a book that contains divine revelation, messages of wisdom and guidance from God?
f. If so, which book among alleged divine revelations is truly a message from God?
g. If there is no such book or message from God, then how can we consider God to be a perfectly good person?
h. Is there a religion that is the true religion?
i. If there is a true religion, which of the many existing relgions is the true one?
j. If there is no true religion, then how can we believe that God is a perfectly good person?
k. Does God have a plan or mission for my life? or Does God just have general expectations or requirements for humans?
l. If God does have a specific plan or mission for my life, then how can I find out the contents of that plan?
These are just a few of the obvious questions and concerns that a person who believes in God is likely to take seriously, and ought to take seriously. If someone does not take these and similar questions seriously, then he or she probably does not actually believe in God, but only says so to avoid drawing attention to himself or herself.
A nonbeliever is free of these worries and concerns. If there is no God, then a person who believes in God has taken upon himself/herself a number of issues and concerns that are (assuming there is no God) irrelevant and useless, questions that have no bearing on reality. Belief in God is not strictly a theoretical position; it has practical and psychological implications; it comes with a cost. If there is no God, then one is better off by not taking on the practical and psychological costs involved with belief in God.
Furthermore, as a matter of fact, there is no clear and obvious solution to the problem of evil, and there is no clear and obvious answer to the question ‘Which alleged book of divine revelation is truly a divine revelation?’ nor to the question ‘Which of the many religions in the world is the true religion?’. So, the effort and level of anxiety involved in taking these questions seriously is significant. An authentic and thoughtful believer in God has a whole series of difficult issues to confront and work through, issues that nonbelievers can simply set aside as irrelevant to reality.
Premise (7) asserts that a nonbeliever is no worse off than a believer, even if God does exist. Pascal, and many modern Christians, would object that a believer in God can enjoy eternal life in heaven, while a nonbeliever will (if there is a God) be bound for eternal misery in hell.
But there are some serious problems with this objection. First, Pascal asserts that reason cannot determine whether God exists or not. But ‘heaven’ is understood to be God’s reward to righteous people, and ‘hell’ is understood to be God’s punishment of wicked people. So, if reason cannot determine whether God exists or not, then reason also cannot determine whether there is a heaven or a hell in the next life.
Pascal could reply that we are thinking hypothetically here. We are supposing that God does exist, and trying to figure out the implications of that supposition. If God did exist, then it seems likely that God would reward good people in an afterlife and punish evil people in an afterlife, in order to compensate for the injustices that we see in this life (where evil people sometimes have happy lives and good people sometimes have lives of sorrow and misery).
But being good and being bad is not the same as believing in God or being a nonbeliever. Bad people can believe in God, and good people can be nonbelievers. So, if we are concerned about God giving some people rewards in the afterlife for being good and giving punishments in the afterlife for being bad, then the distinction between believers and nonbelievers is largely beside the point.
Furthermore, Pascal was a Catholic, and Catholic theology does NOT teach that belief in God is what gets a person into heaven. According to Catholic theology, one must die in a state of grace in order to be certain of eternal happiness in heaven. Believing in God might be a necessary condition for dying in a state of grace, but it is clearly NOT a sufficient condition. One must accept other theological and metaphysical doctrines taught by the Catholic church, and one must be baptized, and one must have confessed one’s sins and received absolution, etc.
From a Protestant point of view, salvation is absurdly uncertain in Catholic teaching. One could be a completely devout Catholic every hour of every day for one’s entire life, for 100 years, and then in the last 60 seconds before death, commit a mortal sin and die before confessing or repenting of that sin, and such a person would end up being tortured in hell for all eternity, according to Catholic teaching. Obviously, belief in God accomplishes nothing for such a person.
More importantly, however, the doctrine of eternal punishment is clearly false. God is a perfectly good person, but even imperfect human beings can recognize that torturing a person is morally wrong, even if the person being tortured deserves to be punished for some morally wrong or evil action. It is even more obvious that torturing a person for eternity would be morally wrong, even if the person being tortured deserved some sort of punishment for evil actions. If God is a morally perfect person, then surely God would not stoop to torture, and the idea that God would stoop to torturing a person for an eternity is simply absurd.
So, thinking hypothetically, and supposing that there was a God, I am completely certain that there is no risk that God, who is a perfectly morally good person (based on the meaning of the word ‘God’), would ever consider torturing any human being eternally, not even Adolf Hitler deserves such a horrific fate.
I am also completely certain that a morally perfect person would never torture some people because they did not believe in God in their earthly lifetime, nor would a morally perfect person impose a serious punishment on a person for failing to believe in God. Being mistaken about the issue ‘Does God exist?’ is NOT a moral failing. It is, at worst, an intellectual failing.
A perfectly good and perfectly just deity would not seriously punish a human being for an intellectual failing, particularly if the person in question made a serious effort to figure out the correct and true answer to this question, but made some errors in reasoning, or failed to fully appreciate the force of a certain bit of evidence, and so on.
Yes, Jehovah, the god of the Bible, would send people to hell simply because they held an incorrect metaphysical or theological belief. But Jehovah is clearly a false god, precisely for that reason. I’m not concerned with the question ‘Does Jehovah exist?’, I’m concerned with the question ‘Does God exist?’, and we are NOT considering the hypothesis that Jehovah exists, but rather the supposition that God exists, and that suppostion means that we are thinking about the existence of a morally perfect person, a person who was utterly and completely a good person.
So, do atheist or nonbelievers have anything to fear, if it should turn out that they are mistaken on the metaphysical issue ‘Does God exist?’ No, because God, if God exists, is a perfectly good and just person, and so God, unlike Jehovah, would have absolutely no interest in punishing any human being simply for holding a mistaken metaphysical belief. Thus, atheists have no reason to think there is any chance that God would torture them in hell for being nonbelievers.
Furthermore, since a perfectly good and just deity would judge people in terms of morally relevant considerations (and NOT on basis of philsophical and metaphysical beliefs that were honestly held), nonbelievers have just as much chance of being granted eternal life in heaven as believers.
In fact, nonbelievers might have a better chance, given that God, if God exists, designed the human brain, and presumably wants humans to make good use of the brain he designed. To the extent that nonbelievers are critical thinkers who insist on thinking their own thoughts and arriving at their own conclusions, and refuse to follow religious authorities, refuse to be like sheep following a shepherd, God might well prefer the company of such people over the company of those who are happy to let others do their thinking for them.
If I were God, I would prefer the company of independent-minded critical thinkers to the company of sheeplike people who were credulous and who simply believe what they are told.
Given that God is a perfectly good and just person, we can rule out the doctrine of eternal punishment. Since God is just we cannot rule out punishments or rewards in the afterlife, if it turns out there is a God. But punishments and rewards from a perfectly good and just person would NOT be based on whether someone held particular metaphysical beliefs and theories. Believers in God can be evil people, and nonbelievers can be paragons of virtue, and the reality is that most people are somewhere in the middle, whether they believe in God or not.
Atheists and nonbelievers are therefore not in a worse position than believers concerning happiness in an afterlife, even if we assume that atheists are mistaken and that God does exist. Therefore, since atheists are better off than theists if there is no God, and atheists are not worse off if there is a God, then it is better to be an atheist than to be a theist.