A Flip of the Coin

The proposition known as Pascal’s Wager is perhaps one of the most common arguments offered by theists against atheism. First formulated by the seventeenth-century mathematician Blaise Pascal, the Wager lays out the following options: If I believe in God and he does not exist, I have lost nothing. If I believe in God and he does exist, I will gain the infinite reward of Heaven. On the other hand, if I do not believe in God and he does not exist, I have neither lost nor gained anything; but if I do not believe in God and he does exist, I have earned the infinite punishment of Hell. Since I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God, then logically I should believe in him. Or more concisely, as some theists present it: “What if you’re wrong?” (As if atheists had never considered such a possibility.)

Since I hear this with depressing regularity from some theists who apparently think it’s a dazzling argument for their case, I will deal with it in this article.

The first and most serious objection to the Wager should be immediately obvious to anyone who sees it. It argues for belief in a god, but it doesn’t offer any advice on which god. There are hundreds, if not thousands – how can I tell which one is the right one? (“The Cosmic Shell Game” covers this topic in more detail.) Blaise Pascal was a Catholic and used the argument he concocted in favor of Catholicism, but today the Wager is most commonly used by evangelical Protestants. However, it can just as well be employed by members of other religions. Muslims can tell Christians that by worshipping Allah they may gain entry to a Paradise where they will be waited on for eternity by seventy-two dark-eyed virgins, whereas by rejecting him they run the risk of winding up in the Islamic Hell. Zoroastrianists might retort that Ahura Mazda is actually the one true deity, and those who believe in him and not Allah will get their heavenly reward, but those who reject him will be sent to a fiery damnation. The Hindus might interrupt and argue that the rewards for believing in Krishna are great and the dangers of rejecting him equally great. A Buddhist might gently correct all of them and point out that we can gain the bliss of Nirvana by following the Eightfold Path and practicing Zazen meditation, so why not try it – considering that the alternative is to be reborn as an animal, a hungry ghost or a damned soul? At this point the ancient Greeks might jump in, warning of the dire punishments waiting in Tartarus for those who reject the authority of Zeus. Meanwhile, while all this bickering goes on, the Nez Perce Indians sit off to the side smiling secretively, content in the knowledge that this world will end on the morning of the third day and we are living in the dreams of the second night, and that by believing this they stand to gain rewards none of the others could even imagine.

How do we pick the right god out of this multiplicity of deities? How can we find the right Heaven and avoid the right Hell when there are countless different ones to choose from? The Wager offers no help in making this choice; by its logic we should believe in any supernatural being claimed to have the power to reward or punish us. Do the theists who use Pascal’s Wager believe in Santa Claus? If not, they’re being inconsistent. By their own logic they should believe in him, because if he exists they’ll be rewarded with marvelous presents, and if he doesn’t, what do they lose? (For more on this topic, see Pascal’s Wager: Your Fortune Awaits.)

At first glance, belief in every god and every religion might seem the most obvious solution to this dilemma, but in reality this is impractical – the tithes would be staggering, the sheer number of devotions impossible to remember, and the amount of time each day that would have to be spent on ritual and prayer would total far more than 24 hours. And besides, most religions have already eliminated this option anyway by making claims to exclusivity, each one claiming that people who believe in any other are damned.

The fact of the matter is that atheism is a single, unified position, but theism is not. There is no such thing as “generic theism”; one cannot choose to “just believe something“. And the choice is not, as some evangelical Christians seem to think it is, between evangelical Christianity and nothing. There are hundreds of religions, and no a priori reason to choose one of them over any of the others. And the theist who chooses the wrong religion is in just as much trouble as the atheist who chooses none of them. Therefore, the first pillar of the Wager falls: one cannot assume that a person who believes in God and is wrong stands to lose nothing.

Of course, all this is assuming that God will punish nonbelief or wrong belief with Hell, and here lies the second objection to Pascal’s Wager: it takes as granted something that cannot be taken as granted, namely the nature of God. How can anyone know for sure that believers will be rewarded and nonbelievers punished? It is easy to conceive of different varieties of deities under which alternative scenarios would hold. For example, what if the universalists are right and God does not condemn anyone, but forgives everyone and lets them into Heaven anyway? In that case, atheists have nothing to lose. Conversely, some theists believe in a god so cruel and sadistic that he will condemn the vast majority of all people who have ever lived to endless, eternal torture. It’s not that great a leap beyond this to imagine a god who just condemns everyone, and again the theist is no better off than the atheist in this case. We could even imagine a god who doesn’t want us to believe in him, who has deliberately set up the world to make his existence appear unlikely, and who will actually punish those who disregarded the evidence in the name of faith and reward those who fearlessly followed where reason led them. (Richard Carrier’s brilliant The End of Pascal’s Wager describes such a scenario.) In this case, Pascal’s Wager is reversed and the scales swing the other way; now atheism is the position that stands to gain the most.

The third objection to Pascal’s Wager is as follows. Suppose an atheist hears the Wager, is impressed and converts. Then he dies. What will he say if he ends up facing God at the Pearly Gates? “Well, I didn’t really believe in you, but I played the odds.” Is that person going to get into Heaven?

If God is really all-knowing, then he isn’t naive. He’ll be able to tell the difference between genuine faith and a mere profession of faith made out of a cynical desire to be rewarded or a fear of being punished. Pascal’s Wager produces the latter. It is not an argument for God’s existence; it does not offer any considerations to make God’s existence more likely; in short, it is not a reason why theism is true. It is nothing more than an appeal to greed coupled with a threat of force. “Whether this is true or not,” it says, “shouldn’t you believe in it anyway, on the off-chance you might be rewarded?”

But reality does not work this way. A sincere atheist does not disbelieve because he doesn’t see what’s in it for him – a sincere atheist disbelieves because an honest consideration of the evidence has led him to that conclusion. If a proselytizer from the Most Holy Church of the Invisible Pink Unicorn sought to win me to his belief that his goddess, a 500-foot-tall, fire-breathing invisible pink unicorn, created the universe, he would not be likely to persuade me no matter how wonderful the heavens he held out as reward. Likewise, I feel no greater inclination to believe in Wonko just because his hell is claimed to be ten times worse than the Christian one. In both these cases, I have seen no good evidence for the existence of these beings, and without this evidence I simply cannot in good conscience believe in them; and the situation is the same for the Christian, Islamic and other gods which, after all, differ from Wonko and the Invisible Pink Unicorn only in the number of people who profess faith in them. The question of reward or punishment for belief in such beings does not even enter into the picture – there is no point in considering the consequences of a proposition until we have accumulated enough evidence to decide that the proposition has a possibility of being true.

Everyone understands this, whether they realize it or not. After all, why else do Pascal’s-Wager-using theists reject belief in Santa Claus? As stated above, by their own argument they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by such belief, regardless of how small the chances are that such an entity actually exists; yet no adult theists I know of believe in jolly old St. Nick. The reason for this is precisely because they understand that the notion of Santa Claus is demonstrably untrue, an idea with no good evidence in its favor and strong positive evidence weighing against it, and therefore they feel free to disregard that “but what if…” possibility as unworthy of consideration. The situation with atheists and God is very much the same.

The fourth and final objection to the Wager is that one of its basic premises is wrong. Pascal assumed that if one believes in God but God turns out not to exist, one has not lost anything. But this is not true. As stated previously, Pascal was a Catholic and used his Wager to promote Catholicism. To be a Catholic, though, one incurs a whole range of obligations: find a church, be baptized, receive communion, have last rites, go to confession, go to Mass each week (and perhaps make a donation to the collection plate), agree never to use birth control, agree never to have an abortion, sign a pledge promising to bring one’s children up Catholic as well, and so on. This is hardly an insignificant investment, neither of time nor of money – and this is to say nothing of whatever share of the corporate guilt one assumes for joining a church which is still furthering the cause of human misery by fighting against safe and widely available contraception in desperately overcrowded regions of the Third World; a church which still seems more concerned about sheltering its assets from lawsuits brought by the victims of institutionalized sex abuse than about making sure such abuse never happens again.

Nor does belief in other religions come without a price. If one instead chooses to be a born-again Christian, there is the duty to proselytize which may well end up driving away friends and loved ones. Choose to be a Muslim and there are prayers to be prayed five times a day every day, a holiday that requires a month of fasting, and an obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Choose to be an orthodox Jew and there are strict dietary and other laws concerning practically every aspect of living that must be rigorously adhered to. None of these things are small commitments. In fact, many religions require fundamental changes in lifestyle, behavior, mode of thought, and outlook on the world.

And if the god one believes in turns out not to exist, is it really true that one has lost nothing? An atheist would say that a mistaken theist has lost something very significant indeed: that person has gone through their entire life, the only life they will ever have, believing a lie. Is that really a trivial loss? Should we be happy to go to our graves swaddled in the bliss of ignorance? Or is it not a tragic waste of the inestimably precious ability to reason we all possess? There may or may not be an afterlife, but it is undeniable that there is an earthly life, one that is all the more valuable for its brevity, and one that should not be wasted – and personally, I can think of no better way to live one’s life to the fullest than to spend it in fearless pursuit of the truth. I say that the joy of understanding, the pleasure of finding out, is what makes existence worthwhile – not spending that existence in slavish devotion to every bipolar celestial tyrant the minds of men have conjured up, on the off-chance that one of them just might be real.

In closing, I offer this suggestion for consideration: Proselytizers who use Pascal’s Wager should ask themselves whether they believe in a God who values self-serving gambles above honest and sincere nonbelief. Even if one chooses to believe, it is better to make that decision as the result of a reasoned consideration of the evidence as one sees it, not as an intellectual shrug towards whatever possibility promises the greater reward. This Wager would trivialize atheism and theism both by reducing the choice between them to a 50/50 shot, a one-out-of-two chance, a flip of the coin. As an atheist, I say let us not throw our allegiance to whoever offers the most appealing bribe – let us make our decision based on the facts.

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