Pascal's Wager

todangst's picture


The is a rather famous logical argument for the pragmatic benefit of believing in god as opposed to defending his actual existence. As such, it is intriguing because it is intended to gain believers without having to solve the impossible problem of offering proof of God's existence.

Therefore, Pascal's wager is alluring in its simplicity. It's really an attack on'agnosticism' (in the colloquial sense that agnosticism equates with "being undecided" between theism and strong atheism) , for it states that the requirement of certainty is a false one. It states the following: Either God exists or he does not. If he exists and you are a beliver, you "win" everlasting life. If he does not exist and you are a believer, nothing is lost, because you gain or lose just as much as the non believer. However, If he does exist and you are not a believer, you lose out on eternal life. Of the four possible permutations:

Belief and God exists = believer is saved

Non Belief and God exists = non believer suffers hellfire

Belief and God does not exist = believer does not suffer more than non believer

Non Belief and God does not exist = non believer does as well as believer

...there is no place where a non believer benefits over a believer and in no case does belief ever bring harm. Therefore, logically, one should be a believer in god, if for no other reason than that atheism cannot ever benefit a person regarding the afterlife.

This argument is specious, for many reasons. I will list several:

1) One should accept a claim because there is a rational ground for holding to it. To do otherwise is to fall to the fallacy of arguing to adverse consequences.

Therefore, Pascal's dictum is invalid. Pascal intended his wager to circumvent frustrated reason. As such the wager is not an intellectual argument for belief so much as it is an attempt to extort belief through fear and greed by way of moral cowardice. Yet even if the wager were granted at face value, it would only establish the desirability of belief, "not provide grounds for belief itself." Pascal recognized this limitation and argued that one should use ritual and church attendance as a way to "deaden your acuteness," and eventually attain belief. In other words, he was advocating irrationality and conceding that his wager was an rhetorical ploy and not a logical argument. The fact that the creator of the wager concedes this is lost on those who continue to advocate his wager.

2) Pascal's wager does not tell us which god to follow. It only presumes one should be a christian because Pascal was a christian. One could be a believer in a christian god and still suffer hellfire from Allah or Zeus.

Therefore Pascal's wager commits the false dichotomy error and is invalid.

3) Pascal's argument does not offer proof that disbelief in God means one is banished to hell. It is only, again, an assumption in some religions, such as christianity.

4) Pascal is wrong to assume that atheist does not benefit from his decision, if god does not exist.

A person accepting a false religions DOES have a lot to lose - you lose your own ability to make choices, as well as fail to appreciate the world in a different, perhaps relativistic manner. (See secular humanism for more.) If God does not exist, and there is no afterlife, we should be devoting our energies towards extending lifespan, and this requires a scientific, not a theistic, worldview. We also have reams of historical documents showing that theocratic systems have brought about the greatest miseries in history. Clealry, one has a lot to lose by being a believer, and accepting false tenets from false religions.

5) Pascal may be wrong to assume that the atheist does not benefit from his decision even if there is a god!

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete states that the Roman Catholic church's official position on salvation is that what matters is that a person be true to his beliefs. He declares that an atheist can 'go to heaven' granted that the atheist is in earnest about his atheism. Read this page for more:

From the page:

According to the New Testament, Jesus was born as a sign of God's love for humanity--sent to Earth so that "whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life," as the gospel of John puts it. Over the years, this prerequisite for admission to heaven--believing that Christ died for your sins--has been a strong incentive to become or remain a Christian. But if God really loves humankind, shouldn't He let, say, a good Buddhist or Jew through the pearly gates? God goes further than that, says Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete in this clip from his interview: even atheists are eligible for salvation. This radical reinterpretation of scripture, Albacete notes later in the interview, has now become official Catholic doctrine (unbeknownst even to many Catholics).

6) Lastly, I will surprise some by making an appeal to morality and faith. In a religious vein - doesnt this religion ring hollow? Does God really want his followers to come to him out of fear or desire for reward, and no other reason? I would maintain that even religious people would reject Pascal's wager for this reason. Therfore, it is likely that atheists, agnostics and theists can all agree that Pascal's wager is a vast oversimplification of a very difficult decision.

"Hitler burned people like Anne Frank, for that we call him evil.
"God" burns Anne Frank eternally. For that, theists call him 'good.'