Don’t Bet On It: A Few Words On Pascal’s Wager

Blaise“God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here.” – Blaise Pascal 

To those who are not familiar with the concept of “Pascal’s Wager,” it basically posits a “heads or tails” bet regarding the acknowledgement of the existence and belief in God. This is one of the most common arguments used by a variety of Christians, and usually follows a question that can best be summed up as “Why don’t you just believe?”

In short, if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you’ve basically lost nothing. If he does, however, you go to heaven. Consequently, if you don’t believe in God and he doesn’t exist, again, you’ve basically lost nothing. However, if you don’t believe in God and he turns out to exist, they you’re screwed.

This, of course, doesn’t work… 

Yes, I know this has been addressed a gazillion times, and I have no reason to think that this article will put an end to the use of it. Furthermore, those who choose to use the wager or any one of its forms (there are several) are not considering that it requires an individual will him or herself to believe in something that is evidently false and that God will either be tricked by the avarice or accept an insincere worship.

As well, this speaks nothing about the exclusion of all the other religions of the world whose representatives put forth a very similar wager, but conducive to their deities. Then there’s the hypocrisy surrounding the motivation of caring only about the maximization of one’s own gain.

Comparative Religion… 

The problem with Pascal’s wager is immediately apparent when you consider the existence of hundreds of belief systems. For the wager to work the individual must first place their bet on the right god and each religion has a different concept of deity. Most of these religions do not play well with others.

Which God do you worship? Many religions have their own Scripture, and within these Scriptures lay the doctrine that they have been written by or contain writing that has been inspired by their respective deity or deities.Even more specifically, most religions claim that their way is the only way to achieve enlightenment, knowledge, and some sort of paradise or positive existence when this life is over.

Within Christianity, there are thousands of different denominations, sects and cults with significant differences in theology, doctrine, dogmas and beliefs; and to each of these come the belief that their particular group represents the “One True Way™.”

The concept of the Christian hell can be attributed to Dante’s “Inferno,” and served as the major source of information when doctrine and dogma was being formed. The concept of Original Sin was the brainchild of Augustine. The concept of devils and demons is another man-made drill.

These concepts play heavily into the Christian’s use of the Wager, as with most forms of proselytizing and evangelism. Without the threat of unimaginable and eternal torture, there’s no point to the existence of a savior or ritual to avoid it. Another point to consider is that the history of Christianity also contains records of denominations, cults and sects that have been discarded. What happened to those who took the wager, but bet on a religion that no longer exists?

A Long, Long Time Ago… 

There is no disputing that the Koran, the Bible, The Analects, The Bhagavad-Gita, the Mahabharata, the Five Classics, the I Ching, the Talmud, the Tao-te-ching, the Upanishads, the Veda, the Samhita and the rest of the holy books were written by primitive men with a primitive understanding of the world around them.

Hundreds of years of scientific discovery has disproved much of what was written in these books, which further invalidates the prospect of Pascal’s Wager.

The Point Is…

There is no point. I reject Pascal’s Wager simply on the basis that religious belief cannot be tested. This has nothing to do with the sincerity of believers. It’s just a poor way to offer an argument or apology.

Save your bets for the racetrack…

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  33 comments for “Don’t Bet On It: A Few Words On Pascal’s Wager

  1. unbound
    May 21, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Another important element (for me at least) regarding Pascal’s wager is the assumption that belief does no harm to anyone, therefore contains no risk. Of course, paying attention to the reality of religion (rampant misogyny, child rape, torture in the name of jebus, etc) shines a rather uncomfortably flashlight (for the religious) on that aspect of the wager as well.

  2. August Pamplona
    May 21, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Pascal’s wager is intended to show that even without presuppositions it is rational to believe in god. The problem is that it is full of presuppositions.

    The foremost presupposition is that if there is a god, believing in it has positive consequences (and the corollary that not believing in it may have negative consequences). If you take away that presupposition, it is clear that you could trivially reverse the Pascal’s wager matrix if the god you believe in happens to dislike believers.

  3. Steve
    May 21, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Pascal actually addressed the argument about other religions, but immediately dismissed it. Had had some serious blinders about his own religion and never really examined why he believes. Instead of examining the other religions, he turned it around and basically said that anyone who would study religion would inevitably conclude that it is right.

    The whole thing is based on a shaky foundation because it starts from this premise: you will want to be saved, because you don’t want to go to hell. Reason tells you that salvation is paramount, therefor rejecting it must be a purely emotional decision. But of course he never questioned this premise and never asked whether heaven and hell are actually real. He just assumed them to be so and thus rejected some of the objections.

    I really have trouble believing that he ever thought this was a good argument. Pascal was highly intelligent. Something of a wunderkind even who made important advances in physics and mathematics. But all that intelligence flew out of the window when it came to religion. Some serious compartmentalization there.

    • Shawn Smith
      May 21, 2012 at 11:20 am

      Pascal was certainly not the only one to have this problem. Isaac Newton, arguably one of the smartest humans this world has ever seen, had some really wacky ideas about alchemy. And even though he probably could have discovered perturbation theory to explain the stability of the solar system, his religious blinders caused him to simply throw up his hands when it came to the three body problem with gravity. He simply said “goddoesit” and didn’t bother to even try. Neil DeGrasse Tyson describes this quite elegantly.

  4. May 21, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Well done and well said!

  5. May 21, 2012 at 11:29 am

    The whole thing is based on a shaky foundation because it starts from this premise…

    Actually, I think Pascal’s premise was: “If I don’t cobble up a smart-sounding rationalization for the established religion, I’m screwed.” Which was actually, in his time, a very sound premise indeed.

  6. Robert
    May 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    You can use Pascal’s wager to argue for the existence of Santa Claus. If you believe, and place your shoe (ehm… do Americans use a shoe or a sock? I forget…) under the chimney, you get presents. If you don’t believe and dont place your shoe, nothing happens.

  7. dubiquiabs
    May 21, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Pascal got it wrong. The correct version is Dubi’s Wager:

    1.
    If you notice all the suffering perpetrated by the presupposed god, and you don’t rail against it, god finds your morality wanting and you are screwed. You will be punished with eternal torture (maybe by Dick Cheney in person).

    2.
    If you notice all the suffering perpetrated by the presupposed god, and you therefore become a raging atheist, especially a Gnu, you pass the test. You will be rewarded with eternal boredom.

  8. grumpyoldfart
    May 21, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    I’ve always thought the challenge was not so much a request for atheists to join the club, but more of a reinforcement for those who already believe but are starting to have doubts.

  9. Brad
    May 21, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    The “which God?” rebuttal is a powerful logical argument against Pascal’s wager. It can’t be said enough, and thanks for your take.

    I also like Greta’s take on it. The powerful idea from her piece that has stuck with me is that believing in religion is not free:

    Religion typically requires sacrifice.

    And this simple fact, all by itself, completely demolishes the foundational assumption of Pascal’s wager.

    The assumption of Pascal’s Wager is that any other wager is a sucker’s bet. Pascal’s Wager doesn’t just assume that the payoff for winning the bet is infinite bliss, or that the cost of losing is infinite suffering. It assumes that the stakes for the bet are zero.

    But the stakes are not zero.

    If this short life is the only one we have, then contorting our lives into narrow and arbitrary restrictions, and following rules that grotesquely distort our moral compass, and giving things up that are harmless and ethical and could make ourselves and others profoundly happy, all for no good reason… that’s the sucker bet.

  10. Sophia Dodds
    May 21, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    I love this video as a rather dlightful takedown of Pascal’s wager in all its rampant silliness.

    There’s also a follow-up video with rebuttals to people’s incredulous comments, but the video stands. I love all of Qualiasoup and TheraminTrees’ videos, very insightful and easy to understand.

  11. Art
    May 21, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    IMHO the problem with religion isn’t really the existence/non-existence of God or the existence/non-existence of heaven or hell. The problem comes down to the unquestioned assumption of the infinite as anything but a mathematical concept. Specifically the assumption that humans can/will experience infinity in pain/pleasure, and more narrowly, time.

    Infinite pleasure over an infinite amount of time can be used to motivate people to do anything. The flip side being that no amount of pain, suffering, and lies cannot be excused if you think that you are keeping people out of hell, and an infinite amount of pain over an infinite amount of time.

    Acceptance of God also implicitly accepts the existence of the supernatural. If you accept infinity applied to humanity, and accept the idea of the supernatural you are feather’s touch away from re-framing ignorance and acceptance of proof without evidence as a virtue, faith, instead of what it is, a failure the think.

    Acceptance of God is not free. For the concept of God comes with the acceptance of infinity related to humanity, the supernatural, and the transmutation of the ugly but solid base metal of ignorance to the useless but pretty metal of faith. This is a fatal flaw for both logical thought and human progress. It is far too high a price to pay for the whispered promise of the idea of eternal life and heaven. An idea presented without evidence. An idea bootstrapped into existence out of wishful thinking and desire for justice to compensate for insufficiency in this life.

  12. Azuma Hazuki
    May 22, 2012 at 2:27 am

    Art:

    That is one of the best takedowns of the cowardly Wager I’ve ever seen. Still having a hard time believing Pascal was that…well, naive about it too given all the other things he came up with. Maybe this is what “non-overlapping magisteria” really means? =p

    Also, a giant and everlasting “fuck you” to the people who poisoned my mind as a girl with threats of infinite torture and fiery pain. To this day volcanoes, lava flows, campfires, stoves, matches, and especially ovens still give me the creeps. May they all die in mortal fear of their own Hell, the last thing they ever experience in this world unrelenting horror and terror of a magnitude not possible even in warfare.

    • Art
      May 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks Azuma Hazuki I can use all the encouragement I can get. Down here in Florida I’m surrounded by Bible thumpers who care not a whit for logic or reason. Pascal’s Wager, in various flavors, is one of their favorites. It is also one of one of the most innocent sounding, but underhanded bit, of pseudo-argument out there.

      A shorter version of my point might be that if you accept the terms for Pascal’s Wager you have tacitly accepted that the supernatural is possible and that you very well might have an immortal body which has direct exposure to the infinite (pain/pleasure and time) in an afterlife. If you let all that framing, and speculation in the back door Pascal’s wager pretty much answers itself.

      There are ofter-the-fact disconnects like pointing out there may be may be more than one God as there are clearly more than one religion. These diversions of the point may disappoint the Bible thumper as he is unable to close the deal on converting you to his particular flavor of religion but I think you have still given up far too much. You have accepted the existence and belief in God in all but name.

      Asked to believe that there are Care Bears and Sparkle Ponies dancing on the dark side of the moon You have implicitly accepted the existence of Care Bears and Sparkle Ponies but reject the assertion by contending that while they very well may be there, they do not dance. You win the battle but lose the war because you are stuck with the tacit assumption that there are pastel colored critters on the dark side of the moon.

  13. David
    May 22, 2012 at 5:45 am

    My variant of the wager: you can believe in the christian god, who is said to be forgiving, or you can believe in one of the many vindictive and unforgiving gods. Pick the forgiving one and get it wrong, and you might still have a chance at salvation. But worship one of non-forgiving gods and get it wrong, and you will then suffer. Which should you choose?

  14. Heretical Ryan
    May 22, 2012 at 7:40 am

    We can tell Pascal’s wager is weak when Homer Simpson can refute it with one sentence.

    “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong religion. Every time we go to church we’re just making God madder and madder.”

    • Heretical Ryan
      May 22, 2012 at 8:44 am

      Actually that was technically TWO sentences – my bad 😛

  15. thomasware
    May 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    I use a variation of the wager on climate change deniers – if I am wrong I don’t lose a thing, If [they] are wrong we lose the only planet we can live on and our grand-children die nasty, brutish deaths.

    • May 22, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      It is not correct to say that if you are wrong you don’t lose a thing. If climate change science is wrong and we act upon the assumption that it is correct we may very well lose something. The, so called, climate skeptics usually claim that acting on this will produce some sort of economic ill effects which might very well be catastrophic.

      However, the side of the matrix involving climate scientists being correct also has stuff going on to weigh against significant economic effects (if any) from acting on that assumption and it’s pretty clear that it gets pretty ugly.

      This video talks about it.

  16. Aaron
    May 23, 2012 at 12:36 am

    Pascal’s Wager is the infomercial Money Back Guarantee of theism:

    “Buy a belief in this religion today, but if your afterlife experience fails to please, our Pascal’s Wager Guarantee means you’ll never pay more than your original lifetime membership… no need to worry about extra fees!”

    In all seriousness, from a marketing perspective, Pascal’s Wager has all the signs of being something designed to present people with the sort of (superficially) rational justification they need to keep their membership going, long after they made an emotionally-charged decision to join (much like how car ads sell emotive ideas like freedom, independence, power… then give people justifications they can tell other people, like airbags and fuel economy). Pascal’s Wager also helps a wavering believer to delay questioning their beliefs, by implying there’s no benefit in leaving and thus no point in asking difficult questions.

  17. roggg
    May 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Pascal’s wager suffers two glaring problems IMO. The first is that it is not an argument in favor of the existence of God. It is a utilitarian argument that belief is warranted independent of the truth of God’s existence. The second is the idea that beliefs can be chosen arbitrarily and for pragmatic reasons. My brain doesn’t work that way. The arguments have not been convincing, so I wouldn’t even know how to go about choosing to believe in God. Certainly I could ACT as though I believed, but what does that buy me?

    • smrnda
      May 23, 2012 at 11:17 pm

      Exactly – belief is only a choice if a person is in the habit of choosing beliefs rather casually and without much thought, but given the premium many Christians, particularly of the born-again or fundamentalist variety put on the necessity of passionate and enthusiastic faith to be really ‘saved’ Pascal’s Wager would seem not to apply there.

      I think I recall CS Lewis making a case that for a person on the fence they should just *act* like they believed and that, eventually, true faith would come, but I kind of think that’s only really possible for people who don’t think very much about whether things are actually true or false, kind of like people who vote for a candidate because they *seem like a nice guy they’d like to have a beer with.*

    • Midnight Rambler
      May 27, 2012 at 1:35 am

      That’s the thing – you can act like you believe, but if you’re only doing so because you’re hoping to be saved and not because you genuinely believe, you would think that a god (at least of the type Pascal was thinking of) would be able to see through that.

    • June 14, 2012 at 6:56 pm

      “…beliefs can be chosen arbitrarily…”

      Actually, Pascal’s thoughts on this were more subtle and interesting than the wager itself, which is blindlingly obvious.

      He said that if we behave as if we believe, in time we come to genuinely believe. This is quite a sharp observation into the nature of brainwashing and the way our minds do work.

  18. meaderborn
    May 24, 2012 at 10:26 am

    I’ve always liked this take on how to decide which god to choose when making the wager:

    Latta’s Wager:

    1. There exists a God, who will reward worship and obeying certain commandments in heaven.

    2. Necessarily to this, there exists an Adversary whose job it is to punish the transgressors in hell.

    3. The plethora of gods that exist and the various Words of God are so confused that it is impossible for those who don’t already believe in a god to work out which god to follow, or how to follow him/her/it. So the chances are, even if you follow a god, you are still going to hell.

    4. Regardless of which specific god exists, and how worship should be done, the Adversary exists as the antithesis of this god, and so we can regard the Adversary as a fixed entity.

    5. The Adversary also welcomes adherents and rewards the selling of your soul to him/her/it in this life by making the adherent a member of hell’s cadre, thereby making hell not so hellish.

    Thus, the sensible person must eschew all worship of any god and sell their soul to the Adversary. Since it is virtually certain that they are ending up in hell anyway, they are best served by ensuring that they have the most privileged position there that they can.

    (by Christopher Latta, harvested from alt.atheism.moderated, 6 Jan 2000)

  19. patricksimons
    May 24, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    In many ways Pascal was his own worst argument. He was one of the leading scientists of his age (Pascal’s Law) but never made another contribution to science after he became obsessed with religion.

    • Art
      May 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      No big surprise that, once you take aboard all the poisonous baggage that religion comes with there is considerably less room in the human mind for free thought, imagination, logic and reason. One wonders what so many great minds might have accomplished in the real world if they had not been occupied with figuring out how many angles can dance on the head of a pin and how much a soul weighs.

      In computer science the applicable acronym was GIGO, Garbage In-Garbage Out. Fill your mind with lies about the supernatural, an afterlife, eternal blessing or damnation, experiencing the associated joy and fear, and there are precious few clock cycles left for rational thought. Once religion takes root it tries to take over your mind.

  20. Who Cares
    May 25, 2012 at 9:27 am

    I wonder if you can turn this around with the good Samaritan tale as the basis. Does depend on the others not having read the bible seeing that the question leading up to to the parable explicitly states believe in God.

  21. john fraser
    May 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    there’s an assumption with pascal’s wager that BELIEF in god is what god wants in order for a person to gain paradise (or whatever you want to call it). what if god really wants you to NOT BELIEVE in order to go to heaven?

  22. Hypatia's Daughter
    May 28, 2012 at 11:44 am

    No expert on Pascal’s Wager, but I believe that he was not merely talking about god, in some generic xtiany way, but specifically about the god of the Catholic Church.
    That Pascal’s Wager is being used by all flavors of xtians (even those who don’t think Catholics are “true xtians”) is part of the sly and mendacious program of trying to create a big xtian coalition of “god believers” that can use its numeric superiority to climb to power – at which point the “not true xtians” will be thrown under the bus.
    Don’t believe for one second that the fundie sects give a rat’s ass that any other religious groups believe in god. The non-fundies believe in god the wrong way and so are as bad as atheists. However, the fundies keep quiet about that when they want the non-fundies money and votes.

  23. dannorth
    May 28, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    One minor quibble I have is about bunching the Analects with religious books.

    It does not refer to any revealed knowledge. It does accept the necessity of pursuing the traditionnal propitiatory cult of sacrifice to gods and ancestors but is mostly concerned with secular questions and tries to answer these question through reflection and study, without appeal to the supernatural.

    Whether we agree or disagree with what it say, it seems to me closer to philosophy than to religion.

  24. Tim Sprague
    May 29, 2012 at 4:31 am

    Al, look at these great responses!

    Pascal’s wager is exceedingly popular among the born again and Baptist persuasion.

    However, in the New Testament, the guideline for “born again”, so they say, the major writer, Paul, deals with this idea.

    He states directly, if Christ is not risen (ie: there is no God of Christianity) we (Christians) are of all men most miserable.

    Christians in the NT were expected to pay any price to win Christ!!

    Afterall, Paul had fought wild beasts, three times hit with rods, stoned (with actual stones) and left for dead, shipwrecked, etc.

    Eventually he was imprisoned, and held in chains, for two years and executed by the Romans.

    Now here is a guy living his faith…at great cost.

    What is the cost contemplated by Christians using Pascal’s wager? No sugar over lent? No meat on Fridays? Can’t admit the porn stash?

    Pascal’s Wager allows modern Christians to change Paul’s expectation of public execution into some kind of meager ascent of their mind!!

  25. Ed N
    June 5, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Next time I hear Pascals Wager coming from one of my Baptist friends I’ll respond with this:

    “Since this is all about playing the odds, shouldn’t you make arrangements with the Mormons to be baptized by them after you have died. Being baptized will allow you to sit in the sky box with the old man as opposed to the crappy seats in the bleachers. If Mormon theology is wrong then no loss, and if it’s right then you get a much better view.”

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