Blaise Pascal was the seventeenth-century French philosopher and mathematician who famously argued that, in the absence of conclusive evidence, it was better to wager that God existed, since you had everything to gain and little to lose.
Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager?… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
Pascal’s Wager appeals to us because it is sometimes reasonable to take precautions against a potential consequence, even when conclusive evidence is lacking. With eternal life on the line, even if there is only a small chance that God exists, doesn’t it makes sense to err on the side of caution, just in case?
Claims and Consequences
Pascals Wager breaks down into two main parts: a claim and a consequence. The claim is that God exists and wants us to believe in him, and the consequence is that he will reward us (or punish us) based on how we respond to this claim.
Before we delve into Pascal’s wager, let’s briefly look at what it means to make a claim.
When someone makes a claim that might be called into question, it’s their responsibility to meet the burden of proof. This is just a practical matter, since it’s all-too-easy to make up assertions. There are, in fact, far more things that could be claimed than things that actually exist.
For example, I could claim that:
- there are six invisible aliens living in your colon;
- your mom had a secret affair with Mr. T.;
- God is currently living as a lesbian in the Bronx;
- only whales and kangaroos get into heaven;
- all lawyers go to hell; and
- Einstein was born with an invisible Siamese twin hermaphrodite attached to his ankle that had to be removed by a voodoo priestess.
And the list goes on and on. Claims are easily made up and can be difficult to prove, and the burden should not be placed on you to prove them all.
It annoys me that the burden of proof is on us. It should be: “You came up with the ideas. Why do you believe it?” I could tell you I’ve got superpowers. But I can’t go up to people saying “Prove I can’t fly.” They’d go: “What do you mean ‘Prove you can’t fly’? Prove you can!’
~ Ricky Gervais
The more extraordinary the claim, the more important it is to have good evidence. For example, I could claim that my cat once had kittens, and I could claim that my cat once had puppies. The latter claim is going to demand a lot more evidence because it’s much more extraordinary.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
~ Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
If a claim cannot be proven true, it’s equally important that it can be proven false, so that (either way) the truth can eventually be known. Falsifiability is also important because its easy to make excuses to purposefully render a claim unfalsifiable.
It is nothing short of extraordinary to claim that invisible supernatural beings exist, and that one in-particular has always existed; he is omniscient and omnipresent, and he is the one who created everything, and a part of him came to earth through a virgin, performed many miracles, sacrificed himself to himself to save you from eternal suffering, and then rose from the dead. Such a fantastic claim demands extraordinary evidence.
So the first red flag with Pascal’s Wager is that it makes an extraordinary claim, and then excuses itself from having to meet the burden of proof.
But Christianity offers a good excuse for not having to provide evidence: God has intentionally obscured all evidence in order to preserve free will! This is a creative excuse, but is it actually true? Or was this just a clever excuse engineered to avoid having to meet the burden of proof, and to make the claim impossible to falsify?
Consider for a moment that every god in the history of the world also refuses to reveal itself to you. (Isn’t that an amazing coincidence!?) Baal, Zeus, Mazda, Vishnu, Thor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster — they too are all invisible and they all have good excuses for not appearing to you. Even if it’s claimed they once appeared, they will most certainly have a good excuse for not appearing to you right now.
And gods are not the only ones excusing themselves from having to meet the burden of proof. Every spirit, monster, UFO alien, Sasquatch, fairy, leprechaun, chupacabra, and unicorn has a good excuse for not providing proof. It’s never that they don’t exist, it’s always because they are rare, or invisible, or small, or elusive, or on vacation, or they want you to do something before they will reveal themselves, or there is a government conspiracy covering them up.
The God of the Jews is no different; instead of just providing proof, we hear excuses for why the burden of proof can never be met.
So Pascal’s Wager makes a claim, and just like every other god, spirit, or imagined creature, it offers a creative excuse for why the burden of proof cannot be met. Evidence and reason are all we have to work with when it comes to determining truth, and once we begin to accept excuses in place of facts, we must accept all other unsubstantiated claims that carry consequences.
The Problem with Mohammad
To use a real-world example, Pascal could have just as easily wagered for Mohammad:
Let us then examine this point, and say, “Mohammad is God’s prophet, or Mohammad is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here…. Wager, then, without hesitation that Mohammad is God’s prophet.
Muslims too believe they have good evidence, and after 1,500 years of trying, Christians have failed to disprove this evidence to the satisfaction of over a billion Muslims.
Seeing as how the evidence is inconclusive, Pascal’s logic dictates that we play it safe, and wager that Mohammad was God’s prophet… just in case. But we cannot wager on both Christianity and Islam, because each idea is mutually exclusive, and this is where Pascal’s logic begins to unravel.
Having excused itself from having to meet the burden of proof, Pascal’s Wager (and by extension, Christianity) raises a second red flag by warning of severe consequences for not believing.
Appealing to consequences in this way is considered a logical fallacy, because it places the crux of the argument on the consequence(s) rather than the evidence. This tactic is generally frowned upon because: 1) it doesn’t provide any new evidence, 2) it attempts to motivate through fear rather than facts, and 3) it’s just as easy to invent consequences as it is claims (and if you don’t believe that, your teeth will fall out!).
While it’s entirely possible that the consequences of an unsubstantiated claim might be real, consequences are often used to manipulate others, and so we must be on guard against their misuse, especially when they are not accompanied by strong evidence, or when the claimant has something to gain.
Superstitious Claims and Consequences
Superstitions operate on the same basic principals as Pascal’s Wager: they too make a claim that is difficult to disprove, and they appeal to consequences to motivate others to action. For example:
- You should throw spilled salt over your shoulder to prevent demonic temptation.
- If you walk under ladders you will have bad luck.
- If you break a mirror you will have seven years bad luck. (Unless you throw a shard into a south-flowing river.)
- You should pass along that chain letter to improve your luck; breaking the chain will bring bad luck.
Likewise, Pascal’s Wager says: “You should believe in God to have eternal good luck; if you don’t believe you will have eternal bad luck.”
And as with the chain letter, it’s obvious that the original author invented these consequences to motivate others to distribute his letter. The consequences of Christianity may have been invented for similar reasons, because they work to motivate others to believe in and spread Christianity.
One distinct difference between Christianity and superstition is that Christianity’s consequences are carried out indefinitely. While the severity of a consequence does not add one iota of proof to the original claim, the perceived risk is greater, which provides all the more motivation to believe.
So Pascal’s Wager (and Christianity) not only skirts around the burden of proof, but by making claims of eternal consequences, it manages to inject the maximum amount of urgency into its claim without providing any more evidence. What’s more, because the consequences do not become apparent until after you’re dead, neither the original claim or its consequences can ever be falsified — you can’t prove it, you can’t disprove it, and the consequences are the most extreme imaginable. (Brilliant!)
But what if you’re wrong?
Assuming Pascal is correct, and God will condemn us to hell for not believing, then we must ask ourselves: “Is it then morally right to submit to a God who would do such a thing?”
This situation is a bit like living under a dictator who insists that you serve him or be put to death. Do you join him? Do you help him kill others who refuse to join? Or would you rather die than partake in actions you believe to be immoral?
While we’d all like to think we’d take the moral high ground, history and scientific experiments (e.g. the Milgram experiment) have shown that most of us will check our moral compass at the door and submit to whomever is in charge (our species is pathetic that way). I suspect the same thing occurs with God: believers assume God is good because he says he is, and since he’s in charge “might makes right,” and we don’t give much thought to the actual morality of his actions.
But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
Believers will sometimes argue that because we are God’s creation, he has the right to do whatever he wants with us (including throwing us into hell forever). But is that morally right?
If it turns out that aliens are responsible for creating us, and they return next Tuesday to enslave and torture us, do they have the moral authority to do so? Or if a scientist creates a living being, fashioned from something other than DNA but still capable of experiencing pain, does that give him the right to torture it? Would you stand idly by as he jabbed hot pokers in its eyes, defending his actions by saying, “It’s okay, because he created it!” Will you stand there in Heaven, watching as Satan jabs hot pokers in my eyes, saying, “It’s okay, because God created him!”
If it is true that God allows people to be tortured, I believe it is morally wrong to submit to such a God, for several reasons.
First, I believe (as the Bible says) that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matt. 7:12). I do not wish to burn in hell forever, nor do I believe God would wish this punishment upon himself if the situation were reversed.
Second, if punishment must exist, it should fit the crime. Eternal punishment for a finite crime is infinitely excessive, gratuitous, and therefore evil.
And finally, if punishment must exist, it should serve a purpose. To punish people without any end-goal in mind is pointless. Even if this punishment succeeds in teaching them a lesson, they can no longer do anything about it. Their endless tears of regret and screams for mercy cannot possibly bring about more justice after that point. This is not justice, and certainly not the actions of a loving creator.
Strange a God who mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness, then invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none Himself; who frowns upon crimes yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon Himself; and finally with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship Him!
~ Mark Twain
If it’s true that God knows the future, and hell really does exist, then his story is not about the few he managed to save, but about the majority he knew would be lost. Even if God did not know what would happen, he should’ve learned from Adam, or at least by Noah’s time, that mankind and free will were not a good combination. God gambles with the souls of men, knowing most will be lost.
The God of hell should be held in loathing, contempt and scorn. A god who threatens eternal pain should be hated, not loved; cursed, not worshiped. A heaven presided over by such a god must be below the meanest hell.
~ Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899)
Eternal suffering does not serve a loving God, it is not logical, it is not just, and it is wholly incompatible with his character. However, fear of hell does motivate people to join and spread Christianity, and I don’t think this is a mere coincidence.
Why would God even want to fill heaven with a bunch of “yes men,” who blindly go along with God’s definition of “good”? Wasn’t the point of creating man to avoid having a bunch of robots? Does God only want us to use our free will to choose to serve him, but never to question what is good? What if this is a test, and God is really looking for those who will think for themselves; those who will refuse to compromise their sense of morality even in the face of eternal torment? If God desires the company of those who are truly good, then he will want those who stand up to all kinds of evil, even when that evil is perpetrated by God himself. But then again, maybe God really does just want a bunch of sheep.
I have always considered “Pascal’s Wager” a questionable bet to place, since any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite.
~ Alan M. Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer
(Note: I realize not all Christians share the same vision of hell, and this is something I will take on under a later question. But with respect to Pascal’s Wager, if we assume that hell is not all bad or is only temporary, then it makes it far less risky to wager against God.)
Fake it till you make it?
In response to Pascal’s Wager, some atheists argue that you can’t make yourself believe if you don’t, and God would know if you were faking. I disagree. You wouldn’t be repenting if you didn’t believe, at least a little. We don’t repent to Baal or Zeus because we don’t believe in them. Pascal’s Wager is not intended for those who have no faith in the possibility of God’s existence.
That said, I can’t stress enough how insanely suspicious it is that God should place any importance on our ability to believe without evidence. If God were real, and truly a god of love, he would place value on things like love, compassion, mercy, virtue, forgiveness, etc., and would judge us on these things. It does not make sense that God would place any value on some measure of gullibility, however, it does make sense that if God does not exist, that those who invented him would place a value upon belief without evidence, precisely because there was none.
“Religion is poison because it asks us to give up our most precious faculty, which is that of reason, and to believe things without evidence. It then asks us to respect this, which it calls faith.”
~ Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
I strongly suspect that ideas like “hell” and “faith without evidence” exist not because they are reasonable, or true, but because they work to motivate us. Add this to the fact that Christianity’s claims and consequences can never be proven nor falsified, and the whole claim smells fishy.
Christianity has always presented itself as the only viable option (“turn or burn”), and Pascal’s Wager just spells this out. Is Pascal’s Wager a compelling argument? Absolutely, it is probably the most compelling argument one could forge from nothing.
But Pascal’s Wager asks us to betray our mind to cover our ass. It does a disservice to truth by asking us to elevate our beliefs beyond what the evidence supports. It adds no new evidence for the existence of God; it employs the same reasoning as superstition; its logic can be used to defend any god or religion, and even if true, we would have to betray our own sense of morality in order to fully embrace it.
The only thing we know with any certainty is that we have this life, shall we wager it away on the chance at another? In accepting Pascal’s Wager, we wager our minds, our money, our time, our reason, our morality, our children, and possibly even the very survival of our species.
If we were to all accept Pascal’s Wager, and give ourselves over to God and the Bible without question, and we are all wrong, what then? Then we have allowed our species to become enslaved by superstition, and gambled away the only life we will ever have, and with it humanity’s only chance at understanding the truth about who we are and where we came from.
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.
~ Unknown (aka “The Atheist’s Wager”)