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 isn’t unreasonable to take precautions against a potential consequence, even when 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 can be broken down into two parts: a claim and a consequence. The claim is that God exists and wants us to believe in him and repent; the consequence is that he will reward us (or punish us) based on how we respond to this claim.
Lets take a closer look at each of these two parts.
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 all sorts of claims.
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.
The list of things that could be claimed is endless, and because these claims can be difficult to prove, the burden should not be placed on you to prove all of them.
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!’
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 than the former, because it’s so incredibly extraordinary.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
–Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
It is nothing short of extraordinary to claim that invisible supernatural beings exist, and that one in-particular has always existed without cause; and that he is omniscient, and omnipresent, and created everything out of nothing, and a part of him came to earth through a virgin, and this part of him performed many impossible miracles, and walked on water, and raised the dead, and he sacrificed himself (to himself) to save everyone from eternal suffering. This is the claim Pascal is making, and such a fantastic claim demands extraordinary evidence.
Using excuses used to avoid falsification
If a claim cannot be proven true, it’s equally important that it at least be falsifiable, so that (either way) the truth can eventually be known. Falsifiability is also important because its all too easy to make excuses, in order to render a claim unfalsifiable.
Carl Sagan gives the example of claiming to have a dragon in his garage, but when you go to see it, he claims it’s invisible, incorporeal, and blows a heatless fire that will not register on any scale. Sagan makes an extraordinary claim, and then quickly renders it unfalsifiable to prevent anyone from falsifying his claim. (But unlike Christianity, Carl doesn’t insist that if you don’t believe in his dragon, you will suffer horribly for eternity.)
Similarly, Christianity excuses itself from having to meet the burden of proof by saying that God has intentionally obscured all the evidence in order to preserve free will. This is a very creative excuse, but is it actually true? Or was this 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, Ahura Mazda, Vishnu, Thor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster — they all have good excuses for not appearing to you. Even if it’s claimed that they once appeared to people, they will most certainly have an 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. Just about every spirit, monster, UFO alien, sasquatch, fairy, leprechaun, chupacabra, and unicorn has an 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 providing any real proof, we hear lots of excuses for why the burden of proof can never 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 obligate ourselves to accept many other unsubstantiated claims.
Having excused itself from having to meet the burden of proof, and making it impossible to falsify its claims, Christianity then warns us 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 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 me, 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 the consequences are associated with extraordinary claims.
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 then 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.”
Consider the chain letter. It’s obvious that the original author invented consequences as a way 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 Christianity, and then pass it along.
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 much greater, which provides 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 additional evidence. What’s more, because the consequences do not become apparent until after you’re dead, neither the original claim nor its consequences can be falsified — you can’t prove it, you can’t disprove it, and the consequences are the most extreme imaginable. (Brilliant!)
The Problem of Mohammad
But by the same logic, Pascal could’ve just as easily wagered for belief in Islam:
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 remains 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 is mutually exclusive, and this is where Pascal’s logic begins to unravel.
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 pretty pathetic that way). I suspect the same thing occurs with God: because God is all-powerful and in charge, “might makes right,” and we don’t give much thought to the 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!
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.)
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 out of absolutely 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 superstitious thinking and empty threats, 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”)