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 seems reasonable that we should take precautions to avoid negative consequences, even though evidence is lacking. With our 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 possible consequence. The claim is that God exists and wants us to believe in him; the consequence is that he will reward us (or punish us) based on how we respond to this claim.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these two parts.
When someone makes a claim that might be called into question, it is 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 go to heaven;
- all lawyers go to hell; and
- Einstein was born with an invisible Siamese twin hermaphrodite attached to his ankle that he had 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, or 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 that a part of him came to earth through a virgin, and performed miracles, and sacrificed himself to save everyone from sin and eternal suffering. This is the claim Pascal is making, and such a fantastic claim surely 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 discovered. Falsifiability is also important because its easy to make excuses, in order to render a claim unfalsifiable.
Carl Sagan gave the example of claiming to have a dragon in his garage. When you go to investigate his incredible claim, you find he starts to make excuses. He claims the dragon is invisible, incorporeal, and blows a heatless fire that will not register on any scale. Through his many excuses, Sagan renders his claim unfalsifiable. He has not proved his claim, and he has made it impossible to test.
Similarly, Christianity excuses itself from having to meet the burden of proof by saying that God has intentionally obscured all the concrete evidence. Is this true? Or was this just an excuse that was offered to avoid having to meet the burden of proof, and to make the claim impossible to falsify?
Consider for a moment that just about every god in the history of the world also refuses to reveal itself. (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 also 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 there is a conspiracy to cover them up.
God 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 the truth of our reality. Once we agree to start accepting excuses in place of facts, we logically obligate ourselves to accept many other unsubstantiated claims.
Having excused itself from having to meet the burden of proof, and making excuses for why these claims cannot be tested or falsified, Christianity then warns us of consequences for not believing… and they are severe.
Appealing to consequences is considered a logical fallacy, because it places the weight of the argument on the consequence rather than the evidence itself. 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 (if you don’t believe me, your teeth will fall out).
However, it is entirely possible for there to exist real consequences for an unsubstantiated claim (e.g. “The Yankees are coming!”). But greater skepticism is certainly warranted whenever the claimant stands to gain from your reaction, or the consequence is associated with an extraordinary claim.
Superstitious Claims and Consequences
Superstitions operate on the same principals as Pascal’s Wager: they make a claim that is difficult to disprove, and then appeal to the 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 this chain letter to improve your luck; breaking the chain will bring bad luck.”
Similarly, 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 for a moment. It’s obvious that the original author invented the 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 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 associated claim, the perceived risk is much greater, which thereby 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 injects 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 proven nor 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 falsify 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 belief in 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 may 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? Would you stand idly by as they jab hot pokers into the eyes of your friends and family? Reasoning that, “It’s okay, because they created us!” Will you stand there in Heaven, watching as Satan jabs hot pokers into 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. 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 God’s story is not one about the few he managed to save, but 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 we will lose.
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 a God of love and mercy. 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. Or does God 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
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 should place value on things like love, compassion, mercy, virtue, forgiveness, etc., and judge us on these things.
While it does not make sense that God should desire faith above all else, it does make sense that humans would invent this rule, as an excuse for the lack of evidence. Likewise, while it does not make sense that God should allow eternal torment, it does make sense that humans would invent this threat, to motivate people through fear.
“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 motivate us to action.
Is Pascal’s Wager a compelling argument? Absolutely! It is probably the most compelling argument one could forge from absolutely nothing.
However, Pascal’s wager is also a logical fallacy, known as “argumentum ad baculum” (Latin for “argument to the stick”) or “argumentum ad consequentiam” (“argument to the consequence”). It appeals to a fear of punishment, rather than offering evidence. (The promise of heaven likewise appeals to a consequence without offering evidence.)
Pascal’s Wager asks us to betray our mind to cover our ass. It does a disservice to truth, asking followers to elevate their beliefs based on fear, rather than evidence. It adds no new evidence for the existence of God; employs the same tricks as superstition; could be used to defend any god, and it asks that we betray our own sense of truth and morality in order to embrace it.
The only thing we know with any certainty is that we have this life, and we are asked by Pascal to wager part of it away, in hopes of getting 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 based on countless empty threats, and gambled away the only life we will ever have, and 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 (Paraphrased from the work of Marcus Aurelius)