I have written before that I am a naturalist-humanist, which also means I am an atheist. This means that I lack belief in gods, including the Christian one. But why would I take such a stance? I’ve already outlined twelve reasons I don’t believe in anything supernatural, and written some of why I don’t believe specifically in God in “Where is God?” and “The Great Problem of Evil”. I’ll write more soon.
But there’s always a different question when we deal with the supernatural, specifically the belief in the afterlife and God: Since you can’t prove or disprove the existence of the afterlife and God and since belief in the afterlife and God is beneficial, isn’t it better to believe in it anyway? Welcome to Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal’s Wager is an argument not for the existence of God, but for the rationality of belief in God and the irrationality of nonbelief in God. It was suggested by French mathematician, philosopher, physicist, and Catholic Blaise Pascal in his work Pensées, published after his death in about 1662. In his original writing, the Wager looks like this:
1. God is, or He is not
2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
4. You must wager. It is not optional.
5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. [...] There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
The General Argument For
In a more modern wording, the wager can be formulated as this argument:
- If God exists and one believes in him, then one will gain eternal reward (Heaven).
- If God exists and one does not believe in him, then one will gain eternal punishment (Hell).
- If God does not exist and one believes in him, then one does not gain or lose anything.
- If God does not exist and one doesn’t believe in him, then one does not gain or lose anything.
- There is no way to prove whether or not God exists, so all four options have an equal probability.
- The above four premises are all the possible options, so one must choose.
- Therefore from premises 1, 3, 5, and 6, one ought to believe in God, regardless of whether or not he exists.
What this means is the argument that regardless of whether or not God exists, one should believe in God. If the believer turns out to be right, he or she gains everything, but if the believer turns out to be wrong, he or she loses nothing. This is a net benefit +∞.
As the argument goes, if the nonbeliever turns out to be right, he or she gains nothing, but if the nonbeliever turns out to be wrong, he or she loses everything. This is a net benefit of -∞. The argument is, all else being equal, shouldn’t we take +∞ over -∞? Even if God’s existence is improbable, certainly no one has proven God’s existence is impossible, so the logic is that believing in God is always a safe bet.
The General Argument Against
I, of course, disagree. Pascal’s Wager is a valid argument, which means that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. However, this also means that if any single premise is false, then the entire arguement is false. I will not be taking Pascal’s Wager because not only is one premise false, but every premise is false.
We can see this clearly. Premises 1 and 2 assume what hasn’t been proven (beg the question), Premise 3 and 4 are demonstrably false, Premise 5 is false in most cases, there are serious philosophical problems with Premise 6, and the conclusion itself also has independent practical problems. Since only one of these premises needs to fail for the entire argument to fail, the fact that each and every premise fails is a very good reason to reject Pascal’s Wager.
A Note on Agnosticism
One may be tempted to look at Pascal’s Wager and say that the agnosticism option (saying “I don’t know if God exists”) is missing, and therefore the argument is flawed. However, this does not properly account for the Wager, as you still will have to live as if God exists or not. Pascal’s Wager actually assumes strong agnosticism (God is not proven nor disproven) is the only reasonable position, but then argues we should all live as if God exists just in case.
While one can be philosophically agnostic, it is impossible to live an agnostic position in practice. Everyone has to take Pascal’s Wager in their life by deciding to pray or not; to attend church or not. If you do, you have taken the Wager and affirmed God. If you don’t, you have taken the Wager and rejected God as Pascal defines him.
Begging the Question (Premise 1 & 2)
Pascal’s Wager itself states that we can’t prove or disprove the nature of God. Therefore, how do we know that God will send us to Hell for nonbelief and send us to Heaven for belief? The only proof we have for assertions of Heaven and Hell would be holy texts, all of which at best remain unproven, and at worst remain falsified due to their numerous contradictions (see here, here and here for the Bible, and here for the Quran). You can debate these contradictions if you wish, but that is an entirely separate argument to Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager therefore begs the question and is an invalid argument.
Other Possible Reward-Punishment Philosophies
There are so many other possibilities besides Pascal’s Heaven-Hell punishment system under his Catholic God. If there exists a God that doesn’t punish and reward people as Pascal suggests, then his argument is invalid. Seeing as these Gods are just as possible according to Pascal (premise 5), these become a good reason to reject his argument.
First, the obvious positions of Deism, Pantheism, Panentheism, and any other religious belief that rejects the concept of a personal God. If these philosophies are true, God would exist, but there would be no Heaven or Hell. Therefore, there would be no infinite gain for the believer and no infinite loss for the atheist, and no practical reason to affirm God. The wager would become invalid.
Second, the position of strong universalism, or the belief that while God exists and Heaven exists, everyone who is sufficiently moral will go to Heaven, atheists included. If this philosophy is true, there also becomes no reason to affirm God, but just reasons to be moral (which exist independently of God anyway). The wager would also become invalid.
Third, we could be under yet another system, such as predestination in Calvinism, where nothing you do changes your Heaven/Hell destination; or a Trickster God who sends people to Hell at random; or an Evil God who sends everyone to Hell. If any of these Gods are possible, the wager also becomes invalid.
Carrier’s Reverse Wager Theology
Yet, in addition to all those philosophies, it could be even worse for the believer. As Richard Carrier argues in his essay “The End of Pascal’s Wager” there could be a God who rewards sincere and logical nonbelief and punishes insincere or illogical belief, because he wants to reward morality and critical thinking.
As Carrier argues, this theology accounts for far more problems than the Christian theology, explaining why God is so hidden, why God appears immoral in the Bible and Quran, why natural evils exist, and why there is just so little evidence or reason to believe God exists.
Under this possible theology, the reward system is reversed; now there is +∞ for nonbelief and -∞ for belief. If this theology is true, then Pascal’s Wager would tell us to wager on nonbelief. Since neither wager is more valid than the other, the entire wager system blows up, simultaneously supporting belief and nonbelief. We go back to square one.
The Great Religious Crossfire
We have a third objection to contend with, however. This simply the great crossfire between Christianity and Islam. The Bible clearly says that you must accept that Jesus is part of the trinity and died for your sins in order to go to Heaven. The Koran clearly says you must accept Jesus as solely a prophet, accept Mohammed as a prophet, and affirm Allah and the Koran to go to Heaven. These are mutually exclusive, so you clearly cannot do both. Therefore you must pick either Christianity, Islam, or another religion.
If you pick Christianity and Islam turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam Hell.
if you pick Islam and Christianity turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Christian Hell.
If you don’t pick Islam or Christianity and either turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam or Christian Hell.
If you attempt to pick both Islam and Christianity and either turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam or Christian Hell.
Since without further proof all religions are equally probable, we are trapped. No matter which of the four possibilities we pick, there is a chance we are going to suffer -∞ in Hell. There is no “generic theism” to believe in like Pascal seems to assume. You simply cannot win with Pascal’s Wager.
A Note on Religious Presumptions
One objection to this argument is the idea that “Well, deist theology / strong universalist theology / trickster theology / evil theology / Carrier reverse theology / Christianity / Islam cannot be true because my religion is true.” This objection misses the entire point of the Wager though, which dodges proof for religion and says we should believe regardless of which philosophy is true. Since it isn’t true that we should believe regardless, the wager fails. Carrier elaborates on this in a reply to criticism of his previous essay.
Instead, we then have to ask “How do you know your religion is true?” and we’re back to discussing arguments that have nothing to do with this Wager. We can’t just assume your philosophy is true without granting the possibility that the other several dozen philosophies are true. You can’t escape The Great Religious Crossfire, for example.
Premises 1 and 2 fail to establish that Heaven and Hell work as Pascal assume they do. It is entirely possible that they work in no one’s advantage, or even contrary to the believer. Therefore Pascal’s Wager becomes We have good reasons to believe in God, therefore we have good reasons to believe in God, an entirely circular argument that asserts what it intends to prove. This circular nature is enough to reject Pascal’s Wager as an invalid argument, and therefore I do.
The Consequences Are Not as They Seem (Premises 3 & 4)
Now that it is entirely possible that the believer might not be getting the +∞ he or she is expecting and the nonbeliever might not be getting -∞, is it the other half of the argument true? Is there any reason to believe in Premise 3 and 4, that the atheist gains nothing if he or she is right and that the theist loses nothing if he or she is wrong?
Well, what do the believer lose if he or she is wrong and atheism is right? A lot of time, money, and thought. He or she wastes tithes and other donations, devotion time, worship time, prayer time, and time spent on church attendance. He or she wastes time worrying about all the ridiculous and rigid restrictions from sex to even thought itself.
All the time he or she spent advocating Pascal’s Wager (or other arguments to others) was not only a waste of time, but harmful by endorsing a lie. He or she also would end up associating himself or herself with a lot of evil and hypocrisy that is done by other members (but not all members) of the same religion. Not to mention that he or she wasted the only life you have by chasing a lie. Sam Harris also discusses the geopolitical consequences in his essay “The Empty Wager”.
What does the atheist gain if he or she is right? The truth — seeing reality for what it really is. Shouldn’t that, in itself, be enough? The atheist also gains freedom from rigid dogma, no longer has to do intellectual backflips to explain inconsistencies, immoralities, and interpolations in holy texts. The atheist gets the freedom to set his or her own purpose and morality and be good for a good reason, not be good because God says so.
The Atheist Counter-Wager
In the end, this sets up The Agnostic Atheist’s Wager:
Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God, you will be judged on your merits and not just on whether or not you ignored the lack of evidence of his/her existence and blindly believed.
If God is just, then sincere nonbelief should never matter; and if sincere nonbelief is punishable, then God is not just by any understandable standard. I would never worship an unjust God because might never makes right. It is the atheist who stands to gain everything and lose nothing, whereas the theist loses out in the life that is most probably our only one. Not to mention that atheists are fully able to be happy and have purpose, meaning, morality, justice, and comfort without needing God, so why bother?
We now have another line of reason to reject Pascal’s Wager — atheism is the better bet, allowing you to love without restriction and know without boundary. Since the religious stand to lose and the atheists stand to gain, premises 3 and 4 are clearly inaccurate descriptions of reality. This means Pascal’s wager itself is a clearly inaccurate description of reality, and that is enough to reject it.
Religions Can Be Disproven (Premise 5)
Now we enter an additional fallacy of the wager: assuming we’re arguing between generic atheism and generic theism. In reality, both sides are not worldviews we can actually accept. The real wager must be between naturalism-humanism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Deism, Zoroastrianism, etc. All of these are initially valid worldviews and you must pick one (or make your own).
So while it may be impossible to disprove generic theism, it is possible to disprove Pascal’s Christianity. We simply ask ourselves two questions: “Are there any good reasons to believe in Christianity?” and “Are there any good reasons to not believe in Christianity?”. We find that the answer to the first question is “No” and the answer to the first question is “Yes”. This means the weight of evidence is strongly against Christianity, and we have logical and rational reason to reject it. For example, consider the questions of Where is God? or Why Does God Allow Suffering?, and others.
Now let’s do the same for naturalism-humanism. Are there any good reasons to believe in Naturalism-Humanism? Yes. Are there any good reasons to not believe in Naturalism-Humanism. Not really. The weight of evidence points to Naturalism-Humanism and we have logical and rational reason to support it. (Note: This section will be expanded with future essays.)
Since Pascal’s Wager cannot possibly advocate for a generic theism which doesn’t exist, Pascal’s Wager does not advocate for anything. Instead, if the Wager is intended to advocate for Christianity, it must contend with all the failure of arguments for Christianity and the success of arguments against Christianity. This means Pascal’s Wager doesn’t successfully advocate any position, and this is good reason to reject it.
Problems With Forced Belief (Premise 6)
Now, even if all the previous premises are somehow true (and that’s a huge if), this argument still makes two giant, unproven assumptions about belief: (1) that beliefs can be shifted via willpower and (2) that beliefs should be shifted via willpower.
On the first problem, no matter how hard I try or how many times I read the 100 Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe, I cannot sincerely believe that the Earth is flat.
Now imagine you told me that you would pay me $100 million dollars if I believed the Earth was flat and would kill me if I believed the Earth was round. My benefit in this case is +100million for believing and -∞ for disbelieving. But despite pleading and doing everything possible to demonstrate a belief in a flat earth, very few in this situation would be able to conjure up a sincere belief.
The only way an atheist could possibly take this wager is to have insincere belief. But would we expect God to reward this insincere belief? Surely an omniscient God would see straight through your bluff. Can we go up to God at Heaven and say “Well, I didn’t really believe in you, but I played the odds?”. Somehow I doubt that will work well for him, and if it does work better than sincere nonbelief, we have an unjust God.
We know that truth is also not a popularity contest or a comfort contest. No matter how many people believe in a proposition and no matter how much we want a proposition to be true, neither of these constitute good reason to believe the proposition is true. All of this essentially amounts to the fallacies of Argument from ignorance and Appeal to tradition.
In reality, the truth is most definitely not something we wager for our own personal benefit. We can see this quite obviously with a reductio ad absurdum: Why don’t we use Pascal’s Wager on other items that make us obviously happy and we conveniently can’t disprove?
The Reductio Ad Absurdum
As Bill Packer points out in Pascal’s Wager: Your Future Waits, why don’t we pay his God $1 just in case his God is the real God? Why don’t we accept Wonko, since his Hell is ten times worse than any other Hell? Why don’t we Kiss Hank’s Ass?
As Ebonmuse writes in his essay “A Flip of a Coin”:
Everyone understands this, whether they realize it or not. After all, why else do Pascal’s-Wager-using theists reject belief in Santa Claus? As stated above, by their own argument they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by such belief, regardless of how small the chances are that such an entity actually exists; yet no adult theists I know of believe in jolly old St. Nick. The reason for this is precisely because they understand that the notion of Santa Claus is demonstrably untrue, an idea with no good evidence in its favor and strong positive evidence weighing against it, and therefore they feel free to disregard that “but what if…” possibility as unworthy of consideration. The situation with atheists and God is very much the same.
When it comes down to it, are we really going to wager what we know about reality for our own personal benefit? Doesn’t that seem not only arrogant and selfish, but downright absurd? Not only are we psychologically unable to sincerely preform such a task without becoming a walking ball cognitive dissonance, there is absolutely no reason why we should.
Reality is simply not a popularity contest or something you bet on in Vegas. Reality is not something we accept just because people bribe us to accept it with a nice, coincidentally unfalsifiable, afterlife and threaten us with a scary, also unfalsifiable, Hell. In all cases, truths simply cannot and should not be accepted by carrot and stick, but by reason. Therefore, Pascal’s Wager is both psychologically and philosophically unsound, and this gives us another reason to reject it.
Where The Argument Stands Now
We started out with what sounds convincing: an idea that we have everything to gain but nothing to lose by accepting a belief in God and/or the afterlife. It is clearly an unsound position for many different reasons — it assumes what has not been proven, it contains misinformation, it is psychologically absurd, and it has logical fallacies. When it comes to being an argument in defense of a religion, it does a really bad job — it not only has zero convincing merit, but it fails to defend any religion, let alone a specific one.
I imagine the argument is very convincing to someone who is already convinced. The person using this argument already has beliefs in the +∞ and the -∞ for whatever reason and for some reason thinks that a God who punishes sincere nonbelief is still just. However, if you assume the religion to be true and use this argument, then of course your religion is going to come out justified. Pascal’s Wager simply has too many fallacies and false assumptions to have any argumentative or logical merit.
Therefore, please stop presenting atheists with the Pascal’s Wager. If the atheist is a good atheist who has actually thought out his or her worldview (there are some bad atheists just like there are bad Christians), then the atheist has a reason to reject God. Find out what those reasons are and address them or find a different argument that actually is convincing. Meanwhile, I’m just going to move along, with my naturalism-humanism completely undaunted.
Besides, gambling is probably a sin.
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