Have you ever been in a theological debate and heard this common phrase?
“Yeah, you may have a point. But if you’re wrong, you’re going to go to hell. So it makes sense to believe in my god just in case.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Pascals Wager (or Pascal’s Gambit). Blaise Pascal actually came up with this wager centuries ago. You can read more about Blaise Pascal and his writings here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Pascal
Pascal’s Wager states that there is a wager one must make concerning the existence of a god.
It says there are two options:
1) God exists
2) God does not exist
-and that both sides of the coin have equal value.
He states that to wager on this, one must consider the benefits and losses of either wager. The benefit of proposition one is that if God exists, there is a heaven and the consequence is that there is a hell. If one chooses to wager that a god does not exist, there is no benefit nor consequence in believing in a god or not.
So his wager states that if one were to “bet safely”, one must choose to believe in a god. The consequence of believing in a god is that if a person is correct in their wager then that person will go to heaven. If that person is incorrect, then there is no consequence of hell.
If a person wagers that there is no god, then if they are correct, there will be no consequences. But if that person is wrong and a god does exist, the consequences are major and that person will go to hell. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
If Pascal’s Wager was logical, one would obviously choose to believe in a god. After all, if you are wrong there will be no consequences (beside the waste of effort) but if you are right, you get to throw a party in Heaven with Jesus and Friends. But if one chooses not to believe in a god, if you are wrong you get to roast marshmallows with Hitler in Hell. And nobody wants to spend their afterlife with Hitler. I heard he’s a party killer.
Reasons Why Pascal’s Wager Is Illogical
1) Pascal assumes only the Christian version of a god. He does not assume other religions have the same weight on the wager. He equates them to having zero value- which is bad math, considering the hundreds of other religions and different versions of those religions. The odds become more spread out and you might as well pray to all gods that mankind has ever made up just to save your bum from the various horrible consequences of picking the wrong god. Now THAT is an undertaking worthy of a YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqJpZOljjG8
2) Pascal assumes that there are only three paths after death: Heaven, Hell, and Nothing. This does not include reincarnation, ghosts/pure spiritual existences, ascendance to a higher order, crossing over into different dimensions, etc. All of these listed he has equated to “zero” as well, which is bad math. Again, the odds skyrocket into the millions that you will choose the right god AND the right afterlife doctrine.
3) Pascal assumes a person can make themselves believe in a god. This is stupid. Have you ever tried to make yourself believe something? Let’s try this little experiment: The earth is made of pudding. Trust me, just believe it with all of your heart. Is that working? No? Okay then, I repeat: Pascal’s Wager is stupid. It is used by others to persuade someone into believing in a god and it just DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY.
“It’s better to believe and be proven wrong than to disbelieve and be proven wrong, right?”
Well sure. Of course that sounds reasonable… at first glance. But when you really think about it, aren’t they just asking you to lie to their god (that may or may not exist)? If there isn’t a god, then I’m going to be fine if I just walk around lying to everyone and pretending to pray (which I would only be doing to fool other people and, if I’m dumb enough to twist my head around backward, to fool the god I don’t believe exists into that god believing I believe in him- Whew! That’s a mouthful!). But if there is a god and I, as an atheist, pretend to believe in a god to fool that all-powerful and all-knowing entity, isn’t he going to send me to hell for being a cowardly lying sack of doodoo anyway? Or is he going to give me points for the effort regardless of whether I believe or not?
What’s the point of Pascal’s Wager again?
I can tell you. I will give you a made-up conversation similar to many I have participated in since I realized I was an atheist. (And OH BOY, people just LOVE to bring up their own religious beliefs when they learn I don’t hold any beliefs of my own… as if that is an invite to puke existential nonsense all over me while I’m shopping for taco seasonings in Food City)
Older Woman- “You’re so sweet, thank you for reaching that bottle for me. Bless you, child. It’s sad that children aren’t raised to be courteous anymore. Your parents must have raised you to be a good Christian young lady?”
Me: “Um, it was no problem. But I’m not Christian. You have a good day.”
Attempt at awkward smile and trying to make a polite exit.
OW: “Oh. You haven’t found Jesus yet? You should go to Such And Such Church and speak to Paster So And So.”
Oh man, here we go…
Me: “No thank you. I’m an atheist.”
OW: “WHAT? But… that… um… Didn’t your parents ever bring you to church?” Incredulous look like I have offended her even as I am glancing around for a plausible exit.
Me: “Er, yes ma’am. I just don’t believe things like that. You have a good day.”
OW: “Well, that’s too bad. *insert Pascal’s Wager here*.”
She scurries off like she is confused and feeling uncomfortable.
Folks, this happens in real life often. Not just to me, either. And on the internet. Pascal’s Wager is the most common response in uncomfortable conversation and debate when the Wagerer does not know what to say when confronted with atheism.
Do you know what Pascal’s Wager is to the very core? It is a “feel good” statement to reinforce the Wagerer’s “choice” when confronted with the unknown or the unfamiliar. It is a security blanket. When spoken or written, Pascal’s Wager is not MEANT for the participating atheist. It is MEANT for the speaker to convey “Your atheism frightens me. I don’t understand how someone can’t believe in my god. I get an awkward feeling around you so I will put up this shield where your words/ideas/feelings can’t touch me. I refuse to feel that I might be wrong and this is the only defense I have in my arsenal that may protect me from the unsettling idea that my god might not exist. GO AWAY.”
When Pascal’s Wager is used, it is a warning that one might see in the wild. A creature, that when feeling threatened (though, it is never my intention to be “threatening”), flashes bright colors to warn predators away from munching on them for a snack.
Pascal’s Wager is a cop out. It means nothing to me as an atheist except that the person I am interacting with does not have the emotional capacity to handle any deep, interesting discussions with me (if I even, rarely, initiate such discussions at all… especially not with strangers in a supermarket).