Pascal's Wager

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For more information, see the Wikipedia article:
Arguments For the Existence of God
Anthropic Arguments:
Arguments For Belief:
  • Pascal's Wager
Christological Arguments:
Cosmological Arguments:
Majority Arguments:
Moral Arguments:
Ontological Arguments:
Reformed Epistemology:
Teleological Arguments:
Testimonial Arguments:
Transcendental arguments:

Pascal's Wager is the argument in the form of a wager (instead of the common logic arguments with premises and conclusion) that states that you should believe in God even if there's a strong chance that he might not be real, because the penalty for not believing, namely going to hell, is so undesirable that it is more prudent to take our chances with belief. Based on simple probability theory, the argument was first formally put forth by Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century philosopher and mathematician.

Atheists commonly encounter this argument in the form of the question, "What if you're wrong?"



God might or might not exist. It is a gamble whether you believe in him or not. As with any gamble, we should consider the odds.

Pascal described the payoff of this gamble as follows: If God does not exist, then you neither gain nor lose anything from belief or disbelief. In either case, you just die and that's the end. However, if you choose to believe in God, and you are right, then the reward is infinite — eternal bliss in heaven. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe in God, and you're right, you gain nothing. But if you are wrong, your payoff is negative infinity — eternal suffering in hell.

To summarize:

Table of Payoffs Believe in God Don't believe in God
God doesn't exist 0 0
God exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)

Since the chance of God existing is unknown, but the payoff/punishment scheme is infinitely in favor of believing in God, just on the small chance that he might exist, you'd better believe. It's the only wager that makes sense.

This argument, as can be seen, is based in the same logic of a lottery wager. The differences in this case is that in the lottery, if you loose the reward, you also loose the money you payed for the card, while Pascal states that, by believing in God, you loose nothing.


Nonzero payoff for atheism

Cectic strip illustrating some problems with Pascal's Wager.

In the case where God does not exist, there really is a clear advantage to not believing. In other words, the payoff is not zero.

For one thing, if you go through life believing a lie, that is a bad thing in itself. Besides that, there is more to being a believer than just saying "Okay, I believe now" and getting on with your life. Serious believers spend a lot of their time in church, and contribute a lot of money as well. There's a reason why some towns have very affluent looking buildings for churches, and why large and elaborate cathedrals are possible: they're funded by folks who donate a tenth of their income throughout their lives to tithing. This is surely quite a waste if the object of worship isn't real.

That's to say nothing of the persecution of other groups that's been instigated in the name of God throughout the ages. Also, in the US, churches don't have to pay taxes, which includes property tax. Property tax is what goes to schools, so all the land that churches own is sucking money out of schools.

When "God Did It" becomes an acceptable answer, there is little incentive to continue exploring the question. More damaging, the "success" of this theory encourages one to apply it to other areas of human understanding. Practiced in this manner, theism can actively discourage human knowledge by compelling people to follow an arbitrary code of conduct, rather than one based on logic and reason.

And by the way, you don't lose pork.

Which religion?

Even if you buy into Pascal's Wager and decide you should believe, that doesn't give any basis for choosing which religion to believe in. Fundamentalists often use the wager to prove that you should be a Fundamentalist, but of course, Pascal was Catholic and was using it to prove you should be a Catholic.

This just highlights the whole problem of which religion is the right one. Since many Fundamentalists believe that Catholics are going to go to hell, Pascal's not much better off than an unbeliever. We don't know if the Jews are correct, or perhaps the Muslims, or if reincarnation is right. The best wager, it seems, would be to choose the religion with the worst punishment for non-belief and the best reward for belief.

Atheist's Wager

The Atheist's Wager is a variant of Pascal's Wager which divides the gods who reward faith and the gods who reward works finds that it is better to not-believe and do good works, for maximum benefit. If one takes into account that rewarding and punishing based on faith in a deity without reasonable evidence to believe that god is evil and spending your time sucking up to a such a deity is a waste of time. If one discounts the possibility of a God who sends good people to hell for bad reasons, we are left with a completely different payoff table.


  • If one does not believe in God.
Table of Payoffs Good Life Evil Life
Benevolent God Exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)
No God Exists +finite -finite
  • If one believes in God.
Table of Payoffs Good Life Evil Life
Benevolent God Exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)
No God Exists +finite -finite

Regardless of one's belief about a benevolent God, the results still favor a Good Life. Pascal's wager relies on the judgments of an evil God who sends good people to hell for not believing in him. Moreover, because there are an infinite number of possible such God's getting the right answer is a 1 in ∞. Even if a faith rewarding God existed, believing in an incorrect faith-rewarding God for might anger such a god more than not believing in any gods with good reasons.

The faith of the wager

Even if one assumes that the wager applies to the Christian god, would he really accept the kind of faith it promotes? The wager doesn't promote true, deep faith; it promotes a fake faith. The person simply pretends to be convinced because they're afraid of the punishment for not believing. The wager is simply an attempt to force the person to believe (see argumentum ad baculum). (Or, perhaps more accurately, it attempts to force the person to act as if he or she believes — that is, it serves as an instrument of social control.)

Where does it end?

If you can accept Pascal's Wager as a realistic reason to believe, that leads you to a point where you have no choice but to believe just about everything on the same grounds. Why even assume that God supports any existing religion? Perhaps there is a perverse God who likes critical thinkers and doesn't like "blind" followers. Perhaps all atheists will eventually find themselves in heaven — completely surprised, but pleased anyway — while their Christian counterparts burn for eternity! Perhaps there is a Maltheist God.

Lacking specific evidence about the nature of the true religious faith, there are an infinite number of possible requirements for going to heaven and avoiding hell. Maybe only those who collect stamps go to heaven. Maybe you have to donate $10 a week to Iron Chariots for life. Why quibble about a few measly dollars if it will save you from eternal hellfire?

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