Pascal's Wager

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Pascal's Wager is the argument 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.


Background information

Based on simple probability theory, the argument was first formally put forth by Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century philosopher and mathematician.

This is one of the most common arguments presented for god which atheists commonly encounter 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 wrong, your pay off 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, you should believe just in case he exists. It's the safe bet.


p1. Believers and non believers alike, agree that payoff is good, punishment is bad.
p2. if god is real you receive infinite punishment for disbelief or infinite payoff for belief
a. if you believe you go to heaven for eternity.
b. if you do not believe you go to hell for eternity.
p3. if god is not real you don't really lose or gain anything either way.
a. if you believe falsely that god does exist you haven't really lost anything.
b. if you don't believe and it turns out god doesn't exist then you don't really gain anything.
c1. Therefore even if there is strong evidence against god it is still better to believe.
a. the payoff for believing if there is a god, is infinitely better than the benefit for not believing if there's no god.
b. the punishment for not believing if there is a god, is infinitely worse than the loss caused by believing falsely that there is a god.


Begging the question

Pascal's wager commits the fallacy of begging the question, by assuming in its premises, certain characteristics about the very god the argument is intended to prove.

Rather than the typical Christian god, what if we hypothesize the possibility of a god who rewards skeptical thinking unbelievers and punishes credulous believers? Such a god would be consistent with the fall-back response of theologians, "We cannot understand the ways of God," so it is feasible that such a god would want to reward atheists. This god would not need to be malevolent, merely inactive (mirroring deism with regards to creation), and wanting to reward those who take a rational, logical, reasonable, and or skeptical approach to their beliefs.

The new table including a Maltheist god may look like this:

Table of Payoffs Believe in God Don't believe in God
God doesn't exist 0 0
Legalistic religious god exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)
Anti-conventional god exists −∞ (hell) +∞ (heaven)

The mere possibility of such a god makes the expected outcomes for each column undefined, but more importantly, equal.

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. 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?

Non-zero cost of belief

Cectic strip illustrating some problems with Pascal's Wager.

One flaw with Pascal's wager is that it makes the false assumption that belief costs nothing, and lack of belief provides no benefit. This is not the case.

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.

Special pleading

Main Article: Which god?

Another flaw is that Pascal's Wager makes the assumption that belief and disbelief are a true dichotomy, and invokes special pleading to apply the argument only to a specific religion's god.

Belief in one god often excludes belief in another. The Wager can be invoked by any religion which claims to reward belief and/or punish disbelief. One is not left with a choice only between belief and disbelief, but a choice between hundreds of different gods. In using the argument, one asks that it be applied only to his particular god, not all the others. This is special pleading.

The conclusion that belief is the safe wager also invokes special pleading in that it relies on the assertion that belief will be rewarded. The Wager could be used, equally validly, by a religion with an unconventional god who punishes faith and rewards conclusions drawn from evidence (the Atheist's Wager).

Other counter arguments

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, finding 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, then 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 Gods, the odds of getting the right answer are 1 in ∞. Even if a faith rewarding God existed, believing in an incorrect faith-rewarding God might anger such a god more than not believing in any gods with good reasons.

Definitions: Belief

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.)

An analogy to this would be a child that professes belief in Santa Claus out of fear that they will not otherwise receive presents, knowing full well that the presents left under the tree are really from his or her parents.

Moral implications

There are deep moral implications to Pascal's wager if the argument is taken to its logical conclusions. It promotes the idea that beliefs are more important than actions. Or more precisely that apostasy is the only unforgivable sin.

The central tenet of substitutionary atonement in Christianity, means that you can spend your life murdering, raping, killing, waging genocide, etc., and as long as you accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior before you die, you are entitled to an eternity of pleasure in heaven.

However, on the other hand, a non believer who spends a good honest life helping others, is damned to spend an eternity being tortured in hell despite their good deeds.

This is illustrated in the Gun Slinger (Chick tract).


See Also

External links


v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes
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