I keep seeing Christians throwing Pascals Wager around, as if it actually holds water. For those of you unfamiliar with the proposition, here it is:
"If you believe in God and there is indeed a God, you have everything (heaven and immortality) to gain.
If you believe in God and there is in fact no God, you have nothing to lose.
If you don't believe in God and there is indeed a God, you have everything to lose (Hell).
If you don't believe in God and there is in fact no God, you have nothing to lose.
Hence, if you live as though God exists, you could potentially gain infinity, so it's the rational choice."
Sound reasonable? Not quite.
1. The first thing I notice with the wager is the number of assumptions it makes. The most blatant one being that an omniscient God would be deceived by the deliberate
feigning of belief required in this gamble. Some Christians try to do
away with this by claiming that they already have the faith that is
needed to qualify - however, this invalidates the need for the wager
and thus is pointless for them to use.
2. The next assumption I notice is in the second line: "you have nothing to lose". I whole heartedly disagree with this. If you live your life
performing pointless and meaningless rituals and prayer, you are wasting
your life. By praying for someone to recover rather than than actively
doing something about it is wasting both your time and theirs. By
praying that God helps the poor and victims of natural disasters (that
he failed to prevent), you are not helping in any way. In fact,
I would consider it to be more of an insult. It's a way of saying
you're too lazy and selfish to actively do something about it yourself,
so you'll "pray" instead in an attempt to prove your supposed "good
"Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer" - Anonymous.
If God doesn't exist, all those trips to mass, religion classes, communions, confirmations, all that money the Vatican thrives on, the money sent to churches rather than helping the poor etc., immediately become pointless. So, instead of living your life to the full, you're potentially wasting it thinking about death and accepting mediocrity inadvertently becomes easier because apparently in "Heaven", you'll get all those nice things you currently live without. As Karl Marx stated, "religion is the opiate of the masses", and I couldn't agree more. So you do in fact have something to lose; a life spent accepting and enjoying the fragility, rarity and beauty of the one shot that you get. Richard Dawkins considers this the "Anti-Pascals Wager", he sums it up as follows:
"Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life
if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and
therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing
to him, fighting and dying for him, etc." - Richard Dawkins
3. The next glaring assumption is that an atheist has "everything to lose" if there is a God. Now, this is a rather icky area for the Christian, because it means that God rewards average or even immoral lives, as long as it's coupled with blind faith, and then condemns any form of skepticism that resulted in him failing to prove himself to the person, even if it's entwined with a moral and worthy life. That doesn't sound very just. Of course, the entire concept of Hell itself is barbaric and contradictory of a supposedly benevolent being. If you're looking for what traits a true benevolent God would possess, click here for my take.
Conclusion: So if we assume that the Christian god is both existent and benevolent (which are both attested by Christians), then God would never have such an unjust system of deciding punishments and reward in the first place, and then would also not have such a vicious and eternal punishment as the biblical Hell, we come to the conclusion that the unbeliever is in fact not losing anything that a believing Christian wouldn't.
A just God would judge someone on the content of their character as opposed to the content of their scripture.
Okay, so that's the assumptions cleared up. Moving on.
Allow for assumptions: Okay, for the sake of argument, let's assume that there is a God and that he doesn't see past this little deception (feigning) of beliefs. And let's say he still rewards you for "fooling" the system. And lets say that this benevolent being judges people purely on what they believe as opposed to what kind of a person they are. And lets say that if you unfortunately and inadvertently happen to believe in the wrong god or goddess or set of beliefs / interpretations, God tortures you for eternity whilst rewards the morally lazy cheaters in heaven because they either believed the indoctrination as a child, never questioned unfounded dogma or decided to "bet their chances" via an entirely selfish gamble. Now that we've allowed for those assumptions, let's
move on once again.
Yet another problem: Pascals Wager only offers a mathematical advantage if you are only considering one particular religion and conveniently ignoring the rest. This equation disregards every other potential god(s) or goddess(es) believed to be true by humans as nonexistent. Now, I'm all for that - except Christians continuously fail to apply the reasons for dismissing all other possible gods to their own supernatural deity, and thus discount their validity in the wager, and then have the arrogance to claim that the gamble is still sound for their purposes. In reality, there are thousands of options that would need to be considered in the wager. Picking (or being brought up in) the wrong one becomes an extremely hazardous decision / upbringing.
Most Christians try to get around this by saying that the argument leads to "generic theism", and that this is all that's needed to reap the benefits of the wager. I have two things to say to that. Firstly, most religions condemn "nonbelievers" and this includes everyone that is of a different religion as well as atheists. In this situation, the wager falls apart. Secondly, the idea of "generic theism" does not constitute Heaven in any religion. Each religion subscribes to a fixed set of beliefs and usually require a legalistic adherence. "Generic theism" is considered heresy since it defiles the teachings and tries to get the easy way out by covering all options. In this situation, the wager falls apart
according to the religious teachings itself.
Why it fails:
So, if you're going to adhere to such a gamble, you have to address every potential pothole. You could argue that by selecting any religion (although "selecting" a religion is almost impossible - generally speaking, you are what you're born into), you are raising your chances of getting into some form of heaven, but at the same time, you're increasing your chances of being condemned by every other religion. As well as living your life in selfish deceit or wishful thinking.
So overall, Pascals Wager is worthless. It's not an intelligent decision based on probability, but a selfish and deceptive one that fails to acknowledge the very belief that Christians so dearly cling to - that God is omniscient.
Feel free to comment on the original post at my blog: http://www.teenageatheist.com/2010/06/pascals-wager.html