Pascal’s Wager—Is it a Good Bet?
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist. Apparently, he was also a theologian of sorts since he is the author of what has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager.
Is it a good bet?
What is Pascal's Wager?
In a posthumously published book, Pensées (“Thoughts”) Pascal posits that all humans must bet that God exists or that God does not exist. He then ventures into a field of philosophy known as “Christian Apologetics” which attempts to defend Christian beliefs using reason rather than faith.
In simple terms, Pascal asks us to consider the question of God’s existence as a wager. He asks us to assume that we must place our bet; it is not optional. Therefore, we must look at the gain or loss inherent in each side of the bet.
In statistical theory (not yet invented in Pascal’s time), he is talking about the consequences of making a Type I or a Type II error. In statistics, the “null hypothesis”—the hypothesis that something does not exist, is always the hypothesis tested because science does not accept anything as true until it has been proven to be true.
- A type I error occurs when you conclude something is true when it is actually false (a false positive).
- A type II error is when you conclude something is false, when it is actually true (a false negative).
Testing the Hypothesis
Type of error
Yes, God exists
Type I error
Yes, God Exists
Type II error
Yes, God exists
Yes, God exists
It is easy to see from this chart that the safe bet is to bet that God does exist. If there is no God, you lose or gain nothing no matter how you bet. If there is a God, you win Heaven if you are correct and you go to Hell if you are wrong. The rational choice is to bet that God exists. Pascal concluded that If you do not believe, you should seek to “cure yourself of disbelief.”
If only it were so simple. Unfortunately, this simple wager fails to consider many logical fallacies and false assumptions. Here are a few of them.
1. Is it possible to cure yourself of disbelief?
Can someone just say, “OK, I believe” and abracadabra, he is a believer? I think not. If you do not believe, you could try to persuade yourself to believe, for instance, talk to people who do believe, read books on the subject, etc., but if you remain unconvinced, you cannot force yourself to believe.
2. Which God should you believe in?
Pascal is clearly biased—he wants us to believe in the Christian God. However, throughout history and even in modern times, there have been thousands of different religions, each with different ideas about the identity of God. Some religions believe that there is more than one God. If you choose the wrong God, will the “real God” be angry with you? If you choose one of a multitude of real gods, will the other gods be mad at you for not choosing them?
Some religions, like the Mormon religion, are relatively new (founded in 1830). You have to ask yourself, “Why did God wait so long to reveal Himself?”
3. Can you fool God?
Since you cannot force yourself to believe, should you pretend to believe? Can you fool God? Can you lie to God?
Since God is described as all-knowing, pretending to believe is not going to do you any good. In fact, your lie might make God angry at you. As I understand it, God does not like the “bearing of false witness.”
4. Is there really no cost to belief, even if you are wrong?
If you sincerely believe, there are some benefits during your earthly life.
- It is comforting to know that a “Heavenly Father” cares about you and looks after you and that not only will you have eternal life, but you will be rewarded for your belief in the afterlife.
- If you go to church, you become part of a community and can become friends with like-minded people. It can even be good for you financially, if you meet people at church who become your clients or customers.
- Church also gives you an opportunity to be altruistic and to do “good works” (although you can also find these opportunities elsewhere).
- Finally, some people get a great deal of pleasure from the feeling that their particular brand of religion makes them better than others.
However, there are costs to belief ,even if you are a sincere believer, if it turns out that you are wrong about the existence of God.
- You have spent a lot of time in worship and things like Bible study. You might have spent that time doing more enjoyable or beneficial things.
- You have also given your money to the church through donations and tithes. Again, you could have spent that money on more enjoyable and beneficial things.
- You may have been misled into doing and believing things that you might otherwise have found to be practically and morally wrong. Perhaps you were forced to shun a member of your family or to give birth to an unwanted child due to your religious belief. There are even people who murder for religious reasons. (Remember 9/11. Remember witch burnings.)
- You may feel like a "sinner" and have low self-esteem because you don't conform to the teachings of your church. (For instance, you are gay or divorced.)You may feel guilty because you can not reach an impossible standard of perfection in behavior or even because of your thoughts.
- You give up the joys of critical thinking and rational reasoning. You give up the joy of figuring out for yourself how to give your life meaning.
There are also costs due to an acceptance of non-rational thinking (“magical thinking”).
- When someone is taught to take something “on faith” and to reject the scientific method and the use of reason to discover what is true or not true, he can easily be manipulated by others.
- He may think he can substitute prayer for action or he may have a fatalistic view of life.
- He can fall victim to spiritual leaders or politicians who sound convincing, but are actually charlatans.
4. Is there really no cost to pretending to believe?
If you are a non-believer pretending to believe, you can enjoy some benefits from this.
- You will “fit in” if you join the church to which the majority of the people in your country have joined. (This will be different depending on what country, or even community, you live in.)
- Also, if your family has a tradition of belief, you stay in their “good graces” if they think that you believe what they believe.
On the negative side, a non-believer may pay psychological costs if he forces himself “to live a lie.” He may be forced to do things he does not want to do.
- He will feel that he is wasting his time in church.
- He will suffer the distress of taking positions he knows are morally wrong. For instance, perhaps he will have to appear to oppose marriage equality, reproductive freedom, or scientific findings when actually he is in favor of these things.
- Finally, it is very damaging to the psyche to be lying all the time to everyone you know. What a burden that must be!
5. Being a moral person can bring happiness, but is a belief in God necessary to make you a moral person?
Most people are moral regardless of whether they believe in the existence of God (or gods or goddesses). They are moral because it really is true that virtue is its own reward. It is a simple as this: If you lie, steal, cheat, you will feel bad about yourself and you will be socially isolated. Most people have a conscience that prods them to be good.
Additionally, there are civil laws that keep negative tendencies in check among those with insufficient inherent morality. Our laws do not derive from religion. Our laws go all the way back to prehistoric times. The first known codification of civil laws goes back to The Code of Hammurabi in Babylon, in 1754 BCE.
Do you really think that not having a belief in God turns people into thieves, rapists, and murderers? Many people who are devout--pedophile priests and hypocrite preachers come to mind—do immoral things.
Most atheists, just like most believers, are law-abiding and moral people. There are some atheists who are not good people, but their bad behavior has nothing to do with their non-belief.
Finally, can you really say someone is moral if the only reason for their good behavior is a fear of punishment, whether by the civil authorities or by God?
6. Will God really punish the non-believer?
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a well-known writer and atheist. He often took part in public debates with Christians. I was present at one of those debates. He was asked what he would say if he discovered after his death that God does exist after all and he was now going to be banished to Hell as punishment for his sin of disbelief. He replied, “I would say why did you not provide sufficient proof of your existence? Why did you give us reason, if you did not want us to use it?” In other words, he did not believe that a just God would punish someone for disbelief.
Do you also find it hard to believe that a just and loving God would punish a person who led a good life simply for not believing in His existence or for not worshipping Him. Could God be that petty?
I have always thought it was very self-serving hen some churches say you can’t get to heaven by good works, but only from accepting Christ as your savior. Convenient isn’t it? You have to join their church to get to Heaven.
Read more on the subject of belief and disbelief.
Christopher Hitchens takes us on a provocative and entertaining guided tour of atheist and agnostic thought through the ages. Excerpts from the work of philosophers, scientists, and more (even clergy) from ancient times to modern days are presented with commentary. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand atheism.
In conclusion, Pascal’s wager is not a good bet.
Having used my reason to evaluate the pros and cons of this bet, I have concluded that it is not a good bet. It is more advantageous to be a non-believer than to be a believer. Of course, you may use your reason and come to a different conclusion. I did not write this essay to “convert” anyone to belief or disbelief. I am fortunate to live in a country which provides freedom of religion which gives everyone one the right to believe, or not believe, as they choose.
One last point. Pascal’s writings about this wager were published after his death. The argument about the wager was found among his notes. I like to think that this wager Could may have just been some musings that upon further reflection, he might have set aside because he, himself, recognized the faults in his logic.
Pascal said that not taking the bet was not an option. I’ll be more generous and allow you to opt out.
Which side of this bet would you take?
This video says it all, and does it beautifully--and in just six minutes.
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Catherine Giordano