Atheism 101: Pascal’s Wager

Here at MSS HQ, we’re always looking for ways to grow and expand the group.  Having guest speakers come down and talk to us is high on our list, as a big name from the world of science and skepticism is always going to draw more of a crowd than the promise of a pint with Marshall.  Wonderful company though he is.

To this end, we’ve been compiling a short-list of people we’d love to invite down to talk to us.  Some have spoken at “Skeptics in the Pub” events around the UK; some are just people we think it would be cool to hear speak about science.  I was researching a guest from this latter category (to whom I shall refer only as John Smith) when I was met by two surprises in quick succession.

The first surprise was reading that John Smith apparently finds Pascal’s Wager to be a compelling argument.  The second surprise was discovering that Marshall, our publicist, resident psychic-basher, and Skepchick-fan has no idea what Pascal’s Wager is.

Now, you don’t know who John Smith really is, so the impact of that initial revelation will likely be lost in translation.  I will say, however, that Smith is a boyhood hero of mine and a science populariser of some repute.  How can he find such a poor argument convincing? I don’t understand.  He is supposed to know everything!

Marshall’s revelation (notice how I don’t spare his blushes!) that he doesn’t know Pascal’s Wager, is something that perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me.  Unlike the erstwhile Mr Smith, I don’t expect Marsh to know everything and it is very easy to forget that, unlike me, Marsh didn’t come to skepticism via atheism.  Why would he know the standard arguments?

Some people go to great lengths to assert that atheism and skepticism are not the same thing.  This makes sense to me.  There are many great skeptics who also accept claims about the existence of gods and it would be a mistake to alienate those people by insisting that atheism is the only rational position.  However, a bad argument is a bad argument is a bad argument – and irrespective of whether there is a god or not, Pascal’s Wager is a bad argument.  So, especially for Marsh, but also for anyone else who isn’t aware, I’m going to take some time (after the long and rambling introduction) to look at Pascal’s Wager and explain why it doesn’t hold up.

The Argument

Blaise Pascal was an influential 17th century French mathematician and physicist whose techniques and theories are still taught today.  He invented the mathematics of probability, created Pascal’s Triangle, gave his name to the SI unit of pressure, and even has a programming language named after him.  Make no mistake, Blaise Pascal is a big, big deal.  In 1654, Pascal had a “religious experience” and all but gave up his work in mathematics and physics, instead becoming a religious apologist.  His Pensées, a collection of thoughts defending Christianity, was published posthumously, following his death in 1662.

Note 233 of the Pensées contains the argument now referred to as “Pascal’s Wager”.  The argument runs along these lines:

  1. The existence of God cannot be determined by reason, since God is infinitely incomprehensible.
  2. Therefore, we can only guess, or wager, if God exists.
  3. If we wager that God is and win, then we gain all.  If we lose, we lose nothing.
  4. If we wager that God is not and win, we gain nothing.  If we lose, we lose all.
  5. Wager then, without hesitation, that He is.

Modern apologists frequently suggest that to “gain all” means to go to Heaven and to “lose all” means to go to Hell.  It’s not clear that this is what Pascal meant when he penned his wager, but it is in this context which his argument is used today.

Objection #1: Which god?

The most obvious objection is that wager sets up a false dichotomy.  The interlocutor almost always assumes that the Christian god is the only possible manifestation of god and that the available choices are, therefore, Christianity and Atheism.  This obviously excludes all the other possible gods – Vishnu, Allah, Zeus, Odin, Jupiter, etc.

Objection #2: Do infidels go to Hell?

An unstated major premise is that God uses belief to decide if a soul goes to Heaven or Hell.  If, however, God rewards good works, or perhaps intellectual honesty and truth-seeking, then the wager is no longer valid.  Maybe the vikings were right, and you have to die gloriously in battle to get into the Halls of Asgard?

Objection #3: How stupid is God?

Even if we are to assume that the Christian god is the only possible manifestation of god, and that he rewards belief and punishes non-belief, just how thick do you think God is?  Do you not think he may see through your cowardly bet-hedging and realise that you don’t believe to glorify him, you’re just selfishly trying to avoid Hell.

Indeed, it could be argued that Pascal’s Wager doesn’t represent an argument for belief, but only an argument for feigning belief.  You cannot choose to belief, you are either convinced or you are not.  Going through the motions in the hope of avoiding Hell is unlikely to curry favour with the Almighty, unless you think he is stupid enough to fall for your trick.

Objection #4: Losing nothing?

The wager suggests that, in a world with no God, living as a Christian doesn’t cost you anything.  But there is more to being a believer than declaring “I believe!” and then getting on with your life.  Aside from having spent your life believing something which isn’t true (something I’d find distressing), what about all the time you wasted in church or in prayer?  What about the money you have spent donating to the church?

What about the impact on science?  If you accept the existence of God, then “God did it” becomes a viable answer to scientific questions. Research stops and progress flounders.  What research may continue will be hampered by religiously-based objections, as we have seen with stem-cell therapy.

Then there are all the people who are hurt or killed in the name of God.  Whether that is through misguided attempts to heal life-threatening conditions through prayer, or through various forms of religious crusade.  Don’t the lives of these people count as a loss?

A world where we uncritically accept God, when no god exists, cannot be said to be a world where we “lose nothing”.

Objection #5: Is God incomprehensible?

My final objection is the unsupported assertion that the existence of a god cannot be examined by reason.  Perhaps we could argue that a deist god, who plays no active part in the universe after its creation, cannot be examined by reason.  But a Christian god?  We’re told that he is always sticking his hand in… performing miracles here and personal revelations there. Transubstantiating bread and wine.  Though never healing amputees. Where God has had an supposed effect on the natural world, that is something we can investigate.  And we do.  And will continue to do so.

To attempt to squirrel your god away by asserting that he is intrinsically uninvestigable serves only to expose your own fear than an honest investigation of the claims you make about your god will show that he isn’t there at all.

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  1. #1 by Marsh on July 2, 2009 - 00:46

    I’m not sure if I should be mad that my ignorance is public, or pleased that my company is wonderful…! haha

  2. #2 by Mike on July 2, 2009 - 08:57

    Definitely the former.

  3. #3 by Alex on July 2, 2009 - 10:33

    Great article! I always remember Douglas Adams’ response to this particular argument:

    “People will then often say, ‘But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?’ This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.) “

  4. #4 by Chris on July 2, 2009 - 10:33

    Excellent, concise rebuttal of this claptrap argument. I’ve met a number of Christians who still pull this one out of one of their orifices and it’s usually the start of much eye rolling on my part…

  5. #5 by Colonel Molerat on July 2, 2009 - 10:59

    Pascal once wagered me £5 that I couldn’t drink him under the table.
    Unfortunately, he only agreed to pay once we’re both dead.

  6. #6 by Mark Atherton on July 4, 2009 - 14:37

    I came in here with a large list of points to make but then i realised that you had already made all of them. The flaw in pascals reasoning has always been that he couldnt due to his beliefs ever take into account that there were more options than just “dont believe in the christian god or do believe in the christian god”.

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