Problems with Pascal’s Wager

Is there an advantage to believing in God?

Ever since the days of Blaise Pascal in the 17th century religionists have used the ‘Pascal’s Wager’ argument to claim that believing in God has a distinct advantage over non-belief. It goes like this:

Even though you might not be able to prove God’s existence, you’re still better off hedging your bets – or waging – as though God does exist because, if true, you have everything to gain and have nothing to lose.

Sound’s entirely reasonable, right?

Well, before you answer that question, consider these points…

  • Exactly which God do we believe in? There are literally hundreds, in not thousands, of conflicting conceptions of God (and gods). We would have to factor them all into the wager
  • At the very best, only one conception of God could ever be correct. But the odds of anyone choosing the correct one are extremely low. Hardly anyone living today is even aware of all the different conceptions of God. (According to some religions, believing in ‘false gods’ carries the most severe punishments)
  • Furthermore, for all we know, all of the existing conceptions of God could be utterly wrong. God may be malevolent or not reward belief. He may even punish people for belief – including those who believe in Pascal’s wager
  • God may even be ‘rational’ in the sense that he rewards honest attempts at objective reasoning and not care about beliefs. In which case, Pascal’s wager would be entirely pointless and possibly damaging
  • An omniscient God would presumably see through the deception – which, again, might be punishable.

Religionists, then, have no assurance that they stand the best chance of avoiding the wrath of  God. Sure, they can conjure up a God who would reward them in a future life for their own particular religious beliefs. But it would be just as easy for the next person to conjure up a very different (and equally unprovable) God with a very different set of attributes.

Neither should religionists be content with ‘generic’ deism because that itself may invoke the wrathful anger of a jealous God.

But, the religious may ask, if any God exists then surely atheists will be in for a rough ride? Even this isn‘t certain. Again, if God actually rewards critical thinking and punishes belief, atheists may well be the ones on the receiving end of God’s blessing at having passed the earthly ‘reason test’, while the religionists will be the ones losing out for having abandoned their God-given capacity to think rationally.

But there’s an even more fundamental consideration that ought to concern religionists – what if there is no God at all? Furthermore, what if spending your life believing in a God that doesn‘t actually exist is not simply a harmless delusion?

Think about it. To genuinely believe in a God – such as the God of the Bible or the Koran, for instance – you would have to act and think in ways that satisfies the desires of that imagined God. This omniscient God would presumably be judging your every move and monitoring your every thought, both awake and asleep.

You would also have to shun any scientific knowledge that conflicts with your religious doctrine. Equally, you would have to give up your capacity to make moral judgements based on reason.

Unfortunately for others, your belief in God may have consequences beyond your own personal experiences. No doubt you would have to teach your children to believe in the same falsehoods as you do. You would need to condemn those who choose not to believe as you do.

As a believer, you would also probably vote for the party or the presidential candidate who appears to be ‘closer to God‘. You may even join, fund or support a group to prevent life-saving stem-cell research or abortions. You may even preach hate against perfectly decent people for being unrighteous, ungodly, homosexual, atheist, rational.

In a sentence, you would have to believe in superstitious bronze age mythology at the expense of your reason, all with the imagined approval of the creator of the universe.

That’s a huge price to pay for something for which there is no definitive evidence or even a likelihood of actually being true.

So yes, you do have something to lose by believing in a God that doesn’t exist. You lose the fullness, the enjoyment and the reward of living a life seeking genuine knowledge. You also miss the true wonder and pleasure of discovering how the real world actually works, freed from bronze age superstitions which, however comforting, are just plain wrong.