While Pascal’s own Pensees is more in-depth, this is the basic version presented by most evangelists: If God exists and you live as if He does, your reward is infinite. If God does not exist and you live as if He does, you lose nothing. If God does not exist and you live as if He doesn’t, you gain nothing. If God exists and you live as if He doesn’t, your punishment is infinite. Therefore if there is the slightest chance that God exists, by any analysis of benefit it is better to live as if He does, in other words believe in and worship Him.
The same argument is often expressed in shorter form: “What if you’re wrong?”
This is an argument I’ve been answering constantly ever since I started on the original ATA. No matter how many times it comes up, there are always those who think it’s a brand new, ingenious zinger which will take us by surprise. I’ll refer back to here in future.
There are five main issues with the Wager, any one of which would render it nonsensical or inadequate.
1. It presents a false dilemma: that either God exists or no god does.
There is an obvious third option, namely that any deity besides the expected god exists. If the real deity is Thor, for example, the punishment for Christians is infinite (possibly worse than for atheists, who at least do not worship a rival god).
Humans have imagined something like 20,000 different major deities or equivalents so far. Together with the countless ones we haven’t thought of yet, there are an infinite number of possible gods. Without evidence for any particular god, all gods share equal probability of practically zero, and the probability of a particular god existing is infinitesimal compared to the probability of one or more rival gods, so worshipping any god is a hugely bad bet.
The response to this, I know, is to argue that there is evidence for your particular god and not for any of the others. That’s a valid response, if true. However, if you have proof positive that your god is the one and only there’s no need to mess around with probabilities, so you don’t need to use Pascal’s Wager in the first place. Just push your evidence instead.
2. If there are no gods, you don’t lose nothing by living as if there is one. You lose plenty.
You spend hundreds or thousands of hours attending religious services. You give money to organisations whose primary purpose is not to help people but to convert them. You prevent yourself from doing some things you enjoy, not because they hurt anyone but because a book told you to. And so on.
3. Belief in gods is not a choice.
A person either believes there’s a god or doesn’t. This may change, but it’s not a conscious decision by the person. Her or she has to be convinced, or else no longer convinced, one way or the other. The idea that it’s beneficial to believe in a god does not support the idea that there is one. They’re two independent issues.
4. Any decent god would spot a faker.
This is related to the third point. If an atheist were convinced that it’s beneficial to believe in and worship God, he or she could certainly worship, but would still not believe. The worship would therefore be insincere on a fundamental level. It’d be a farce, maintained to give the appearance of belief. Would the Christian god, for example, accept this lip service?
It’s said by some religious folks that if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, belief will come. I don’t doubt it; if you pray as if there’s a god there for long enough, you may manage to forget that there isn’t. If brainwashing yourself like this is the only way to believe, however, are you really doing the right thing?
5. Is belief really the key?
What if one specific god does exist, but the important thing is not that one believes in Him/Her? Counter to the evangelist perspective, but what if works trump grace/faith/being “saved” in terms of brownie points in the real Heaven?
In short, Pascal’s Wager uses an incomplete and incorrect premise, and is useless to nonbelievers even if they agree with it. Blaise Pascal himself supports it in the Pensees by arguing separately for the existence of the specific Christian god from several angles, which is exactly the response to issue 1 I’ve described which makes the Wager redundant. By itself, it’s just pointless.
“What if you’re wrong?”