The Long Odds of Pascal’s Wager

There are many reasons why a person might believe in God. Maybe it is because they look at the world with all its life and beauty and sense their own miraculous existence is an expression of the divine. More likely, their parents made them attend church on Sundays and instilled in them the traditions and trappings of the beliefs of their forefathers. They might even apply their intellect and discern an order to the universe, in the regular orbits of planets and other unlikely mathematical constants, concluding that there must have been a Creator who was the agent of its making. Blaise Pascal, however, does not concern himself with these approaches to the question of God’s existence. In the argument known as Pascal’s Wager, he asserts that it makes good sense to believe in God because doing so has fewer potential costs and more potential rewards than not doing so. Although it has a sort of charm, his argument does not adequately recognize the potential harm that can come from belief in God, and may not even be practicable.

It is relevant to mention at the outset that Pascal starts with the assertion that “reason cannot establish whether there is a God or not” (Clack 49).  Since many of the arguments we have studied have attempted to use logic to conclude whether God exists, this is an important departure from the rational approach. For ease of reference, let us look at Pascal’s Wager as a classic deductive argument:

Either God exists, or God does not exist.

You can choose to believe in God, or you can choose not to believe in God.

If you choose to believe in God and He exists, you will earn everlasting life, having sacrificed earthly pleasures.

If you choose to believe in God and He does not exist, you will have sacrificed earthly pleasures and earned nothing for eternity.

If you choose not to believe in God and He exists, you will have had earthly pleasures and earn eternal damnation in Hell.

If you choose not to believe in God and He does not exist, you will have had earthly pleasures and earned nothing for eternity.

Therefore, since the rewards are infinitely greater, you should choose to believe in God.

The first premise is necessarily true, using the law of the excluded middle, but the second premise already presents some difficulty. Can we actually choose what to believe? For the most part, people assemble their view of reality and existence based on the evidence of their senses and the tutelage of trusted others, but even Pascal asserts at the outset that such tools are not available to us when it comes to God’s existence. A simple conclusion would be that since there is no indisputable evidence to support the hypothesis that God exists, He probably doesn’t. The stakes, Pascal believes, are too high to leave it at that. He seems to understand that what we believe is to some degree made up of things that we repeat to ourselves over and over again. If we have difficulty, we can just do as others who “behaved as if they did believe” and go through the motions until eventually faith becomes ingrained in us (Clack 51). If that is all that is required, perhaps everyone should just worship me until that seems natural, and you all may reap the rewards of my magnificence when I see fit. Of course, you have evidence that I cannot endow you with everlasting, eternal benefits since I resemble the other flawed mortal human beings that are a part of your valid sensory inputs. Since God is an unknowable thing, He makes a great candidate to be that entity Who can provide for you that thing that is desired but beyond the capacity of actual knowable things to provide, namely immortality and eternal purpose. How convenient. To trick one’s self into faith seems deeply disingenuous, and an Eternal Being would see right through such a shallow ploy, maybe even to the point of stirring His ire.

Setting aside brainwashing as a path to the divine, let us assess the rewards and punishments that Pascal has as a necessary part of his argument in premises 3 through 6. The main reason you should believe in God is because doing so will provide you with the immeasurable benefit of everlasting life in heaven with Him and all the best people. Furthermore, indulging in earthly pleasures is sufficient to condemn you to eternal suffering and damnation with all the losers. Now, this is quite an assertion. How does Pascal know that this is the reward awaiting the faithful, or the punishment deserved by the faithless? Pascal assumes the reward and punishment as described in Christianity. How do we know that Christianity is the correct faith? After all, it takes quite a bit more work to believe the various mental gymnastics of the Holy Trinity and transubstantiation than, say, to believe the tenets of Islam. At least Muslims simply think of Jeshua ben Joseph as another honored prophet of the Abrahamic Deity, one who came before Muhammad (May Peace Be Upon Him). Can we even be sure that Abraham’s ghost is the one true God? Personally, I have a soft spot for the Flying Spaghetti Monster (May Parmesan Be Upon Him). I’m also inclined to prefer Buddhism, which leans toward agnosticism where God is concerned and reincarnation as my impending fate. Should I just hedge my bets and believe in them all? Unfortunately, this is not possible, since Islam has as its first pillar a requirement to recognize only the Prophet. Similarly, Christians demand I adhere to their traditions to secure the blessings of the hereafter and the forever and ever. All of these religions claiming to be the one true religion do not make it possible for me to simply choose, even if choosing were an option, and to choose based on the views of the majority is indulging in the bandwagon fallacy.

This is all to say nothing of the deeply insulting view in premise 5 that earthly, “noxious” pleasures condemn me to the horrors of torture in a lake of fire in eternal Hell (Clack 49). I don’t even get to simply melt into the indifferent embrace of nothingness. If I get a warm fuzzy feeling because of my self-serving decision to believe in God and worship Him as commanded by the predominant faith of my neighbors, does that count as a noxious pleasure? Should I become a Franciscan monk, with a cilice on my leg and chafing burlap clothes? Even Jeshua ben Joseph occasionally enjoyed a little wine, the attention of adoring women, and the indulgence of anger in the face of usurious injustice. The assertion is that virtue is not served by feeling pleasure, and that people should forgo such coarse experience to achieve a greater holiness. Certainly, virtue is served by moderation, but pleasure in and of itself is not unnatural and evil. I agree with Nietzsche that the promotion of poverty and humility in Christianity worked to normalize the condition of the subjects of the Church. The Roman Catholic Church was the world’s first multi-national corporation, and as it spread it worked to absorb the pagan traditions of those who would be evangelized—traditions which bound together their communities—and provide them with hope (pie in the sky when you die) in the face of every day injustice. Obeisance to the Church does not cost nothing; it requires subjugating one’s self to the human leadership of the Church and a regular tithe of one’s meager earnings. Glorifying the pain of the Passion and withholding pleasure are psychological torture techniques to which one must submit to deserve the promised eternal reward, and should that reward turn out to be empty, there is no justice for the swindle. If you are one of the truly unlucky ones, you won’t just be made to feel guilty; some nun might withhold medications as she worships the agony of your final moments. Religious-led military campaigns have killed countless millions, and abuse of children is still shockingly common. As they say, abstinence makes the Church grow fondlers.

Those who are sincere in their belief in God do not need Pascal’s Wager, and would likely recoil from the way I have rebuffed the question of whether one should, or can, choose faith. I will admit that religious belief may provide a benefit to the believer that has a significant and measureable value in their lives. People who share religious faith in their communities may learn to act selflessly, take care of children and the elderly, and be kind to strangers. They may feel a strong bond with their fellow Churchgoers arising from shared experiences and ethical outlooks, or from the repetitive exhortations and actions required in their rituals. Charity from religious institutions supports hospitals, food banks, even universities. Although it is not in itself a negative force in the world for an individual to honestly come to believe in God, and for like-minded people to practice together, it is ridiculous and perhaps immoral to threaten someone for not being able to honestly arrive at that same belief for themselves. It is a sort of blackmail for a Christian to dismiss me as damned for not sharing his belief, albeit less immediately dangerous than a member of Daesh threatening to kill me for not sharing in his. Should I just politely accept his sincere belief that I should be killed? In both cases, I am dismissed as lesser-than by another human being, and that is the root of many worldly ills. I can choose to moderate selfish worldly desires and lead a moral life because it occurs to me that it is the best way for me to be, and still look on my fellow human being as equally struggling to make sense of a baffling, often ineffable world. Pascal’s Wager reduces a human being to a simple creature of habit who is better off just going along with the overarching power structure rather than exploring his or her own convictions.

Works Cited

Clack, Beverly & Brian R. Clack. The Philosophy of Religion: A Critical Introduction. 2nd Edition. Polity Press, 2008, Cambridge, UK. Print.