IS IT SAFER TO BELIEVE IN GOD EVEN IF
THERE IS NO PROOF THAT ONE EXISTS?
"If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing -- but if you don't believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist." Paraphrase of Pascal's Wager. 1
|"...the argument consists of four statements: |
|"I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it." Benjamin Franklin, from his "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion," 1728-NOV-20.|
|"The reason Pascal's wager does not work is the same reason why you should never plan your retirement on winning the lotto." Massimo Pigliucci. 1|
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a 17th century French mathematician and scientist who is considered to be the father of modern probability theory. He created the first calculating machine, invented the syringe, developed the hydraulic press, and refined the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure. 1 However, he is best known in philosophical and theological circles for Pascal's Wager: the suggestion that it is better to believe in the existence of God then to be an Atheist, for the simple reason that it is the bet that gives the better chance for a good outcome.
"If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is ... you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is."
Humanist Massimo Pigliucci compares the Wager to the argument that promoters of lotteries use: if you decide to buy a ticket, you have a chance at great wealth; if you don't buy it, you are certain to win nothing. Since the ratio of money given out in prizes is equal to about one third of the money collected, then buying tickets are obviously not a wise investment. 1 However, Pascal's Wager and deciding whether to buy a lottery ticket are not that similar. If Pascal's interpretation of the Bible is correct, then God exists. If a person does not believe in him, their penalty is not death (i.e. annihilation; non-existence; lack of the happiness of Heaven), but eternal, unrelenting torture in Hell.
Pascal had been unimpressed with the efforts of theologians over many centuries to prove the existence of God. He decided to present arguments why people should believe in God even if no solid proof is available. "
...In a single paragraph of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a 'wager' --- it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as 'Pascal's Wager." 2 Pensées was a book on Christian apologetics that Pascal had started to write; he had left as a series of notes. It was published posthumously in 1670. 3 The Pensées are still available today in various forms. 4,5,6
Pascal's three arguments:
|The first is the argument from superdominance, as philosophers call it. Pascal wrote: "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here....Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least....Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is... If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."|
The implication is that:
|The argument from expectation: He wrote: "Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness." |
He seems to be stating:
|The argument from generalized expectations: This is considered the most important quote in Pascal's writing: "But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all..." |
This passage is somewhat obscure. However, he seems to imply that:
For such a simple concept, Pascal's Wager has one enormous number of weaknesses and contradictions. Some are listed below.
Weaknesses #1 -- Is believing in God sufficient for salvation?
Pascal seems to assume that those who believe in God will be automatically rewarded be attaining Heaven, whereas those who disbelieve in God will automatically spend eternity in Hell. i.e., simply believing in the existence of God guarantees ones "salvation." But different religions, (and different traditions within certain religions) have very different criteria for salvation. Many require that a person do more than simply believe in the existence of God. Passages in the Bible, interpreted literally, seem to imply that salvation is dependent:
|solely on good deeds.|
|solely on faith.|
|on faith plus the act of baptism.|
|on faith, coupled with good deeds,|
T.M. Drange describes this in greater detail. He wrote: "According to the Bible, more is required for salvation than mere belief in God. One also needs to:
|Believe in God's son (Mark 16:16; John 3:18,36, 8:21-25, 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; I John 5:12),|
|Repent (Luke 13:3,5),|
|Be born again (John 3:3),|
|Be born of the water and of the Spirit (John 3:5),|
|Believe everything in the gospel (Mark 16:16),|
|Eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood (John 6:53),|
|Be like a child (Mark 10:15), and|
|do good deeds, esp. for needy people (Matt. 25:41-46; Rom. 2:5-10; John 5:28-29; James 2:14-26)." 7|
Weaknesses #2 -- Which God must we believe in?
Pascal apparently assumed that one either believes in God or one didn't. But the situation is more complex that than. Consider both Christianity and Islam:
|The Christian Scriptures, in John 3:16 to 18 states: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." This implies that anyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ will be condemned. Since the Christian Scriptures only talk about two eventual resting places after death -- Heaven and Hell, one might conclude that anyone who does not believe in Jesus and the Trinity will spend eternity in Hell.|
|The Qur'an is the Holy Book of Islam. |
Now, if one interprets these passages literally, then:
|Christians generally believe in the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. But if Christianity is wrong, and Islam is correct, then Allah will punish the Christian believer with horrendous tortures.|
|Meanwhile, Muslims believe in the single, indivisible deity Allah, who is very different from the Christian Trinity. If Islam is wrong, and Christianity is correct, then the Christian God will torture all Muslims for eternity without any hope of mercy or a cessation of their pain.|
"This is often described as the 'avoiding the wrong hell' problem." 3
Actually, the problem is even more complex than is indicated above. There have been countless deities among the tens of thousands of religions in which people believe or have believed. The Fararrs have written a pair of books that list 1,000 Gods and 1,000 Goddesses. 8 Many of these Gods and Goddess are jealous deities who demand worship from their followers and who punish those who do not believe in them. The probability of choosing the right God or Goddess is chancy at best.
Weaknesses #3 -- Does any human belief matter?
Many Christians believe in Predestination - a concept promoted by John Calvin and other theologians. The theory is that God has divided humanity into two groups:
|A small percentage of people who God will save and who will attain heaven. They are not chosen by God on the basis of any merit on their part -- because they have led good lives, for example. They have done absolutely nothing to deserve this fate.|
|A much larger group, that God has decided to not save. They will spend eternity being tortured without mercy in Hell. They also have done nothing to warrant being chosen differently from those who are saved.|
Only if God has chosen an individual will they be able to understand the Christian Scriptures and accept salvation. To the unchosen, the Gospel is meaningless. Pascal himself wrote: "We shall never believe with an effective belief and faith unless God inclines our hearts. Then we shall believe as soon as he inclines them." 9 The implication of predestination is that nothing that the individual does will determine their fate after death: heaven or hell. It is all up to God. One's fate is sealed before birth. We are powerless to change it.
Weakness #4 -- Is Heaven better than Hell?
Some visualize Heaven as a place where one praises God, sings hymns, basks in the presence of Jesus continuously. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) once commented that the average Christian has considerable difficulty sitting through a single church service every Sunday. The thought of having to endure a 24 hour service is dreadful. The image of what is essentially a church service of infinite length would be beyond endurance. Meanwhile, many Christian denominations have interpreted Hell as a place or condition where one is simply separated from the presence of God. Some Agnostics and Atheists live their entire lives continuously in this condition and are quite happy. On balance, some might prefer Hell to Heaven.
Weakness #5 -- Can one make themselves believe?
Pascal seems to accept voluntarism: the concept that belief is a matter of the will. That is, a person can simply decide to believe in the existence of God. Some people cannot do this. "...many feel that for intellectually honest people, belief is based on evidence, with some amount of intuition. It is not a matter of will or cost-benefit analysis." 3 Many Agnostics, for example, have evaluated all the "proofs" for God's existence, and all of the "proofs" of God's non-existence. They conclude that neither belief can be substantiated. They feel that they can not rationally believe in the existence or non-existence of God; they must remain Agnostic. Under these conditions, a person can only believe in God if they violate their honesty. And God might punish a lack of honestly more severely than not being able to believe in God.
It can be argued that if people believe something on insufficient evidence, that the result is the promoting of credulity -- something that harms society. Again, that could be a sin that God is particularly concerned about punishing.
Weakness #6 -- Is a greedy decision valid?
Some might argue that an insincere wager is worthless. God, being omniscient and omnipotent, knows our motivations. If a person decided to believe in God in order to increase their chances for a good life after death, then such an insincere decision might be rejected by God. In fact, if there were some doubt in God's mind whether the individual should be sent to Heaven or Hell, a deceitful decision might be counter-productive. It might tip the scales in favor of Hell.
Weakness #7 -- Can we guess God's criteria for salvation?
Perhaps God does not care whether a person believes in him or not. Perhaps he will to treat the person who seeks to understand God but, to be honorable to himself, must remain an Agnostic. Perhaps he will treat people harshly if they blindly accept the existence of God without any proof.
Weakness #8 -- Is the probability that God exists greater than zero?
What is the possibility that a God exists who exhibits such intense wrath against unbelievers that he sends them all to Hell for eternal punishment? (The term "wrath" seems like a better term that "hatred" here because so many people associate God with pure love). Some feel that the possibility is zero. If so, then no possibility of an infinite reward results in no reward, and Pascal's Wager collapses. Massimo Pigliucci outlines two lines of thought that indicate the improbability of God's existence:
|"...every time we consider a God with physical attributes, that is one that actually does something in the universe...science invariably tells us that that God does not exist. We thought that God caused lightning, now we know better; we attributed to him a worldwide flood that modern geology says never occurred; and so on and so forth."|
|"...even a much reduced version of God...assumes the existence of the supernatural; that is, of something we have absolutely no evidence of, which is not necessary to explain the world, and quite plainly is the result of wishful thinking on the part of a pathologically insecure humanity."|
For those Atheist who are 100% convinced that God does not exist, Pascal's Wager is unconvincing. However, If one accepts that the probability of the existence of a wrath-filled God is, say, one in 100, then the Wager still makes some sense. A 1% chance at eternity in Heaven is still better than a 1% chance at Hell or a 99% chance at nothing. So, this weakness of Pascal's Wager is only valid if one can prove that God does not exist. Only a person who is omniscient could do that. There are no humans who have reached this level.
Weakness #9: God is just:
Adults differ greatly in their ability to believe things by faith, and their degree of skepticism. These tendencies are observed in childhood before the age of accountability. Thus, it can be argued that the degree of skepticism and amount of faith that an adult has is outside their control; it is fixed, much like race, gender, and sexual orientation. It may be determined mainly by genes, or by some interaction between genes and environment. However, it is so fundamental a factor in a person's life that it is extremely difficult or impossible to change in adulthood.
Pascal himself once wrote of persons to whom belief by faith comes easily : "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know." 9 i.e. there are times when we can accept that something is true even if it cannot be proven through logic and observation. In the life of a skeptic, this phrase is without validity.
Some would argue that for God to discriminate against skeptical individuals would be akin to racism, sexism and homophobia. He would not require a skeptic to believe in God in order to attain Heaven -- something that the skeptic could not achieve. It would be neither fair nor just.
- Massimo Pigliucci, "A refutation of Pacal's wager and why skeptics should be non-theists," Massimo's Skeptic and Humanist Web, at: http://fp.bio.utk.edu/skeptic/essays/
- "Pascal's Wager," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at: http://www.comereason.org/cmp_rlgn/cmp011.htm
- "Pascal's Wager (God is a safe bet)," The Internet Infidels, at: http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/
- Blaise Pascal (A.J. Krailsheimer, Translator), "Pensees," Penguin USA, (1995). Read reviews or order this book savely from Amazon.com's book store
- James Houston, translator, "Mind On First: A Faith for the Skeptical and Indifferent", Bethany House, (1997) Read reviews or order this book
- Peter Kreeft, "Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees Edited, Outlined and Explained," Ignatius Press, (1993). Read reviews or order this book
- T.M. Drange, "Pascal's Wager Refuted," at: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/
- Janet & Stewart Farrar, "The Witches' God," and "The Witches' Goddess.
- Passages cited by Rick Wade, "Blaise Pascal: An Apologist for Our Times," Probe Ministries, at: http://www.probe.org/docs/pascal.html
- "Pascal's Wager," at: http://www.infidels.org/library/ This contains a list of brief reviews of, and hyperlinks to, essays on the Wager.
- Learn more about Pascal's life:
- Pascal, Op cit., Page 257-258.
Copyright © 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-OCT-26
Latest update: 2006-APR-12
Author: B.A. Robinson
Originally written: 2001-OCT-26
Latest update: 2006-APR-12
Author: B.A. Robinson
Comment: I first heart about Pascal's Wager some years back by my online Sponsor Dr. Linda, who works in Jerusalem. If we did not have a belief in God I suspect we would have to invent God in order for us to comprehend the cosmos. For myself, I see evidence of God or the Creator of the Cosmos in the heavens above, in the daily miracles of nature and have faith in the Creator in my own heart. Faith can come from hearing and it can come from the evidnece of our own existence as creatures of the Creator.
~Love God, Stay Straight and Help Others! ~Peta