Pascal’s wager is not an argument for the existence of God. It is an argument for believing in God despite the lack of evidence. It basically goes like this.
- If God exists, and you believe in God, you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven.
- If God exists, and you don’t believe in God, you will be damned for eternity.
- If God does not exist, and you do believe in God, you will lose nothing for believing in God.
- If God does not exist, and you do not believe in God, you will gain nothing by not believing in God.
Therefore, if you believe in God, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, whereas if you don’t believe in God, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. So, it is best to believe in God.
The main problem with this argument is that every premise is questionable, if not false. Let’s take them one-by-one. First,
If God exists, and you believe in God, you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven. This is questionable, because this belief is not found in any of the popular theistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Judaism and Islam both ask for obedience to God. Jews are expected to follow Judaic law, and Muslims are expected to follow Sharia law. Christianity asks not just for belief in God but for something more, which may depend on the particular denomination. In my Protestant experience, it is faith that Jesus Christ died for your sins. But it could also be good works or obedience to divine law. Universalist Christians do believe that all believers in God will go to Heaven, but they also believe that every non-believer will also go to Heaven. So, in general, no major theistic religion holds out the promise of Heaven simply for believing in the existence of God. Either more is required of the believer, or not even belief is required.
If God exists, and you don’t believe in God, you will be damned for eternity. I just mentioned Universalists, who don’t hold this belief. According to them, no one will be damned for eternity. I agree with them on this point. As I have argued at greater length in There is no Eternal Damnation in Hell, eternal damnation in Hell could not be anyone’s fate unless a being with God’s power existed to make it happen, but a truly just and loving God would not condemn anyone to this fate. Therefore, eternal damnation is not something anyone needs to be worried about.
A further problem with the first two premises is that it presumes to know what God’s intentions would be. For all we know, God cares more about the morality of people than about what they believe. There is a counter-example to Pascal’s wager, misattributed to Marcus Aurelius, which goes like this:
Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
Whoever wrote this, it makes sense. Organized religion has more of a vested interest in promoting belief and obedience, but even the New Testament has Jesus extolling virtue in his parable of the Good Samaritan1, in which a non-believer helps a believer after a priest and a Levite, both of them Jewish clergy, pass by him. The moral of this parable seems to be that loving one another and doing good is more important than being pious or holding particular religious beliefs.
If God does not exist, and you do believe in God, you will lose nothing for believing in God. If all you do is merely believe in God, you might not lose anything material, but if you get involved with an organized religion that seeks to control aspects of your life, you could lose control over your life. If you find yourself caught between the stick of damnation and the carrot of paradise, you could end up giving up on happiness in this life for the sake of greater happiness in the afterlife. Some people do this by spending many hard, miserable hours going door-to-door to promote their religion, and some take the quicker route of a suicide-bombing. If there is indeed no God, you would be losing out on enjoying and making the most of your life. And if this is the only life you will ever have, that amounts to losing everything.
If God does not exist, and you do not believe in God, you will gain nothing by not believing in God. If you don’t force yourself to believe in something for which there is no evidence, you will gain the freedom to think your own thoughts without worrying that you’re committing heresy or having a crisis of faith. Having a commitment to the truth, even if it puts you in opposition to popular opinion, can keep you grounded in reality and best capable of making the right decisions.
Besides the individual premises, another problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it assumes the odds of God existing are at least possible. In my article Does God Exist?, I have gone over numerous conceptions of God, and I have concluded that many of them are either impossible or too ridiculous to believe. Given this, it wouldn’t make sense to believe in God even if I did accept the premises of Pascal’s wager. But I don’t accept them, and I have no reason at all to accept Pascal’s wager as a reasonable argument.