Put simply, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s best to believe in God, because if he’s not real, nothing happens when you die, but if he is, you have everything to gain or lose by believing or not believing. It’s an argument Christians sometimes advance in favor of their beliefs, and as a discussion-loving Atheist who is part of Christian circles, I’ve encountered it several times. It has a few issues though, which I’ll explain here.
Issue #1: Christianity isn’t the only religion with an afterlife.
What if Allah is real? What if Zeus and the other ancient gods are real and we just don’t know it because no one has followed them in ages? What about the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If Christianity were the only religion in the world, this argument might make a little more sense, but it isn’t. On the one hand, if the goal is to minimize risk, logically you should convert to the God(s)/religion in which you’re most likely to go to Hell should it be true and you weren’t a believer. You should pick the most violent and jealous God, which may or may not be Christianity (unless you look at the Old Testament by itself…). On the other hand, if “just in case” is a good enough reason, I could follow any religion and/or god whose standards are relevant to me, whether or not said standards involve avoiding Hell. By your own values, several different religions are all acceptable choices, and so you’ve forfeited the right to evangelize for yours.
Issue #2: Fire insurance isn’t the same as real faith.
I was a Christian for 16 years, so be warned that this paragraph contains Christianese.
Assuming for a moment that the Christian God does get special priority in the wager: does that kind of faith actually make you a real Christian? Is half-heartedly thinking that God is real, ticking the “Christian” box on surveys, and going through some of the motions “because it’s best to assume he’s real” the same as being a true, devoted believer who strives with all their heart to follow God’s commands and maintain a close relationship with Jesus? I spent years going to church, and have read the Bible from cover to cover. I’m fairly certain a halfway kind of “fire insurance” faith, where you aren’t really confident God is real but assume he might be in order to save your butt from landing in Hell, isn’t what God wants if he’s actually real.
Issue #3: Deciding whether God is real isn’t the same as flipping a coin.
The wager implies that whether or not God is real is a question of chance, and you have about a 50/50 chance of being right or wrong. But it’s not luck. We can verify whether there’s an archeological or historical record for Biblical events (the Romans were good record-keepers). We have logic and reasoning. We can look at the Bible itself and notice if it has contradictions. The scales aren’t up to chance at all – they have evidence and logic tipping them one direction or another. Different people would give different numbers, but just as an example, let’s say it’s a 90/10 chance. That takes a lot of the risk out of not believing.
Issue #4: Humanity has a lot to lose, too.
Disregarding the other arguments, you might think “Well I haven’t lost anything at any rate. I was a good person because of it, and if I was wrong, nothing bad came of it.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. First of all, you don’t need to be a Christian, or religious in any way, to live morally. There are plenty of kind, generous, good Atheists out there. Rules like “don’t murder people” and “don’t cheat on your partner” are just logical because they make life work better for us as social creatures. Second, religion does in fact have a cost. However, this section turned out to be about as long as the whole rest of the post so far, so I’ve made a separate post laying out the downsides.
Conclusion (i.e. another header to clarify that the above point is done)
Hopefully this gives you something to think on, especially if Pascal’s Wager comes up in your conversations. Feel free to drop a comment with your thoughts (whether you agree or disagree), and tune in next time to get part 2 about what I think are the downsides of religion!