Are you unsure of whether or not God exists? Think of it this way: if you bet that God does exist, and you’re wrong, you lose nothing. On the other hand, if you bet that God doesn’t exist, and you turn out to be wrong, you stand to lose a lot. Not just eternal bliss in paradise, but knowledge of the truth, as well as a relationship with the infinitely loving creator of the universe. So, practically speaking, if you’re going to bet, you should bet on God.
This argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, is a common one to hear from many religious believers. It gets its name from the writings of the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who intended for the bet to be a sort of thought experiment useful where the evidence isn’t strong enough to compel us to either side.1
Very often, the wager looks persuasive to those who already find much appealing in the prospects and promises of religion. However, this is usually also why atheists criticize the argument, since it doesn’t seem like the non-believing can so easily change their beliefs. Pascal himself recognized this and suggested partaking in religious practices as a way of stimulating the passions favorably towards belief.
There is some considerable basis for thinking that a god who values honesty and informed choice would not approve of tricking the mind into believing. Admittedly, though, this may not be the god that exists. Perhaps we are all predestined for a certain version of eternity, regardless of anything we try to do now. Perhaps God has no desire for us to believe in her at all. Though it pretends to be comparative, Pascal’s wager omits alternatives like these that complicate the picture at hand.
Is it true that we lose nothing if we incorrectly bet that God exists? We might well say, like we did with the other angle of the wager: it depends which god. There have been and continue to be those who abstain from the enjoyable things in this life, out of religious devotion. If we follow Pascal and try to obtain faith by practice, it could likewise be argued that this kind of cultivation of belief without reason is harmful to our reasoning capacities. Some may claim that this is just exchanging ‘worldly ways’ for the ways of God, but remember that we have no real basis for assuming this, being that the wager is premised on a kind of intellectual indeterminacy.
For what it contributed to decision theory, pragmatism, and even existentialism, Pascal’s wager was quite insightful and ahead of its time. As an argument for faith, however, it quickly runs into trouble. On the question of whether to believe or not to believe, it seems that we must do better than hedging our bets on the attractiveness of belief.
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1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, Section III: Of the necessity of the wager. (See 233).