Who should be worried by Pascal’s Wager?

Pascal’s Wager states that if the slightest chance exists that there could be a God, we should become believers rather than be atheists.  His reasoning is as follows: if there is a God, you will “win infinitely big” by believing in Him (you go to heaven) but “lose infinitely big” by not believing in Him (you go to hell); if there is no God, you just win/lose some small finite amount of happiness. Since Pascal was a Christian philosopher, believing in God meant becoming a Christian.

God exists God does not exist
You believe in God +infinity happiness points Some finite amount of happiness points (X)
You do not believe in God -infinity happiness points Some finite amount of happiness points (Y)

Pascal seemed to make the case under the probability of God existing or not existing being roughly 50:50, but for the sake of making his argument even stronger, we can show using expected value calculations that even if you think there is only a 0.1% chance that God exists, you should still become a believer:

E(Believe in God) = P(God exists) * V(God exists) + P(God does not exist) * V(God does not exist)

= 0.001 * ∞ + 0.999X

= ∞

E(Don’t believe in God)      = P(God exists) * V(God exists) + P(God does not exist) * V(God does not exist)

= 0.001 * -∞ + 0.999Y

= -∞

So it doesn’t matter whether you put the chances of God’s existence at close to 100% or close to 0%.  And it doesn’t matter whether you think a religious person is happier or unhappier than an atheist if there is no God.  As long as you acknowledge that the chance of his existence is non-zero, you should be a believer.

Of course, atheists have been rolling their eyes at this wager for centuries since he first proposed this back in the 1600s.  A number of problems with the wager are discussed here.

An obvious one is that there are many religions and each require allegiance to a different God:

Jesus exists Allah exists
You worship Jesus infinite reward infinite punishment
You worship Allah infinite punishment infinite reward

And even if you decide to calculate the expected value of following each major religion and choosing the one that gets you the best odds, there’s no real reason to suppose that this has you covered.  Plenty of major religions throughout history are no longer major religions, and major religions today weren’t always major religions.  In other words, even if you could somehow suppose God that would reveal himself through a major religion at some point in time, you would have to somehow consider every major religion that’s ever arisen and every one that will ever arise.

This brings me to a more basic argument against Pascal’s Wager.  There is no reason to think that being a believer is a “safe” option.  In fact, given all the terrible things done in the name of religion, it could well be that if there is a God or Gods, it’s the agnostic/atheist who rejects religion in favor of embracing humanism that gets rewarded.

Pascal’s Wager is often seen a challenge from the religious to atheists.  But it seems to me the challenge should go both ways.

Let’s say there is a God who is concerned with how each person lives their lives and that he is good.  And he look down upon two different people living in the 21st century.

The first person follows some Abrahamic religion, say Christianity.  They pray to God and actively hope that God exists, even though it means billions of people will suffer for eternity.  Some of these non-believers may be friends or family, but they tell themselves it’s the non-believers’ own fault for not coming to the same conclusion as them.  They spend their time rationalizing their belief that good non-believing people are deserving of an infinitely worse fate than bad people who believe in their God.  They think it’s okay for people’s eternal fates to be determined by their beliefs, even though the overwhelming factors in determining a person’s religion are the religion of their parents and the society they grow up in.  They use their religion as justification for any bigotries they hold, and impede various scientific and moral progresses along the way.

Then there’s a second person who decides it’s impossible to know whether God exists and what they would want from them if they did.  So they just live their lives and try to be a decent person.

Now if a God were to bless one of these people with eternal reward and damn the other with eternal punishment, which one of these seems deserving of heaven and which one seems deserving of hell?


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