One of the most common and over used defenses for the Christian faith, and any faith really, is that of Pacal’s Wager – It’s so common and so overused that I was recently on the receiving end of it at a live formal debate (GodornoGodDebate.com). A lot of people, despite hearing it all the time and despite the obvious logical fallacies employed – still have a difficult time answering it, and so I present to you four refutations for Pascal’s Wager.
Defining Pascal’s Wager
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French child prodigy, mathemetician, and physicist – who invented one of the first mechanical calculators. Toward the end of his short life he turned to Christian philosophy and his most famous contribution is known today as Pascal’s Wager. I’ll not bother to go into the deeper background of the wager – as no one ever presents it the way Pascal actually did, but I’m going to present the Wager in the same way it’s always been posited to me:
“What if you are wrong?”
“If I’m right I go to heaven and you go to hell. If you are right we are both worm food – why wouldn’t you just believe what I believe to be on the safe side?”
These are generally the basic premises presented, with little deviation. Now, what are my refutations for Pascal’s Wager?
It assumes only two theological options:
Pascal knew this, but for some reason many Christians do not seem to process that both they and myself could be wrong. In fact, all things being equal (and they certainly aren’t), it is incredibly likely that both of us are incorrect in our approach to the question of God. This wager assumes that either the Christian God exists or does not, it leaves no room for the God of Islam, or any of the God’s of the thousands of pre-Christian pagan religions, it ignores Zoroastrianism, and literally thousands of beliefs that not only predate Christianity – but also claim a corner on the theological market in the same way that Christianity does.
To take a line from my recent debate when my opponent used this argument against me, “You are assuming that there are only two options. That you are either right and I am wrong or that it’s the other way around and Cthulhu isn’t waiting in the deep to wreak havoc on humanity – and he shows no mercy!”
It’s farcical and arrogant to believe that only your religion should be considered amongst all that exist and all that persist to this day, especially considering the lack of empirical evidence (which is the only reason this argument is still used today) provided for the Christian faith. Atheists generally recognize a propensity for being incorrect, that’s why we seek evidence and that’s why Pascals wager doesn’t work for us. It’s that intellectual honesty, usually, that got us here in the first place.
It assumes we can choose to believe:
I’ve heard this passionate plea more times than I care to recall. I’ve probably told myself this more times than I care to recall. The fact of the matter is simply this:
I cannot believe what I have not been compelled to believe, either by evidence or by my emotional leanings. If I do not believe in your god I cannot flip a switch and suddenly believe any more than you can decide to start believing that the grass is blue and the sky is green.
When people make the assumption that I can just whip out my belief hat and start believing I always wonder if that’s what they are doing and I always wonder if they really truly believe it or if they just pretend for the outside world, and hopefully their god, to see… as if perhaps by pretending they are fulfilling the needs of Pascal’s spurious Wager and pleasing their might be god with their just in case act of belief. Belief never worked that way for me, however, it always encompassed every part of my being – I felt it in my bones when I believed. Belief in God became so real to me that I knew it and because I knew it I was able to believe it even more. For those that think it’s so simple as deciding to do it, I can’t imagine that they actually do.
I always have a challenge for those that tell me to “just believe”, and it goes like this:
“I’ll just believe if you’ll stop believing for 10 minutes. I just want you to turn your belief in god off for 10 solid minutes, I’ll wait.”
Every. Single. Time. They say “I can’t”.
A wager will not satisfy any god
I can’t think of any deity on the list of deities we discussed earlier that finds satisfaction in the idea that you’ve decided to flip a switch and declare your faith simply as a precautionary measure, least of all the Biblical God.
Truly, if indeed Pascal was correct in his devotion to his fears, then his god has devoted his own circle of hell to him. Consider the following from the Bible:
Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV)
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his lifeg will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Matthew 10:38 (ESV)
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
1 Timothy 6:11-14 (ESV)
11But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony befored Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ…
These verses, and many like them show us that “just believing” because you’ve decided it’s your safest bet simply isn’t good enough. The Christian has been given a standard to live by. A standard that is set very high and which, when rightly pursued, invades every part of that individuals psyche.
What does the Gospel of Matthew say that Jesus had to say of those that don’t fully commit?
21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
It’s a scapegoat for the burden of proof
Ultimately Pascal’s Wager exists to remove the burden of proof from those that use it. I think anyone that’s ever heard a would be apologist use it can attest to that fact. It’s something an apologist uses when he’s on the ropes, unable to satisfy the questions of the skeptic – and likely unable to satisfy his own questions. Perhaps that’s the most telling problem and the most worthy refutation of Pascal’s Wager – in that it’s simply a scapegoat for the need to provide evidence to those that ask for it.
The burden of proof does lie on the claimant, if a claim is extraordinary – like claims about God or Jesus – extraordinary proof should be expected to back that claim up. Rather than provide that proof Pascal has provided believers with a way to use poor logic to incite fear – “What If I’m Wrong? What If I Burn In Hell For Eternity?” – and those are tactics of desperation.
The next time someone presents Pascal’s Wager ask them if the only reason they believe is because they are afraid not to. They’ll probably say no, then provide you with some anecdotal evidence about how God is real in their life. Even that anecdotal evidence is better evidence than this argument – it’s not good, it’s never good – but at least it provides something with which you can relate to that person on a human level without them attempting to goad you into a fearful and disingenuous relationship with their god.