In the mid-1600s, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal introduced an argument that could come to be called Pascal's Wager. His argument discusses the issue of religious belief from a mathematical standpoint, determining that the cost of belief is lower than the cost of atheism. The wager takes the following format:
- If you believe in God and he does exist, you will be rewarded with eternity in Heaven.
- If you believe in God and he does not exist, nothing will happen to you.
- If you reject belief in God and he does exist, you will be doomed to an eternity in Hell.
- If you don't believe in God and he doesn't exist, nothing will happen to you.
Based on these suppositions, Pascal reasons that it's always safer to live as though God is real because if there is a god and you believe in him, the benefits are infinite. If you believe in God and turn out to be wrong, you will have lost nothing; if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be wrong, the consequences are dire (1).
Pascal was an admittedly brilliant mathematician, and his contributions to mathematics are valuable. As a theological argument, however, Pascal's Wager breaks down for several important reasons. First, it's important to realize that the wager does nothing to prove the nature of God. It's not an argument for the existence of god at all, actually; it’s an argument against atheism based on the relative opportunity versus cost of belief.
Second, you must recognize the limitations of Pascal's premise. As a Christian apologist, his argument works only for the Christian God. It ignores the possibility of any other deity and assumes that the motives of God are consistent with the teachings of basic Christian theology. Viewed in the context of world religions, the wager falls apart completely. The wager is based on the mathematic analysis of four outcomes. However, if you throw the multitude of world religions into the equation, the premises and mathematic analysis becomes much more complex and convoluted, making your chances of a successful wager significantly slimmer.
Choosing the Right God
Multiple religions exist throughout the world, and the messages of most are at odds with each other. Among the two largest religions (Christianity and Islam), it's clear that worshiping the right deity in the appropriate way is crucial to finding salvation. To enter Heaven as a Christian, you must be "saved" by believing in Jesus as your savior (The Bible: John 3:18-36, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 and Revelation 21:8). According to some verses in the Quran, non-Muslims will end up in Hell (The Quran 3:85, 4:56, 5:72-73, 7:50, 17:97-98, 98:6). All of this means that belief in God alone is not sufficient to enter Heaven.
It also means that if you happen to believe in the wrong god, you can still end up in Hell—even if you follow the tenets of your chosen religion perfectly. For example, if the Judeo-Christian God was real and the Bible accurate, every Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu would go to Hell, regardless of how devoutly they believed their own religion. The Bible says: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). Similar verses are seen in the Quran: “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion - never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers” (3:85). According to some definitions of Islam in the Quran, this may include Jews and Christians but not members of non-Abrahamic religions and people with no religious affiliation, which together account for about 45% of the world’s population. Remember, also, that not every religion supports the idea of Heaven and Hell. If the "right" god came from a religious tradition without such an afterlife, Pascal's wager ceases to work.
Pascal’s wager assumes a very narrow and specific definition of God. Even if there were a god, there is simply no way to know that the assumptions laid out in the wager are actually accurate. For example, why would an all-powerful and benevolent deity banish his creations to Hell for disbelief? It’s equally likely that a deity might reward his followers for being skeptical, in which case Pascal’s wager crumbles.
Moreover, believing in God simply to avoid the punishment of Hell is an empty type of belief. Surely, an all-knowing god could identify this insincerity and reward only true believers, not those who worshiped just to avoid consequences.
What's the Harm?
Pascal suggests that there is nothing to lose in believing, even if God is not real. This is not necessarily true. Belief in God can come with a high price for some. Some of the most powerful nations in the world are making major political decisions based on a belief in God. Wars are fought using religion, and the rights of some individuals and groups are oppressed in the name of God. The lives of billions of people around the world are affected by religious beliefs. Blindly accepting claims and making decisions as if they were true in the hope that our chosen deity exists and will reward our efforts seems like a very poor wager when there is no evidence to support that choice and especially if real people are suffering as a result.
- Popkin, Richard H. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.