1.3.2 Pascal's Wager: Wagering on Atheism


The second objection to Pascal’s Wager is that the probability that the Christian God exists is so small that it is wagering on atheism, rather than wagering on theism, that is the rational course of action.

In calculating whether belief in the Christian God or disbelief in the Christian God is the more prudent course of action, it is necessary not only to take account of the various possible outcomes of belief and disbelief, but also to take account of the probability of each of these outcomes occurring.

The possible outcomes of belief in the Christian God — either receiving an infinitely great reward in heaven or losing little or nothing — are better than the possible outcomes of disbelief in the Christian God — either receiving an infinitely great punishment in hell or gaining little or nothing. If the probability of each of these outcomes were approximately equal, then belief would clearly be preferable to disbelief.

If, however, the probability that the Christian God exists were so slight as to be negligible, then we might be justified in setting aside the possibilities of heavenly rewards and infernal punishments in deciding what to believe. The choice between belief and disbelief would thus become a choice between losing little or nothing and gaining little or nothing; heaven and hell would not come into the equation. As it is better to gain little or nothing than it is to lose little or nothing, in this case it would be disbelief in the Christian God rather than belief in him that would be the prudent course of action.

Those who object to Pascal’s Wager on these grounds take themselves to be in exactly this situation; they judge the existence of the Christian God to be so unlikely that they need not seriously entertain it as a possibility. They therefore hold that it is rational to take the certain benefits of disbelief (the joys of indulging in sin and of being free from religious commitments), and irrational to gamble on the hope of a heavenly reward and almost certainly receive nothing at all.

There are three types of response to this objection available to the advocate of Pascal’s Wager.

The first response to this objection available to the advocate of Pascal’s Wager is the denial that it is improbable that the Christian God exists. One way of doing this would be to offer an argument for agnosticism. Indeed, Pascal’s discussion in “Infini-Rien” is based on just such an argument; Pascal claims that because our minds are finite we cannot comprehend the infinite and so cannot decide whether or not God exists on the basis of evidence. A second way of doing this would be to offer some positive evidence for the existence of God, e.g. the argument from fine-tuning. Certainly the claim that God’s existence is unlikely is debatable, and the theist should criticise the objection to Pascal’s Wager on this point.

The second response to the objection available to the advocate of Pascal’s Wager is not only consistent with God’s existence being improbable, but is even consistent with God’s existence being impossible. This response involves the denial that a life without faith is better than a life with faith if God does not exist. Religious faith can, this response notes, bring rewards in this life even if not in the next. Even if there are no eternal rewards and punishments, it suggests, those with religious faith live lives with a sense of value and purpose that is seldom found elsewhere. It might thus be maintained that belief in God is in our interests irrespective of whether or not God exists, and so that belief in God is pragmatically justified no matter how improbable it is that such beliefs are true. The difficulty with this response is that in addition to those that have found that religion adds fulfilment to their lives there are those that have found religion stifling and oppressive. Belief in God does not always bring with it obvious rewards in this life; indeed, it is in many cases associated with suffering and persecution.

The third possible line of defence for the advocate of Pascal’s Wager stresses the magnitude of the possible punishments and rewards that are at stake when we decide whether or not to believe. What is at stake when one decides whether to believe or to disbelieve in God, the argument suggests, is not the possibility of receiving either a great reward or a great punishment. Rather, what is at stake is the possibility of receiving either an infinite reward or an infinite punishment. It is sometimes argued that where infinite rewards and punishments are at stake, we ought to be prepared to take any finite risk in attempting to secure the reward and to avoid the punishment, irrespective of the probability of our succeeding in doing so. What ought we not to risk in pursuit of such a prize as heaven?


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