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Understanding Pascal’s Wager July 13, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.

Pascal’s Wager sounds so reasonable, on the face of it, that millions have accepted it. Pascal said, basically, that since we can’t know what happens after we die, we need to look to probability theory. The possible gain from believing in the Christian depiction of God and the afterlife is eternal and infinite bliss, while the possible gain for atheism is eternal nothingness. On the flip side of the coin, the possible penalty for atheism is eternal and infinite torture and agony. Therefore one might as well believe. I call this “cover your ass theology.”

The problems with Pascal’s Wager lie in its presuppositions: that there is only one God, and that God’s nature is identical to its depiction in mainline Christianity. That the Christian depiction of the afterlife that evolved in the Middle Ages — heaven, hell, limbo, and purgatory — is the one and only possibility for the existence of any afterlife. That there is only the possibility of infinite gain for believers, that is, that God would send no Christian to Hell. That God neither notices the hypocrisy of nonbelievers who only pretend to believe, Just In Case, nor disapproves of hypocrisy if “he” does notice. That a game is being played between you and God; that you must play; and that your only choices are heads or tails. That “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

Pascal tweaked out only two possibilities: Belief in Christian theology, or belief in eternal nothingness. Logicians call this the fallacy of bifurcation, or the false dilemma. By the very terms Pascal set forth, there are at least seven possibilities:

  1. The mainline Christian God is the only true depiction of deity, and the mainline Christian depiction of the afterlife is the only true depiction. (We won’t get into the theological wars between Trinitarians, Unitarians, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc.)
  2. The mainline Christian depiction of God is the only true depiction of any Supreme Being; but the traditional depiction of the afterlife, evolved during the Middle Ages, does not correspond to what the afterlife is in Reality.
  3. There exist one or more deities with corresponding afterlife, but Reality is the God/afterlife of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, or any of history’s other religious depictions, and everyone’s afterlife conforms to the depiction of this non-Christian religion — for example, the 72 virgins of Islam or or the “godly MEN evolve to be gods of their own planets” of Mormonism. (Mormonism teaches that godly women evolve to be Divine Uteruses in the afterlife, squirting out bazillions of “spirit babies” over the millennia, a full fourth of which will be demons, while their god-husbands enjoy their celestial harems.)
  4. The Supreme Being corresponds to the depiction of some religion other than Christianity, but the afterlife does not; for example, Allah is the One True God, but when you die, your soul goes to Cleveland.
  5. There exist one or more supernatural entities whom sentient creatures like humans would rightly deem divine, but there is no afterlife corresponding to any depiction anyone has come up with in the last 100,000 years.
  6. There is no God, as atheists assert, but there IS an afterlife, such as reincarnation or transmogrification (for example, your consciousness spends eternity as a ghost, a computer program, or an entity on another spiritual plane).
  7. There is neither any god nor any afterlife.

Pascal presented his famous Wager as a 50-50 proposition: Heads, the Christian depiction of God and eternal bliss; tails, either nothingness or eternal agony. Obviously if there is only one God and that God obeys the dictates of Christianity, eternal bliss is better than eternal agony. But what if the “true” God is Allah, or the Tao, or the Atman, or Danae, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If we assume that the Universe houses a near-infinite number of sentient species similar to humanity, there is a near-infinite number of depictions of the divine to choose among, and therefore there is a near-infinite chance of your choosing the wrong religion, spending your life praying to the wrong god, and thus being sent to the wrong afterlife. What if the Eskimos were right, and you spend eternity in a howling desert of ice and snow? What if the Wiccans are right, and you go to Summerland when you die? What if the Buddhists are right, and you get reincarnated as a bedbug?

In addition, Pascal’s Wager depends on the theory that Christianity and atheism are equally likely — that is, that we cannot know which of our only-two choices is correct, so we might as well bet on the option that offers greater gain in its version of the (putative) afterlife. This is non-information. According to information theory, it is impossible to get information from non-information, any more than you can get music from white noise. In other words, a restatement of Pascal’s Wager might be, “If you assume that God exists; and if you assume that the afterlife exists; and if you assume that both God and the afterlife correspond in reality to the mainline Christian depiction of them; AND if you assume that God is so stupid ‘he’ doesn’t notice when a worshiper is actually a hypocrite; then you are correct in assuming that you will gain from participating in mainline Christian theological rituals.” Atheists like Christopher Hitchens may not find this argument compelling.

On the flip side, an Atheist’s Wager might state: “If Pascal’s Wager is correct, Christianity is the Only True Religion. The Christian depiction of God states flatly, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). A God of love will judge humans not by whether they mouth some slogan, such as ‘Jesus is Lord,’ but rather by what their character is and how they live. A just God would never condemn to eternal agony someone who never in her life even heard the word ‘Jesus,’ and thus had no opportunity to mouth the ‘correct’ slogan; a just God would never condemn to eternal agony someone who had lived a life of justice, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and peace. Therefore a just God will ‘save’ atheists who live in justice, love kindness, and walk in humility (Micah 6:8).” (On a personal note: I have no interest in inhabiting any Heaven that would exclude from eternal bliss Gandhi, Confucius, Buddha, Voltaire, or Einstein, to name just a few non-Christian saints. I would far rather spend eternity with Ellen DeGeneres than with Fred Phelps.)

Pascal also wrote, “We understand nothing of the works of God unless we take it as a principle that He wishes to blind some and to enlighten others.” But a God who wishes to blind some of “his” creations, thereby condemning them to eternal damnation, is a God of neither love nor justice. Therefore, we understand nothing of the works of God. Therefore, Pascal’s Wager is at best white noise.



1. ~ - November 18, 2011

This helped me with writing my dissent paper of Pascal’s Wager when you explained the fallacy of bifurcation. Thank you 🙂

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