Refuting Pascal’s Wager

Special thanks to Kristy and Pearson for their editing.

Blaise Pascal was a French jack-of-all trades in the 17th century. He carries weight in many fields, like; philosophy, physics, mathematics and theology. One of his more popular ideas is properly coined “Pascal’s Wager” from his collection Pensées. This idea is commonly used by people of faith to refute atheism, especially to someone who is on the fence about higher powers. There are plenty of reasons to believe in a higher power and there is nothing wrong with it…HOWEVER, while this argument sounds reasonable, it’s bunk and should not be used. It goes as follows;

Pascal’s Wager states that if you believe in God and he is real, then you will have eternal happiness. If he isn’t real and you believe, then nothing happens. If God exists and one doesn’t believe, you face the risk of eternal damnation but if he doesn’t exist…nothing happens. Pascal and theists believe by this logic, it makes sense to choose to believe in God. The benefit (or lack thereof) outweighs whatever chance there is in facing eternal damnation.

            This is okay for people who are curious about God or for believers to steepen their faith, but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. For example, the idea is not a proof at all, it just says its better to believe in God, there is no argument for the existence of God. Another problem is this claim that in believing, there is nothing to lose. Being a theist can be expensive, whether it be through tithing or sacrificing one’s time to worship and pray. It should also be noted that even to this day believers (Christian or otherwise) are being killed for their faith. Another issue is it isn’t as much of a 50/50 chance as Pascal would have us believe. The number of gods (50+ depending on your definition of a god) greatly muddle the chances that the God you choose is the right one.

            Another issue is how exclusive this wager is. It has no room for more than one higher power. Pascal grew up in France in the 17th century so this argument was for the catholic God but what if were born in Persia or India? Beliefs are largely localized so this argument could be used by anyone for any God, Allah, Jehovah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pastafarianism).

The idea that one can choose a religion is also something that can and should be refuted. It can be argued that one establishes belief by what they experience and being convinced of something. By that logic, one cannot simply choose to “believe” in God, it is something they are convinced to do. If a Christian believes in God then it is by concluding from experiences (sermon, Bible, divine encounter, etc.). I did not choose to be an atheist and a Hinduist did not wake up and decide to believe in Hinduism. Even so, by the logic of the Holy Bible, salvation requires faith and acceptance of Jesus Christ as a savior. This is stated several times in Scripture;

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV)

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—” (Ephesians 2:8 NIV)

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV)

The Holy Bible NIV

            The word faith is mentioned 31 times in the Bible, faithful is mentioned 11 times and faithfulness 7 times. If the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and it carries divine weight, then it should be heeded by Christians. Faith is a prerequisite for salvation. There are many instances in the Old Testament where God claims that he is a jealous God and alludes that he requires full devotion. In giving this full devotion, you have to accept the embodiment of God as Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This is a problem with Pascal’s Wager, there is no faith required for salvation (which is demanded), it is only betting on the existence and that doesn’t suffice for the Big Guy upstairs.

            The final qualm I have with this idea is how the wager uses fear to persuade the audience to place their bets on God. Using fear to instill belief is a cheap tactic at best. Though this is used many times in the Old Testament, much of the New Testament rectifies this. In Orthodox/eastern Christianity, this idea of a punitive and punishing God is rejected. I spoke extensively with a friend who is an Orthodox Christian, he shared very good points that counter the fear tactic implemented by Pascal’s Wager. This is what he had to say;

“…So this idea is a branch of the same overly-academic thinking that further separated the west from the east within Christendom. It’s predicated on the idea that salvation is a juridical exchange by some far off deity who demands payment for the sins of humanity. There is a huge difference in how the early Church understood and believed things in the first centuries vs how Pascal believed them 1500 years later.

Sooooo the west has formed this concept of heaven and hell as two geographical locations somewhere “down there” and somewhere “up there.” That’s the general idea. The early Church never believed that. It’s something that the Greek/Roman Pagans believed about the afterlife. When Christ said “on earth as it is in heaven,” He made clear that the reality of heaven is not far off. The Church has taught that when a human dies, the soul is in the presence of God. That simple. CS Lewis even understood this. It’s made pretty clear in his allegorical work “The Great Divorce.”

Heaven and hell are a spiritual state. If we have lived a life in our best humility to do what is well-pleasing to God, it is understood that His presence is sweet to us, a paradise. But to those of us who have lived a life in conscious denial of God who loves humankind, the reality of His presence is like a consuming fire.

…my point is that a god who is not the embodiment of love is not worth believing in.”

            These are the general beliefs of the early church carried on through tradition of the Orthodox church. The draw to believing in God should be founded in the love He provides, not the punishment of Hell.

            So is there a good alternative to Pascal’s Wager? Not definitively, although there are answers that may satisfy people who want to argue for the existence of God. The most valid argument(s) in my opinion, are the cosmological arguments from Thomas Aquinas.

            The backing of his logic is to avoid infinite regress. Infinite regress is the idea that evidence relies on the existence of something that comes before and this continues backward, with no starting point. For example, the universe was set in motion but what set that in motion? Aquinas argues that it would be God, the Unmoved Mover.

            Thomas Aquinas had four arguments for God;

  1. Argument from Motion
  2. Argument from Causation
  3. Argument from Contingency
  4. Argument from Degrees

The Argument from Causation is simple and a rephrasing of the first argument. Thomas argues that you can follow things back by what caused them all the way to a point that must stop; God.

The Argument from Contingency says that everything is contingent on the existence of something that is necessary and independent. If there was no independent being, then there is a possibility that nothing existed. We are dependent as contingent beings on an independent, that being God.

The last cosmological argument is the Argument from Degrees. Aquinas claims that we only know the degree of something by comparing it to another thing. We know the free grocery store coffee is bad because we have had good coffee. So for perfection there must be something we can measure it to, something that is the definition of perfect, God.

This doesn’t escape critiques; it falls to many of the flaws that we can find in Pascal’s Wager. It isn’t specific to the Christian God nor does it claim require a sentient higher power like the Christian God. Finally, the biggest qualm is the certainty that there can be no such thing as infinite regress. It should also be pointed out that in saying there has to be something that sets everything in motion or causes everything he has defeated his own claims. What comes before God?

Is there even a point in trying to logically prove the existence of God? Most deities claim to be outside of the realm of human understanding. If we try to make an argument for a metaphysical higher being then we will fail, all reasoning and arguments will fall short one way or another. Therefore, there is no smoking gun to believing, either you do or you don’t.

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