It’s a question that comes up over and over again in religious conversations.
“Isn’t it safer to believe?”
Well-meaning theists will often pose the scenario: If God is not real, then believers lose nothing by believing. However, if God IS real, the non-believers face hellfire and eternal damnation. Therefore, given that we can never be 100% certain of the existence or non-existence of a deity, isn’t it safer to believe?
Seventeenth century philosopher, Blaise Pascal, is credited with first proposing this “wager”, with several assumptions outlined in his Pensees:
God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
You must wager (it is not optional).
Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.
What Pascal and these well-meaning theists fail to realize is that this argument is riddled with flaws. Chief among them is the sheer number of gods described by the various religions. If you really want to play it safe, surely you should cover your bases with all of them?
With roughly 4,200 religions in the world (many of them being polytheistic religions), we’re already looking at quite a few gods, but we can’t stop there. In Christianity alone, there are approximately 30,000 different denominations all claiming that their denomination alone worships the “correct” Christ and that all others worship an altogether different Christ. If you’ve only picked one of these religions and one of these gods, you’re hardly playing it safe. What if you’ve chosen the wrong one?
So, rather than flipping a coin with only two options (god or no god), we are in actuality taking a stab in the dark at one in several thousand odds, and our chances between eternal bliss or eternal suffering are heavily dependent on which god (if any) ends up being the real one. And even if you have chosen correctly, nearly every described god is capable of discerning an individual’s heart and intent. If you are “believing” as a wager to avoid eternal damnation, god will know that and most likely won’t be too happy about your lack of sincerity.
If any one of the gods of any of the 4,200+ world religions is the actual god, the only ones that will be receiving their heavenly rewards will be the “true” believers of that particular religion, or rather, the zealots and fundamentalists. Cherry picking and committing yourself only in part will get you in just as much trouble as being an atheist. The exact outcome of this wager will depend specifically on which god ends up being the real one since each one has it’s own requirements for obedient servitude and it’s own version of hell. To even attempt to believe in and follow the tenants of ALL the gods would be impossible, since the Allah and the Biblical god at the very least require a believer put “no other gods before” him and many of the requirements for each religion are contradictory.
“Well then…” says the theist, “isn’t believing in at least one god still better than believing in none?”
Oh, contraire, my friend.
If there IS a god, the only one worth worshiping would be one that is both all-knowing and all-loving, as is so often incorporated into the various descriptions of such a being. As noted above, an all-knowing god would know whether or not your belief was sincere, and an all-loving god would surely prefer honesty and integrity over insincerity. Therefore, Pascal’s Wager is a means to screw yourself over. If you do not believe, sitting on the fence and going through the motions will not save you. It would be far better to openly and honestly state your lack of belief and live according to your conscience rather than holding on to your pretend belief as a life-line.
If the atheists are wrong, and God is an all-knowing, all-loving deity, then that god will judge those atheists based on their good works and integrity – just like everyone else. So rather than feigning belief “just in case”, perhaps… we should all just be good to one another.