I have a friend who gambles semi-regularly. He visits the local casino in Pittsburgh, does some betting on different games, and then stuffs his face at the buffet. (And I’m not making fun of the amount of food my friend eats, I am instead commenting on the fact that the Rivers Casino has a kickass buffet.)

Sometimes he wins a little money. But more often he seems to lose it. He never loses enough to stop going back, but he never wins enough to make it worth his while.

Some people view gambling as a fun activity or hobby. It’s a way to spend your money no different from going rock climbing, visiting sporting events, or going on blackout drinking binges every weekend to cope with the fact that you hate your life and wish you were dead. (If this rings a bell, might I recommend seeing a therapist.)

I don’t happen to find gambling fun or lucrative. I exist in the camp of people who thinks the lottery is a tax on uneducated people, and I have never been one to challenge the gambling maxim of “the house always wins.”

But I’m not here to today to write about the perils of gambling. I am sure there are many other places on the internet that can help to persuade you to spend your money in a more productive fashion.

I am instead here to write about the notion that, without your knowledge, you actually gamble with your life every day.

Or at least some French dude named Blaise Pascal from the 17th century said you did.

As someone who doesn’t consider himself to be a gambling man, hearing this statement piqued my interest. So I did a bit of research, formulated a couple of opinions, and clacked away at my keyboard for a few days to create what you are now reading.

I’m sure Blaise was a nice guy. He seems to have been pretty intelligent, and I’m sure he was great with kids and all that.

But I’ve one found one of his arguments to be a little hard to swallow so I’m going to explain why I think he’s full of shit.

The Wager

Most people probably know Blaise Pascal from his prominent work in mathematics and probability theory. He was also a talented inventor and physicist who was one of the first people to create a mechanical calculator. The dude was pretty much a genius.

After experiencing a religious vision in late 1654, Pascal found his faith in Catholicism renewed. He also developed an interest in philosophy and theology, and would eventually go on to write theological works such as Lettres provinciales (The Provincial Letters) and Pensées (Thoughts), the latter of which is pronounced Pon-see, not penises. Vowel placement is important.

Within Pensées, Pascal puts forth an argument, now referred to as Pascal’s Wager, that argues why we would have to be complete fucking idiots to not believe in God. It goes something like this:

  1. God either exists or he doesn’t and we can’t be sure either way. And don’t try any of that “we can prove God does/doesn’t exist through logic” crap because existence can’t be proven by reason alone.
  2. Without proof of God’s state of existence, you may only choose to believe or disbelieve in him blindly.
  3. Your own existence precipitates a wager in which you bet on God’s existence with your eternal life: your belief in God will dictate your own necrodestination.
  4. You have to wager whether you like it or not. You can’t not play the game.
  5. If God exists, and you believe in him, you have everything to gain (heaven). If God doesn’t exist and you believe in him anyway, you haven’t lost much. Likewise, if God doesn’t exist and you don’t believe in him, you haven’t gained much. But if God does exist and you don’t believe in him, then you have everything to lose (hell).
  6. Therefore, you’d have to be a fucking moron to not believe in God.
  7. And even if you don’t believe in God, you should just pretend to believe in God anyway because that will allow you to somehow eventually formulate real belief. And it’s not like you have anything better to do with your time. 1If you couldn’t tell, I did a little bit of paraphrasing / liberal literary interpretation here. Pascal actually writes much more eloquently than I ...continue

Sounds like a good argument, right? Believing in God is just so practical. When you stand to potentially gain or lose everything, it just makes sense to believe in God. Do you really want to take the chance of not believing in him when there is at least the slightest possibility that he exists?

To answer my own question, yes, I will take that chance. Pascal may have been a pioneer of probability theory, but his own faith caused him to overlook many important factors relating to the potential of God’s actual existence.

Let’s take a look at what they are.

1. Pascal Doesn’t Specify Which God To Believe In

homer simpson quote

As with any other popular argument for the existence of God, the specific god in question is never actually defined. Because Pascal’s Wager was put forth by a modern era westerner, we’re all just supposed to tacitly assume that the god in question is the Christian God and no other.

The problem with this in regards to Pascal’s Wager is that the same logic can be applied to any other religion involving omnipotent deities who decide your eternal living arrangements based on your Earthy beliefs.

The Norse can invoke the Wager to convince people to believe in Odin in order to achieve entry to Valhalla. Muslims can invoke the wager to convince people to believe in Allah to achieve entry to Jannah. There is no end to the ways the wager can be used to argue for belief in unprovable matters related to the eternal destination of your soul.

Pascal briefly addresses this point in Pensées but he writes off a person’s disbelief in Christianity as a type of forced ignorance. He argues that if people who are unfamiliar with Christianity actually studied it, they would come to see that it is unlike any other religion, but ultimately, people are lazy or apathetic and they can’t be bothered to willingly seek the truth.

Again, Pascal fails to see Christianity (or even Catholicism, for this matter) as a singular religion that exists within a web of different faiths and beliefs. Even if everything that Pascal believes ends up to be objectively true, how can you blame a Muslim or a Jew for being brought up in a culture that taught its young to value different ideas and beliefs when every religious system is based on the same type of blind faith?

In this sense, isn’t the greater wager that you have actually chosen the correct god to worship and not the Christian God in particular?

If Pascal is so concerned with the probability of the returns of the wager he is forced to make, he should have to take into account the likelihood of pissing off every other god that isn’t the one he chose to believe in. You know. In the off chance that they exist instead.

So the wager should actually look like this:

pascal's wager decision matrix for all religions

2. Pascal Neglects The Value of Belief

Pascal makes one very large assumption that should seem counterintuitive even to the least religious of the religious folk: simply professing your belief in God is enough to get you into heaven. As if you just have to flip a switch and viola! Access granted!

Since I don’t believe in heaven, I have a hard time conceptualizing what one would have to do to get there. But for the period of time in which I was a Christian, I was constantly reminded that belief was not enough.

Most religions base the criteria for getting into heaven on something related to Earthly action. Of course you should believe in God, but your belief should prompt you to treat people kindly, be nice to others, and do good things.

I don’t think anyone can argue that there is a remarkable difference between the theist who goes to church every Sunday, drives the speed limit, and never uses curse words and the theist who believes in God as an afterthought because he has to spend his time robbing convenience stores so he can afford to finance his drug addiction instead of attempting to support any of the children he’s fathered with women he barely knew.

If you look at it that way, belief is largely irrelevant. What good is belief if it doesn’t influence action? I would hope God is wise enough to make the distinction.

Furthermore, you can’t feign belief.

I don’t believe in God because I don’t think there is any evidence for his existence. But my entire family does believe in God because they all think that there is evidence for his existence.

Beliefs are always based on some type of evidence. There’s always a reason that you believe this thing and not that thing. Sometimes you might be given faulty information, but that doesn’t cause a belief to formulate out of thin air.

So to simply tell someone to believe in something because it improves the odds of them gaining entry to a place that they also probably don’t believe in is kind of silly.  

Pascal’s Wager might work for theists who are experiencing doubts about their faith, but what person would change their belief based on a probability of gains? Beliefs only change in light of new evidence, and since Pascal fails to provide any evidence with his argument, there is no good reason for an atheist to change his mind.

And isn’t God supposed to be omniscient? Wouldn’t he be able to tell that something is rotten in the state of Denmark? I find it hard to accept that you could just up and say you believe in God and that would be enough to trick that old dodger into letting you through the pearly gates.

But on top of all of that, is God really so petty that he would deny you access to eternal paradise simply because you refused (or were taught not to) believe in him?

Is God really going to blame the little Muslim boy who is killed by a suicide bomber for not believing in him just because he was never exposed to Christianity? That’s kind of a dick move. If that’s God’s policy, then I don’t want to be in his company anyway.

3. Pascal’s Conception of “Finite” Is Skewed

To reiterate, Pascal argues that:

If God exists, and you believe in him, you have everything to gain (heaven). If God doesn’t exist and you believe in him anyway, you haven’t lost much. Likewise, if God doesn’t exist and you don’t believe in him, you haven’t gained much. But if God does exist and you don’t believe in him, then you have everything to lose (hell).

The possibilities are defined by this matrix:

pascal's wager decision matrix

Pascal’s conceptions of infinity within his matrix are fairly straightforward. If God exists, you will either spend an eternity in heaven or hell (unless neither of those places exist; see Argument 1).

But Pascal’s conception of finite outcomes is ill-conceived. Let’s first tackle the notion that belief in God if he doesn’t exist yields a finite loss.

The loss arises out of the life one dedicated to unnecessary worship and belief. If God doesn’t exist, all of those nights you spent praying, all of those mornings you got up early for church, all of those times you went to confession, they were all for naught.

Alternatively, if God doesn’t exist and you don’t believe in him, you find yourself with a finite gain. All of that time and effort theists put into their worship you were instead able to divert to more important things like checking Facebook 17 times a day or watching Seinfeld reruns. Congratulations.

The reason Pascal claims these outcomes are finite is because if God doesn’t exist, then your existence only amounts to the fixed number of years you will have spent on Earth. 80 some years as an atheist or a Christian is chump change compared to the eternity you might spend in heaven or hell.

This thinking makes sense when you take every possible infinite timeline into account, but it also must be remembered that if God doesn’t exist, then your Earthly existence is all you have. At that point, infinity is much too large a scale to measure your gains and losses as simply “finite.”

When you scale time down to a smaller and smaller amount, each second makes up a larger proportion of the timeline you are observing. So compared to an infinity of nothingness, religious worship during physical existence amounts to finite loss, but why would you look at the entirety of time when the only portion of it that matters is the one where you existed?

It is often said that you spend some 26 years of your life sleeping. You spend another 10 years working, 4 years driving, and 2 years watching commercials. 2Heppner, Jake. (2014). 30 Surprising Facts About How We Actually Spend Our Time. Distractify.

So how much of your life gets spent on religious worship? Obviously it depends on the person, but wouldn’t you be pissed if in the future people could teleport or there weren’t any more commercials? That’s 6 years of extra life you could have had right there.

I assume you would be equally pissed if you found out there were no God.

I can’t rightly ascribe a number to the amount of time a theist might lose to worship over the course of his or her life, but in the grand scheme of things, no amount of time is merely “finite.”

1 or 2 or 70 billion might all be finite numbers, but us humans don’t have much time on this Earth. Treating our finite physical existence as preparation for a metaphysical one squanders the experience of living.

Final Thoughts

People often ask me, “What if you’re wrong about the existence of God?”

I typically reply with, “I could ask you the same thing.”

But I could also ask “Why did God give us rational brains and then demand that we believe in him without using them?” or “What if there’s a god who values logic and rationality over faith and he’ll only reward those who have rejected every religion?”

There are an infinite number of rebuttals to Pascal’s Wager because there are an infinite amount of possibilities in the universe.

At the crux of Pascal’s Wager and the question “What if you’re wrong?” is the implicit expectation that non-Christians will experience an eternity in hell.

People don’t ever learn to believe in God because he’s real; they learn to believe in him because they are afraid of the alternative.

And I know that there are people who actually believe in God (hell, I was one of them), but that doesn’t change the fact that most people are born into Christianity as wide-eyed little children who literally have the fear of God implanted within in them before they reach an age where they are actually able to use their rational thinking skills.

Kids are afraid of everything from monsters to smelly old people. They don’t need another boogeyman in the sky that watches everything they do, waiting to punish them the second they die because of some belief they did or didn’t hold.

Does a god that causes so much fear and anxiety actually deserve your praise and worship anyway? That sounds more like a dictator to me.

Pascal’s Wager is nothing more than a rational reaction to an irrational fear.

Fear can be a worthy motivator in specific circumstances, but when you let it dictate your religious, metaphysical, and philosophical beliefs, you can’t call yourself enlightened.

You are instead manipulated. Controlled. Exploited.

So do some research. Learn as much as you can about the origin of your religion AS WELL AS the origins of other religions. Forget about the fear and focus on the facts. Use the information you collect to formulate new opinions.

Even if you retain your belief in God, you can remember that he supposedly gave you a brain for a reason. Use it.

Reassess your beliefs and make new decisions about your life and opinions based on insight and perspective. Not fear.

I know I said I’m not a gambling man, but I’m willing to put forth my own wager that if you complete all of these steps, you too can escape the clutches of religion.

You can take that to the bank.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. If you couldn’t tell, I did a little bit of paraphrasing / liberal literary interpretation here. Pascal actually writes much more eloquently than I have portrayed him to.
2. Heppner, Jake. (2014). 30 Surprising Facts About How We Actually Spend Our Time. Distractify.

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