Theology 101: Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal (pictured) was a 17th century French philosopher who is best remembered for what came to be called "Pascal's Wager." In the condensed version that is usually presented to nonbelievers (often by people who never heard of Pascal), it goes like this: Even if you don't believe in God, you would do well to worship him, because if he does exist, you will go to heaven, but if he doesn't exist, you will have still lived the most satisfying lifestyle of all, that of a Christian. 

I'm writing about Pascal's Wager because someone offered it in response to my last post, and I wanted to take time for an extended answer. The following are my objections to it, but I'm not consulting any sources, so I make no claim to completeness.

1) Pascal assumed (for no apparent reason except that he was a Christian) that there is an afterlife in which we will remember who we were in this life and be judged for what we did.

2) Pascal assumed (for no apparent reason except that he was a Christian) that his wager would result in one becoming a Christian (a Catholic Christian at that) as opposed to joining some other religion. 

3) Pascal assumed (for no apparent reason except that he was a Christian) that there is only one god.

4) Pascal assumed (for no apparent reason except that he was a Christian) that God demands our worship. What if God really wants something entirely different? What if God's real interest is that we all have twelve children, or else that we have no children? Or what if for some reason known only to divine omniscience, God prefers the company of atheists?

5) Pascal assumed (for no reason that I can think of) that God would reward people for simply going through the motions of worship.

6) Pascal assumed (for no reason that I can think of) that the same religion-oriented lifestyle that he, as a believer, found rewarding would also be rewarding to someone who wasn't a believer. 

7) Pascal's advice is meaningless to atheists because they see no reason to hedge their bets.

Maybe you're wondering why I've thought so much about Pascal's Wager. Well, way back in the antediluvian days of my youth, I took a few courses in theology in order to regain my faith, but the reverse occurred. Although my professor was a conservative Methodist minister and my classmates were ministerial students, I lost what little faith I had left when I started thinking even more critically about what the Bible meant and about the arguments in support of, first Christianity and then theism. I also observed that my classmates never seemed to come up with profound questions, and this too led me to doubt the intellectual respectability of religion. I thought that, yep, these people are dumb enough to be sheep alright, and they're the ones who are going to go out and run churches. Of course, in all fairness, most of them were Mississippi country boys whose families were poorly educated and who had just gone through twelve years of the worst public school system in the nation, and that's assuming that they didn't go to one of the white-only Christian "academies" that appeared in response to integration and were even worse than the public schools. It's also true that my professor didn't encourage probing questions, and as far as I could tell from the answers he gave me, he had never asked them.

However, my educational background had been similar to that of the other students, and not only that, I flunked three grades in public school, making me look even dumber. Why then, was I the only one who doubted, and did I really start doubting all at once at age twelve, or was I already headed in that direction a year earlier when I built a pulpit in my back yard and started preaching to my friends? All I can tell you is that I couldn't believe, and I did try. Now, I respect myself for being a skeptic by nature, and I forgive myself for having so devalued truth that I spent years trying to deny what I considered to be the reality about theism and religion. 


Deb said...

Without spiritual experiences or finding truth in whatever religion --- I believe some people say they're Christians, go through the motions for one reason: fear. "Well it's better to worship than to not....just in case." But, if Christians truly believe that God is an all forgiving God --- the God that they say will make you 'white as snow" -- then why can't God understand the lack of belief due to the lack of proof for particular people? Maybe their faith is lacking.

And just because some people have a high education and a few degrees in whatever doesn't mean they're intelligent. I gave up on school at 16 myself, got left back a few times as well. Not fun. But, many of my classmates are now putzing around looking for a retail job making a little above minimum wage when they were supposed to obtain a career in law or whatever they went for. Intelligence and common sense goes a long way, so when I hear "education" where it plays a significant role, I wonder why my old buddies are still punching a time card at some factory when they should be doing brain surgery.

Do you think that "religion" itself was a man-made concept, so that people wouldn't fear death so much? Almost like a way to comfort those who were dying?

Helen said...

Brilliant post, Mr. Snow! And, speaking of snow ... not even beginning to accept the fact it's on its way. There's a lot of that 'not accepting as fact' going around today, yes?

Snowbrush said...

"And just because some people have a high education and a few degrees in whatever doesn't mean they're intelligent."

If it did, you and I would be pretty stupid. Even so, I believe that a really good formal education gives one enormous advantages, and I very much wish that my own education had been better. as fact' going around today, yes?"

Yes, I believe that's true!

lotta joy said...

In answer to Deb (from ME, not Show)it's always been my belief that God was a man-made belief on two different playing fields.

The poor had to have something to hope for AFTER death, since they had nothing in life. The rich had to offer a heavenly reward AFTER death to keep the poor in line, and working for the rich.

Snow, I didn't know this about you: "I took a few courses in theology in order to regain my faith, but the reverse occurred."

The same thing happened to me. I wanted to know more about god and to truly understand him, so I entered seminary college and was tracking dates in theology.

When the dates stopped adding up, I delved deeper into the process concerning how transcipts were "copied" and passed from one town to another via illiterates who just copied the physical curves of the letters.

Eventually, all the copying led to an entire 'book' of one sentence running into another. Then the giant sentence had to be deciphered and made coherent - to the person rewriting it.

I then went totally off course where my class studies were concerned, into the ranks of popes in power at the time. Each one destroyed documents of their choosing, and had their transcribers "redo" the ancient texts to better reflect the pope's beliefs of the TRUE meaning. So on, and on.

According to popular opinion, the first printing of the bible was done by Guttenburg in 1454. But this was the first printing using MOVABLE TYPE.

But, SURPRISE! The 'bible' was written and re-written ad nauseum as shown at the following URL. It is EXTREMELY fascinating.

In 1516, Erasmus created ONE OF the bibles from the Greek original of the New Testament, "Novum Instrumentum omne" which was the book that inspired Martin Luther to break away from the Catholic church.

All this led me to the conclusion that as an 'inspired work of god', the bible had more inspiration from man and his ulterior motives than any spiritual being - who could have delivered his words in a more secure and permanent manner.

Athiests don't just fall off the turnip truck and decide 'there is no god'.

A lot of education can lead to the same belief.

angela said...

I'm still deciding, deep down I believe in a supreme being I'm just not that convinced it the god of the Christians if it is I think we are all doomed! Everything is a bloody sin, no wonder heaven is so good because it's boring following all their rules.

kylie said...

it has always amused me that Christians will quote the Bible or talk about what God will do to atheists because logically, an atheist cant possibly care about what the bible says any more than a Christian would care about an atheist's holy book (and yes, i know thats impossible but for the sake of argument....)

as for the human inspiration of the bible, i think it's true that it was politically influenced and inspired, it was translated by all manner of people in all manner of ways and its veracity as "The Word of God" is questionable UNTIL we read it with the expectation of being divinely guided in our interpretation.

Finally, i must tell you that the deeper i go into my spiritual quest, the better it gets. i understand that a statement like that appears to be insane, not to mention stupid but it works for me and if it turns out that there is no God i wont feel that i have lost anything.

there is no rational explanation for faith, no point trying to explain it, we believe or we do not. for me, believing is a good thing and it is a good structure for making me a better person but not for a moment would i suggest that its the only way to be a better person.

one day the church will throw me out and on that day i will know i have got it right ;)

Strayer said...

When people tell me "Jesus Loves you", although usually people don't say that, they let their bumper stickers say it, I think, or sometimes say to them, "You say that because you don't want to love me." It can keep undesirable encounters at arms length if you push them off to Jesus. It's a coping phrase. I know, I'm off subject. Pascal's wager is something for Christians to laugh about privately, when mocking nonbelievers. I heard it done, when I was a kid and attaining doubts every Sabbath.

The Elephant's Child said...

I am getting tired of the number of times you make sense to me. Before I know it I will be saying 'it must be true, Snowbrush said so'.
Which is so wrong.

Deb said...

Snow, always craving to learn more is a good thing, but "formal education" to me just sounds neutral because I have seen so many of my friends get that "formal education" and degrees, and they're at some supermarket packing up groceries or not working at all, after years and years of studying for a particular thing. I think what's important, is studying whatever it is that would enhance your life - enhance your job or let's say, your writing which is awesome in itself. Becoming "better" and gaining more knowledge -- yes, I'm all for that. I'm NOT saying formal education isn't good, I'm just saying sometimes people don't need it if they have the longing to learn and use their gifts and talents to get them through life.

Lotta joy, I always wondered about that because it seems to make more sense that people would have something to look for, whether rich or poor.

Charles Gramlich said...

A friend of mine in college, who I doubt had ever heard of Pascal, and I hadn't either at the time, said the same thing to me one time when we were talking about religion. He said that he believed God because if there wasn't one he had merely wasted a bit of time, but if there was one and he hadn't believed he figured he'd end up in hell. Interesting argument, although not exactly a very enlightened reason for believing in God.

Snowbrush said...

I was astounded to get up this morning and find five new comments awaiting me because I had assumed that this post would be the coupe de gras to my readership. I figured that whoever survived all the posts about atheism and drugs would surely be outta here once I moved on to Pascal's Wager.

"not exactly a very enlightened reason for believing in God."

I know, and that too bothered me. I thought to myself that, this argument blows, so why have Christians have been using it as one of their big guns for 400 years unless they can't do any better!

"I have seen so many of my friends get that "formal education" and degrees, and they're at some supermarket packing up groceries"

I have two responses. One is that, statistically, the more education you have, the more money you make. The second is that the rewards of an education go far beyond income, and a formal education combined with life-long self-education is to be treasured. Why both? Because a formal education exposes one to knowledge that he or she wouldn't attain with self-directed study alone.

"Before I know it I will be saying 'it must be true, Snowbrush said so'."

That will be the day when I start asking you to send me a monthly tithe.

"Pascal's wager is something for Christians to laugh about privately"

The ones I knew took it very seriously, it and the story about the atheist who was walking along the ocean when he found a watch, realized that it couldn't have "just happened," and became a Christian on the spot. Of course, no one knew that this story also comes from the 1700s (William Paley), and so it was shared it as if it were a real event that recently occurred.

"Finally, i must tell you that the deeper i go into my spiritual quest, the better it gets. i understand that a statement like that appears to be insane"

If your faith is working for you, great. I certainly don't think you're insane, and I wouldn't necessarily consider it a good thing if my arguments led you to become an atheist because I don't know if you would be any happier, and I can well imagine that you might become less happy (feeling like the Big Guy is on one's side is pretty neat, I'm sure, if you really can believe it). The only problem with private faith is that it doesn't serve as public evidence.

rhymeswithplague said...

I have decided that I need not comment on every post of yours, Snow. So, in spite of the fact that I just commented on this post, consider that I haven't commented on this post.

It doesn't mean I don't have opinions, and it certainly doesn't mean you have finally won me over to your way of thinking. It means only that I have decided that I need not comment on every post of yours, Snow.

Marion said...

I love you, Snow, no matter what you believe or don't believe and I know this chaps your ass (tee-hee) but I pray for you often. xoxo

Tom Sightings said...

I myself try to avoid religious discussions because despite the fact that I'm a regular churchgoer (yes, I go once a year), I readily admit that I don't know what I'm talking about. However ... how can an atheist believe that God prefers the company of atheists, when an atheist doesn't believe there is a god at all?

Snowbrush said...

"I have decided that I need not comment on every post of yours, Snow."

And I set my face unto the Georgian, to seek by supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes, that he wouldst comment on every post of mine, but, behold, he wouldst not, and it was not good but it was bad, and there was no help for it, and I was aggrieved for a a thousand days time forty multiplied by a thousand, after which time my travails over his silence had often begun.

"I love you, Snow, no matter what you believe or don't believe and I know this chaps your ass (tee-hee) but I pray for you often. xoxo"

Tell me that thou loveth me all the days of my life, by night and by day because if it pleaseth thee, it will please me doubly but, hearken unto my words, oh Louisiana woman, and sayeth not the other for it doth giveth me the hives, and thou surely knoweth how they itcheth me and moreover, how they rob me of my beauty, which is beyond words and pleaseth the eye of young and old, male and female, Republican and Democrat, straight and gay, until they sayeth with one voice, "Thy cup runneth over with beauty!"

rhymeswithplague said...

Yea, though I walk for 109,589 years (which is yea verily a thousand days time forty multiplied by a thousand) I shall never be caught saying, "Thy cup runneth over with beauty!" without also adding, "And thy saucer is filled with tomfoolery."

Snowbrush said...

"how can an atheist believe that God prefers the company of atheists, when an atheist doesn't believe there is a god at all?"

I didn't say that I believe that God prefers the company of atheists. My intent was to point out that the nonbelievers whom Pascal was trying to reach wouldn't have reason to share his assumption that human worship is pleasing to God. If there is a deity, he/she/it is nothing if not mysterious, and the field is wide open to what, if anything, a human being would need to do (or be) in order to please him/her/it. This would leave the possibility that God prefers atheists to theists. Surely you understand that I didn't meant to suggest that this--or anything in particular--is really the case.

Chartreuse said...

I had a comment in mind but then I started to read your comments. So I had time to get confused, and now I'm back to thinking about my crazy neighbour whom I'm allowed to hate cause I'm an atheist, but not allowed to murder cause I nevertheless am ethical, but to whom I definitely did not turn my other cheek when he verbally accosted me at my gate last week because I know how to deal with bullies and being meek ain't the way to go. So now I'm just gonna play FreeCell and leave all this theoretical bullshit to you long-hairs. Nice talkin to ya, Snow.

Snowbrush said...

"I had time to get confused"

It's okay. Most of Christendom is confused. For example, all of our presidents are Christians, but they still see no irony in dropping bombs, torturing people, calling in hits on their enemies, and breaking their campaign promises.

"I'm just gonna play FreeCell and leave all this theoretical bullshit to you long-hairs."

Chartreuse, I don't understand what precipitated your seeming hostility, but I would welcome more information. As it is, I don't know what FreeCell is; and I don't know what you mean by "theoretical bullshit"; and I don't know who "longhairs" are or why I am included in their ranks since my own hair is shorter than average, at least after Peggy gives me my monthly haircut.

Chartreuse said...

Snow, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Now that I look more closely at the photo top left on your blog I see those long hairs are sprouting from the chin. As to everything else, blame it on my deranged neighbour. Am seriously contemplating a move rather than further engagement. "Love thy neighbour?" Like hell.

Snowbrush said...

Chartreuse, I don't think I've ever gotten but one letter from another blogger that contained more anger. In fact, I had to re-read it for the full effect to dawn on me.

I leave it to you whether to "move," but it is not my wish that you do so.

A Plain Observer said...

We all ass-u-me. Some assume there is God, some assume there is no God. I also took some theology classes because I wanted to understand more of this religion I was born into. The result is that I had really good teachers and I understood the history of my religion, but it did not change my faith. God and religion? two separate entities in my view. Religion is man made. Anyway, great post as usual.

Snowbrush said...

Chartreuse, maybe I just completely misunderstood your comment, and it was your neighbor you were contemplating leaving as opposed to my blog. I'm certainly sorry if things are that bad for you, but of course, I should be pleased if it's not me that you're upset with.

"God and religion? two separate entities in my view. Religion is man made."

The church that I grew up in believed that all religions are manmade except for itself. The Church of Christ regarded itself as the very church that Christ had started, and it therefore expressed grave doubts--if not outright disbelief--that anyone who wasn't a member of it (the world over, including people who had never ever heard of it) was going to hell. Because the Church of Christ has no governing body that has power over local congregations, this attitude might not have been the case in Churches of Christ everywhere, but it was the case everywhere I knew anything about, and that included churches in Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Georgia, and Kentucky.

rhymeswithplague said...

When I was a kid in Texas (60 years ago), the Church of Christ folk were often called Campbellites by others. I never knew who Campbell was or what term meant exactly, but it always sounded like a slur and was usually accompanied by a sneer. Their equivalent among the Baptists were known as "hard shell"....

Chartreuse said...

Good god, Snow. Yes, it's definitely my real-life neighbour (not my cyber neighbour - YOU) that I'm shit off with. As well as putting dog-shit in my mailbox (to pay me back for my dog getting through the boundary creek and onto his property), last week he came to my gate and with neck veins shaking to burst he threatened to 'kill that dog and kill you' if my pooch so much as wandered onto his acreage again. Can't begin to list the other things he's called me over the years (and most other neighbours as well) and I've already filled out 2 police reports over such incidents. So yes, I've been distracted of late. Sorry you misunderstood. I was just letting off steam to a cyber pal, but obviously not choosing the right sort of humour. Love you heaps, really I do (well, love your work anyway).

Snowbrush said...

Chartreuse, I wish I had something to offer that would help. There's a family in my neighborhood that acts similarly, and I'm just glad they're a few doors down so I don't have to deal with them. I do know that some people have had luck in installing security cameras. For instance, you could train one on your mailbox. If I were you, I would would also wear a taping device whenever I thought I might have to talk to him. When such evidence come before a judge or a jury, they have a much greater impact than anything you could say, and they might also help you to feel like you are able to do something to help yourself. I remember one case here in the States in which a man terrorized a small neighborhood for years, and the cops were no help whatever, and this man was even doing things like running people off the road. One day, one of the neighbors shot him to death after such an incident, and damned if he didn't end up in prison. Sometimes, the law gets in the way of justice rather than making it happen.

"I never knew who Campbell was or what term meant exactly"

I never studied up on it, but was told that two early 19th century men, one named Campbell and the other named Stone, "revived" the ancient church, which had been meeting secretly for most of the preceding 1800 years. Later, this church split into two groups, the Disciples of Christ and the Church of Christ, the latter being more conservative. The Church of Christ in my area taught that anyone who truly sought God would join the Church of Christ, and if this person lived in the middle of Siberia where there was no CofC, the Lord would guide him to where there was one. THAT'S how uncompromising it was, yet I very much doubt that every member really believed all of this, but that was the teaching.

Stafford Ray said...

Pascal must have been pulling a leg. All your points are valid but should we assume Pascal meant it to be taken at face value? Could not his 'wager' be designed to do exactly what it is doing, namely revealing the shallow fear driven nature of theism in all its manifestations?
Good one mate, now I will catch up on the next episode.


I gave up Catholic church when I was twelve; went to Baptist Church for a few years, for my father's sake, and by the age of 18, I clearly knew I was an atheist. Religions always remained an interest of mine, simply because it interest other people and mold their behavior, but in my opinion, if there is any god, it must find laughable the way humans try to describe it and express its wishes/commands; and the actions taken in its name would surely be appaling to it, for all of the bloodshed, violence and prejudice that stem from such beliefs. I prefer to set myself a code of ethics and stand by it throughout this life. It's better [in my opinion] than living by commands and promises of punishment and damnation as I freely do good and abstain from bad, which would fit anyway within my ethics. I do have my flaws, but I feel no guilt, I only hope to improve on them for my own benefit. I've long believe this life was all there is and was often eager to leave it behind to find some rest. But having made some changes in my life lately made me contemplate the remote possibility there could perhaps be something beyond this world, another experience, which could be a welcomed surprise. But if there's nothing, then, that's that!! I don't worry about that at all. I have enough to contend with right here... as we all!!

Snowbrush said...

"Could not his 'wager' be designed to do exactly what it is doing, namely revealing the shallow fear driven nature of theism..."

So far as I know, he was sincere, but I see what you mean about it being so absurd that it might have been tongue-in-cheek. I just assumed that he lived in such a provincial world that his rationality was stunted.

Snowbrush said...

"if there is any god, it must find laughable the way humans try to describe it and express its wishes/commands"

I find the possibility of a deity inconceivable, at least in terms of that deity being all-wise, all-good, and all-powerful. For one thing, justice doesn't exist, and if there were such a being, justice would necessarily exist. To those who say that, while justice might not exist in this life, all will be made right in the next life, I would offer that to "make something right" after the fact doesn't erase an injustice that has already been committed. It's what human judges do simply because they can do no better. For example, if a child is raped and tortured, the offender might be put in prison, but the only real justice would consist of the crime having never been committed. And in the Biblical scheme, the offender might pray before death and go to heaven (due to Christ being executed in order to placate a just god, if that makes any sense) whereas the child might live in misery, finally commit suicide, and end up in hell, making "divine justice" even less fair than human justice.


Good thing I don't believe in Hell as I often thought I was already there, living here. I'm sure my father, to this day, believes he'll go to heaven despite all he;'s done to me for years on a near daily basis... I long wished for his [gruesome] death as I didn't expect any justice in this world. He still breathes, as far as I know, but I've taken my distances and changed my name so I wouldn't have to hear/sign/say his name all of the time. My own little justice!!

Joe Todd said...

Snow I don't think you are a "Mr. Slug Shit from Hell" but I love the term...LOL...Hope you are having a great week "just in case"