Pascal's Wager

Is it really a Safer Bet to be a Believer rather than an Atheist ?

By Avijit Roy

Pic: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

One of my Mukto-Mona members  forwarded a letter to my personal account yesterday stating the following lines :

"Recently, the writer of a famous Bengali movie “Shabuz-Shathi” asked me a question, which as follows, “There is a 50% chance that there exists a God. Is it not? Our propensity is to go for the “good” when we are given a chance of 50%, and in every case we do go for the “good”; but why in the case of God some of us go for the “bad”?” That was basically the main question he asked me;..."

The author of the above letter requested me to respond to the topic from a rational point of view. Though, I remember that I have already  addressed the issue about four years ago  while debating in other e-forum, and I also remember, Aparthib shed some light on the same topic at that time in the corresponding thread, still such arguments demand  "Immediate attention"  time to time. 

The statement comes from a believer mind is typically as follows----

Ok, there is a 50-50 chance for existence of God. If God does not exist then we will not face any problem after death. But if God exists you atheist people will go to hell. So safe and most rational choice is believing, isn't it?

Arguments generally float in myriad Bangladeshi-e-forums in above mentioned style is called "Pascal's Wager" (or Pascal's Gambit). Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623 – August 19, 1662) was the seventeenth-century French mathematician and physicist, who once formulated this pragmatic argument in philosophy. Pascal, inspired by profound religious belief,  constructed the argument aiming especially at such persons who were not convinced by traditional arguments for the existence of God. This Pascal's wager having been debunked centuries ago by the Skeptics and Rationalists, it, however still serves good incentive among some faithful minds. "Pascal's gamble", in a nutshell,  says that to believe in God is the best bet because if God exists, you'll go to heaven and avoid hell. If you don't believe in God, you might lose all this. If God does not exist, you'll have nothing to lose. So it's better to believe in God than not to. In Pascal's word :

"If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing -- but if you don't believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist."

The flaws in this argument are legion - it is actually a rather poor piece of reasoning and not at all appropriate for a thinker of Pascal's standing who is arguably considered as the father of modern probability theory.

Rejection of Pascal's Wager

Which religion is "True Religion"?

The first problem lies in defining "True Religion" and "True God" which Pascals' implicit yet unstated assumption votes for Roman Catholicism. It is interesting to note the fact that he used it as an argument for being a part of the Catholic doctrine, but it is nevertheless used so often today by Protestants, Islamists, Buddhists, Hindus-all, without recognizing the inherent fallacy of the argument. The argument itself does not explain which religion a person should follow. This can be described as the "avoiding the wrong hell" dilemma. If you happen to follow the right religion, you may indeed "...go to heaven and avoid hell." However, if you choose the wrong religion, you will by no means be able to avoid hell.

Unfortunately, most Believers are like Pascal and others simply assume that their own religion is the right one, so it never occurs to them that they could be avoiding the wrong hell. Pointing them from this angle sometimes makes them stop and think, but it has been experienced that they usually deny that the problem exists because they firmly believe that the "right God" is "obvious" for all to see. It should be clear from such statements that there are none as blind as those who won't see. There are hundreds of religion  in the market all dogmatically claiming as the true candidate of God; never mind what self-contradictory, unscientific strange beliefs they hold. Many religions are offensive and totally antithetical to each other. For example, Islam says that Christ was a man, but Christianity says that he was a god. Christians generally believe in the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. But if Christianity is wrong, and Islam is correct, then it is expected that Allah will punish all Christian believers with dreadful tortures. He clearly specified it in the following Sura in Quran :

YUSUFALI: If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good).

So if Allah is the true god, all the Christians and the people of other faith except Islam will go to hell  not because of rejecting the God, but just for picking only a wrong God. Again, Muslims believe in the single, indivisible deity Allah, who is very different from the Christian concept of Holy Trinity. If Islam is wrong, and Christianity turns out to be a correct religion, then the Christian God will eventually torture all Muslims for eternity without any hope of mercy.

According to Christian belief, the person who rejects Jesus Christ not only dishonors the Son of God, but he also dishonors God the Father; therefore, he does not receive forgiveness of sin and he must stand before the Judge who is none other than Jesus Christ, the One he rejected. Let me quote from Bible:

John 12:47-48 And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.

Now, some religions like Judo-Christianity and Islam are based on Monotheism; thus those thrust the devoted followers believing in One God but Hindus, on the contrary, believe in thousands of god and goddess. Muslims generally consider idol-worship as a great sin (shirak) whereas Hindus perform that ritual as a fundamental part of the religion They consider the idol is a support for the neophyte. Muslims slaughter cows in their religious festival whereas Hindus worship cows just as holy deities. Hinduism, even having many self-contradictory bizarre beliefs within,  also proclaims that it is a true religion just as Islam or Christianity demand:

"Sho-dhormo Nidhonong Sreyo, Poro dhormo Bhoyaboho"

(It is better to die in own religion, other religions are just  horrendous)

So if, by any chance, Hindu God is the true god, then all the Muslim brothers, with no offence,  will be pushed to hellfire on the judgment of the voluminous track records of slaughtering cows in their religious festivals.  Thus, it can be easily comprehend that  many devoted believers and god-loving people will go to hell not because they are Atheists but because of their  unfortunate devotion in wrong God. This clearly depicts the vagueness of Pascal's Wager.

Aparthib refuted Pascal's wager logically in his piece (eshomabesh : message/2587 ) about four years ago:

"What does the construct "us" have 50-50 probability of the "fact" that there might be life after death really mean? First of all, for a believer the probability is a certainty, 100%. For the non-believer it is 0%. For agnostics, mild believers it is anywhere from 0-100%. Whatever the percentage, these percentages indicate the various levels of BELIEF among various humans in life after death, NOT THE ACTUAL PROBABILITY OF LIFE AFTER DEATH, because the probability [calculated as such] itself is a faith, which cannot be objectively proven or calculated. So any logic or argument that presupposes 50-50 (Or any other breakup) probability of Life after death is a fallacious one, as arguments should only be based on objective truths or evidences as premises.

It assumes a 50-50 probability of life after death (an invalid premise as I pointed out) and then advises one of the merit of believing in it and the danger of not believing in it. It is amusing that this Pascal's wager having been debunked centuries ago still survives among some in the dawn of the third millennium. The other aspect of the fallacy of Pascal's wager is that even if it turns out that there is indeed life after death, it does not make religion-X true, since there are other religions (Y,Z..etc) which also postulate life after death. So using this "logic" to scare someone into one's favored religion-X is nothing but a naive attempt to attract gullible souls suffering from indecision."

A believer does not wish to fathom the inconsistency of the Pascal's argument as described above, rather tends to believe blindly in "uniqueness" of his/her own  dogma just imperiously considering it as "True". Pascal's wager thus can be said to suffer from the logical fallacy of false dilemma/false dichotomy/bifurcation, as it relies on only two alternatives: "My own God" or "No God" scenario, where in fact other alternatives can exist. Both Pascal (whose implicit belief was in Roman Catholicism) and a Muslim faithful (described in the top), even following two self-contradictory and opposite ideologies, claim to win the bet (i.e. achieve heaven and avoid hell) ignoring the severe incongruities of  the bet.


Betting in vague topic which has no specific criterion:

One cannot "bet" on the general concept of "theism" vaguely; he has to pick specific doctrines. Theism is just a broad construct which includes all possible and self-contradictory beliefs and is not at all meaningful in the sense of logic. If you are going to really bet on something, you must define that criterion - which means picking of something. If you pick nothing or something that is vaguely defined, then your "belief" is literally empty and your status remains no more than an atheist. So, a person who picks risks picking the wrong god and avoiding the wrong hell.

This leads to a second problem: namely, that it isn't actually true that the person who bets loses nothing. If a person bets on the wrong god, then the "True God" might punish them for their foolish behavior. What's more, the "True God" might not mind that people don't bother believing in stupid and inhumane stuff  when they use rational reasons - thus, not picking at all might be the safest bet. You just cannot know ! That's why Richard Carrier pronounced in his article " The End of Pascal's Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven"

"Therefore only intellectually committed but critical nontheists (nonbelievers) are genuinely good and will go to heaven. Therefore, if a god exists, his silence and allowance of evil  are explained and justified by his plan to discover the only sorts of people who deserve to populate heaven: sincere nontheists. And this makes perfect sense of many mysteries, thus explaining what theists struggle to explain themselves."

Similar argument has been provided by Massimo Pigliucci in his "Pascal's Wager: Is It Safer To Believe In God Even If There Is No Proof That One Exists?" :

 "Many Agnostics, for example, have evaluated all the "proofs" for God's existence, and all of the "proofs" of God's non-existence. They conclude that neither belief can be substantiated. They feel that they can not rationally believe in the existence or non-existence of God; they must remain Agnostic. Under these conditions, a person can only believe in God if they violate their honesty. And God might punish a lack of honestly more severely than not being able to believe in God.

It can also be argued that if people believe something on insufficient evidence, that the result is the promoting of credulity -- something that harms society. Again, that could be a sin that God is particularly concerned about punishing."


Test of God?

One might also argue that a false, evil image of God has been forced to trust where God engages to test the blind obedience or faith, and  justifies His Gödel acts thru threats, coerce and/or promises of heavenly reward. Aroj Ali Matubbar in his book Shotter Shondhaney (Quest for truth) uttered -

 "It is said that nothing happens without the permission of Allah. Not even the leaf of a tree can tremble without his consent. Indeed, if something can happen against His will or without His consent His omnipotence will be called in question. But if everything happens according to His will what is the fault or sin of the offender?"

From the above point of view, some might argue that an insincere wager is worthless. God, being omniscient and omnipotent, knows all our motivations. If a person decides to be atheist or non-believer, he is somehow fulfilling God's plan and wish, one may argue. Obviously, no one can go against his will otherwise  His omnipotence will be in question. So the tests and bets all becomes meaningless on this point of singularity!


Should such "Racist God" be worshipped?

One final issue needs to be mentioned: the conclusion of the argument is supposed to be for the person to believe in a god because it is the choice that offers the most benefits and least dangers. However, this requires that the god in question not mind that you believe in it merely in order to gain entrance to heaven and/or to avoid punishment in hell. But this means that this god isn't actually a just or fair god since a person's eternal fate is not being decided upon based on their actions, but merely on their decision to make a pragmatic and selfish choice of religion. I don't know about the believers, but that certainly isn't the sort of god a rational person would ever consider for worshiping.

If we believe in such "Racist God" what actually we got to lose, one might ask. Pascal will obviously assure you with heavenly bliss - "You lose nothing". However,  this is a questionable premise whether such parochial view is acceptable on the basis of sound ethics and morality. In his book  Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith exposed the fallacies by saying  this:

What have we got to lose? Intellectual integrity, self-esteem, and a passionate, rewarding life for starters. In short, everything that makes life worth living. Far from being a safe bet, Pascal's wager requires the wager of one's life and happiness (Prometheus Books, 1979, p. 184).

In conclusion, it should have become abundantly clear over the course of this essay that Pascal's Wager simply fails as any sort of reasonable or rational argument in favor of theism. No sensible person or freethinker should either use it or be swayed by it.

So, rational choice is not believing, but disbelieving, IMO.

Sunday July 26, 2009

Avijit Roy, Founding Moderator of Mukto-Mona writes from Singapore. He can be reached at:

Response in MM:
  Subject Name/Email Date
19570 Re: Fwd: Immediate attention is being urged! [Pascal's Wager] Alan Levin 12:03 am
19544 Re: Fwd: Immediate attention is being urged! [Pascal's Wager] Avijit Roy Tue  9/14/2004


  Subject Name/Email Date
20303 Re: Pascal's Wager and few words! Avijit Roy 4:02 am
20299 Re: Pascal's Wager and few words! M RS Sat  10/16/2004
20265 Re: Pascal's Wager and few words! Avijit Roy Fri  10/15/2004
20170 Pascal's Wager and few words! (Article) M RS Mon  10/11/2004


[Mukto-mona] [Articles] [Recent Debate] [Special Event ] [Moderators] [Forum]