You’re a WHAT!? (Or Why Pascal’s Wager is Invalid)

What follows is a series of articles that I wrote for those people who have to face the fact that one of their loved ones has lost their faith, and no longer follow the religion that they used to share.

Atheism and Freethought are some of the fastest growing religious perspectives in the world today.  Once rare and isolated, non-belief is now thriving in America, Europe, The Netherlands, Japan, China; and even some Islamic countries are showing distinct sparks of nascent Freethought.

Atheist groups are starting up all over the country.  For the first time since their inception, the 2013 Gallup polls have reported that more than ½ of Americans (54%) said that they would vote for a well-qualified atheist for President.

Closer to home, it may be that you have recently been informed by a close friend or relative that they no longer believe in God and that they cannot, in good conscience, continue in the religion that you once shared.

You’re dumbfounded, distraught and dismayed by the news, and may have jumped to many dark conclusions about it.

Then, when you start talking to them about it in earnest, you find that you’re talking passed each other, not really making any headway one way or the other.  Nothing you say seems to make any difference, and you can’t understand the things that they are saying in reply.  They seem to value Reason above Faith, and that’s against everything you’ve been taught since childhood.  To you Faith is everything.

The purpose of this series of articles is to try to bridge that conversational gap, and try to help you understand where your loved-one is coming from intellectually and emotionally.

I have written these articles with the believer in mind mainly because most unbelievers already have a good grasp of the foundation of the religion and the perspective of the believer.   They understand your position, mainly because they were raised in your religion; or may have actually been raised by you in that religion. They just don’t believe it anymore. That’s all Atheism is, a lack of belief.  It’s NOT a positive statement or belief about anything.

It is vitally important that you have this conversation if you truly value your relationship with your friend or relative.  Deciding not to talk about it can build a wall between you that will forever keep you at an emotional distance from one another.

Once you understand that, you are able to establish real communication and understanding with your loved one.  You may then find that you’re closer to each other than you have been in very many years; years that you have not talked about the unacknowledged and widening gap between you.  The gap called religious belief.

Pascal’s Wager

That said, let’s get started.  We’ll begin by addressing an idea that you may have used to justify belief to yourself at one time:  Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century philosopher, mathematician and physicist.  He came up with a “wager” of sorts which recommends god-belief over non-belief.  Pascal’s Wager has been stated many ways, but most people state it thus: “Why don’t you believe in God anyway?  If He’s not real you haven’t lost anything, but if He is real, you get to go to heaven?  However, if He is real and you don’t believe, you‘ll spend eternity in Hell.”  Some refer to this as the “Fire Insurance” argument.

Atheists know that this argument fails for many reasons.  Here are 7 of them:

  1. Which God?   This argument represents a logical fallacy called a False Dichotomy.  It falsely offers you 2 choices when there are really thousands.  Look at it from the atheist perspective.  All the world’s religions use this argument to encourage belief in THEIR god.  World-wide, people believe in over 1,000 different gods; and in America alone, Christianity has over 30,000 sects. What are the chances that YOU just happened to be born into, or adopted, the RIGHT religion, or denomination, or sect?

For example, if you’re a Christian, you have to believe that God is not only God, but He is also Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; an entity that impregnated his own mother and made it necessary to have himself killed in order to appease his own wrath over original sin.  His Hell (if it is real and we have souls that live forever) is very much to be feared.

But to Jews, God is the singular GOD, and to most Jewish people, there is no heaven or hell.  When you die, your life is over and you sleep with your ancestors.

To Mormons, God is one of many, many gods and a thing that they aspire to become themselves.  Their afterlife has no hell.

To Hindus, their gods are many, and their afterlives are actual human lives here on earth, in a higher or lower cast.  They eventually will reach a point of human perfection where, when they die, the will achieve Nirvana; a kind of Hindu Heaven.  Their hell is a place of punishment, but it’s only temporary.  They eventually return to a human life.

To a Buddhist, there is no god, since Buddha was not a God, and there’s no hell.  Their afterlives are other kinds of lives of a higher or lower order, here on earth.

These questions must be considered for a thousand different religions around the world.

And the real God, if one actually exists, could be a totally different God from what mankind has ever imagined.  And he might not even CARE if you believe in him or not.  And that god might not even have a place, good or bad, for you to go to after you die.

Pascal was a Christian, so it makes sense to a Christian.  But it doesn’t make sense to many other religious believers; or to atheists, pantheists or deists.

  1. Do you think that you can just choose to believe something when you don’t? Belief is not a choice. You have to become convinced of a proposition before it becomes a belief (or disbelief). It’s not as if atheists know that god is really there but somehow we just stubbornly refuse to believe in Him.  We are truly convinced that god is simply not there.  Most of us have reached this disbelief through years of painful study and reasoning; fighting against religious dogma with its guilt, stress and peer-pressure each step of the way.

It would be like someone demanding that you believe in Santa Claus or be tortured.   Do you think you could make yourself believe that Santa Claus is real?  You could make yourself say you believe, but true belief would not come.

  1. Given that you can’t make yourself believe something you don’t and that God is supposed to be Omniscient, he would know if you’re lying or not. Pascal’s Wager is in essence saying that God is stupid, or at least extremely gullible.  It’s saying that He wouldn’t know that we don’t really believe, or that we were just saying that we do in order to get into heaven.
  1. Pascal’s Wager also says that all we have to do is believe in God to get into heaven, when in reality, we couldn’t. JUST believing in God per se, wouldn’t get us into the Christian heaven would it?  Religious leaders would mandate that before we could get into heaven, we would have to also believe the whole religious package.  In Christianity that would mean we would also have to accept Jesus as our Savior and confess our sins to him.
  1. What if souls aren’t real?  There’s never been any evidence that souls are real and religions have had thousands of years to present that evidence, and failed. Pascal’s Wager is moot if souls don’t exist.  The “you” that you experience is actually the product of a functioning brain.  When the brain stops working, “you” simply stop existing.  Saying that it continues to exist somewhere outside the brain is like saying the image on the TV screen continues to exist somewhere outside of your TV once you turn it off.
  1. Pascal’s wager is actually an argument for Belief itself.  Zinnia Jones best sums this up as: “That’s not a very good reason to believe something. I should believe it because bad things might happen if I don’t believe it? Can that even be called belief? You aren’t holding something to be true out of an actual belief that it’s true; you’re holding it to be true out of a perceived advantage to yourself.”
  1. The costs of saying that we believe.

The second part of Pascal’s Wager says that if there is no God we wouldn’t lose anything by believing.  But that’s not the case is it?

Besides the hard-earned money that we would be required to give to a church if we say we believe in God when we actually don’t, we would waste a large portion of our life performing various devotional rituals, attending church, praying, reading scripture and discussing that deity with other believers; and depending on the religion and sect that you end up subscribing to, you might lose the freedom to drink alcohol, eat ham or shellfish, have sex before marriage or even masturbate, among other things.

Preachers would then demand that we also believe in heaven, hell, sin, resurrection, prophets, miracles, angels, Satan, demons, souls, etc.  And doing so would potentially put those preachers in a position of power over us, allowing them to dictate not only our beliefs, but our actions, including the way we dress, the way we educate our children, and what medical procedures we’re allowed to use.

Then, because of the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:16-20) we would be expected to try to recruit new believers. And, in order to spread the “Good News”, we would first have to explain the Bad News: We would have to “sell” the idea that all of the people of the world are born with inherited sin, and are thus bound to spend an eternity in Hell unless they accept Jesus Christ into their “heart”, and fall in line with the church’s dogma.

Also, saying that we believe when we actually don’t, would cost us a great deal of self-respect by being intellectually dishonest with ourselves, our family and our friends for our whole life.  We would be living a lie.  If this is the only life we have, then dedicating your life to a false belief is a rather serious problem. We would have not only made a mistake, but we would be basing our entire life around this mistake.

There is also a lot of guilt, and stress associated with religious belief.  No person is perfect, but in the words of Christopher Hitchens.  “God creates us ill, and commands us to be well”.  That’s guilt every time you fail to live up to God’s expectation (and he has very high expectations), and that guilt causes stress.  That’s a lot of unnecessary stress to carry with you every day of your life.

In worse-case scenarios, accepting outlandish religious beliefs could result in you (or your children) being molested by priests, or bankrupting or killing yourself in some apocalyptic doomsday scenario, or even blowing yourself up in an attempt to kill infidels.

These are not fantastic results pulled out of the air to scare you.  Each and every one of the above is a well-documented result of extreme religious beliefs.  There are many other examples as well; Andrea Yates killed her five children in 2002 because she was afraid they might end up in Hell.  In 1978 parents fed poison drink to their children in Jonestown, Guyana before drinking it themselves.

So THINK.  Pascal’s wager was created to bring Christian fence-sitters back into the fold.  That’s it.  It doesn’t do anything for any other religion or for atheists who have to consider ALL of the religious claims of ALL the other religions as well as Christianity.

It really is a dead-end logically.