Why It’s Not a ‘Safe Bet’ to Believe In God


The idea that you should believe in God “just in case” trivializes both faith and reality, and concedes your argument before it’s begun.

Red_dice “Why not believe in God? If you believe and you turn out to be wrong, you haven’t lost anything. But if you don’t believe and you turn out to be wrong, you lose everything. Isn’t believing the safer bet?”

In debates about religion, this argument keeps coming up. Over, and over, and over again. In almost any debate about religion, if the debate lasts long enough, someone is almost guaranteed to bring it up. The argument even has a name: Pascal’s Wager, after Blaise Pascal, the philosopher who most famously formulated it.

And it makes atheists want to tear our hair out.

Not because it’s a great argument… but because it’s such a manifestly lousy one. It doesn’t make logical sense. It doesn’t make practical sense. It trivializes the whole idea of both belief and non-belief. It trivializes reality. In fact, it concedes the argument before it’s even begun. Demolishing Pascal’s Wager is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unusually slow fish, in a tiny, tiny barrel. I almost feel guilty writing an entire piece about it. It’s such low-hanging fruit.

But alas, it’s a ridiculously common argument. In fact, it’s one of the most common arguments made in favor of religion. So today, I’m going to take a deep breath, and put on a hat so I don’t tear my hair out, and spend a little time annihilating it.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why It’s Not a ‘Safe Bet’ to Believe In God. To watch me tear apart Pascal’s Wager, stomp it into tiny pieces, bury the pieces, and then dig them up so I can tear them apart all over again, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. Maria says

    Flewellyn, don’t forget to tape a soft pad to your forehead before reading the AlterNet comments, I find that it helps some with all the headdesking ;-)

  2. says

    Is belief even a choice? How does one choose to believe that which requires oh so much suspension of disbelief? Surely belief should not require so much effort?

  3. Ben says

    Interesting piece, but I don’t think it’s a fool’s wager. I’ve always been an atheist but I’m not blind to the benefits that religion can bring.
    Sacrifice? Builds character. Builds community. Teaches you to appreciate what you have and who you are. Discipline? Can be good even when it comes from within and doesn’t require leather accessories. Time with like-(no-)minded individuals? Social circles are key to health.
    I think there are better ways than religion to achieve all of these things (say, an hour of yoga every sunrise, and perhaps self-enforced donations to Wikimedia or some such). But religion can surely be better than nothing. So it’s not a fool’s bet at all.
    The costs can be great. Sacrificing your expendable income may build character, but sacrificing your critical-thinking skills builds the next Dark Age. No doubt religion is extremely dangerous, and apparently few in the USA have the wisdom or humility to practice it safely. But I think that many millions gain more than they give up without tearing apart their society.
    I suppose that what’s required is some humility, e.g. “My god is Jesus. Of course I may well be wrong so I won’t end any friendships over it, but it makes me strong and healthy to believe in him and to live by those weird rules, so I believe.” Sure, building community with that philosophy is still a circle-jerk, but I’ve seen it done with greater wisdom than you seem to imply is possible. Not often in the USA, though–the day Americans learn humility will be a wonderful day indeed.
    My hunch is that religion never has a sustainable positive effect on a community, but it frequently has a positive effect upon an individual. Of course, most religions preach community service. If my hunch is correct, then a fine service to your community is to commit apostasy… there’s a bit of a feedback oscillation here, isn’t there… :)

  4. says

    It’s usually Christians that say this to me, and whenever they do, I ask – “Well, which religion and denomination should I believe in?” One time, a Catholic and a Methodist got into an argument about which version of Christianity was more correct. Needless to say, that argument alone proved how faulty Pascal’s wager is.

  5. Jan says

    Great piece Greta, Pascals wager does come up a lot, and I did think to myself ‘how can you say “ok, I’ll believe to be safe”, you put it into words.
    And when anyone tells me with glee ‘you’ll regret it one day’ hinting at what will happen to me when I die and come to be judged, I will respond in kind about the lottery of their god and their beliefs over the thousands of others, who can’t all be right, but could all be wrong.

  6. says

    I’m not blind to the benefits that religion can bring.

    First of all: That’s not Pascal’s Wager. That’s the utilitarian argument. Pascal’s Wager doesn’t say, “You might as well believe, since you’ll get psychological and social benefits from it.” Pascal’s Wager says, “You might as well believe, since if God is real believing will send you to Heaven and not believing will send you to Hell, and if God is not real you’ll just be dead and it won’t matter.” Different argument.
    As for the utilitarian argument: Sorry, but I’m not buying it. For one thing, countries with high rates of atheism are stronger from a utilitarian point of view: higher indexes of happiness, greater social equality, etc. If religion is supposed to bring all this about, it’s doing a piss-poor job. And if there are ways to bring about these psychological and social benefits without believing in something that isn’t true, trivializing reality, and positioning belief with no evidence as acceptable and indeed positively valuable… why should we not just do that?
    More on the utilitarian argument and the relative benefit/ harms done by religion:
    Do You Care Whether The Things You Believe Are True?
    The Armor of God, or, The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful
    Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters

  7. says

    Hello. First post here.
    I can’t see Pascal’s Wager as an excuse or as an admission of having no better argument. Some believers seem to think it should work as the best argument for pulling people in, but then I wonder if they really think non-believers will jump to the cheapest form of belief. It seems they would be content to have others believe on the basis of the wager but wouldn’t themselves and really wouldn’t expect others to either. But then again I wonder if they really do believe out of fear.

  8. says

    nice article!
    Pascal’s Wager is idolatry, it uses a supposedly “clever” bit of logic to validate someone’s faith, and when you use a thing to prop up your faith, that thing can become just as important as god is to justify your faith, in fact, some people seem to *only* commit idolatry when it comes to their religion, as they end up *only* using that thing to validate their faith.
    the idea of not worshipping false gods, isn’t only supposed to stop you from worshipping some other god completely, but to also stop your from making up your own version of the god you already believe in, and Pascal’s Wager encourages as person, to “just believe” because of this Wager…
    if you make up your own version of god, that’s still idolatry, it’s still a *false* god, as it’s not the god that you’re supposed to be following, you’re following your own made up god!
    so if you just believe, then what’s the point in calling yourself christian? you’re supposed to believe in Jesus by *being* a good person, not because you’re convinced yourself some silly bet will get you into heaven!!
    and like you said, having faith has a “cost”, but when you end up using things to validate your faith, you tend to neglect actually doing what your religion says to do…

  9. llewelly says

    Ben | February 15, 2011 at 02:30 PM:

    Interesting piece, but I don’t think it’s a fool’s wager. I’ve always been an atheist but I’m not blind to the benefits that religion can bring.

    The “religion is good for you” argument is a separate issue. Not one of the benefits you mention has anything to do with the foolishness of Pascal’s Wager; all of those benefits (if they are real) take place in real life, and not during the supposed afterlife, which is the domain of the Fool’s Wager.

  10. Sean says

    I actually had an interview with someone who is researching atheist coming out stories today. It was interesting, in that his last question was “Do you think that it’s a choice to be an atheist?” Of course, one can always choose to take certain actions that will affect one’s chances of conversion/deconversion. But I had to answer that I didn’t think that I could possibly become a Christian again. I know too much, and care far too much about the truth; it’s now utterly inconceivable that I could do anything more than fake belief in religion, no matter what magnitude of threat I was under.
    I wanted to say something about viatia’s comment: “It seems they would be content to have others believe on the basis of the wager but wouldn’t themselves and really wouldn’t expect others to either.”
    This is the impression that I get as well. But I still think that Pascal’s Wager tends to be used as a substitute for more serious intellectual debate. So I think that in practice, it’s either a deflection or excuse used to avoid going down that rabbit hole in the first place, or else it’s a last-ditch argument when nothing else has been convincing. So “excuse or no better argument” is (in my limited experience) a pretty good summation of all the cases where Pascal’s Wager actually gets used.

  11. Sean says

    I also had to restrain myself with respect to the Alternet comments. Besides the fact that so many seemed to completely miss the point of the piece, there were random references to Zeitgeist (which makes me very cranky).

  12. Eclectic says

    viatia: Pascal’s wager starts out by saying “even if the odds of God existing are incredibly small…” and then tries to trump that with infinities.
    So yes, it really does concede that there’s no good reason. It just then tries to argue that a bad reason is good enough.
    (With Javascript turned off, I don’t even see Alternet comments. If reactions here are any guide, I’m not missing anything.)

  13. DSimon says

    “you’re supposed to believe in jesus by *being* a good person[…]”

    Manabrau, that’s a funny definition of “belief”. We’re not talking about “agreeing with some of the ideas that this Jesus fellow has”, we’re talking about “agreeing that this Jesus fellow is literally the son of a for-real deity”.

  14. says

    “we’re talking about “agreeing that this Jesus fellow is literally the son of a for-real deity”.”
    and I’m telling you that that is an utter waste of time because whether there is a god or not, or if Jesus is the legit son of god or not, can never be known

  15. says

    Eclectic: Greta says: “It’s an admission that you’ve got nothing.” One of my points is believers don’t make such an admission. That is the non-believers interpretation of the use of the wager argument itself. It seems believers really think they got something, or at least they act that way, and wouldn’t ever acknowledge, much less argue, that the wager is a bad reason. They think it’s a good, easy to understand, scare tactic that should at least push you through the door of a church if you won’t buy any of their other “better” arguments.

  16. Sean says

    “One of my points is believers don’t make such an admission.”
    I suppose I have two points. One is that it can be an effective admission rather than a literal or conscious admission. A believer can (and often does) unintentionally signal to an atheist: “I don’t think about this all that much, and I don’t have any convincing arguments, but I’m going to try to cajole you into joining up anyway.” No believer would ever, ever would say this, but atheists get this message often, and it’s often accurate. In explaining atheism to a mostly theist audience, the focus is, for obvious reasons, on the messages that atheists get, which is actually news to believers, rather than what believers are intending to signal, which they presumably already know.
    The other point I’d make is: sometimes believers do concede this. Pascal did; the entire point of his wager was to convince people to believe in something unknowable, something that no rational case could be truly made for. In fact, Manabrau also concedes the same point right above you. Obviously Manabrau is not a fan of Pascal’s wager, but seems to agree with him that there’s no other rational case to be made; instead, it’s all faith.

  17. says

    One of my points is believers don’t make such an admission. That is the non-believers interpretation of the use of the wager argument itself. It seems believers really think they got something, or at least they act that way, and wouldn’t ever acknowledge, much less argue, that the wager is a bad reason.

    What Sean said. I’m not saying that believers are admitting openly, or even privately to themselves, that Pascal’s Wager concedes the argument. I’m saying that, from any reasonable external standard of logic and evidence, it is, for all intents and purposes, a concession of the argument. And if they thought about it for five seconds, they’d realize that.

  18. says

    Sean, Greta: OK, I reread a bit. I can see it as an effective admission by them but might have said “It’s an admission to us …”, but maybe I should have inferred that. Also, I really had not considered Pascal’s Wager being used by some believers in lieu of any argument for knowing God exists. I can maybe give (few I would guess) such believers a little credit if the explicitly admit they are have ruled out arguments for God existing. I always took the wager as going along with existence arguments they would all use. Thanks for the discussion. It has clarified things a bit for me.

  19. Stan Brooks says

    Thanks for a great article and for giving me another reason to be delighted to have subscribed to your blog. Well put, and useful fuel in the many discussions I engage in with believers. May Zeus strike them all with bolts of lightning (or better yet may they all be struck by the jolt of reason).

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