Pascal’s Wager and what non-Christians believe

Continuing the series “Conversations with Strangers, here’s a non-climate one, in response to a Huffington Post blog post on Pascal’s Wager. There are better responses to it out there, but I’m fairly happy with what I wrote:


Pascal’s wager is a case for dishonesty – you can’t choose to believe, but you can choose to lie and pretend that you believe.

So integrity is one thing that you lose if you accept this argument.

Beyond that, religion changes how you interact with the world. Do you pray over a decision, or do you reason through the pros and cons of it? How do you view people who don’t share your religion? How do you treat them?

What about people who DO share your religion? Are you more likely to trust them because of that? Are they really more trustworthy? Would you change how you vote based on whether the person you’re voting for shares your religion? What if they had worse policies? Certainly some people vote based on religion.

Religion also teaches people that it’s ok to accept things based on little to no evidence, because it feels right, or in this case because someone told you that you’ve got a lot to gain/lose.


Hate to pick on so many of your arguements, but there are massive flaws and missunderstandings here. Here is the non-Christian’s rationalization. “We are complete accidents followed by a set of other accidents and ultimately a giant catastrophic waste of time. Why you ask? Because faith is a fairytale and we are all just piles of dust running around while our cells still work cheering on and ridiculing other piles of dust as we see fit. Ultimately we don’t matter and we are an episode of little consequence, because ultimately we are already dead. We are particles wishing to be something real.” Christianity says “we mean everything, we are a big deal and we have a almighty loving God. We will live on and never die,” I stand on the side of Christ.


And you are now lying about what I believe.

We are part of an unbroken chain of life going back hundreds of millions of years, we are made of the universe and the atoms of our existence were forged in a thousand stars. We are kin with all life on this planet, and our lives and consciousness are all the more valuable because this is all we get.

Our lives have meaning in the effects we have on the lives of others. The only afterlife I will have will be the memories of those whose lives I touched, and the ways in which my influence on them will be passed on to others.

There are people in the world who know how to juggle because I taught them, and I knew, because of those who taught me, who knew because of others before them, part of an unbroken chain of learning, sharing, and companionship going back generations, and that will go on long after I’m dead.

This last weekend, I showed someone how to call a flock of songbirds in the forest, because I was taught it by an ornithologist, who was taught by someone else, going back to the first person who learned it from the birds themselves, by imitating them. Those birds, in turn, are the survivors of the lineage of the dinosaurs.

We are part of an awe-inspiring web of life and experience that goes far beyond our own lives, rippling out beyond our physical boundaries in the present, past, and future, and we are privileged to be aware of our place in that tapestry, and to choose, in small ways, how we influence that tapestry.

And you say that all of that is meaningless without your deity? What a depressing, uninspiring view of the cosmos…


  1. Menyambal says

    An excellent post!

    I’ve taught a few people to juggle, also. We may have ancestral teachers in common, or some of our descendants may have juggled together.

    I’m going to be more mindful of what I teach and where it may be passed on. Thanks.

    If you want a strange kettle of fish, start accusing believers of simply pretending, as Pascal suggests they do. Ask them to prove that they really believe.

  2. Brian Drayton says

    I am not sure about Pascal’s Wager, but I don’t think that “belief” and “decision” are as incompatible as some people do. In the first place, the world is full of uncertainties, by which I mean here, “propositions whose truth we can’t demonstrate (at least for now).” So we take a lot of things to be true just because we can’t know and demonstrate everything– and there are many things that we know are true that we can’t bring/motivate/organize ourselves to enact in our lives.
    But more than this: deciding, “I shall believe this” is better interpreted as, “Among several imponderable options, I prefer this one, and therefore I will live accordingly, and find a pathway to understanding why, so that I will come to inhabit it authentically.” This is not a lie, it is a choice about one’s character. It is a commitment to an inquiry and an experiment. When I decided that I couldn’t go to war, I really didn’t understand (at age 15) what I was committing myself to. Ever since (I am now 63), I have had to grapple with something that puts this to the test, and reveals issues I had not thought of. I am not satisfied with the way I have lived up to this commitment, but it has been integrated. You don’t make such a commitment purely from the outside in, so to speak– there has to be some element in yourself already that is one anchor for the decision. It’s like building a bridge– in which there is an anchor on the hither shore, and another on the farther shore; then the fabric in between remains to be built.
    All this is argued more deeply and eloquently by Willam James in his essay on “The will to believe.” (

  3. says

    There’s a difference between deciding to hold a set of values because you think they’re good, despite not having a clearly though-out reason WHY they’re good, and deciding to believe unsupported factual claims about the nature of reality, because you think that it will give you some concrete benefit to believe it (or act like you believe it) even if it’s not true.

    “Among several imponderable options, I prefer this one, and therefore I will live accordingly, and find a pathway to understanding why, so that I will come to inhabit it authentically.” This is not a lie, it is a choice about one’s character. It is a commitment to an inquiry and an experiment.

    That depends on the belief in question, and it depends on how it guides your actions. Choosing to believe that going to war is wrong is fundamentally different from choosing to believe that the universe is governed by the deity described in the bible.

  4. Brian Drayton says

    Well, I am not sure that it is fundamentally different. “Belief” is a pretty complicated experience, and embraces rather a lot of doubt, uncertainty, and change throughout one’s life time.

  5. says

    Yes, belief is complicated, but when it comes to statements about the nature of reality, I think it’s actually less complicated that some people make it.

    Being a scientist, and religious at the same time, seems to require accepting two different sets of criteria for belief – one for claims made about the “natural world”, and a different one for claims made about the supernatural. There are plenty of good scientists who make that work just fine – Katherine Hayhoe comes to mind – but it means demanding independently verifiable evidence, and skeptical rigor for one category, and something less than that for the other.

    In my own experience, and in listening to many science-minded religious people(professional apologists and others), that was what made belief more complicated.

    Frankly, it seems to make more sense without the supernatural. Again, from my own experience, if you remove the assumption of a divine guiding hand, suddenly the lack of Quaker action on climate change for all those years makes sense, along with the wild differences in direction that people were (and are) being “led” in. The process through which Friends arrive at various communal decisions is more or less identical to what you get when you have a group of people that share basic values about what’s important in the physical world, but slight differences of opinion.

  6. doublereed says

    Because faith is a fairytale and we are all just piles of dust running around while our cells still work cheering on and ridiculing other piles of dust as we see fit.

    This is actually closer to what Jews believe. In fact, using “dust” in this way confuses me because “From dust to dust” is a religious concept, not a secular one. We are created out of dust, and we return to the ground as dust. That’s the symbolism of placing stones on graves.

  7. doublereed says

    To clarify my point: Christians and Jews literally believe that people are piles of dust. That’s not a figurative or rhetorical device. That’s Adam and Eve. God created man out of dust and/or dirt. They basically described the religious position – with negative language – and then claimed that that is what you believe. That’s what THEY believe.

  8. StevoR says

    Great description in the OP and well put Abe Drayton.

    @6. doublereed : Stardust. Science tells us we’re made of stardust as Carl Sagan put it so wonderfully :

    The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

    Source :

    Science is the method, the means of thinking that also tells us how and why we are derived from stardust and where the evidence showing that is and inspires us with more curiosity, more questions to keep looking and learning ever further back showing that that we can work out the answers for ourselves with enough thought, teamwork, ever more refined understanding and desire for knowledge.

    Much rather that – and it takes us so much further than just “Gawddit, Bibble sez so. Dat settles it.” Then believe it or else face eternity of torture in some supposed afterlife and social and cultural bullying in this life.

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