The Wager

13 Mar

I recently cross-posted A Look at Liberal Christianity over at the De-Conversion blog. I do that occasionally, when I think a post might generate some interest among the readers of that blog. Some of those readers come here occasionally, but, by and large, the blogs have two different sets of readers. Anyway, the post generated quite a lot of interest over there and several liberal Christians have been engaged in an extended dialog with several of De-Conversion’s regular crowd. It was only a matter of time – comment 105, to be exact – before someone would toss Pascal’s Wager into the mix. What follows is my response:

Ding! Ding! Ding!

Chris said: I give up, what bad thing will happen to me if God isn’t real? And then, what bad thing will happen to you if he is?

It took awhile, but someone finally played Pascal’s Wager.

Okay, rather than just poking fun (in case you don’t realize it, Chris, Pascal’s Wager is so familiar to us de-converts that it’s really a joke among us and not taken at all seriously), I’ll answer the questions.

Question #1: What bad thing will happen to you if God isn’t real?

Probably nothing much, as long as you don’t consider a lifetime spent worshiping a non-existent being, a lifetime trying to please said being, a lifetime giving your time, energy and money to maintain the institution that perpetuates belief in and obedience to said deity and his spokespersons as wasted time. And I realize, with utter respect and sincerity, that you may honestly disagree with me about this. I realize that you may simply take lots of pleasure in all of these activities regardless of whether the beliefs and commitments that underpin them are founded. I realize that you may simply enjoy the fellowship and company of other believers so much that the truth values of the Christian ties that bind you together are not as important to you as the ties themselves. I disagree with such positions, and they may not be yours at all (or anyone’s, for that matter). I’m just saying, that, from your point of view as a believer, there seems to be little to lose by believing – so long as you consider the life you hope is to come to be more important than the life that you have now.

Question #2: What bad thing will happen to me if God is real?

If the God in whom you believe is real, then, I’m toast – forever. Badly burnt and miserable, at that.

Here’s the problem with this wager. It assumes a dichotomy: your God (YHWH) or no God. That’s a false dichotomy because people have believed in thousands of gods over the years. Moreover, those people have all believed that their beliefs were as well-founded as you believe your beliefs are. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not the only religions that have had complex oral and written traditions about their gods, traditions that have been preserved and expanded for thousands of years. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not the only religions to have been preserved, passed on and presided over by priests of one sort or another. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not the only religions that have ever bound people together in cohesive, caring (and, unfortunately, sometimes manipulative and abusive) communities. In short, Christianity just isn’t as unique and special as Christians often think it is.

I know you think that the Bible is qualitatively different from the Quran, or the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Vita. But, that simply isn’t true. The Christian scriptures have lots of factual, as well as simple scribal, errors. The Christian scriptures have lots of contradictory passages that can’t be reconciled without putting one’s brain into overdrive on the illogical setting. Perhaps the most damning point is that the Christian scriptures provide incoherent portraits of God. In fact, some early Christians believed that the god of the Old Testament couldn’t possibly be the same god as that of the New Testament – they were acutely aware of the inconsistencies of character across both sets of writings.

So, to get back to your question, Pascal’s Wager is no more dangerous for me than it is for you. The highest probabilities are either a) there is no god, or b) we’re both wrong and whatever god exists, is nothing like you believe he/she/it is.

I should have added that, if the answer is b), we both had better hope that the deity is either indifferent to humankind, or benevolent towards us. Otherwise, we could all end up being toast or worse. I’m pretty sure the answer is a), though, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over the issue.

— the chaplain


Posted by on March 13, 2009 in atheism, rationalism, religion


27 responses to “The Wager

  1. orDover

    March 13, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Aren’t you so tired of dealing with this one? I can’t believe those who put forth the Wager haven’t thought it through at least enough to realize the false dichotomy. It is painfully obvious, even if you don’t know the term.

  2. (((Billy)))

    March 14, 2009 at 7:13 am

    And depending upon which version of god(s) is correct, plus the idea that being saved requires believing exactly the right thing about exactly the right things, and the contradictory rules, I’d bet god(s) is real lonely.

  3. The Ridger

    March 14, 2009 at 8:17 am

    And even if the dichotomy is true, doesn’t posing the wager imply that you think God can be fooled, or that “faith” is a choice – that you can just “believe” anything you want?

    Oh, wait. That latter explains a lot about how many Christians deal with the Bible/Reality split.

  4. the chaplain

    March 14, 2009 at 8:53 am

    I’m not surprised at all that Christians think Pascal’s Wager is meaningful. They don’t take other god-beliefs seriously at all; they simply lump believers in the wrong deity and those who don’t believe in any deities into one group. Belief in the wrong deity and nonbelief are all the same to them. Therefore, in their minds, the choice really is either The Right God (theirs) or The Wrong God/No God. I agree with you that it’s tiresome to encounter the wager time after time after time…. If only we had a nickel for every time we read or heard it – we’d be lazing around in the Caribbean sipping pina coladas now.

    Of course, every Christian is convinced that he or she does have the correct understanding of the right God.

    Thanks for pointing out the other major weakness of the wager that I neglected mentioning. Lots of Bible passages say that God wants people to love him wholeheartedly and sincerely. Hedging one’s bets and playing the odds, as suggested by the wager, doesn’t seem to fit that criterion. I certainly wouldn’t be impressed by that sort of faith, but, then again, I’m not god (I’m not even a goddess – but don’t tell the deacon that).

    As for faith being a choice, when I was deconverting, I read a touching passage in a book (I think it was Reasonable Faith) by Tony Campolo about the issue. He was witnessing to a young lady and he kept telling her, “Just believe it.” She finally responded to the effect that, “I can’t just believe it. Believing isn’t something I can do because I want to do it.” As I recall, Campolo didn’t have a good response for her. It took him awhile, but he eventually understood the truth of what she was saying.

  5. PhillyChief

    March 14, 2009 at 10:07 am

    At the root of it is complete obliviousness to the existence of other religions. Anytime you face complaints about removing school lead prayer, prayers before government sessions, not acknowledging god in classes, and so forth, it’s clear that the person objecting sees only their religion. The level of ignorance and lack of foresight when arguing for infusing religion into things amazes me, for to me, it’s plain as day that should the climate change and say a Hindu, Muslim, or whatever gets into a position to exploit such rules, then the Christians would be crying foul. (Remember the scene when a Hindu prayer was said to open Congress not long ago?)

    Now of course with so much ignorance, it’s no surprise that they would have no knowledge of our nation’s history, but most of the objections to religious imposition have been from Christians objecting to being imposed upon by other Christians! As Obama’s speech pointed out from several years ago, whose Bible would be read? The Catholics? Baptist’s? etc.

    So no, I am not surprised by continuing to see Pascal’s wager. We may insist that to be religious is to be ignorant, but using Pascal’s wager is undoubtedly the gambit of the ignorant, for no one, whether they give them credibility or not, could offer Pascal’s wager without being completely ignorant of other religions. That, or someone is being deliberately deceptive to exploit other’s complete ignorance of other religions. Ignorant or deceptive, some choices, huh?

  6. Lorena

    March 14, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Funny thing about Pascal Wager’s is that Christians use it to exult the wonderful life a person is said to have as a Christian.

    “If God isn’t real,” say some, “At least I spent my days living happily believing that He is.”

    To me, church is the closest thing to hell I know of: all the bitching, the dissension, the hypocrisy, the finger wagging.

    Who needs to go to hell if one can just go to a fundamentalist Christian church!

    And of course there is all the deprivation from the good things in life, which includes giving up reading literature and watching great films in favor of studying the Bible and going to church to hear the same sermons again and again.

  7. seantheblogonaut

    March 14, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    I often wonder if quite a lot of Christians approach their faith from this perspective. They don’t subscribe to the justifications for homophobia or the misogynistic/patriarchal viewpoint, but they just go with the flow thinking what’s the harm?

  8. The Ridger

    March 15, 2009 at 7:36 am

    Slightly off-topic, but Sanjay at Cowbirds in Love has posted a very funny cartoon about Buddhism and Christianity:

  9. DB

    March 15, 2009 at 8:42 am

    All Pascal’s Wager tells me is that these people only believe out of fear. Plain and simple fear. They are scared. They are interested in even considering the possibility because of that fear. It’s like being afraid to jump into a swimming pool out of fear of drowning.

  10. the chaplain

    March 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    You’re right about the obliviousness to other religions. In many Christians’ eyes, the wrong faith = no faith. That’s why many of them can parrot Pascal’s Wager and believe that they are making perfect sense. Those are the ignorant ones. No doubt, there are others who parrot the Wager to manipulate and deceive the ignorant. Aren’t you glad these folks believe themselves to be the moral standard bearers of Western culture?

    “church is the closest thing to hell I know of…”
    I hear you. That wasn’t my normative experience, but I had those moments. Sometimes I even had seasons like that.

    You may be right. The deacon and I were talking about this sort of thing this morning. A lot of people may be “cultural Christians” who go to church occasionally and have some vague god-belief, but religion doesn’t really play a significant role in their lives. If it did, there would be a lot more traffic on Sunday mornings than is typically the case.

    Thanks for the cartoon. A laugh is always welcomed here.

    I think fear of hell plays a big role in lots of god-belief. Some Christians just may not realize that’s the case, as they’ve been trained to talk about God’s Great Love and to view their religion as a loving relationship with their Creator and Savior. Other Christians may realize it, but either don’t dare to admit it aloud, or don’t dare to face that fact and its implications.

  11. Eshu

    March 15, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Well said, Chappie. However, I think Homer’s version has a lot going for it too. :-)
    “But Marge, what if we chose the wrong religion? Each week we just make God madder and madder.”

  12. heather

    March 15, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    And there I was thinking that Pascal’s Wager was “I bet you don’t know any obsolete programming languages”

  13. Vitamin R

    March 15, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Pascal’s Wager . . . what I’ve never gotten about that is–how can faking belief just to cover one’s ass do anything other than piss off a god? I dunno about those other imaginary gods, but my imaginary god’d send people to extra-crispy Hell for faking it. Lying is, after all, a sin.

    Heh, if there were such a thing as god, it’d have an infinite sense of humor, and there’d be no Hell. How could anygod damn something as entertaining, and unintentionally hilarious as human beings, right beliefs, wrong beliefs, or no beliefs at all?

  14. ozatheist

    March 15, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Not much too add, you and other readers have covered it all.
    Just one thing I wonder, has any christian ever gone “(blink) I’d never thought of that.” once the futility of Pascals Wager was pointed out to them?

  15. (((Billy)))

    March 16, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Oz: I’m betting no.

  16. dc-agape

    March 16, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Hey chaplain, I just have to point out this study by the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary:

    Some of it is scary, but the part that deals directly with Pascal’s Wager is the forecast number of denomination that will exist in 2025. 55,000 Christian denominations will be active by that date. How many do you think believe that they are the only denomination that is going to make it to heaven?

    With those odds (1 in 55,000), even if the Christians are right, they can’t win Pascal’s Wager!

    • the chaplain

      March 16, 2009 at 6:23 pm

      55,000! Good Grief! Where are they all going to fit? Can you imagine all the tall crosses, nativity scenes and what-not that will line our streets? Poor suckers – their odds are getting worse every day. Their best hope is for the Rapture to come sooner rather than later.

  17. Sarge

    March 17, 2009 at 6:34 am

    Pascal’s Wager seems based on such a narrow set of assumptions.

    When one introduces any of the variables indicated by many here, you get “Faith…Faith…Faith…!” which seems to be the equivilant of sticking fingers in the ears and chanting “Lalalalala! Lalalalala! I can’t hear you”!

  18. Martin Cauvin

    April 11, 2009 at 1:22 pm


    Have any of you read the context of Pascal’s Wager? The modern version is easy to de-bunk, but it is usually a bastardization of the actual Wager. It is always easy to attack a straw man.


  19. PhillyChief

    April 11, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Enlighten us, Marvin

    • Martin Cauvin

      April 12, 2009 at 3:52 pm

      I guess you have just answered my question.

  20. the chaplain

    April 12, 2009 at 4:22 pm


    This is a decent explanation of the wager within its context. The fuller passage is worth reading, I agree, but it doesn’t render the wager any more persuasive.

  21. Scotlyn

    April 24, 2009 at 4:30 am

    As you can see from my icon (or maybe not -depending on its size you may be able to make out the black-faced lamb I’m holding), one of my hats is assistant sheep farmer (my husband is a husband in both senses of the word)…I enjoyed a throw away comment in Terry Pratchett’s book “Small Gods,” to the effect that religion would have been entirely different if God had appeared to a goatherd instead of to a shepherd – because goats are intelligent and need to be lead, while sheep are stupid and need to be driven. The thing is, it’s almost impossible to get one sheep to go where you want it to (it doesn’t know who to follow, which is confusing for a sheep), on the other hand, moving 20 or 100 is easy. By using dogs, children and any assistants you can grab on the day, you gradually remove all the available options until there is only one visible gap left for them to go through. And as soon as they see it they will run to it, with relief, one following the other. Whereas, with goats – they don’t follow one another, and if you think you’ve persuaded them that there are no other options but the one you’re showing them, you had better think again. Them who have ears let them hear. (Hint – I’m enjoying the superior company of goats on this site).

    • Martin Cauvin

      April 24, 2009 at 1:33 pm

      Curious Scotlyn…

      I grew up in the city so haven’t had personal experience with sheep or goats. However, doing a quick search (and based on things I had been told) I am wondering if the western world deals with sheep (and perhaps the breed is different too) differently than say the Middle East. There seems to be at least some sites explaining that a sheep can be led by a shepherd…. perhaps western sheep are stupid and middle east ones aren’t? :-)


      • scotlyn

        April 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

        You’re right about different management strategies for sheep – which is why I said we were sheep farmers, not shepherds. Shepherds (which still exist in parts of the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia) basically live with their flocks (like Western-style cowboys) on an open range, whereas sheep farmers like us use fences so we can go home to our warm beds at night, and so our neighbours don’t sue us for the price of their lawns and flowers. Open-range shepherds do develop a closer relationship with their sheep, which may include a lot of “headology” and the ability to lead, rather than drive their flocks. They also don’t have the same requirement that sheep farmers do to move the flock from one fenced field to another. Nevertheless, any group of sheep does have a more “group-think” way of being than your individualistic goat. Show your sheep the particular gap you want them to go through (Pascal’s wager) and they will see it as their only escape from the current discomfort of your human presence, and take it eagerly. Goats won’t take your word for it, nor will they be guided by other goats – they’ve got to check out the options themselves – so Pascal’s wager would never faze them. They would spot dozens of ways out, and have the flowerbeds and the laundry chewed to bits while you’re still thinking of a useful and witty comeback – amazing creatures!

  22. the chaplain

    April 24, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Thanks for the insight into sheep and goats. I’m a city girl who knows absolutely nothing about livestock. I also enjoy the company of the goats who come to this site.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 105 other followers

%d bloggers like this: