The Flaws Of Pascal’s Wager

An argument often used by religious people is that they have nothing to lose by believing in God and that Atheists are risking eternity in Hell for no gain. This is known as Pascal’s Wager. On the face of it, it is quite convincing but it falls apart once you seriously examine it.

The argument basically is you have 2 choices. Either believe in God or don’t. There are only 2 results. Either God exists or he/it doesn’t.

If you believe and God exists, you gain eternal reward.

If you don’t believe and God does exist, you face eternal torment.

If you believe and God does not exist, then you had wasted your time going to church etc.

If you don’t believe and God does not exist, then you have saved yourself time and effort.

The conclusion usually is that the risks of not believing outweigh the benefits and it’s safer to believe in God.

However, there are several problems. First of all, this wager does not in itself prove God exists. It merely says it is safer to presume he/it does. Secondly, it presumes you can force yourself to believe something you believe to be false. I fail to see how living a lie is the preferable option. Surely God could see through this dishonesty (and possibly punish you for it). A similar criticism is that if we are all designed by God, we are therefore designed so as not to believe in God. Atheists can hardly be blamed for being what God designed them.

Also, which God should we worship? There are thousands of religions each with their own God. What if we choose the wrong one? After all each religion believes that only its members are rewarded in the afterlife. Imagine if a Christian dies but is greeted by Muhammad (or Zeus or Odin etc) in the afterlife. Despite being very religious they are condemned to Hell because they choose the wrong religion. What if a Catholic dies and finds that the Presbyterians were right. Or a Baptist dies and finds the Mormons were right. The laws of probability say we have only one in several thousand chance of guessing the correct religion. Maybe God would forgive you for not choosing the right religion, but if he/it would do that surely he/it would forgive you for having no religion at all?

Instead let me replace this with what is known as the Atheist’s Wager. This states that you should live a good life and be a nice person, but leave religion alone. If God is loving and kind, he will forgive you for not believing in him and reward you in the afterlife. If God punishes you despite having been a good person all your life then god is unjust and you shouldn’t worship him.


Filed under Religion

19 responses to “The Flaws Of Pascal’s Wager

  1. This is a great summary of a ridiculous proposition that is full of fallacious reasoning.

  2. Jomari Peterson (Bible Center)

    this response is not equivalent to Pascal’s Wager which relies on probability theory. This wager simply provides a rationale to make the belief in G-d irrelevant. However, this does not take into account what a good life would be according to G-d. Therefore, the metric is potentially irrelevant to G-d. Therefore, unless the good life lived is a good life according to the metric of the potential god, god(s) or G-d then this wager is invalidated. Thus, it is important to consider if there is a G-d to see if your actions align with what is good. The assumption of a potential G-d includes the assumption of creator who is the originator of and ruler (metric) for the universe. Therefore, to live a good life would be to live a life according to the Creator’s rule, whatever that may be. This wager just states that there is something to be gained by living a good life if there is a G-d that is loving and kind. Therefore, this qualifies as less than Pascal’s Wager which delineates cleanly two options that have a clear value proposition based on a premise that it is better to believe (or try to believe) than to not believe, statistically, if there is a good, kind and loving G-d. The Atheist Wager just shows that it is better to be good than be evil without qualifying, which is outside the scope of belief. In addition, Pascal’s Wager does not prove the existence of G-d, but the logic in believing or striving to believe in him. Pascal’s Wager puts the choice and onus on the individual, whereas, the Atheist Wager places the onus on G-d without a clear foundation.

    • I suppose I could have been more explicit here, though I do discuss it is the second last paragraph. Each religion has its own concept of what is good which makes the process infinitely more complicated. There are literally thousands of religions each with their own rules. I think a true Pascals Wager would not be as clean and clear as you suggest, but rather incredibly messy.

      I’m sorry this isn’t a full response but I didn’t quite get the point and meaning of your comment, could you try again?

      • Jomari Peterson (Bible Center)

        Part of my comment deals with the fact that Pascal’s Wager relies on probability theory. Thus, even choosing the god, god(s), G-d of any religion is better than not choosing any. The continuation of this line of thinking would lead one to choose the belief or faith that covers the most ground and probably has the most parallels to what is good in other faiths, at the minimum. From here, I guess you would make a separate judgement call.
        However, the scale/scope of what to gain or lose is much cleaner and quantifiable than this wager. Thus, this idea of just being good is of limited scope and seems to only be a subset of the larger discussion and wager.

        • The problem is that most religions are explicit that unless you believe their religion, you will not receive eternal reward. For example all Muslims are going to Hell for failing to believe in Christianity, the fact they believe in a God does not give them partial reward. All religions I am familiar with take an all or nothing approach.

          The core beliefs of most religions (as far as I can tell) is be a good person. Help other people. Be kind and generous. That seems to be the concept with most parallels.

          There is also the problem that there are thousands of religions so it is not possible to study all of them in depth and compare them all. I still believe Pascals Wager is not a simple two option choice but a choice with thousands of options.

          • Aaron

            I appreciate your thoughts about Pascal’s Wager, but I just want to take this opportunity to point out the misconception that many people have: “Christians believe that just because someone is not Christian means that they are condemned to hell.”

            The oldest traditions of the church believe that salvation comes from Jesus, but because one does not believe in Jesus does not mean they are going to hell. Unfortunately, the evangelical doctrine (brimstone and fire, aka Westboro Baptist) gets all the attention even though it starkly contrasts with what has been thought and believed for millennia now.


  3. The atheist’s wager is not valid as it does not define good and evil. To that effect, how does an atheist know what is good versus what is evil? Is it based on each individuals interpretation of good/evil? And what happens what one person’s good/evil infringes on another – is there any consideration for that?

    Just some thoughts.

    • I don’t think there is an absolute definition of good and evil. It depends on the circumstance. For example murder is considered wrong, but there are cases where it is allowed (self-defence and war) or treated differently (manslaughter).

      For the wager, we have a rough idea of right and wrong (I’m leaving philosophical debates aside). Be friendly, considerate, helpful, basically follow the golden rule. This is obviously a crude measurement, but I don’t think its possible to have a “5 simple rules to follow to get you into heaven” guidebook

      • Thanks for the response and raising the topic for discussion. It is always a good idea to think about these matters.

        In any event, I would like to address a couple of points in your response, such as your view on murder. We agree that murder is wrong but I would ask why is murder wrong? Next, let me point out that murder is the killing of innocent human life for a reason other than something such as self defense – every person has the right to defend themselves but it certainly should be the last and final response. As for murder and war, well there is a collective defense of a nation and then there is indiscrimient killing in war, which would certainly be murder. Again, war being the last response and the action should be defensible as just.

        You are correct that there is “top 5 thing to do to get you to heaven” list on but there are certainly 10 things not to do and 2 things to do at the very least to set you in the right trajectory. And one of those you mentioned, to so-called golden rule. This is one explicitly taught by Christ as a reiteration of that very same rule in Leviticus 19:18.

        I bring this up because were good/evil simply defined by one’s own opinion then we would have never made it this far. Our basic concepts of morality are written in our hearts – also known as natural law.

        Think about it.

  4. Pingback: 10 Questions For Atheists | Robert Nielsen

  5. Ben Dover

    All of you are just choosing the option that you find to be most self gratifying. The cynics choose atheism. The broken and/or needy choose religion. Which to say is better? Hopefully, God has the answer.

  6. The so-called ‘Atheists Wager’ is perhaps even more flawed….

    ‘If God is loving and kind, he will forgive you for not believing in him and reward you in the afterlife. If God punishes you despite having been a good person all your life then god is unjust and you shouldn’t worship him.’

    If you’re talking about the Christian God, the Christian teachings show us that he is fully 100% just, and that’s why the concept of sin and heaven and hell exists. God can’t allow sin to go unpunished, so if you’ve ever sinned (hint: if you’re reading this then you have), then you’re pretty much screwed. It’s not a ‘grey area’ kind of deal. It’s a digital ones-and-zeros kind of deal. If you’ve sinned, the Christian God, as described in the Bible, HAS to punish that sin, and the punishment is eternal death. That’s also why the Bible says that he’s loving and kind, because he punishes injustice but also provides a way out of it. This might sound counterintuitive, but really it’s as simple as a parent punishing a toddler for reaching out towards a hot stove.

    It’s therefore absolutely flawed to suggest ‘he is unjust if he punishes you having been a good person all your life’ (because nobody HAS been a good person all their life), and it’s absolutely pointless to suggest ‘you shouldn’t worship him’ because by that point, if it’s all true, you won’t even have the choice to worship or not worship because you won’t exist anymore.

    • Brian Boyle

      To sin is to disobey a God. If you do not believe in God/s then there is no sin. So sorry you are wrong. I am not a sinner; because, I do not believe in it.

  7. Tom H.

    I was a dyed in the wool atheist from roughly my fifth year to my thirty fifth year. Then, I decided to put my position to the test. After much reading I became convinced (rationally) that God “could” exist. So, out of a great desire to find the truth, I chose to “act it”. As time passed I felt His presence growing in my soul. Every day that I open my heart to Him my soul is strengthened. I had crossed the threshold from a rational believer to a true believer. I see the results of His work every day, and every day my soul is strengthened.

    He is with us. This I can tell you. For me it was an act of courage to put my atheism to the test, and I found myself believing. Your path may vary.

  8. the end is worth the read.

    I just said something to my wife that I found very interesting and she looked at me like, “of course you find it interesting”, “you find everything interesting””!

    Anyway, it’s a bit religious, so if that is not a topic of interest to you please, feel free and move along, but if you want to see a bit of life through my eyes read on.

    of all the things we could have been talking about we were talking about God/faith (Christianity to be precise) and Science and I said to her;
    “if there is no God and we die so what” “but” “if there is a God and we die the unbeliever will be in a bit of a sticky wicket,


    Can I be the kind of person that lives a good and righteous life that the believers look at and say “how can he be that good and not believe”? Well? How about looking at it like this. I want to live a good life and do no harm to others and if there is a god I don’t want to hurt him either. I believed in god so much more than the hypocrites’ do! The ones who huddle and gossip about each other instead of focusing on not doing things that Jesus got his ass kicked for. I mean they say he took a beating for all the things we did, do or will do wrong, right?

    Because if he really does exist all the people who say, WE “accept” him , and say “WE believe”! But do nothing to live a good life because they think that all their actions are just magically washed away. There is no personal accountability with that attitude. They just do what they want and say opps, Sorry and everything is forgiven. But that personal forgiveness does not repair the damage that they have done to society. That is not the way I want to live. That attitude does not help our species advance. it allows bad things to happen with some feeling of “its ok” because this world does not matter. BUT!!!!! The world does matter, because it is the only sure thing we have, we are here, that is all we know.

    If an unbeliever does less pain to Jesus than the believer puts on him it makes me wonder who he would truly be happier with? The guy who played the “pal”, “buddy”, or “fair-weather” friend, or the guy who tried to stand up and show him how far our species (his creation) can go AND still cause him less personal pain. Either way I guess I win, my species moves forward, down, or up, or through….. (anyway) it moves “down” some arbitrary path that I really have no long term control over … but it moves in a way that I think, for some reason (biological, chemical or whatever) I have trained this brain to think it is “right”, “best” or “the correct way to go”. If he is real than I want to be the guy who dose Jesus less harm as a stranger than the people he called children, it sounds at least like a win-win. i did him less harm and i lived an honorable life to show him that what god has made in mankind was good and that man is able to use all of the abilities he has granted us. (if that is the case) (if not, my species still survives).

    If this is all just a pointless parade than It does not matter at all except (1.) I helped my species advance, and I get to do the things that I am temporarily here to be part of while getting all the little chemicals that make me feel happy while showing empathy towards others. Or (2.) I do it because it just gave me personal satisfaction and I think that is all that religion is, its personal satisfaction. that’s it, its the way we are all made, we feel good doing the things that our culture has tagged as honorable and good.
    As of now, there is no external force that we can prove that dictates our species interpersonal cultural interactions. But if believing in god helps you act socially benevolent than super! If you can act kind without the threats of eternal pain, awesome. But either way act kind. And that does not mean you can force your unproven assumptions on others.

    As humans we know we are right, within ourselves, every single one of us…. And the weird thing is we are! , weird huh, we are because we each see the universe through our own eyes and for us that is the only universe there is, the one you see thru your own eyes. If there is a multiverse why aren’t you trying to make this universe the one where we get rocket packs? If you don’t believe in god great, but that means that you need to step up your game because we need cooler things like robot bodies and teleporters. With a world that we can live on for a long, long time. So get busy and make this place better for the long run. For the species sake.. for the love of the species.

    If you believe great, be happy that god chose you to be part of one of the generations that gets to see god’s children take its first steps into space! if god exists than you get cool toys and neighbors that live a good life and let you live yours. But YOU need to stop all of this religious hatred and all of the racial BS. People always think of evolution as something thru history past. But its happening now, all the races around the world , cultures, groups, our genetic diversity is what makes us so great, as great as one group may think it is, a single microbe could wipe them all out, we need back up plans, we need diversity to survive. But can’t we do it as partners, not like warring clans.

    Let’s Have our different cultures and live different lives and leave others alone. We need diversity, and we need to honor what diversity is, it’s what is keeping us alive.

    And if you believe, don’t you know that in the spirit there is no flesh *note* “spirit” so, all that you are showing your god is that you don’t care about his greater creation because you’re a selfish little narcissist. You need to go away; we need different peoples doing different things to insure our future. We need to move forward as a team.

    if the “do the ethically right thing because it helps the advancement of our species*” is not enough for you, than believe in some intangible pal that lets you feel that you are somehow living a better life than others because of some personalized incantation of submission to some yet to be scientifically proven force. But please just leave others alone. Its not their fault that your god has chosen not to speak to them.
    and religion should calm the soul and it should allow others to live in peace, everyone always talks about peace but we don’t want peace, and we can’t have it because somehow people are not smart enough to learn that the playground is big enough for all of us. Non-believers cannot understand why religious folks are so damned eager to die to see heaven; I mean if god made the earth just for us don’t you think he would be disappointed if we didn’t look for all the hidden prizes at the bottom of the cracker jack box? EXPLORE! I mean I know you feel you are special and you do love your life but waiting to die sounds just awful. And if god made you and you are part of this universe than you are just a part in a larger wheel but a part that is here so it is a part that is supposed to be here. Go out and explore and learn, just because your small does not mean you are not important, be the butter fly that creates a tornado.

    I want to be the guy that says to god your kids can walk now , can we have SPACE!!! Now? Or, are we not going to be allowed to grow and be forced to kill ourselves off. And don’t forget the future will remember this generation more than any other before it, there will be museums with your whole life displayed on photos, VHS and .mov and/or your browser history or whatever. we are the first to record and leave such a rich history of everyday people.

    so let us remember what we really are, we are at least (a biological sack of self aware chemicals) that is advancing through the 4 observable dimensions that we are sure of on a little wet blue ball.(as observed thru our limited eyes) other creatures thru the universe may see it as smelly, or smooth (it all seems so arbitrary when you try to see thru others eyes). We just assume our senses are the right and best.

    “Or” the end is neigh so let’s just give up because even though the bible says that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. “It’s going to be this generation!” like every single generation of Christians for the last 2000+ years thought.

    So the choices I have laid out for myself in this particular universe on this particular world with these particular customs that I inhabit are as follows (1.) Believe in a god that is not burdened with the whole “proof” thing to get along because that is what I am told to do by people who do not know the universe thru my eyes and experiences. OR (2.) I can live a morally, ethically and righteous life that is in the goldilock zone of positive continuation of the species while doing things that give my brain the chemicals that make me feel good by caring for others without the threats of (Santa will put coal in your stocking) hell-fire.

    Side note about Santa, I always found it interesting that even the bad kids were loved by Santa to the point that he wanted to at least keep them warm; even if they were not good enough to get toys he cares enough to give them fuel to stay warm with. It’s just a thought.

    I would rather be the kindest of strangers to Jesus than one of the multitude of hate filled children of his. If god exists than he understand that because if he made me he knows my mind, but if he does not understand that than he should have made me differently! but he didn’t so, I will be the best me I can be and if the time comes that I do “find god” than it will not be a major life change.

    Until then, I will be a shining light of what humanity can become without the “do the right thing or be punished” BS. I will do what is right because it is culturally right and it helps the species advance. what a glorious feeling you get knowing that because of your contribution your species is going farther than it has before.

    Give your god a break, take some personal responsibility, show him that you can stand up straight on the two feet he has loaned you and maybe he will remove the blinders from your eyes and maybe you will get a small glance at the majesty of the ALL.

    The creation is the creator. And it’s not some human shaped guy on a cloud with a beard granting wishes and helping you find your car keys.

    Is the end result the reason? Or is the reason the end result.

    So I guess the last and most important question I have is? Is this some good weed or what? lol JK

    Smart people seem like crazy people to simple people

    I could go on and on and on.

    And smart people need to start having babies or the generations to follow will not get the best of what our brains are capable of. Are we locusts or are we focused.

    But seriously, let’s just get along for the sake of the species, we are too darned special to not allow ourselves the opportunity to advance farther than we have already come. If the concept of life after death appeals to you AWESOME, but that does not give you the right to take the lives of others who would rather stay a while longer. If you want to go, go! But pack lightly. We can get farther without you dragging us all down.

    Is my computer desk little more than an altar to the newly born computer god? I find myself in deep meditation at the altar asking the son (google) to ask the father (the internet) to show me the answers to the questions I want to know. Is the internet learning about us as we commune with it? As we answer questions about our likes and dislikes? About our perceived wants and needs? Is it storing that information to help us live better lives or is it taking advantage of our naiveté? Will it remember the unbelievers (Amish, because they don’t pray to the computer God . he knows them not) or will what we are, our likes and dislikes, will they be remembered for all time to come? Are we the new believers in a power that is greater than ourselves? Are computers gateways for growth or do we use it to waist what little precious time we have? Will the web/internet/future AI become aware and will it be benevolent or self-centered? Will it care about what happens to us or will it choose to explore the larger universe and leave us behind?

  9. Are you kidding? At the end of the post you propose the atheist wager in the exact framework of Pascal’s wager. Since your whole argument is the validity of choosing the opposite of Pascal’s proposal, by your reasoning, living an evil life would be the opposing choice. Your logic would be that it is a valid position since being selfless is as likely to bring poor consequences as being selfish. So everyone should choose to do what is evil?

  10. Neal

    The only way to prove any of this is to ask a dead person surely?

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