Why Pascal’s wager fails to convince atheists
Pascal’s wager is a famous argument for believing in God, proposed by the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. The wager goes like this: if you believe in God and he exists, you will gain infinite happiness in heaven; if you believe in God and he does not exist, you will lose nothing; if you do not believe in God and he exists, you will suffer infinite torment in hell; if you do not believe in God and he does not exist, you will gain nothing. Therefore, it is rational to believe in God, since the potential gain outweighs the potential loss.
However, this argument fails to convince atheists for several reasons. Here are some of the main objections:
- The wager assumes that God rewards belief and punishes disbelief. This is a very specific conception of God that is not shared by all religions or even all Christians. Some religions do not have a concept of heaven and hell, or do not base salvation on belief alone. Some versions of Christianity hold that God judges people by their actions and character, not by their faith. Moreover, some atheists may argue that a good and just God would not condemn sincere seekers of truth to eternal suffering for being honest about their doubts.
- The wager ignores the possibility of other gods. Pascal’s wager assumes that there are only two options: the Christian God or no god at all. But what if there are other gods who have different criteria for rewarding or punishing humans? What if the true god is Allah, Vishnu, Odin, or Zeus? What if there are multiple gods who compete or cooperate with each other? How can one know which god to believe in, and how to worship him or her correctly? By believing in the Christian God, one may risk offending other gods who are equally or more powerful.
- The wager does not guarantee genuine belief. Pascal’s wager is based on a pragmatic calculation of costs and benefits, not on a sincere conviction of the truth of Christianity. But can one really choose to believe something just because it is convenient or advantageous? And even if one can, would God accept such a superficial and self-interested faith? Pascal himself admitted that some people cannot believe, and advised them to act as if they did, hoping that habit would eventually produce genuine belief. But this seems like a dishonest and manipulative strategy, both toward oneself and toward God.
- The wager overlooks the costs of believing in God. Pascal’s wager claims that believing in God has no downside, but this is not true. Believing in God may entail giving up certain pleasures, freedoms, opportunities, or relationships that are incompatible with one’s faith. It may also involve accepting certain doctrines, moral rules, rituals, or authorities that one finds irrational, immoral, oppressive, or absurd. Moreover, believing in God may expose one to psychological distress, such as guilt, fear, doubt, or cognitive dissonance. These costs may not be infinite, but they are not negligible either.
These are some of the reasons why Pascal’s wager fails to persuade atheists to believe in God. The wager may have some historical or philosophical interest, but it does not provide a sound or compelling reason for faith.