In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal made the following argument for believing in a god:
- There is a god or there is not.
- You can choose to believe in a god or not (the wager).
- If there is a god, you will be rewarded eternally in the afterlife for your faith, but be punished eternally if you do not believe.
- If there is no god, you lose a finite amount of your time and maybe some material wealth for believing in a god.
- Ergo: As the rewards and punishments that follow in the case of god existing is infinite, it is better to bet that there is a god, no matter how infinitesimal the odds may be.
Pascal’s wager does not deal with the possibility of whether gods exist or not; that is irrelevant to the wager. He merely suggests that the odds suggest that you should believe. But is this really the case?
To begin with, what Pascal promotes through this wager is not true belief or faith, but a rational choice to believe – something that is not really possible. Believing is not a product of reasoning but more of an alternative. Furthermore, if there really is an omniscient god, would he not easily see the impure motives behind your “faith”?
Secondly, how do we know that the god you believe in is the true god? There have been thousands and thousands of religions throughout history. Who is to say that the deity that you will face in the afterlife will not be Hades, Odin or Yama? If that is the case, then you will have lined up behind the wrong god and you will be punished for your “idol worship”. This argument nullifies the mathematical advantage of infinite rewards that Pascal suggests.
Lastly, one cannot rule out the possibility should a god exist, there is no way of knowing whether that god is benevolent or malevolent. Pascal’s wager only deals with the two possibilities of a benevolent god and the absence of god, but if a malevolent, wrathful god exists, then what is the gain from worshipping him? When you kill an insect, do you judge whether that insect has faith in you then reward or punish it accordingly? It is likely that in this scenario, worshipping such a god will be a waste of time and you will be relatively better off not believing in god.
In 1990, an American philosopher named Michael Martin presented a counter-wager to Pascal’s wager – the so-called atheist’s wager. He argued that if a benevolent god existed, then he should reward good deeds regardless of your faith. If a god does not exist, then your good deeds will leave a good legacy and the world will (hopefully) be a slightly better place to live in after you pass away.
Ergo, the wager we should be making is not whether a god exists or not, but that we should be good.
(If you are interested in this, you should read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, he explains this very elegantly)