Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pascal's Wager

One argument for belief in God is this: if God exists, then we have everything to gain by believing in Him (i.e. eternal bliss). But if God doesn't exist, and we believe in Him, then no worries - since death ends all anyway. However, if God exists, but we didn't believe in Him, then we lose everything (i.e. eternal damnation). Therefore (the argument goes) you'd be better off just believing. Better safe than sorry! This pragmatic argument for belief in God, called Pascal's Wager, originates from the 17th century mathematician (and theological hedger) Blaise Pascal.

However, I see a few problems with Pascal's argument.

First, it's not even an argument for God's existence. At best it's a tepid hedging tactic, and at worst it's nothing but a scare tactic.  Fear is a great motivator, and without the threat of eternal punishment, religion would lose much of it's clout. It was Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher, who said "Fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods." However, there is no evidence of an afterlife. And even if you believed that anecdotal near death experiences are evidence of an afterlife, there is no evidence of God's wrath in an afterlife. We just don't need to be scared of something that there's no evidence of. This is something I'm trying to teach my 6 and 8 year old, when they refuse to go upstairs alone because they are scared of a nonexistent Bogey-man. You don't have to be scared of the Bogey-man upstairs: or another one who sends people to hell (sorry, the Telestial Kingdom).

However, most believers will not consciously admit to having a belief in God that is motivated by fear. It is a poor reason for belief, and believers and nonbelievers alike will usually admit this. More commonly, believers will be motivated to believe in God based on an eternal reward of some kind: everlasting life with God, everlasting life with loved ones, or everlasting life free of worry, pain, and grief. However, just as there is no evidence of eternal punishment, there is also no evidence of eternal reward (Wouldn't it be nice though?). Belief in these unsubstantiated rewards is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Next, Pascal's Wager assumes that you lose nothing by believing in God - even if it turns out the God doesn't exist. You would be dead after all (and things can't trouble you when you are oblivious). However, is this right? Do we risk nothing by choosing to believe in God? What about all the time, effort, and money spent trying to please God - if it turns out this God is nonexistent? What about all the the opportunity cost of belief? Just think of all the other things you could have done with your time and resources instead of devoting them to a religion that makes false claims? I would argue the opportunity cost of religion is huge, and that these costs cannot be recouped. If we are lucky, each of us gets about 3 billion heart beats in life. Time is what our lives are made of, and if we squander it in devotion to a God who doesn't exist, I would argue that there is an opportunity cost involved. If you disagree, then ask yourself how you would feel about someone who worshiped Zeus daily, preached the gospel of Zeus in foreign lands, shunned family and friends who didn't believe in Zeus, and gave 10% of their money for the support of the "Kingdom of Zeus" on Earth. I'd say that person was missing out on something.

And speaking of Zeus, how do we know HE wasn't the god that we should worship? Yahweh is a relatively new God - as far as the gods go: the new god on the block.  The pantheon of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods number in the hundreds. How do we know we shouldn't worship one of them? What if people were wrong to trade in these gods for the jealous God Yahweh? And what about all the other gods that were worshiped by pre-civilized societies: gods of the Sun, moon, rain, thunder, ocean, harvest, fertility, the hunt, war, volcanoes, diseases, pestilence, etc, etc, etc. Maybe humans were wrong to stop believing in them? We just can't be sure.

But let's just assume, for argument's sake, that the Christians worship the right God. Which one of the 30,000 different Christian variant churches is right? Most of these religions espouse mutually exclusive means of salvation. Since most Christians (ie. Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) believe you have to practice their version of Christianity to be saved, not only do you have to choose the right God, but you also have to choose the right religion.

And what makes you think Christianity is the right religion? Let's face it: if you are Christian, you are Christian because you were born in a Christian society. If you were born in Iraq or Pakistan, you would probably be Muslim. There are over a billion Muslims who believe that Christians won't make it to heaven. However, Christians believe Muslims won't make it to heaven.  And even within Christianity and Islam, believers think that believers in the different sects will not be saved (ie. Sunni vs Shia or Catholic vs Protestant). Seems like everyone is going to hell according to someone. And yet, Christians don't worry about the hell that Muslims think they are going to. And Muslims don't worry about the hell that Christians think they are going to. Is it so surprising then that atheist don't believe in the hell that Christians and Muslims think they are going to? Shouldn't be since we all dismiss, out of hand, the religious claims of billions of religious people.

If we really wanted to be safe, then we should probably worship all the gods that have ever existed, and belong to all the churches that currently exist. The problem is that we don't have enough time in the week, nor years in our life to learn about and worship each and every god, in each and every religion. Surely the real God (if He/She/It existed) would get a little jealous about you worshiping all the other gods out there, and would see through your insincerity, and withhold reward from you.

Finally, even if I wanted to accept Pascal's gambit and believe for eternal security reasons - could I? Can I choose to believe in something, or is belief beyond my ability to control? Well - can you choose to believe Mohammad was the one and only prophet of Allah? Can you choose to believe in the visions and revelations of Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen G. White?  Can you make yourself believe in strange doctrines such as transubstantiation or virgin birth?  I can't, and I don't think you can either (unless you were raised in a religious tradition where you were indoctrinated to believe such things). Similarly, whether you are Mormon, Muslim, or Methodist, relies more on where you were born, rather than what you want to believe.  Therefore, belief is beyond believers control as much as it is beyond non-believers control. Neither I, nor you, nor anyone else, can make themselves believe something that makes no sense to them.  And would God (if God actually existed) reward me for faking belief in Him? Of course not! Shouldn't an omniscient God (assuming I don't tick Him off by believing in the wrong God) know I was just feigning belief in order to get a reward from Him? Of course so!

Therefore, it appears that Pascal's Wager is a pretty worthless wager to take. Seems like there is really no way to play it safe. If you don't believe in any God or gods (nor any religion) this shouldn't trouble you in the least.

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