Pascal's Wager [reprise]

In another conversation with one of my deist friends, the topic of Pascal’s Wager came up again. This argument in favor of theism has been refuted innumerable times but, in my experience, an important aspect of its failure is too seldom elucidated…hence my being compelled to write some more on Mr. Pascal.

In the way of background (for those of you that are new to theistic debates), Blaise Pascal (the brilliant 17th century mathematician, physicist and philosopher) offered the following in support of believing in the God of Abraham:

It is better to believe in God and be wrong, than to NOT believe in God and be wrong.

This is based on the Christian religious narrative that those who deny the existence of God will be out of favor with the Supreme Being and be cast down into hell with its associated burning sulfur lakes and gnashing of teeth. [It should be noted that Mr. Pascal didn’t really buy into the validity of his argument as much as the theists who bring it out in their defense.]

The argument has been refuted by others far more scholarly than me, but I wish to point out (what are to me) the two most cogent failures of Pascal’s Wager.

Belief is not a conscious choice. The idea that one can, as an act of will, just decide to believe something is ludicrous. In my discussion at a local watering hole, I pointed to the paper coasters at the corner of the bar where we were seated and asked “Is there any way that you can make yourself believe, as an act of will, make yourself believe that those coasters are actually woven from hair shaved from the heads of fairies?” We had some fun with the fact that he hadn’t been drinking long enough so say so, but the rhetorical question has an obvious answer. One cannot, as a matter of will, believe something without some body of evidence to support it. When the theist brings out Pascal’s Wager to a non-believer and asks us to believe for no other reason than the potential upside, they might as well ask us to pass a live walrus out our rectum.

The false assumption that there is no cost to belief. What is assumed when offering Pascal’s Wager as an argument is that there is absolutely no cost that comes with theistic belief. This, in my experience, is the aspect that receives too little attention when refuting the argument. The underlying premise is that you have the possibility of “eternal reward” with belief in God versus “eternal punishment” without that belief and that even the slightest chance of its truth makes it a good bet.

This fails because there is, indeed, a cost to belief. On the surface, one could readily identify myriad personal costs to belief. These could be things like not being able to sleep in on your holy day, limitation on foods that you might otherwise enjoy, special requirements for clothing and garments. Still these are personal costs that involve no victim (other than the believer who has willingly decided to believe). These costs (and they are costs) could be perfectly justifiable to the believer so the argument hasn’t failed yet. Where the argument fails is when that conscious belief involves others as victims. Depending on what theistic narrative you decide to believe, there ARE victims. Let’s use Catholicism and homosexuality as an example (being raised Catholic it is low hanging fruit for me). Part of the official narrative of the Catholic Church is that homosexuality is an evil choice and thereby demonizes all homosexuals. By electing to believe in this particular narrative, the participant has willingly demonized a segment of society…they have willingly decided to hate somebody because they were told to do so. That is just one example of many. There is the cost of subjugation of women; the cost of stifling medical research and education; etc. etc. etc..

Yes there is a cost to belief (depending on what dogma you hang your hat on). There is a cost to society and it is not insignificant. If your belief makes a victim out of others, then it is immoral…plain and simple.