When I was a teen and my family “found” Jesus (I didn’t even know he was missing), I remember having a discussion with my mother in which I asked, “what if none of this is real?” I think I was trying to rile her up rather than having serious spiritual doubts, as teenagers will do, but it seemed to give her pause for a moment and she said, “What if it is? Let’s say I live my whole life believing in god, not drinking, not smoking, and finally die only to discover that it was all a lie? What have I lost? On the other hand, let’s say I reject god and live a sinful life and then die and find out he’s real and I go to hell?”
I didn’t know it at the time, but mom was employing a philosophical argument commonly called Pascal’s Wager, after the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Pascal argued that all humans essentially were gambling with their lives on whether god did or did not exist. Given the possibility that god exists, the rational person will live his life as a believer to avoid an eternity in hell. Should god not exist, the person who lives this way experiences only finite loss (perhaps some worldly pleasures, etc) while the alternative is the loss of one’s immortal soul for eternity.
On the surface this seems like a perfectly reasonable argument and probably makes a lot of sense to many people. But the argument is inherently flawed. It is flawed because it makes several assumptions and does not allow for alternatives. It assumes that the Judeo-Christian god, Yahweh, is the “correct” god and doesn’t take into account that the same argument can be applied to any other conceived deity. It doesn’t address how pissed Cthulhu might be when you die having believed in and worshiped the “wrong” god all your life. It doesn’t take Allah or Buddha or Krishna or Muhammad or Bacchus or Thor or Odin or Ra or Kokopelli or anyone else into consideration. So, to apply Pascal’s argument, what if…?
Pascal’s Wager is also flawed in its assumption that the non-believer who lives like he believes “loses nothing.” Sure he does. At the very least he has lived believing a lie and restricted himself from ever learning or even seeking the truth. Most Christian traditions, for example, discourage adherents from even exploring other schools of thought. Some even consider it an offense worthy of excommunication. In the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, even consorting with non-members can get you “dis-fellowshipped.” I wonder why that is. If they (Christians) are so sure that Jesus is “The Way, The Truth, and The Life and no man may come to the father but through” him, what are they so afraid of?
Pascal’s Wager is important to know about because it is a philosophy often relied upon and quoted by Christian Apologists in their rationale for defending Christianity. It’s bullshit and you can tell them I told you so.
You may be wondering why I care. Why is this important enough to me that I’m spending my time writing about it? A simple Google search for “Pascal’s Wager” will turn up everything you want to know about it. It even has a Wikipedia page. Well, it’s an argument I’ve heard many times from Christians who seem to feel that the burden of proof lies with me when I say that I don’t see enough evidence to believe their claims of the divine. (Hint: the burden of proof, so to speak, lies with the person making the claim.) I’m just letting you know what to expect, what it means, and how to refute it. “It’s bullshit” certainly applies, but probably isn’t the strongest argument, by the way.