Why It's Not a 'Safe Bet' to Believe In God
"Why not believe in God? If you believe and you turn out to be wrong, you haven't lost anything. But if you don't believe and you turn out to be wrong, you lose everything. Isn't believing the safer bet?"
In debates about religion, this argument keeps coming up. Over, and over, and over again. In almost any debate about religion, if the debate lasts long enough, someone is almost guaranteed to bring it up. The argument even has a name: Pascal's Wager, after Blaise Pascal, the philosopher who most famously formulated it.
And it makes atheists want to tear our hair out.
Not because it's a great argument... but because it's such a manifestly lousy one. It doesn't make logical sense. It doesn't make practical sense. It trivializes the whole idea of both belief and non-belief. It trivializes reality. In fact, it concedes the argument before it's even begun. Demolishing Pascal's Wager is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unusually slow fish, in a tiny, tiny barrel. I almost feel guilty writing an entire piece about it. It's such low-hanging fruit.
But alas, it's a ridiculously common argument. In fact, it's one of the most common arguments made in favor of religion. So today, I'm going to take a deep breath, and put on a hat so I don't tear my hair out, and spend a little time annihilating it.
Which God? The first and most obvious problem with Pascal's Wager? It assumes there's only one religion, and only one version of God.
Pascal's Wager assumes the choice between religion and atheism is simple. You pick either religion, or no religion. Belief in God, or no belief in God. One, or the other.
But as anyone knows who's read even a little history -- or who's turned on a TV in the last 10 years -- there are hundreds upon hundreds of different religions, and different gods these religions believe in. Thousands, if you count all the little sub-sects separately. Tens of thousands or more, if you count every religion throughout history that anyone's ever believed in. Even among today's Big Five, there are hundreds of variations: sects of Christianity, for instance, include Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Mormon, United Church of Christ, Jehovah's Witness, etc. etc. etc. And sub-sects of these sects include Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Mormonism (mainstream LDS version), Mormonism (cultish polygamous version), Mormonism (repulsive infant-torturing version), Church of England, American Episcopalian, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod....
How do you know which one to wager on?
The differences between these gods and religions aren't trivial. If you obey the rules of one, you're guaranteed to be violating the rules of another. If you worship Jesus, and Islam turns out to right -- you're screwed. If you worship Allah, and Judaism turns out to be right -- you're screwed. If you worship Jehovah, and Jainism turns out to be right -- you're screwed. Even if you get the broad strokes right, you could be getting the finer points wrong. And in many religions, the finer points matter a lot. Taking Communion or not taking Communion? Baptizing at birth or at the age of reason? Ordaining women as priests or not? Any of these could get you sent straight to hell. No matter if you're Catholic, or Baptist, or Mormon, or Anglican, or whatever... there are a whole bunch of other Christians out there who are absolutely convinced that you've gotten Christianity totally wrong, and that you're just pissing God off more and more every day.