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.

So how on Earth is religion a safer bet?

You're just as likely to be angering God with your belief as atheists are with our lack of it.

To many believers, the answer to the "Which god?" question seems obvious. It's their god, of course. Like, duh. But to someone who doesn't believe -- to someone being presented with Pascal's Wager as a reason to believe -- the answer to "Which god?" is anything but obvious. To someone who doesn't believe, the question is both baffling and crucial. And without some decent evidence supporting one god hypothesis over another, the "Which god?" question renders Pascal's Wager utterly useless.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that your particular religion is the right one and all the others are wrong, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheist's bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that your religion was right, you wouldn't be resorting to Pascal's Wager to make your case.

Does God even care? Pascal's Wager doesn't just assume there's only one god and one religion. It assumes that God cares whether you believe in him. It assumes that God will reward belief with a heavenly eternal afterlife... and punish disbelief with a hellish one.

But why should we assume that?

According to many religions -- the more progressive ecumenical ones leap to mind -- God doesn't care whether we worship him in exactly the right way. Or indeed whether we worship him at all. In these religions, as long as we treat each other well, according to our best understanding of right and wrong, God will be happy with us, and reward us in the afterlife. These believers are totally fine with atheists -- well, as long as we keep our mouths shut and don't disturb anyone with our annoying arguments -- and they certainly don't think we're going to burn in hell.

In fact, according to many of these progressive religionists, God has more respect for sincere atheists who fearlessly proclaim their non-belief than he does for insincere "believers" who pretend to have faith because it's easier and safer and they don't want to rock the boat. According to these progressives, honest atheism is actually the safer bet. The weaselly hypocrisy of Pascal's Wager is more likely to get up God's nose.

So even if you think the god hypothesis is plausible and coherent... why would it automatically follow that belief in said god is an essential part of this afterlife insurance you're supposedly buying with your "safer bet"?

In fact, I've seen (and written about) an atheist version of Pascal's Wager that takes this conundrum into account. In the Atheist's Wager, you might as well just be as good a person as you can in this life, and not worry about God or the afterlife. If (a) God is good, he won't care if you believe in him, as long as you were the best person you could be. If (b) God is a capricious, egoistic, insecure jackass whose lessons on how to act are so unclear we're still fighting about them after thousands of years... then we have no way of knowing what behavior he's going to punish or reward, and we might as well just be good according to our own understanding. And if (c) there is no god, then it's worth being good for its own sake: because we have compassion for other people, and because being good makes our world a better place, for ourselves and everyone else.

Now, to be perfectly clear: I don't, in fact, think the Atheist's Wager is a good argument for atheism. I think the best arguments for atheism are based, not on what kind of behavior is a safer bet for a better afterlife, but on whether religion is, you know, true. The Atheist's Wager is funny, and it makes some valid points... but it's not a sensible argument for why we shouldn't believe in God.

But it makes a hell of a lot more sense than Pascal's Wager.

Unless you have some good evidence that God cares about our religious belief, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists' bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that God cares about our religious belief, you wouldn't be resorting to Pascal's Wager to make your case.

Is God that easily fooled? And speaking of whether God cares about our religion: If God does care whether we believe in him... do you really think he's going to be fooled by this sort of bet-hedging?

Let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that God is real. And for the moment, let's also pretend that God cares whether we believe in him. Let's pretend, in fact, that he cares so much about whether we believe in him that, when he's deciding what kind of afterlife we're going to spend eternity in, this belief or lack thereof is the make-or-break factor.

Is God going to be fooled by Pascal's Wager?

When you're lining up at the gates to the afterlife and God is looking deep into your soul -- and when he sees that your belief consisted of, "Hey, why not believe, it's not like I've got anything to lose, and I've got a whole afterlife of good times to gain, so sure, I 'believe' in God, wink wink" -- do you really think God's going to be impressed? Do you really think he's going to say, "Oo, that's sly, that's some ingenious dodging of the question you got there, we just love a slippery weasel here in Heaven, come on in"? Is he going to be flattered by being seen, not as the creator of all existence who breathed life into you and everyone you loved, but as the "safer bet"?

I don't believe in God. Obviously. I think the god hypothesis is implausible at best, incoherent at worst. But of all the implausible, incoherent gods I've seen hypothesized, the one who punishes honest atheists who take the question of his existence seriously enough to reject it when they don't see it supported, and at the same time rewards insincere, bet-hedging religionists who profess belief as part of a self-centered attempt to hit the jackpot at the end of their life... that is easily among the battiest.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that God (a) exists, (b) cares passionately about our religious belief, and yet (c) is dumb enough to be fooled by Pascal's Wager, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists' bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence for any of this, you wouldn't be resorting to Pascal's Wager to make your case.

All of which brings me to:

Does this even count as "belief"? This is one of the things that drives me most nuts about Pascal's Wager. Whenever anyone proposes it, I want to just tear my hair out and yell, "Do you really not care whether the things you believe are true?"

Believers who propose Pascal's Wager apparently think that you can just choose what to believe, as easily as you choose what pair of shoes to buy. They seem to think that "believing" means "professing an allegiance to an opinion, regardless of whether you think it's true." And I am both infuriated and baffled by this notion. I literally have no idea what it means to "believe" something based entirely on what would be most convenient, without any concern for whether it's actually true. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word "believe." I do not think it means what you think it means.

Unless you have a good argument for why insincere, bet-hedging "belief" qualifies as actual belief, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists' bet on no God.

And if you had a good argument for this insincere version of "belief," you wouldn't be resorting to Pascal's Wager to make your case.

Is the cost of belief really nothing? And, of course, we have one of the core foundational premises of Pascal's Wager. It doesn't just assume that the rewards of belief are infinite. It assumes that the costs of belief are non-existent.

And that is just flatly not true.

Let's take an example. Let's say that I tell you that the Flying Spaghetti Monster will reward you with strippers and beer in heaven when you die -- and to receive this reward, you simply have to say the words, "I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, bless his noodly appendage," one time and one time only. You might think I was off my rocker. Okay, you'd almost certainly think I was off my rocker. But because the sacrifice of time and energy would be so tiny, you might, for the sake of hedging your bets, go ahead and say the words. (For the entertainment value, if nothing else.)

But if I tell you that the Flying Spaghetti Monster will reward you with strippers and beer in heaven when you die -- and that to receive this reward, you have to send me a box of Godiva truffles every Saturday, get a full-color image of the Monster tattooed on the back of your right hand, be unfailingly rude to anyone who comes from Detroit, and say the words "I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, bless his noodly appendage" every hour on the hour for the rest of your life... it's very, very unlikely that you're going to comply. You're going to think I'm off my rocker -- and you're going to ignore my pleading request to save your eternal soul from a beerless, stripper-less eternity. You're going to think that following the sacred customs of the FSM faith would be a ridiculous waste of time, energy, and resources. You're definitely not going to think that it's a safer bet.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Most religions don't simply require you to believe that God exists. They require you to make sacrifices, and adhere to rules. Not just the ordinary ones needed to be a moral/ successful/ happy person in everyday life, either. Religions typically require significant sacrifices, and obedience to strict rules, that can seriously interfere with happiness, success, even morality. Religions require people to donate money; participate in rituals; spend time in houses of worship; follow rules about what to eat, what to wear, what drugs to avoid, who to have sex with and how. Religions require people to cut off their foreskins. Cut off their clitorises. Cut off ties with their gay children. Dress modestly. Suppress their sexuality. Reject evolution. Reject blood transfusions. (For themselves, and their children.) Refuse to consider interfaith marriage. Refuse to consider interfaith friendship. Memorize a long stretch of religious text and recite it in public at age thirteen. Spend their weekends knocking on strangers' doors, pestering them to join the faith. Donate money to fix the church roof. Donate money to send bibles to Nicaragua. Donate money so the preacher can buy a Cadillac. Have as many children as they physically can. Disown their children if they leave the faith. Obey their husbands without question. Not eat pork. Not get tattoos. Get up early to sit in church once a week, on one of only two days a week they have off. Cover their bodies from head to toe. Treat people as unclean who were born into different castes. Treat women as sinners if they have sex outside marriage. Beat or kill their wives and daughters if they have sex outside marriage. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Religion typically requires sacrifice.

And this simple fact, all by itself, completely demolishes the foundational assumption of Pascal's wager.

The assumption of Pascal's Wager is that any other wager is a sucker's bet. Pascal's Wager doesn't just assume that the payoff for winning the bet is infinite bliss, or that the cost of losing is infinite suffering. It assumes that the stakes for the bet are zero.

But the stakes are not zero.

It's even been argued -- correctly, I think -- that the sacrifices religion requires are an essential part of what keep it going. (Think of fraternity hazing. Once you've sacrificed and suffered for a belief or project or group affiliation, you're more likely to stick with it... to convince yourself that the sacrifice was worth it. That's how the rationalizing human mind works.)

And if religion requires sacrifice... then Pascal's Wager collapses. A bet with an infinite payoff and zero stakes? Sure, that's an obvious bet. But a bet with infinite payoff and real stakes? That's a lot less obvious. Especially when there are, as I said before, thousands of competing bets, all with contradictory demands for the specific stakes you're supposed to place. And double especially when there's no good evidence that any one of these competing bets is more likely to pay off than any other... or that any of them at all have any plausible chance whatsoever of paying off. Again: If you wouldn't bet on my Flying Spaghetti Monster religion, with its entirely reasonable demands for chocolate and tattoos and hourly prayer and fanatical Detroit-phobia... then why on Earth are you betting on your own religion?

If this short life is the only one we have, then contorting our lives into narrow and arbitrary restrictions, and following rules that grotesquely distort our moral compass, and giving things up that are harmless and ethical and could make ourselves and others profoundly happy, all for no good reason... that's the sucker bet.

Besides... even if none of this were true? Even if belief in God required absolutely no sacrifice in any practical matters? No rules, no rituals, no circumcision, no sexual guilt, no execution of adulterers, no gay children shamed and abandoned, no dead children who would have lived if they'd gotten blood transfusions, no money in the collection plate? Nothing except belief?

It would still have costs.

And those costs would be significant.

The idea of religious faith? The idea that it makes sense to believe in invisible beings, undetectable forces, events that happen after we die? The idea that it makes sense to believe in a hypothesis that's either entirely untestable... or that's been tested thousands of times and consistently been proven wrong? The idea that we can rely entirely on our personal intuition to tell us what is and isn't true about the world... and ignore hard evidence that contradicts that intuition? The idea that it's not only acceptable, but a positive good, to believe in things for which you have not one single shred of good evidence?

This idea has costs. This idea undermines our critical thinking skills. It closes our minds to new ideas. It bolsters our prejudices and preconceptions. It leaves us vulnerable to bad ideas. It leaves us vulnerable to frauds and charlatans. It leaves us vulnerable to manipulative political leaders. It leads us to devalue evidence and reason. It leads us to trivialize reality.

So all by itself, even without any obvious sacrifices of time or money or restricted lifestyle or screwed-up ethical choices, religious faith shapes the way we live our lives. And it does so in a way that can do a tremendous amount of harm.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that the sacrifice of time/ money/ happiness/ goodness/ etc. required by religion -- and the sacrifice of healthy skepticism and critical thinking and passion for truth -- will actually pay off with the reward of a blissful eternal afterlife, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists' bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that God exists, and that these sacrifices had a good chance of paying off, you wouldn't be resorting to Pascal's Wager to make your case.

Conceding Your Argument Before You've Even Started It. If you take nothing else from this piece, take this:

The moment you propose Pascal's Wager is the moment you've conceded the argument.

Pascal's Wager isn't an argument for why God exists and is really real. Pascal's Wager is, in fact, 100% disconnected from the question of whether God exists and is really real. Pascal's Wager offers no evidence for God's existence -- not even the shaky "evidence" of the appearance of design or the supposed fine-tuning of the universe or the feelings in your heart. It offers no logical argument for why God must exist or probably exists -- not even the paper-thin "logic" of the First Cause argument. It does not offer one scrap of a positive reason for thinking that God is real.

Pascal's Wager is misdirection. Distraction. It's a way of drawing attention away from how crummy the arguments for God actually are. It's an evasion: a slippery, dodgy, wanna-be clever trick to avoid the actual argument. It's a way of making the debater feel wily and ingenious, while ignoring the actual question on the table.

It isn't an argument. It's an excuse for why you don't have an argument. And it's a completely pathetic excuse.

If you're relying on Pascal's Wager for your faith, you might as well believe in unicorns or elves, Zoroaster or Zeus, the invisible dragon in Carl Sagan's garage or the Flying Spaghetti Monster who brought the world into being through his blessed noodley appendage. Pascal's Wager is every bit as good an argument for these beliefs as it is for any religion that people currently believe in.

If you had a better argument for God, you'd be making it. You'd be offering some good evidence for why God exists; some logical explanation for why God has to exist. You wouldn't be resorting to this lazy, slippery, bet-hedging, shot-full-of-holes excuse for why you don't have to actually think about the question.

Pascal's Wager isn't an argument.

It's an admission that you've got nothing.

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