Pascal’s Wager

In the Western world it was probably the increasing influence of science that caused the rise in atheism. Atheists tend to be philosophical naturalists – people who attempt to understand the world without invoking anything supernatural. As the ability of science to explain the physical world increased, the need for the supernatural decreased commensurately. Indeed some modern atheists refer to the “God of the gaps” where God is only evoked to explain those things that science can’t yet find a convincing explanation for.

Of course in other societies atheism has flourished over the centuries. Many of the classical thinkers of Greece, China and India, for example, felt no need to invoke a supernatural deity to help them explain the world.

But discouraging admission of atheism, in Europe Christianity became a totalitarian crusade and to question its authority could well condemn you to death! Hence atheism, in historical terms, is a relatively recent phenomenon in Western society. Philosophical atheism as we understand it today had few professed adherents in Europe until the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.

In later times, the greatest threat to the notions of Deism became Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species which challenged the religious view of creation. Consequently philosophers like Marx, Nietsche and Freud promoted atheism.

However in the seventeenth century, the renowned French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal contemplated whether or not God existed. His famous wager was published posthumously in a body of work he titled Pensees

His argument went something like this:

God either exists or he doesn’t.

Reason doesn’t seem to support either proposition.

Every individual must come to a decision one way or another.

If you wager that God does not exist and He does, you are faced with a huge loss (access to eternal life).

If you wager that God does exist, the inconvenience of your religious belief is minor compared to your potential gain.

Consequently a reasonable person should bet on the existence of God and attempt to live out this belief.

Although most religious people are not familiar with Pascal’s wager it would be fair to say either consciously or unconsciously, however ill-informed, many are making the same bet!

At first blush, one might think that Pascal, being a reasonable man has made a logical choice. But a little contemplation highlights a few issues.

The first concern we might have with Pascal’s approach is that belief is not volitional. In order to fulfil our part of the bargain it is likely that we would feign belief in order to make ourselves eligible for the supposed benefits of believers. (Again I suspect this is common stance with many professed believers.) If God, as conventionally portrayed, is in fact omniscient, then He should easily see through this subterfuge. And if He, as conventionally portrayed, is a jealous God, he might take exception to our feigned devotion!

You might say that I am being harsh on God. More enlightened believers will insist that God’s mercy is such that He would not be so affronted. Well, if that was the case I suspect He would not be affronted by non-believers also and therefore Pascal’s wager is rendered invalid.

Another concern I have about Pascal’s wager, is that Pascal can only seem to conceive that if a God exists it would be the traditional Christian God.

It is entirely possible that if a God exists, He might not be the Christian God. So you are then faced with the problem that whatever God exists might be angrier if you worship the wrong God. Mind you, I would be concerned about such a vindictive God, but history would indicate that people tend to believe in such Gods!

And of course the behavioural requirements of the various gods differ, so that it would be well-nigh impossible to meet all their demands. So then Pascal’s wager is more complicated by the fact that you not only have to wager that God exists but you are faced with determining which god to whom you must falsify your belief! This certainly makes the wager harder because the life-style demands of whichever religion one is willing to place one’s wager on might be quite onerous!

Then, of course, for many the wager might not be onerous at all. If you live in a community of believers who model the behaviours you believe are required and provide emotional support for your choice and make you feel included in the embrace of like-minded people, it becomes difficult to not conform with the believers. The spread of atheism has probably been restricted by the fact that non-believers are unable to access such support and are universally condemned by the communities of believers.

In researching this article (I am sorry to divulge that I don’t know that much and have to resort to accessing the thoughts of those wiser than I!) I came across the work of the philosopher and author, Julian Baggini.

Baggini suggests that if a good, all-knowing, all-loving being (God) exists we would expect it to be most concerned about whether we acted well – I suspect he means, exhibited what the Buddhists call loving-kindness. Such a being would be understanding that those who did not do so were somehow damaged by their genetics or their socialisation. (As the good Dr Phil says we are probably all doing our best!) Such a being would not be so insecure as to demand worship. It would also probably be understanding of our dilemma that, with the lack of evidence and using the intelligence it gave us, we were unable to be sure that it exists.

Under such circumstances, our best bet, according to Baggini, is to be good people rather than opting for a particular religious doctrine. And atheists and agnostics are as well-equipped as anyone to do just that!

This prescription, as you would probably have gathered from previous essays, sounds about right for me.

And Another Thing

While researching this essay I came across an essay by the aforementioned Julian Baggini which was published in the Financial Times and titled “Atheism in America”. If you want to learn how intolerant Americans are of atheism go to


3 Replies to “Pascal’s Wager”

  1. Ted,

    I found your essay stimulating on a lazy Sunday afternoon – thank you.

    I am familiar with Pascal’s wager because it has recently been popularised in the discussion about climate change – do you “believe and act or not?”

    My own journey has been one of trancending the dichotomy between ‘believer’ or ‘atheist’. I hope I can find the words to explain.

    As a child I was a believer. As a yound adult, raising children, I was a believer. About 10 years ago, I decided that the manmade religious rules can not be the whole story – and gradually I rejected them. I denied the existence of God – I was an atheist.

    Since then I have altered my understadning of what or who God is and I would say now that I am no longer an atheist, but a believer (because I see it not because I have a blind faith) in a deeper level of intelligence in our universe – an implicate order not unlike that postulated by Bohm – or as another writer said (apologies I cant remember who) Good Orderly Direction. My understanding of God now is not as a person or identity but as a flow of natural intelligence through the universe. When I act in ways that honor that natural intelligence and interconnectedness, flow with its natural forces, I am rewarded with a sense of ease and peace… When I act in ways that honor only my own self interest and ego, I am rewarded with stress and hardships.

    What do you think?

    1. Thank you so much for your personal response Josie. Whilst I often act as an agent provocateur I am always reluctant to be too critical of the personal religious beliefs of others. If people have beliefs that bring them comfort then I do not want to unduly upset them. But personally there is a lot in traditional religious beliefs I can’t accept. Moreover it seems to me that most people’s beliefs are rather accidental. Circumstances provide the platform for most people’s beliefs. For example I have often stated something to the effect that if you were born in Iran you would most likely have been a Muslim; if born in New Delhi a Hindu; if born in the USA, a Christian – and so forth. I am always heartened to find someone like yourself who has transcended their history and made an attempt to reconcile their beliefs to their own understanding of the world. I am sure if more people had the enlightened viewpoint about God that you do, the world would be a better place! Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

  2. Josie, you have really said such a lot in your short comment. It resonates with me very strongly as my own religious evolution has been very similar.

    I have often wondered what the devil was in religious commentary like, “Idle hands do the devils work” and many other similar statements. These statements always made sense although to me the devil was always just a state of unhappiness or stress or not feeling satisfied with life. Much religious doctrine I think stems from peoples experience of what makes a good and meaningful life. You say it so well in your comments Josie when likening it to flow that provides ease and peace.

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