By Vexen Crabtree 2010
Pascal's Wager is a rhetorical argument proposed by Christians against atheists, and holds that it is 'safer' to believe in God because if you're wrong, you don't lose anything, but if you disbelieve then you could end up foregoing the benefits of heaven. It is a very common argument1. But here are five reasons to turn this argument on its head, and reject God and religion: (1) As God has historically served as a force for evil and it seems that any demon could very easily trick us into thinking that it is God, we must reject all feelings and thoughts from God for fear of us being deluded into committing yet more misdemeanours. (2) The major monotheistic religions hold that idolatry is a serious sin so it is safer to accept no god rather than risk accepting the incorrect one. (3) The major monotheistic religions hold that having the correct beliefs is so important that having the wrong ones is normally punished with particular glee; it is safer to remain doubtful than to commit to the wrong set of beliefs. (4) The goal of reaching heaven is a selfish motive so probably won't get you there. (5) A good and benevolent god judges us according to our choices and moral actions in life, not according to the religions we happen to be born with, or convert to, given that our choices are based on incomplete and subjectively interpreted evidence. If God is just then our chosen religion and incidental beliefs are irrelevant to it. In conclusion: it is much safer for yourself and for society to not pick a religion and to not believe in any particular god.
There is another reason to reject Pascal's Wager. Firstly, the argument only entices a listener to commit the reification fallacy, whereby an abstract idea becomes seen as real and tangible without an empirical basis. In general such concepts have a very poor record and it is a good rule of thumb to avoid any conclusion based solely on purely abstract reasoning without a basis in evidence or necessity.
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
“Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”
Any powerful spirit can pretend to be good. Even a being of complete evil, like Satan in the Christian Bible, is said to be able to appear 'as an angel of light' (2 Cor. 11:14). And in Islam, the Satanic verses were sneaked into the Qur'an by the devil, without Muhammad noticing that they were from the most evil being rather than angel Gabriel. That a being of complete evil can hide its true nature and appear as good is a genuine warning from world religions; how much easier must it be for lesser demons and naughty spirits to hide their lesser quantities of evil (e.g. 1 John 4:1). Some groups of early Christians thought that the entire Old Testament was written by an interloper; an evil god, that ought to be overthrown. Such dualistic battles are common in gnostic and mystery religions. We poor Human beings have little chance of determining who are the good, and who are the bad, in the world of gods, angels, demons and spirits.
We should model all of our behaviour on strict moralistic, humanistic and secular grounds, based on reason and rationality. This way, we cannot be tricked. When we hear voices or think we know what God wants, or think God is talking to us, or that angels are talking to us, we should heed the great warnings of the Bible and the Quran: The devil can trick us into thinking that its instructions are from God. In fact, I am sure that a powerful evil demon would definitely pretend to be good, and then spread prejudice, hatred, intolerance and bigotry in the name of God. In addition, the more evil spirits will convey to its misdirected followers in strong language just how important it is to 'follow God' and to obey without questioning. Faith may be our weakest point, leading us (as it has in history) to commit evil, and leading us from truth, and, it is surely better to be cautious, to question, and to be wary of voices and feelings from above.
Consider the difference between an atheist who is going crazy and thinks he hears voices telling him to kill his neighbour, and the same happening to a god-fearing theist. The atheist is much more likely to recognize paranoid schizophrenia as the cause of the voice, while the theist is much more likely to think the voice is from God and to act on it. Unfortunately history bears this out:
Atheists and scientists do not kill each other over their beliefs. The adherents of superstring theory have never killed opposing theorists, and Lamarckian Evolutionists never killed any Darwinian Evolutionists on account of their beliefs. Newton and Einstein may have disagreed, but they refrained from violently attacking each other's followers. Like them, Arius and Athanasius disagreed over theory in the 4th century, although in their case it wasn't physics, but about the nature of Christ. The Arians and the Nicene Christians, however, soon ended up damning each other to hell because of the other's "wrong" beliefs, and then resorted to murder, aggression and burning until the Arians had been wiped out. Well, that is one way to settle a theoretical dispute. But why is it the religious way? There is something about religious beliefs that leads to violent intolerance.”
The fact that religions claim divinity, that they claim absolute truth and link morality, society, authority and philosophy all into one whole, makes people more likely to fight and die for them. I have written much on the negative role of religion. If revelations from above were always genuine, we simply wouldn't see the massive quantity of murder, abuse and hatred perpetrated in God's name across world history.
It is clearly obvious that following a religion and believing in it, is a good path for some, and a dangerous path for others. It is simply a case of people believing the right things, and then going on to lead exemplary lives.
“The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that [...] you'd better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won't make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don't believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.
There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy. [...] I can decide to go to church and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don't. Pascal's wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he'd see through the deception.”
I argue here that the best response to Pascal's Wager is to consider the dangers of accepting the wrong religion. Read on!
I have heard - well, had shouted at me by email - many compelling arguments from Muslims and Christians that unless I accept Muhammad as God's final and most true prophet, or Jesus as the Son of God, then I will not be allowed to enter heaven and will probably go to hell. These are high stakes indeed.
But is Islam or Christianity going to save me? Jesus or Muhammad? Should I embrace God in English, Allah in Hebrew, or Ahura Mazda? Do I need to convert to Judaism and practice religion in a detailed way, or be a Buddhist and lose myself in meditation? It seems that Pascal's Wager sounds easy, but turns out to be impossible.
Pascal says it is better to believe in God. In monotheistic religions worshipping a false God is held to be worse than worshipping none at all. Worshipping wrongly goes against at least one of the great 10 Commandments, and the Qur'an goes to repetitious lengths to continually pour scorn on those who believe in a God who is a Trinity, saying over and over that those particular beliefs are the worst kind of wrong, with all kinds of special punishments waiting for those who are so stubbornly wrong. It seems that Christianity and Islamic scripture both warn of the same thing: Having the wrong beliefs, in the wrong God, or believing the wrong things about God, or worshipping God in the wrong way, are all specially grave sins. To avoid the jealous OT god and the wrath of the strict Islamic God, you must have no opinion about the divinity of Jesus, and be ignorant and innocent of the truth. If you don't deliberate over these problems, you will be safer. But it is hard not to think about it, if people talk about it. So, to choose harmoniously between the rock and the hard place, it is best for all if people simply do not talk about the Trinity, Jesus, Muhammad, and the like.
Widening the scope from the choices of individuals to the governance of nations: is it best if people embrace religion? The critical thinker Voltaire pointed out the following, hundreds of years before the rise of the Nazis:
“The dispute ends always by agreeing that to govern men is very difficult. The Jews had God Himself for master; see what has happened to them on that account: nearly always have they been beaten and slaves,”
"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary" by Voltaire (1764)3
But to learn if there is a statistical and large-scale association between goodness and godly governance, it is necessary to compare data internationally. The results clearly show that religion is a dangerous choice.
The Social and Moral Development Index concentrates on moral issues and human rights, violence, public health, equality, tolerance, freedom and effectiveness in climate change mitigation and environmentalism, and on some technological issues. A country scores higher for achieving well in those areas, and for sustaining that achievement in the long term. Those countries towards the top of this index can truly said to be setting good examples and leading humankind onwards into a bright, humane, and free future. See: What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life. The graph here shows clearly that social and moral development is at its highest in countries that are the least religious. As religiosity increases, each country suffers from more and more conflicts with human rights, more problems with tolerance of minorities and religious freedom, and problems with gender equality.
Qur'an 6:21 says that those who "deny God's revelations" do the greatest wrong. Clearly, this is more wrong than those who never hear the revelations in the first place. It is safer to remain ignorant, than to risk listening and then unbelieving, and falling into the category of those who have done the greatest wrong. Likewise many verses (such as 67:6) say that those who "reject" Allah will be punished in the fire. So simply not knowing is safer because to reject is worse.
Qur'an 4:48, 4:116, 6:56, 39:64 and 40:10 all warn us (like many other verses) that if you worship deities other than Allah, you will not be forgiven and be "amongst the losers" in the end, even though Allah "might forgive other sins". The phrases translated in those verses as "associated with God" and "set up beside God" refer to human-invented gods, intercessors, and concepts such as the Trinity. Qur'an 5:72-74 warns that those who say that Jesus the son of Mary is God, or who believe in the Trinity, are disbelievers, because they associate "others" with Allah, and paradise will be forbidden for them, instead they will go to hell "and have no helper". This is an even worse situation than most; at least others have a chance to redeem themselves. Christians in particular are forbidden to go to Paradise whereas most other verses in the Qur'an that talk of the fate of nonbelievers merely send them to hell without mentioning they are forbidden to ever be saved. Likewise, 98:6-7 says that Jews and Christians who don't believe in Islam are "the worst of all creatures" - especially those who say that Jesus is the son of God and those who believe in a Trinity. Clearly atheists ought not to pick a religion and believe in it (as Pascal would have them do) as it is safer to avoid the "worst of all creatures" category if you happen to pick the wrong major monotheistic faith!
Many verses in the Bible warn against the dangers of idolatry (which is, worshipping the wrong god). Exodus 20:3-6 instructs that "you shall have no other gods before me" and goes on to warn that the punishment for this will not only affect the sinner in question, but four generations of his offspring will also be punished for it. Deuteronomy chapter 13 is compiled from three repetitions of a warning that if someone tries to convince you to worship 'other gods' then you must kill them - even if it is a relative (Deuteronomy 13:2-5, Deuteronomy 13:6-10 and Deuteronomy 13:12-15). Galatians 5:19-21 and Revelations 21:8 warn that worshipping the wrong god will land you in hell. More verses, such as Exodus 23:13, Leviticus 19:4, Jonah 2:8, Psalm 16:4, Jeremiah 11:12, 1 Corinthians 10:14 and 1 John 5:21 all warn against idols in general but don't give clear punishments, however, the picture is already drawn: pick the wrong god, and things are not good for you nor your descendants!
Even if you pick the right god (good luck) there are frequently so many divisions and contradictory factions that the path to the "right" set of beliefs is a long way from being settled. Although in the Christian Bible the following verse says it is better to believe in general, further verses reveal that the truth is a little more complicated:
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
According to the author of Mark 16:16
So it seems at first, God will punish those who are not lucky enough to be convinced by Christian claims that you have to be baptized. However many people are at first convinced of their new, Christian, religion, only later to realize that some of it doesn't make sense, or, to come to believe some things wrongly within Christianity. So, take note of this verse:
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”
What is this saying? If you start out believing the right things and take part in the Christian religion correctly, but then 'fall away', then it is impossible to be brought back into the fold. In other words, once you start believing, you have to avoid heresy and wrong-belief, otherwise you pay for it eternally. Serious stuff indeed. This of course isn't the only place in the Bible where you find such text:The Second Epistle of John (2 John) is very short, just 13 verses. The author writes using the name of a well respected Christian in order to convince others that a particular belief is wrong. The entire epistle is about this one point. He writes against the belief that Jesus' body was spiritual in nature, and not fleshy; a belief known as docetism. 2 John says that if you don't have the right beliefs about the relationship between Jesus-as-god and Jesus-as-man then you are godless (2 John 1:7-9), and Christians can't greet you politely nor welcome you in to church or home (2 John 1:10-11). Just to greet people with wrong beliefs, says 2 John, is to be in league with evil! This has no doubt helped encourage the intolerant and fundamentalist streams in Christian history.
When I read passages like Hebrews 6:4-6 and 2 John, I wonder if Christianity is safe at all because how would any convert know if they believed the wrong things, given our reliance on shaky historical translations of the Bible? If you doubt the conclusion that it is better to avoid Christianity altogether than to commit to it, then, read one final verse:
“If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”
It is safer to be ignorant, innocent and doubtful. It is better to admit that you have no idea which concept of God is the right one, and which sets of beliefs are the safest. I personally suspect that as so much 'bad fruit' has come of human religions, that no religion has got the correct set of beliefs. Agnosticism and Atheism are safer paths to tread than the dangerous road of theism. If you adhere to the wrong religion or have the wrong beliefs, classical religions have punishments in store just for you. Pascal's Wager turns out to be the wrong way round: For your own good, you better not believe in God because the chances are, you'll believe in the wrong way!
If theists really believed that it was safer to believe in God, rather than risk being punished for disbelief, then, they would all spend their whole lives dedicated to studying the world's religions and practicing the thousands of different rituals and practices required in order to placate the forces at work in those religions. There are uncountable Hindu gods that demand various sacrifices - there are Human ancestors, who according to many folk and tribal religions, demand the correct rituals and respect from the living. The Dao must be obeyed if you are to enjoy a satisfying afterlife. The consequences of failing to serve these gods and spirits range from eternal torment and death, to a life of misfortune and disease. But theists do not accept their own argument when it comes to gods that they don't believe in1. In other words, for 99% of other's beliefs in the world, theists reject Pascal's Wager. They do not believe that it is safer to believe than not to believe, or at least, they do not put such an impractical belief into action. Yet, they continue to make the argument to others as if they believed it!
The reasons for them giving this belief is mostly based in ignorance and poor critical thinking: they do not know enough about religion and they have not given the topic enough thought. Pascal's Wager is a recipe for perpetual terror that you haven't done enough to placate the world's hidden powers: the more you think about this justification for belief, the more ludicrous it becomes.
Altruism for the purpose of getting yourself into Heaven is fake altruism - it is merely a holy form of selfishness. As such, any moral God will not entertain you any more than any other selfish person. The atheist who does good for its own sake is clearly a more moral person than a theist who does good with the reward of heaven dangling in front of them, and the threat of hell burning at their behind. So, in other words, it is better morally if you try to be a good person without believing in heaven, hell, and God.
Guy Harrison in "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God" (2008) documents that the lure of heaven is one of the reasons that entices people to be veer towards theism, and in his discussion highlights a particularly unsavoury example of selfishness disguised as philanthropy. It derives from Benny Hinn, the famous Christian televangelist, after he asks for donations.
“Hinn then informed the audience that his ministry accepts donations by checks and credit cards. Scores of assistants fanned out into the crowd with big buckets. 'Don't just give,' he added, 'Sow, so that you can reap a mighty harvest!' This is an interesting point Hinn makes at his services because it seems to eliminate any element of altruism from the donation.”
The fact that Hinn frames donations in terms of what you will get out of it later really is a damning indictment of the entire concept of "doing good in order to get into heaven" element of Pascal's Wager.
Theists have a two-pronged pair of incentives that serve to lessen the worth of any apparent moral act on their behalf. If I am threatened into behaving in a good manner then I am at best amoral, because I am not acting with free will. If you believe that a supreme god is going to punish you (in hell) or deny you life (annihilation) if you misbehave, it is like being permanently threatened into behaving well. In addition, if you believe there is some great reward for behaving well, then your motives for good behavior are more selfish. An atheist who does not believe in heaven and hell is potentially more moral, for (s)he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, both act morally. Some of both groups act consistently immorally. The claim that belief in God is essential or aids moral behavior is wrong, and any amusing theistic claim that they have "better" morals, despite acting under a reward and punishment system, is deeply questionable. Who is more moral? Those who act for the sake of goodness itself, or those who do good acts under the belief that failure to do so results in hell?
Consider the fates of these three people:
Out of all the religions, this person picks the one that sounds like it will give the best rewards after death.
This person simply accepts whatever religion he was born with, and tries to live his life as best he can.
Out of all the religions, this person doesn't know which to pick even though he studies them, so he tries to simply live his life as best he can, deliberating carefully over the moral stances that he takes.
Imagining for the moment that god is benevolent (good) and judges us, then, it is surely the third person who deserves most merit. The first person, who follows Pascal's Wager, is openly self-centered. Given that many religions proscribe punishments for those that worship the wrong god, the third position (pick no religion) is the safest of all three options.
When I make decisions, I want to do the right things. When I study truth, I want to believe the right things according to the best evidence and logic available. I cannot pick what I believe based on the benefits - some people might be able to practice doublethink and do that, but I value honesty and integrity in both moral and intellectual arenas.
“No man can control his belief. You hear evidence for and against, and the integrity of the soul stands at the scales and tells which side rises and which side falls. You can not believe as you wish. You must believe as you must.”
"Complete Lectures of Col. R. G. Ingersol (1900)" by Robert. G. Ingersol (1900)
There are too many religions and too many beliefs. Theology is too complicated for my simple mind; and I cannot possibly research the basics of all religions, let alone attempt to judge which ones are true. In short, I am, as a human being, incapable of making a sensible choice as to which religion is the right one. This, I know. I know this out of humility, out of my knowledge of the problems of epistemology and subjectivism. Because I know that most religions consider worshipping the wrong god, or believing wrongly, to be heinous crimes against divinity, it is simply safer if I don't pick a religion.
“The angel of self-deceit is camped in the souls of the "righteous"”
The existence of such large quantities of suffering, despair, pain, of natural disasters such as earthquakes, of the death of the unborn and the immense suffering of lovers & kind-hearted people means that god is evil and intentionally creates life in order to create suffering. That all life exists in a food chain means that life is completely tied to death, and such a barbaric biological cycle could only have been made by an evil god. Also, that such a god appears not to exist, or actively hides itself, is a source of confusion, conflict, war and stress and is again more likely the antics of an evil god. Given the state of the natural world, it is impossible that a good god exists. It is more likely that an evil god exists, but, it is sensible to assume that there is no god of either type. Even if there is not a god of either type, as the dominance of death and violence in the natural world, a result of nature being abused by life and not being designed for life, I think the evil symbol of Satan is the best representative of the state of reality and the universe, whether or not an actual evil god exists.
If God did exist and was evil, it would undoubtedly lie and tell everyone it was a good god and that it loved them. It would create maximum confusion by preaching multiple conflicting religions. It would create heaven and make it hard to get to in order to tease and torture people into making their own lives hell. As all of those things happen, if there is a God, it is doing the things an evil God would do!
Once I recognized and accepted this state of affairs and adequately called myself a Satanist, I could concentrate my life on happiness, love, stability and peace. Because I know and understand that death always wins, that life is temporary, I waste no time on short-term whims that reduce my quality of life, or of those around me, and I waste no time with spiritual pipe dreams. Recognizing Satan as the personified meta-figure of reality is self-affirming, life-affirming, positive, honest and clarifying.
Some people struggle to find the right religion, and have simply not had the capacity to decide which of all the religions bears the most wholesome fruit, and which makes most sense. Some do not struggle because they are sure, whilst the vast majority of humankind are content with whatever religion they happen to be born with. If there is a God, all these people will one day come to face the consequences of their circumstances. Consider, then, what may happen before God, after death:
God punishes those who considered all the religions, and who then made the wrong choice.
God punishes those who were, unfortunately, born into the wrong religion. Like most people, they did not have enough experience of world religions to consider switching. Unlucky!
God punishes those whose behaviour was reprehensible, and rewards those whose behaviour was good.
Of these three possibilities, only the third one is the hallmark of a good-natured, benevolent god. The God who judges people because they were not lucky enough to discern correct theological beliefs from incorrect ones is injust, and arbitrary. It is very hard to argue that people must have the right beliefs to get into heaven, if God judges people fairly. So finally, it is up to us Humans to make a moral choice. Could you accept an immoral god that judges people injustly? I cannot, would not, and will not. It only the benevolent God of point three above that I wish to entertain. And such a God does not require us to have accurate beliefs, because it judges us according to our choices in life, not according to the religions we are born with (or the partial evidence we use to pick a different religion). Pascal's Wager - that it is safer to believe, can only support the immoral and injust forms of divinity.
Current edition: 2010 Mar 21
Last Modified: 2015 Dec 20
Originally published 2002 Jan 26
Parent page: There is No God: Theological, Philosophical and Logical Problems of Theism
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(2017) "What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life" (2017). Accessed 2017 Aug 01.
Ingersol, Robert. G.
(1900) Complete Lectures of Col. R. G. Ingersol (1900). Paperback book. 1998. Published by Kessinger Publishing.
(1764) Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.