Pascal's Wager (Assorted quotations, beginning with Pascal)


If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is… [So] you must wager. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.

Blaise Pascal (Catholic philosopher)

I have a personal hope or “wager” that God, or a higher power, exists, and that an afterlife remains a possibility, but that does not make me a Catholic like Pascal. Pascal simply ignored the possibility that God could have criteria for “salvation and damnation” different than those proposed by his Roman Catholic faith (or God could have no criteria).

Secondly, Pascal’s argument can be used equally by all religions that promise “bliss” to those who accept only their particular doctrines and practices.

Thirdly, even Pascal acknowledged that evidence of “God” was questionable, apparently even indeterminate, because he wrote, “We are incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.” Pascal added that no one can tell the difference between a world “with a God” and a world “without one.” But would any intelligent and compassionate Being hide their existence in the bushes so well that no one could tell if the bushes were occupied or not, and then jump out and say “Ah ha! You’re going to hell!” To put it another way, would it be both an “intelligent and a compassionate” act to damn those who had used the brains God had given them, and who had determined CORRECTLY AND HONESTLY that the question was “indeterminate?”

Fourthly, Pascal’s own church never officially accepted his approach to the question of the existence of God. Instead, the Catholic Church favored attempts to prove rationally the existence of God rather than requiring people to “gamble” or “bet” on the matter.

E.T.B. (See Pickover, The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience. Also visit Pickover's website, "Reality Carnival"-- easily recalled, and easily googled, simply by name.)

I have always considered “Pascal’s Wager” a questionable bet to place. Any God worth “believing in” would surely prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite.

Alan Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer

“Belief” is not something you can turn on and off like a spigot. No person can truly “believe in God” unless the evidence convinces his or her mind. If you don’t believe me, try believing that the stars are holes punched into a heavenly dome, with the light of heaven shining through. Pascal’s recommendation is inherently impractical.

Dave Matson, “Pascal’s Wager,” The Bauble Box: A Collection of Short Gems Written for the Freethought Exchange

In the tradition of Pascal, perhaps a new wager can be posed. If mortal life is all that exists for individuals, we lose nothing by seeking to make that life as meaningful and rewarding as possible. But if eternal life exists, we have lost nothing by seeking a fulfilling existence here on Earth. Thus, one might wager on the richness of life here and now.

Like Pascal’s original bet this evolutionary-genetic wager involves some questionable assumptions. It assumes that nothing is to be lost by a mistaken belief in the absence of a god or of an eternal existence for the individual’s soul. Many religions posit that only through complete faith can final redemption be attained. A far less severe philosophy holds that no deity would damn a soul for a lack of faith on matters unresolved to an open and reasonable, yet finite, human mind.

John C. Avise, “An Evolutionary-Genetic Wager,” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol.25, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 2001

Bait and Switch

Let me begin by making it clear that Pascal's wager is not really about believing in God, it's about accepting religion. It might be an old religion with lots of cathedrals and a globe-spanning ministry, or a tiny little cult that meets in someone's front room. At the very least it will be a definition of God that you must accept, along with the infrastructure needed to propagate that definition. Don't believe me? Next time some Mighty Zombie asks if you believe in God tell them this: "Sure: I believe God is sex, and I definitely believe in sex." If they're cute and you're available, wink.


Suppose I decided that Pascal is right, that I should "get religion" just in case. Which one should I choose? On a worldwide basis, roughly equal numbers of people are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu, each having roughly one billion adherents. Another billion have some religion other than one of the big four. The remaining billion or so have no religion.

None of the religions call to me. I have no basis for choosing one over the other. When _I_ knelt and prayed for guidance God told me he didn't exist:

All-Powerful = All-Stupid?

If God does exist, presumably He'll know I don't really believe in Him, or that I'm pretending to believe in Him on the off chance that He might really exist. If He's willing to accept me if I just "Go through the motions" then I suspect just being a good person will also be enough.

Pascal's own answer to this point was that this is why we have churches, to help us grow in faith. In other words, if I submit to a church-approved brainwashing program, they can make me believe. I do not find this comforting.

Hidden Costs

The cost to "place the bet" is not as low as some would claim. Tithes and other contributions are just the beginning. People are dying, now, as I type, because of their religion, or because of somebody else's religion. There are people refusing medical treatment either for themselves or their children, because it's "against their religion." There are people killing other people over religion. The"ethnic cleansing" in Eastern Europe was very much a war between groups that identified themselves primarily with either Christianity or Islam. Similar conflicts are taking place in Indonesia. And let's not forget 9/11, the Taliban in Afghanistan, nor Sunnis and Shiites blowing each other up in Iraq.

If You Bet, Bet Responsibly

Let's suppose someone offers you the following wager: Roll a single die. If it comes up a six, they will give you ten thousand dollars. If it comes up 1 through 5, you give them one thousand dollars. Should you take the bet? The odds of winning are 1:6 and the payoff is 10:1. If you've got a thousand bucks to spare, it's a good bet. But if that money is supposed to go towards rent and utilities, then it would be irresponsible of you to make the bet.

If we atheists are right, this is the only life you have. Using it to place a risky bet is irresponsible.

Rev. James Huger, selections from his essays, "Pascal's Sucker Bet."
To read the entire essay, and other pieces by Rev. Huger,



I believe in an afterlife. Because the combined royalties of everything I’ve ever had published in this life, aren’t worth living for.


If you live right, death is a joke to you as far as fear is concerned.

Will Rogers

He deserves paradise who can make his companions laugh.

The Koran

We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers, quoted in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos


Mark Plus said...

Maybe someone can explain this to me. "Wager" can mean something of value put at risk in a game of chance, like money you bet at the roulette wheel. Considering that Pascal helped to found the theory of probability, I think he meant it in that sense.

Now, christians express horror at the idea that "we got here through chance," that is, that humans arose through a natural process without "divine intervention." Why do at least some christians who endorse Pascal's Wager like the idea that they have to depend on chance that a god and its plan of salvation exist? It looks to me as if they feel conflicted about the role of chance in the universe.

Anonymous said...

Is it courage or fear that causes atheists to not capitalize Christian?

nedbrek said...

If Pascal's Wager helps one person come to Christ, then it's worth endorsing.

I do not depend on chance. My faith is based on observation and logic.

I'm curious what your thinking has been to bring you where you are today.

Ian2400 said...

nedbrek said:
"I do not depend on chance. My faith is based on observation and logic."

Where, exactly, is this observation and logic? I have heard many, many Christians claim this and it has always turned out that they were just talking out of their asses.

nedbrek said...

My observations and the resulting logic are unique to my life and my situation. I doubt they would specifically help you.

Tell me your situation, and I will try to help you.

If you are dying to know, I have been moved especially by the following books: Daniel, 1 John, and the Gospel of John.

I was born into a Christian culture (Catholic). I met my first atheist in college. I learned evolution in my Catholic high school.

I now consider myself saved by Christ (I was not before).


Stardust said...

I was born into a Christian culture

Exactly, and if you were born in India chances are you would be Hindu, if you were born in Japan you would be Shinto Buddhist, if you were born in Iraq you would most definitely be Muslim, and so on. It's environmental and then what one is exposed to. No magical entity taps one on the shoulder in the middle of nowhere and says "I am the right god" ...because humans create their own gods.

Mark Plus said...

I don't capitalize "christian" because "christs" don't exist. I do capitalize "Muslim," by contract, because it comes from an Arabic root meaning "submission," an observable human behavior. (And a primate one, I might add. Read Jane Goodall's books about her studies of chimpanzees in the wild for some examples.)

Mark Plus said...

nedbrek said...

"If Pascal's Wager helps one person come to Christ, then it's worth endorsing."

Another thing about Pascal's Wager I don't understand: I thought christians considered gambling sinful.

nedbrek said...

"I was born into a Christian culture"

Stardust1954 :
"Exactly, and if you were born in India chances are you would be Hindu"

Sorry it wasn't clearer. I was born into a Christian culture, but I was not a follower of Christ. It was only after thinking things through that I made my decision for Christ.

You must separate culture and habit from belief (faith).

Stardust said...

nedbrek -
Like I said, it's environmental and then what one is exposed to. If christianity hadn't been presented to you by another "flawed" human, no invisible being was going to tap you on the shoulder and say "hey, lookey here! Believe this or die!"

I also want to point out that you can't make someone believe, so to say "what do you have to lose by believing" is absurd to me. Pretending to believe is not going to make something real. And if there was a god (which I don't believe there is) a pretend belief is NOT an honest belief.

Jason said...

Bringing someone to accept Christianity is a point against, not for, Pascal's Wager.

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