Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager imagines belief in God as a wager.  Suppose you bet that the Christian god exists and act accordingly.  If you win, you hit the jackpot by going to heaven, and if you lose, you won’t have lost much.  But if you bet that God doesn’t exist, if you win, you get nothing and if you lose, you go to hell.  Conclusion: you should bet that God exists.

A thorough critique of the many failings of this argument will have to wait for another post.  But this argument is easily turned around to make the Atheist’s Wager.  If God exists and is a decent and fair being, he would respect those who used their God-given brains for critical thinking.  He would applaud those who followed the evidence where it led.  Since God’s existence is hardly obvious, he would reward thoughtful atheists with heaven after death.

But God would be annoyed at those who adopted a belief because it felt good rather than because it was well-grounded with evidence, and he would send to hell those who misused his gift of intelligence.

Here it is formulated as a syllogism:

  • God treats people fairly and will send honest, truth-seeking people to heaven and everyone else to hell.
  • God set up the world without substantial evidence of his existence.
  • Therefore, God will send only atheists to heaven.

The Atheist’s Wager can be different than Pascal’s Wager in that Pascal is assuming the Christian god, while the Atheist’s Wager can imagine a benevolent god.  The difference is that the actions of the benevolent god can be evaluated with ordinary human ideas of right and wrong, while Christians often must play the “God’s ways are not our ways” card to explain away God’s occasional insanity as recorded in the Bible.  For example, no benevolent god would send one of his creations to rot in hell forever.  Or support slavery.  Or demand genocide.

Of course, if a non-benevolent god exists, and the Christians stumbled upon the correct way to placate him, then the atheist is indeed screwed.  But then we’re back to the fundamental question: why believe this?

Photo credit: maorix

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • Austin Cline, “Atheism & Hell: What if You Atheists Are Wrong? Aren’t You Afraid of Hell?,” About.com.
  • “Atheist’s Wager,” Wikipedia.

8 thoughts on “Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

  1. Don’t be too hard on Pascal’s wager; it’s a gateway drug to atheism, or at least agnosticism. If a Christian has to use Pascal’s wager to justify his beliefs, it’s only a matter of time before he realizes he’s just trying to convince himself to believe. While it might fool your neighbors, it wouldn’t convince a god that can read your mind. At least this is how it worked for me.

    • I hope you’re right. I see it used (often in disguise) quite often and had never thought of it as a last-resort kind of apologetic.

      On the topic of arguments to uphold one’s own faith instead of arguments to convince others, I attended John Warwick Montgomery’s apologetics academy last summer, and I got the sense from many of the other students that this was their reason for being there. That is, rather than building up their arsenal for convincing others, they just wanted to rebuild their own faith.

  2. I don’t know why Christians would use Pascal’s wager as an argument at all; if that’s the basis of their faith, then they’re just playing the odds, like any gambler.

    Dave

  3. When I was 19, the way I believed in a God was hedging my bets. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was using Pascal’s Wager.

    When I was 14, my brain rejected the claim Jesus rose from the dead or his spirit did. It seems as my brain developed, so did my logical side, or bullshit meter got stronger.

    I was raised Methodist, but religion wasn’t shoved down my throat. My brain slowly started to reject a belief in God and Jesus, until I came to the conclusion, based on lack of evidence and evidence that contradicts the claim God is an all good God, by the time I was 26. I was agnostic at 19, but just didn’t know it. Out of all the religions I find Christianity the hardest to believe in because of the claim Jesus rose from the dead. The core of the religion is a lie.

    • Hinduism is pretty out there, too. Is the resurrection of Jesus stranger than Ganesh the elephant-headed boy god?

      That’s an interesting idea–that some religions are more unbelievable than others, based on their claims. Since we have no evidence for anything supernatural, are all supernatural claims equally crazy?

      Magical fairies aren’t much compared to Yahweh the Creator of the Universe, but perhaps supernatural is supernatural.

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