Twenty Arguments for God – Twenty – Pascal’s Wager

This post is one of a serious that picks apart the arguments for god that can be found at the link below. This post addresses number 20:

If you don’t want to click over there to read it, the full argument goes like this:

20. Pascal’s Wager

Suppose you, the reader, still feel that all of these arguments are inconclusive. There is another, different kind of argument left. It has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager. We mention it here and adapt it for our purposes, not because it is a proof for the existence of God, but because it can help us in our search for God in the absence of such proof.
As originally proposed by Pascal, the Wager assumes that logical reasoning by itself cannot decide for or against the existence of God; there seem to be good reasons on both sides. Now since reason cannot decide for sure, and since the question is of such importance that we must decide somehow, then we must “wager” if we cannot prove. And so we are asked: Where are you going to place your bet?
If you place it with God, you lose nothing, even if it turns out that God does not exist. But if you place it against God, and you are wrong and God does exist, you lose everything: God, eternity, heaven, infinite gain. “Let us assess the two cases: if you win, you win everything, if you lose, you lose nothing.”
Consider the following diagram:
The diagram is in the shape of a square with the opposite corners connected by lines. Going clockwise from the top left the labels are ‘God Exists’ then ‘God does not exist’ then I believe in Him’ then ‘I do not believe in Him’
The vertical lines represent correct beliefs, the diagonals represent incorrect beliefs. Let us compare the diagonals. Suppose God does not exist and I believe in him. In that case, what awaits me after death is not eternal life but, most likely, eternal nonexistence. But now take the other diagonal: God, my Creator and the source of all good, does exist; but I do not believe in him. He offers me his love and his life, and I reject it. There are answers to my greatest questions, there is fulfilment of my deepest desires; but I decide to spurn it all. In that case, I lose (or at least seriously risk losing) everything.
The Wager can seem offensively venal and purely selfish. But it can be reformulated to appeal to a higher moral motive: If there is a God of infinite goodness, and he justly deserves my allegiance and faith, I risk doing the greatest injustice by not acknowledging him.
The Wager cannot—or should not—coerce belief. But it can be an incentive for us to search for God, to study and restudy the arguments that seek to show that there is Something—or Someone—who is the ultimate explanation of the universe and of my life. It could at lease motivate “The Prayer of the Skeptic”: “God, I don’t know whether you exist or not, but if you do, please show me who you are.”
Pascal says that there are three kinds of people: those who have sought God and found him, those who are seeking and have not yet found, and those who neither seek nor find. The first are reasonable and happy, the second are reasonable and unhappy, the third are both unreasonable and unhappy. If the Wager stimulates us at least to seek, then it will at least stimulate us to be reasonable. And if the promise Jesus makes is true, all who seek will find (Mt 7:7-8), and thus will be happy.

I first heard Pascal’s Wager when I heard the singer Cliff Richard summarise it in an answer to a question about why he believed. He didn’t identify it as Pascal’s Wager at the time, he just summarised the argument and that he was convinced by it. At the time I was too. It was some years later before I heard the term and looked into it more deeply.

The way the argument is presented is that the options are; the Christian god or no god. No other god is allowed for. It’s a false dichotomy. Why doesn’t the argument include the other gods? If you line up all the possible gods and then place no god in opposition, the choice becomes much clearer. Pick any god and you fall foul of those that remain, you may as well go for the home run and offend them all! If there is only one god and all the others are man made then how do you identify that god from the human descriptions? They all sound like human invented deities, so how do you pick the real one? You may as well say that none of the gods that humans believe in is real. It really is the most reasoned option.

As an aside, I do find it amusingly ironic that a religion that today teaches the evils of gambling, would posit this wager as a reasonable bet.

An unbiased (in my view anyway) description of Pascal’s Wager can be found here:

Twenty Arguments for God – Nineteen – The Common Consent Argument

This post is one of a serious that picks apart the arguments for god that can be found at the link below. This post addresses number 19:

If you don’t want to click over there to read it, the full argument goes like this:

19. The Common Consent Argument

This proof is in some ways like the argument from religious experience (18) and in other ways like the argument from desire (16). It argues that:
Belief in God—that Being to whom reverence and worship are properly due—is common to almost all people of every era.
Either the vast majority of people have been wrong about this most profound element of their lives or they have not.
It is most plausible to believe that they have not.
Therefore it is most plausible to believe that God exists.
Everyone admits that religious belief is widespread throughout human history. But the question arises: Does this undisputed fact amount to evidence in favor of the truth of religious claims? Even a skeptic will admit that the testimony we have is deeply impressive: the vast majority of humans have believed in an ultimate Being to whom the proper response could only be reverence and worship. No one disputes the reality of our feelings of reverence, attitudes of worship, acts of adoration. But if God does not exist, then these things have never once—never once—had a real object. Is it really plausible to believe that?
The capacity for reverence and worship certainly seems to belong to us by nature. And it is hard to believe that this natural capacity can never, in the nature of things, be fulfilled, especially when so many testify that it has been. True enough, it is conceivable that this side of our nature is doomed to frustration; it is thinkable that those millions upon millions who claim to have found the Holy One who is worthy of reverence and worship were deluded. But is it likely?
It seems far more likely that those who refuse to believe are the ones suffering from deprivation and delusion—like the tone-deaf person who denies the existence of music, or the frightened tenant who tells herself she doesn’t hear cries of terror and distress coming from the street below and, when her children awaken to the sounds and ask her, “Why is that lady screaming, Mommy?” tells them, “Nobody’s screaming: it’s just the wind, that’s all. Go back to sleep.”
Question 1: But the majority is not infallible. Most people were wrong about the movements of the sun and earth. So why not about the existence of God?
Reply: If people were wrong about the theory of heliocentrism, they still experienced the sun and earth and motion. They were simply mistaken in thinking that the motion they perceived was the sun’s. But if God does not exist, what is it that believers have been experiencing? The level of illusion goes far beyond any other example of collective error. It really amounts to collective psychosis.
For believing in God is like having a relationship with a person. If God never existed, neither did this relationship. You were responding with reverence and love to no one; and no one was there to receive and answer your response. It’s as if you believe yourself happily married when in fact you live alone in a dingy apartment.
Now we grant that such mass delusion is conceivable, but what is the likely story? If there were no other bits of experience which, taken together with our perceptions of the sun and earth, make it most likely that the earth goes round the sun, it would be foolish to interpret our experience that way. How much more so here, where what we experience is a relationship involving reverence and worship and, sometimes, love. It is most reasonable to believe that God really is there, given such widespread belief in him—unless atheists can come up with a very persuasive explanation for religious belief, one that takes full account of the experience of believers and shows that their experience is best explained as delusion and not insight. But atheists have never done so.
Question 2: But isn’t there a very plausible psychological account of religious belief? Many nonbelievers hold that belief in God is the result of childhood fears; that God is in fact a projection of our human fathers: someone “up there” who can protect us from natural forces we consider hostile.
Reply A: This is not really a naturalistic explanation of religious belief. It is no more than a statement, dressed in psychological jargon, that religious belief is false. You begin from the assumption that God does not exist. Then you figure that since the closest earthly symbol for the Creator is a father, God must be a cosmic projection of our human fathers. But apart from the assumption of atheism, there is no compelling evidence at all that God is a mere projection.
In fact, the argument begs the question. We seek psychological explanation only for ideas we already know (or presume) to be false, not those we think to be true. We ask, “Why do you think black dogs are out to kill you? Were you frightened by one when you were small?” But we never ask, “Why do you think black dogs aren’t out to kill you? Did you have a nice black puppy once?”
Reply B: Though there must be something of God that is reflected in human fathers (otherwise our symbolism for him would be inexplicable), Christians realize that the symbolism is ultimately inadequate. And if the Ultimate Being is mysterious in a way that transcends all symbolism, how can he be a mere projection of what the symbol represents? The truth seems to be—and if God exists, the truth is—the other way around: our earthly fathers are pale projections of the Heavenly Father. It should be noted that several writers (e.g., Paul Vitz) have analyzed atheism as itself a psychic pathology: an alienation from the human father that results in rejection of God.

In the course of history, millions of people have believed in god and they can’t all be wrong can they? Well yes they can. Millions of people have believed in gods that are not the Christian god, does the author think they are all wrong? Of course he does.

The author would have us believe that because religious belief has been wholeheartedly accepted, promoted and foisted on others for as long as there is a history of humanity, then that must make it true. The author isn’t drawing a distinction between religions here, all religions are lumped into the same basket so as to weight the scales in favour of the Christian god. Should this methodology be taken seriously?

Even a skeptic will admit that the testimony we have is deeply impressive

This one doesn’t. Testimony means little to nothing when it’s that blatantly biased.

The question is asked if it’s really plausible to believe that if there is no god then all those acts of worship over the course of mankind’s religious history were never once directed to a real object. Well there are many idols that have been on the receiving end of that worship so it seems that the author has a rather skewed perception of what it was that all those religions have worshiped. The author, it appears, assumes that all those religions were really focused on the single god that he believes in.

The comparison with heliocentrism is puzzling. I assume the author means geocentrism, which isn’t a theory but an hypothesis. The origin for the belief was observation of the sun and moon, the correction of the false idea and the establishment of the fact of heliocentrism was further evidence that is measurable and repeatable today. God, in the meantime, is still only an idea, one which Christians will not allow to be tested, measured or otherwise detected.

Ditto the comparison with falsely believing yourself to be married. I can go home and experience conversations over a home cooked meal and then correctly load the dishwasher afterwards. In the meantime all prayers to god and other methods of communication are decidedly one-sided. The author is trying desperately to assert the existence of god using every day experiences while failing to address that his god can not be seen, touched, heard or tested for.

unless atheists can come up with a very persuasive explanation for religious belief, one that takes full account of the experience of believers and shows that their experience is best explained as delusion and not insight. But atheists have never done so.

Not accepting that religious belief can be explained naturally, is not the same as it not being possible, it just means that in the religious mind, religious belief overrides everything else.


Many nonbelievers hold that belief in God is the result of childhood fears

Can you hear the strawman claxon sounding? I have no recollection of ever having heard this argument, I am pretty sure this is the first time I have responded to any form of it. Kids form a belief in god because they are taught it. Either from parents or from other trusted adults. They don’t naturally gravitate to it because of fear. It’s not a coherent argument but it does make for a good set-up to plug the work of Paul Vitz who asserts

an alienation from the human father that results in rejection of God

More of that nonsense here (, if you can bare it.