Pascal’s Wager: Argument Designed to Encourage One to Believe in God

For those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager is an argument designed to encourage one to believe in God. It makes no pretensions as a means of proving God exists. It is intended to persuade non-believers who simply are unsure to believe.

The wager is as follows: either God exists, or He does not. If He exists and you choose to believe in Him, you gain a Heavenly reward; if you choose not to believe in Him, you will be damned and you will lose everything. If He does not exist and you believe in Him, you lose nothing, while if you do not believe in Him you will lose nothing. So, the consequences of not believing in Him are either nothing or eternal damnation, and the consequences of believing in Him are either nothing or a Heavenly reward. Hence, it is more advantageous to believe in Him than not.

The normal reply to this by the religious is that God can recognize sincere belief over a belief arrived at by such shrewd calculation. So, the wager will fail, because she who believes in God simply because it has the best probability of a beneficial outcome will be damned anyway. The counter-reply to this is that Pascal’s Wager serves as a means of establishing initial belief. Over time, this initial belief will become habitual and eventually will grow into a sincere belief. For myself, I think I have met an individual to which the counter-reply is applicable. He was once an atheist, became a theist because of Pascal’s Wager, and is now a devout Catholic.

In any event, I’ve never liked Pascal’s Wager because the argument hinges on the notion that it is merely the belief in God or not that determines if one is to be damned or saved. To me, basing salvation on whether or not one leads a good life (morally speaking) is far more plausible. I have met moral atheists and I find it incomprehensible that God would damn any of them simply because they do not believe in Him and He has never given proof that He exists. Similarly, if anyone is worthy of damnation I would argue it is the militant terrorists of the world who target civilians or tell their young, trusting children that a suicide vest will “spray flowers” when the detonator is pushed, and generally speaking, these terrorists claim to believe in God.

Pascal’s Wager may have some limited uses, though. It might be enough to persuade someone from leading a life of sheer evil, for example. If a potential serial killer were presented with the wager (with the modification that believing in God requires one to lead a good life), it might be enough, if he reflects at all, to change his mind about the path he is about to set out upon. Then again, he may be so far gone, that he may be beyond saving. In the end, I think Pascal’s Wager, like the Ontological Argument, is an interesting intellectual exercise, that is, however, ultimately unconvincing.