“And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.”
— Colossians 3:23-24, King James Version
Someone once said to me, while in the midst of a debate as to the authenticity of an all-powerful, all-knowing, thoroughly benevolent god, that belief in God should be a general attitude. I’m going to paraphrase this person, but here’s the gist of what he said:
“If God doesn’t exist and you believe, then whatever — no harm, no foul. But if God does exist and you don’t believe, then damnation is in your future. Logically, you must believe, whether God exists or not, because you have more to lose through disbelief than you do with belief.”
For someone who may have faith in the existence of a deity, this train of thought does have merit. I mean, it makes sense, actually. To look at someone’s belief in God in the form of a comparison between reward and torment, logically one must choose the path that yields the highest reward with the least consequence. I get it.
But, unfortunately for this person, Pascal’s Wager — a game theory argument in Christian apologetics — highlights a very disturbing aspect of faith.
Before diving into the deep end of the moral ambiguity of this argument, here’s some background.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century philosopher who essentially posited that humans bet with their lives when it comes to their determination of whether or not God exists. In a nutshell, here’s the argument.
- God does or does not exist.
- Humans bet themselves on whether or not God exists or does not exist.
- Belief in God brings eternal salvation, whereas disbelief in God brings eternal suffering.
- If one believes in God, and God does exist, one’s future is of eternal salvation; but if God does not exist, then there is no consequence of disbelief.
- If one does not believe in God, and God does exist, one’s future is eternal suffering; but if God does not exist, then there is no consequence of disbelief.
- If God does not exist, then regardless of belief or disbelief, there is no consequence, but…
- … If God does exist, then there is consequence. To not believe is torment and to believe is salvation.
- Logically, regardless of God’s existence, to believe is the only possible outcome with no-risk and high-reward.
Essentially, Pascal’s Wager is a risk vs. reward scenario, and to me, this is the problem with Pascal’s Wager.
When it comes to the belief in a deity, and all that comes with it, someone is putting their basis of morality and their understanding of existence into a framework that essentially highlights personal avarice; someone simply believes in a supernatural, pseudoscientific entity because the risk is too great to not believe.
How delightfully flawed.
The efficacy of Pascal’s Wager is further complicated by the fact that for it to work, there has to be a “One True God.” Polytheism cannot be taken into account and when it comes to the existence of any kind of higher power, if we were to assume a supernatural power exists, the only (even remotely) logical definition is that there is more than one god. The Problem of Evil highlights this perfectly (“how can an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God exist when there is so much suffering and evil in the world?”). This is why Pascal’s Wager appears to have little to do with actually raising a legitimate philosophical argument for those who do not believe to believe, but more to do with reassuring those that already believe — those constrained by the view that there exists their God or no God.
Throughout history there have been hundreds of cultures that have worshiped thousands of gods and no one culture and no one god has any more logical certainty than any other. Basically, if Pascal’s Wager is applied and no “One True God” can be effectively established, then the probability of someone worshiping the wrong god is a mathematical certainty. In worshiping the wrong god, that person is damned regardless of their belief.
Perhaps the biggest failure of Pascal’s Wager, at least as far as Christian apologetics is concerned, is that even if it were a sound argument, it would still be a disincentive for an unbiased party to worship the Judeo-Christian God specifically. To worship the Judeo-Christian God, by definition, is to reject outright the existence of any other past god, current god, or future god, due to the intolerance presented in the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Since there is absolutely no evidence that legitimizes the Judeo-Christian God more so than any other god, it makes more sense logically for the theist-to-be to direct their worship toward a less intolerant god.
Pascal’s Wager being a lynchpin for Christian apologetics appears little more than a case of cognitive dissonance engendered by Christian privilege. It appears to work, and is commonly invoked, because Christianity is the world’s alpha dog religion.
This is especially true in the United States. If a Muslim, for example, were to invoke something similar to make the case that everyone should believe in Allah, the Muslim would be socially crucified for it. However, I can sit in a bar and have someone throw Pascal’s Wager in my face to justify the existence of the Judeo-Christian God and a group of people at the table next to us cheered him on.
But that’s beside the point.
Effectively, Pascal’s Wager does very little for the actual justification of God, but highlights a disturbing moral fallacy — lynchpinning a set of moral guidelines and a viewpoint toward existence on whether or not there’s a reward in it for you. Christianity, as the collection of God’s own words, imposes a moral code. One cannot be a Christian without adopting it (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21). Since to believe in the Judeo-Christian God is to accept the morality and ethics that God lays down — to do otherwise is the forfeiture of salvation — than your accepted ethics, your perception of right and wrong, is also pinned on a notion of risk vs. reward.
Essentially, in choosing to believe in the Judeo-Christian God because there’s salvation in it for you, is to state that everything you believe and everything you are is hinged on eternal salvation. You follow your moral code because of the reward you will receive by doing so.
To paraphrase Matthew McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle from Season 1 of True Detective:
“If the only thing keeping someone decent is the expectation of a divine reward, that person is a piece of shit.”