From the mailbag: Pascal’s Wager

What if you're wrong?

From the mailbag yesterday:

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On Wed, Sep 18, 2013 at 2:07 PM, Main Site wrote:
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Category: General Inquiries
First Name: Ryan
Last Name: *****
Email: [email protected]
Message: I am a born again Christian. I look forward to spending eternity in heaven. Since I’m sure you reject the concept of heaven and hell, I ask: what IF you are right and I am wrong? I have not lost nothing. HOWEVER, what if I am right and you are wrong? You have lost everything and it will be too late for you. 
PS: It’s not too late for you to come to Jesus.

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Hi Ryan,

Thanks for your message. This is a question we receive a lot. It’s otherwise known as “Pascal’s Wager,” after Blaise Pascal, who formulated it in the 17th century. There are several major reasons why this argument doesn’t work. It assumes that belief is a choice, when it isn’t. It assumes that you lose nothing by following a religion, which isn’t true. It assumes that there are only two options, being a Christian or not being a Christian, when in fact there are thousands and thousands of religions that could also be true. It assumes that Christianity has it right when it says that there is a heaven and a hell. It assumes that God doesn’t care that your belief is motivated by fear of hell or just wanting the reward of heaven just in case—that God doesn’t care if your belief is superficial. There are other problems with it, too.

As far as the “what if we’re wrong?” part, all I really have to say is, “What if YOU’RE wrong?” What if another religion is right—say, Islam? A Muslim could make exactly the same argument you’re making and say “You’d better be a Muslim just in case. You lose nothing if you’re right, but you lose everything if you’re wrong. You don’t want to go to hell for not believing that Allah is the one true god and Mohammad is his prophet, do you?” And frankly, the hell as described in Islam is much worse than the hell as described in the Bible, so it makes sense logically to choose the religion with the worst hell if your reason for believing is better-safe-than-sorry.

You are also assuming that you have picked the right *kind* of Christianity when in fact you have no way of knowing that, even if Christianity is the right religion. What if only Catholics go to heaven? What if only Lutherans go to heaven? What if only Missouri Synod Lutherans go to heaven? What if only Missouri Synod Lutherans, reformation of 1976 go to heaven? You see the problem here—there are over 30,000 denominations of Christianity in the world today. Even being a Christian “just in case” doesn’t solve the problem you’re presenting. And you have no better way than anyone else of determining which belief system is correct, if it’s true that any of them are, which we also have no reason to believe.

If you want to read more about why this argument doesn’t work, here’s a good explanation:

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pascal’s_wager

Hope this helps! Thanks for writing.

– Dave Muscato, Public Relations Director
(908) 276-7300 x7
[email protected]

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  • Wade

    Dave,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response to the Pascal’s Wager question. While I feel that you’ve over-simplified it a bit it is not my primary question for the atheist. Mine is one of the origin of atheist reason. Where or who set the standard for atheist? One absolute that I derive from your website blogs is that only the atheist has reason and those with religious beliefs are “poisonous” to society. One disturbing excerpt from the September 11th blog is shown below (the blogger did not attach his name)

    To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is something we need to reconsider. Now.

    If atheism is “the way” then it should win on its own merit and ideas. The implications of this bloggers statement is horrific. While I completely disagree with the atheistic approach I would die for your right to express your belief. My confidence in my belief is solid and I often defend it using empirical, rational, logical, and experiential approaches that involve the mind.

    I have a lot of questions.

    My best,
    Wade

    • Pat Flannery

      Your “paraphrase” goes all the way to misrepresentation. Harris calls for us to consider the beliefs of people when deciding if they are dangerous or not. He does not ever promote control over beliefs, or outlawing beliefs.

      The origin of atheist reason is the same as the origin of theist reason: the human brain. The only difference is, theists explicitly reject reason as a method for forming beliefs when they subscribe to faith.

      Atheism does win, and is winning on its own merit and ideas. You have not heard, nor will you, any campaign by atheists to force theists to stop believing. The reverse is not true.

      • ken

        I agree Pat

      • Wade

        Pat,
        It’s not my paraphrase and I did not misrepresent the context of the posting. The blogger was clear that humans having the ability to believe what they want should be reconsidered. Below is another quote from the Sept. 11 blog.

        “The truth is that religion is poison. It attacks people’s minds and spreads like a virus, infecting person after person, generation to generation.” Hard to miss the point with

        So the human brain is the same source for atheistic and theistic reasoning but the theist rejects the reason to adhere to a non-reasoning belief formation subscribing to faith. Well round and round we go. Why is the atheistic “reason” better than the theist? Did evolution make the atheistic brain “better” than the theist brain?

        My theist reason is that we share a common created beginning and that all humankind is equal. No one person is better than another. Many are “better at” tasks than others but all humans have innate worth due to their common beginning. How is this idea inferior to the atheistic “reasonable” mind approach? Why is your reason better than mine?

        • Danny Davis

          Wade, The atheistic reason changes with the discovery of new
          information and the theistic reason remains stagnant regardless of scientific
          proof. The only time they change is ironically when they have to, or go
          extinct. When public outcry goes against the churches they begrudgingly and slowly
          change to fit the public’s needs. Otherwise rape, genocide, slavery and all the
          other nasty things in religions would still be acceptable. Yes, we all have a
          common origin (The origin of Species, Charles Darwin 1959) but we don’t have
          any imaginary friends to appease. The point is that Theists have to be changed
          kicking and screaming like spoiled children. Atheists simply study the material
          and accept the facts.

        • Pat Flannery

          Here is what you wrote four posts up: “To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free
          to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is
          something we need to reconsider. Now.”

          So if it isn’t your paraphrase, who’s is it?

          I am familiar with all Sam Harris’ work and he has never called for any restriction on the freedom of people to believe what they want. He is sharply critical of many beliefs, as you point out in your second quote above, but has never, anywhere, said that people should not be free to believe what they want. I defy you to find a quote from Harris that contradicts this.

          There is no “atheistic reason” and “theistic reason” and I never said there was. There is only one process of arriving at beliefs that is called reason, and both atheists and theists subscribe to it. The difference between atheists and theists is that theists selectively reject reason and its conclusions when forming beliefs on certain questions, namely the existence of God. It is this act of intellectual dishonesty that atheists reject, not any reasoning process that theists undergo.

    • ken

      Atheism is a position of no belief in the supernatural because there is no proof.

  • AllenG

    If I am wrong and Osama Bin Laden was right, then most of the world, including you, me, the pope, Gandhi, the sweet Christian lady down the street and your pastor will be in hell together.
    If I am wrong and the Catholics are right, most of the world, including me, Osama, Gandhi and all the protestants and their pastors will be in hell together.
    If I am wrong and the Church of Christ is right, then most of the world, including you, me, the pope, Gandhi and most protestants will be in hell together.
    If I am wrong and the Buddhist or Hindus are right, all of us will get a chance to try again.
    If I am wrong and the Universalists are right, all of us, including, you, me, the pope, Osama, Stalin, the nice Christian lady down the street, will all be in heaven together.
    Under most scenarios, you suffer the same fate as I do. Out of the hundreds of possibilities, the only way you don’t is if you are right.
    I don’t think the question you really wanted to ask was: “What if you’re wrong?” What you meant to ask was: “What if I’m right?” In that case, as in most other scenarios, most of the world, including some really great, nice and wonderful people, will be in hell while you and some really nasty evil people who “repented” at the last moment, will be in heaven together. Enjoy!

  • Doodle

    Ryan makes a point that’s true. Better to be safe than sorry cause the only thing to lose is your soul. So I suggest to Atheist. Get out. But with me with Christianity. That is the objective. Ryan. you are an ass. I despise

    • Doodle

      Of course on the other hand say if Buddhist are right and Ryan wrong. Buddha said everthing Jesus said earlier, plus more, with massive scripture, plus meditation. and described the universe and the galaxy very well and through purity knew that to the universe there is no end. Buddha was the lion king, the deer king, and lived amongst and was the king of every kind. Buddhism truly is rapidly growing. In Buddhism there has always been before Christianity 16 hells. 8 of them cold hells that last many of lifetimes. 8 hot hells that last almost an eternity.for billions and trillions of years to differnt degrees.
      In Buddhism Ryan will go to hell. If he decieves. If he destroys life including animals, but we are all animals.
      Would Ryan be better off if he were safe than sorry?
      Because Buddha can put all to silence in the truth.

  • Indiocerveza

    My feeling about Pascal’s Wager and the What If? proposition is that, in the Christian sense at least, since God gave me free will, and he gave me a mind to reason with, in the unlikely case that I should appear before him, I will merely say that I tried to use my logical mind and that his “mysterious ways” were just too mysterious for the brain that he gave me. I think at that point, he would say to me “Good for you. Welcome to the heaven that you never believe existed.

    “You see those pious folks down below in Hell? They just grabbed onto religion without utilizing their “God-given” brain to figure out that John 3:16 is utter nonsense.”

    Heaven is for atheists. Or, really, non existence is for atheists . . . and everybody else.

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