This article takes seriously the question implied by Pascal's Wager: What if the disbelief in God is an erroneous belief and disbelief results in eternal damnation or lack of salvation?
An all too common argument used in Christian Apologetics (argumentation for the Christian religion/faith) is the one put forth by Blaise Pascal. This argument, commonly known as ``Pascal's Wager'', claims that it is a better bet to believe in God than to not. The reason for this is that belief is rewarded by eternal salvation, and lack of belief is either not or comes with a sentence of eternal damnation. Clearly then, the argument asserts, it is strategically more sound to believe in God than to not for if you do believe in God and you're wrong you lose nothing, but if you don't and you're wrong then you lose everything.
It's amazing how few people see through this argument and one has to wonder if this is really the type of belief implied when such a person uses the word ``faith''. The question is always asked in a self-centered, or self-oriented if that's too confrontational, way. The argument implies that the only cost/benefit that should be considered is that to the individual making the belief assessment. This has been brought up before, by other atheists, but I've yet to see one respond to the ultimate question that this results in: What if I'm wrong and all those people I affect through my statements, such that they stop believing, end up going to hell because I convinced them God doesn't exist?
Many atheists will probably wonder why I even find this question interesting. Clearly Pascal's Wager is bullshit. We've all heard it a dozen times at least. Why is this version of it any more interesting? Well, to answer that question I think its interesting, in that it's worth answering, at the least because of the standing accusation against atheists: that we try to turn people away from God. Think of the implications the belief of the person asking Pascal's Wager must be. The very existence of atheists is probably the biggest danger to this person's children and loved ones that there could possibly be in their mind. As Jesus says, ``Do not fear those that can kill the body, but fear he that can kill the soul.'' This is the demon we look like to such people, someone that can trick a person into losing their soul. It is worth mentioning that we don't even have to argue against belief in God for this accusation to apply to us. Simply living as happy, moral people without a belief in God is teaching by example and thus a form of argument and a ``trick'' that ``satan'' could be using to capture the weak of faith.
So it is worth answering the accusation, or at least showing that we've considered the possibility. Not doing so would look like nothing short of complete hubris and a total lack of moral responsibility.
I'll start this article by responding to the basic question and then moving on to the wider implications because I think the answer to the self-centered version actually has an impact when considering the consequences to others.
The answer to the question, ``What if you are wrong?'' is very simple to answer if the only person I am concerned about is myself: ``I'll burn in hell for all eternity.''1 Now, if I were a betting man that would seem like the very wrong bet to take. Any good that might come of a lack of belief in this world pales in comparison to the consequence to myself if I'm wrong. Right now I might be able to say, ``Well I'm being true to myself and not being true to myself would be too high a price to pay for eternal bliss.'' But will I still feel that way after a few thousand years of being burned alive? Maybe at some point I'll say to myself, ``If only I'd simply stopped trying to figure things out and just believed what I was told I'd be in a happy place right now.''
Claiming that I'd still feel the same way is sort of like a Christian claiming that they'll never deny God even under torture. Most people, from what I know, who actually go through torture end up coming out saying it doesn't matter...you talk. You say what they want you to say. You might even believe what they want you to believe. And that's just mortal torture. Eternal, divine torture has to be several scales of magnitude worse.
At one point in my life I thought I was going to hell. Unlike most beliefs about God, I really literally believed this was true in the basic, simple definition of those words.2 I often contemplated in this time just how long it would take before there was nothing left of Eddie and only a bitter resentment and utter hatred of everything mixed with a compelling need for revenge. The justifiability of the judgment is completely beside the point to the consequences of the sentence. A being that is tortured forever is going to end up quite deranged at some point. I for one don't think it would take very long at all, a few hundred years tops for someone like Gandhi.
The point of all this being that there is absolutely nothing that would be a compelling reason to accept this fate, not even truth to self for such is lost anyway. It does no good to be true to myself if I'm to be sent to hell for it for in hell my self will be completely erased and replaced by a vicious deranged demon created by the fires of hell. On the other hand, what is my other option?
The God proposed by Pascal's Wager is not the God people who bring it up as an argument worship. It really must be said at this point that we are not discussing just any God here but a very particular one that not even all Christians claim to believe in. This God values faith above anything else. Faith is the only path to salvation. You absolutely must believe in this God to enter heaven and if you don't you go to hell. If you do believe in this God then all your ``sins'' are forgiven you, so long as you ``repent'', and so are completely beside the point. The sole deciding factor in eternal reward is belief; it's a faith issue.
The alternative proposed promise is an eternal reward of bliss in paradise where I will forever be in the presence of this God. I will spend all eternity worshiping this God and loving him and doing whatever he says. And what does this God value? Clearly not goodness for goodness is completely beside the point of salvation. This God values abject worship and a complete abandonment of self.
Now let us sit a moment and ask ourselves if this is true. I anticipate many objections at this point. First let's silence those who will be saying that God doesn't work this way, that if you're good you go to heaven even if you don't believe. To you, I'm not talking about your God. Clearly Pascal's Wager simply doesn't apply to such a deity. Next there will be those who claim that you still have to be good AND believe in order to get into heaven so clearly God values goodness above all else. To such people I call bullshit. Take two people being equal in goodness and have one believe and the other not. Only the one who has accepted Jesus Christ as their savior is going to heaven, the other is damned. Goodness may be necessary but it is not the deciding factor.
Then there is another group that claim you can only be good if you accept Jesus. They will claim that we are all equally sinful and that only through the washing off of our sins in the ``blood of the lamb'' can we be redeemed. Only by accepting Jesus will this gift be given. Again though, goodness is completely beside the point to this God. Take an entirely selfless and humanely devoted person and compare them to a person who is a rapist, murderer, and thief. It is utter nonsense to claim that both of these people are equal in their sin. It may be true that we are all sinful in nature but to claim that those who live in a good way and those who delight in every evil available are the SAME is offensive to reason. That Jesus will only wash those who accept him and refuse those who do not means that Jesus values faith above good deeds and a good heart.
So that is what this God values: faith. What is faith? Faith is trust. Who are we trusting? That is the question isn't it. Has God himself told us to believe? That's what some people claim but to believe that we have to trust them. Basically, to get into heaven (with this God) you have to be willing to believe and do whatever you are told by whatever authority claims authority. You don't even get to question by what right they have to claim authority. Does God justify his standing to us? What gives God the right to rule? Has he ever answered this question?
God doesn't value people with souls. He doesn't value people that use their free will. Makes one question exactly who it was that gave us freedom to begin with.
This is not who I am. I can't just supplant my own reason, ethics, and self identity to the first person who claims to speak for God. I need some demonstration, some reason to believe. Further than that, I need some reason to follow. But the God of Pascal's Wager is neither willing to provide either nor does he apparently value knowledge over faith. Quite the contrary, as in the parable of Thomas this God values those who just believe it without demonstration. Knowing actually makes you less virtuous than just ``believing'' on faith!
But so what, right? Is it worth it to refuse a monster the right to rule over you if it can torture you forever? Maybe not. Maybe I should just start ``believing'' in God right now.
I hear some more objections. God only values ``real'' belief, not hedging a bet. Well, again that's not the God of Pascal's Wager. If Pascal's Wager makes any sense then God values you going through the motions of belief more than actually believing. If I can ``decide'' to believe in God based on the cost/benefit analysis of such belief then such HAS to be acceptable to God or the entire analysis is bogus. So just asserting that I believe must be good enough so long as I also assert it to myself. And this is really what a God that values faith would want anyway. Such a God is not actually concerned about anything but your willingness to be completely abject to its will. If knowledge is less of a virtue than believing on trust then what this God wants is NOT devotion, he wants surrender. As such, Pascal's Wager actually makes some sense if God is as described - that he values faith above all else.
What will it accomplish for me to start believing in this God now? Well, per the common description of heaven I get to spend the rest of eternity with the God thus described. I get to spend every moment of the rest of forever worshiping it. I will be washed of my sins so that I might be worthy of this great honor3. That would have to include my disdain for God. As I am now I can't imagine feeling anything but total hatred for it. Worshiping it for all eternity just to keep from being tortured would be a torture possibly even worse than burning forever. So really, what is heaven but the promise of ultimate relief and total death? It won't be me worshiping this deity, it will be someone else, someone rewritten, reformatted, and reprogrammed to surrender willingly to a tyrant worse than any other. But hey, at least I won't be in pain, right?
Another objection that someone might raise at this point is that since we can't make any sort of sense of God, in that we can't say anything about him with any degree of certainty (remember, it's all a faith thing and so nothing can be truly answered), so of what good would it do to believe in ``God'' when I don't know what I'm talking about when I say ``God''? That is a really good point but assumes that God wants to be worshiped specifically. I don't think we can logically assume that or even say it's likely given the obvious nature of this tyrant. The God of Pascal's Wager doesn't care what features you think he has, only that you are willing to believe what you're told, do what you're told, and worship whoever can do the most harm to you should you refuse any of these things...namely him (though apparently you do need to get his name right-doesn't like to be called Baal for instance). As such I think simply asserting belief in God would be quite enough to show your willingness to be utterly without spine and thus completely acceptable as a subject for this deity.
I thought I'd have an easier time discounting the selfish version of Pascal's Wager but I find I am unable to. Suffice it to say I am not going to start believing in God now because of this. It seems odd to say so though doesn't it. Certainly if I've convinced myself of the importance and validity of Pascal's Wager given the assumptions then I should be willing to stop and believe right now. The simple fact is that I don't believe the assumptions and I never did. I did believe in God once but not in that God. I can't fathom ever being willing to surrender in such a manner to such an abomination. So the end answer to the question, ``What if you're wrong,'' is going to have to remain the same: I'll burn and cry for all eternity and wish that I'd simply surrendered to the will of God while I was still alive and had the opportunity to do so. I'll probably become a demon at some point and wage some sort of war against God until I'm destroyed or whatever. That said, I'll claim right now that at least I'd be on the right side.
And that's where it is for me. If I am wrong then, for myself at this point, I'd like to think I'm on the side of right even if that means a terrible end for myself. Later that may change and it will be too late, but at this point and at this vantage point, I'd take hell over worshiping the God of Pascal. If I am wrong then I take pride, right now, in knowing that I'll at some point at least attempt to overthrow the fucker. If you can read through the above description of God, follow the arguments, agree with them, and still support that God...you are my enemy.
It is easy to make such a decision for myself. Clearly nobody can say that I don't have the right to chose damnation and freedom over salvation and abject surrender. Creation is destined to be ruled over by a tyrant and I am a traitor in that kingdom. Traitors die or end up in the dungeons. But another thing traitors can sometimes do is take others with them.
If God is as Pascal's Wager assumes, then faith and belief are the only things that decide if you're going to be able to enter heaven. It may be that more is required of you or not, but without faith you don't get in. So any effect that my decisions have on the faith of others could be contributing to their ultimate destruction. It's all well and good for me to say I am willing to make that sacrifice but what about others? Do I have the right to say what I believe to people who could be destroyed by those statements?
By now it should be getting really clear just how nasty this God really is. Not only does it require blind faith to get on its good side, it allows honest people to unwittingly destract people from the one and only path of salvation: belief. It allows people who are trying very hard to stay believers to be distracted by people who have no ill intent and by statements and arguments that make sense...all of this while not showing one ounce of reason to believe. The reason it doesn't provide this reason is because knowledge is bad, only faith is valuable. So providing knowledge doesn't allow the person the opportunity to set aside judgment and just have faith; doesn't prove that the person is willing to believe as told to believe. Yet the ultimate sentence for allowing yourself to be convinced by reason is eternal damnation! It doesn't take much of a thinker to realize that this is just a monstrous idea.
But still, what if I am wrong? I'm not just asking what if I'm wrong about God not existing because frankly I'd answer that with, ``Then God would become visible to me and I'd either like him or not and he'd accept me as his child as I am.'' But what if I'm wrong? I could be wrong about that too. The question is obviously what if I am wrong and God is the monster that wants abject surrender or punishes you forever.
The answer is clearly that if that is the case, and people are convinced by my arguments, AND they wouldn't have made the same decision I just did, then I am guilty of a great wrong. That I don't know this may make it understandable but it doesn't discount the real damage I have done, damage I would have to take responsibility for. I would have to face this person in hell. I would have to beg their forgiveness and witnessing their torment would likely add to my own. We will eventually grow to hate each other just as we will grow to hate everything else.
I think though that I could honestly face the person with a clear conscience. Though I would find it tragic and maybe wish that I had spared them this end, I could face them knowing that my actions had reflected what I ultimately believed to be true. I could say, ``I only acted on what I believed, just as everyone had to.'' I could face my accuser and say I'd not lied and that I took responsibility in learning, thinking, and reasoning. This may seem empty to them just as reason would seem empty4 but at least I didn't say what I did not think to be true. Honesty is important here for any of us could be wrong and that we speak honestly about what we believe, what we don't believe, and what we don't know is the only thing we really have. There are no other tools by which we can state anything.
So what if I'm wrong? Did I ever answer the question? I think so. The answer is that if I am wrong then everything is fucked, nothing I say matters, and I and anyone who follows me in my disbelief will burn in hell for all eternity. Our fate will not be unlike those who get to go to ``heaven'' except that they get to be reprogrammed to actually enjoy their abuse and abject suffering. I shall be left with my soul intact, at least for a short while, and with nothing but the knowledge that I did my best and interacted honestly with my fellow human beings. This may seem like a small thing and certainly won't seem worth it to all those who are convinced by my statements, or by the statements of those I directed them to, but it's all I have. I could lie, disemble, and claim a belief I don't have, just as many do, and still be wrong and then what would I have? I'd have nothing to say but, ``I played the odds, don't blame me.''
Ultimately, I can't play party to the continued use of fear as a tool of conviction. Even if God exists and even if he is as Pascal's Wager assumes, I can't aid it in the continued destruction of this world. That is what this God does. Fear keeps people from living as they would and from making the ethical choices they are given to make. Fear tells them to obey and to not question. Fear tells them we are not allowed to talk like this and anyone who does is going to steal your soul. This kind of fear cannot continue.
As it stands, if I am wrong then this is the only place where we are allowed to be ourselves. This is the only domain, and the very short time in which we have the ability to decide, to think, and to reason. What great things these are! If I am wrong then this is the only place and time we have to enjoy our freedom, our spirits, and each other. Heaven is a place where you spend all your time worshiping a tyrant after being reprogrammed to love it and nothing else. Hell is a place where you are tortured for all eternity, with the ultimate unavoidable end that will have on your spirit. Here, on Earth, is the only place we have to enjoy our selves, our identity. We can't let fear of this cosmic tyrant ruin that for us. It's the only thing we will ever have. Let this world be free of Gods and let eternity speak for itself! I am powerless to confront it anyway.
Furthermore, it is really up to each and every person to decide what to believe. I can't force someone to believe me and I would not want to; I'll leave that to this God of Pascal's. It would be wrong of me NOT to provide whatever I have to a person in order for them to make their decision in an informed manner. It may be true that they are better off not knowing since God seems to utterly hate knowledge, but how can I remain silent? So in the end, if I am wrong then I don't care because I honestly feel I'm on the right side anyway. I'd kill Pascal's God if I could.
What if I'm wrong?
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, Nikos Drakos, Computer Based Learning Unit, University of Leeds.
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999, Ross Moore, Mathematics Department, Macquarie University, Sydney.
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The translation was initiated by on 2008-02-17
...1 It is unfortunate this isn't the answer given more often. Usually someone says, ``Well, what if YOU'RE wrong?'' It's a viable point that the consequences may be the same for an atheist as they are for someone that believes in the wrong God, but I think the simple answer is more to the point...that the question implies a monster of a deity. ...2 It seems clear that many, if not all, believers ``believe'' in God rather than just believing in God. It's not the same kind of belief. Most belief is of the simple type like believing that things fall. God belief seems to be utterly different than this kind of belief such that it's not really belief at all but more like a constant internal assertion of belief. ... honor3 Actually, some people claim that this isn't true and that our sins are ``covered'' by the blood of the lamb so that God doesn't have to see them. This would leave us with constantly having to live in shame and hiding while in the presence of that to which nothing can be hidden. ... empty4 Obviously if such a God exists then there is no reason behind anything. Reason is but a joke, an ultimate tragic mistake, and all of our lives were meaningless twists played by an evil prankster. Reason being false then nothing can be said to be true. Everything is a lie and everything is to be believed.