The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Blaise Pascal (1623-1663)

The Rejection of Pascal's Wager

In the seventeenth century the French mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal (1623- 1663) put forward a wager in his Pensees (Thoughts):

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is ... you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.[1]

Pascal's wager sounds deceptively simple. Many a religious person finds such a call attractive: one only needs to believe without considering the evidence and one would immediately be in a better position than that of the non-believer. After all, they say, if I believe and then it turns out to be true I get to enjoy heavenly bliss; but if my belief turns out to be false, and there is no God, then when I die, I lose nothing. An atheist, the religious person may continue, if he turns out to be wrong will suffer an eternity of torment. If the atheist turns out to be right then it is only equal to the believer's "worst case." Obviously then, the believer will say, you must wager on the side of belief.

But Pascal's argument is seriously flawed. The religious environment that Pascal lived in was simple. Belief and disbelief only boiled down to two choices: Roman Catholicism and atheism. With a finite choice, his argument would be sound. But on Pascal's own premise that God is infinitely incomprehensible, then in theory, there would be an infinite number of possible theologies about God, all of which are equally probable.

First, let us look at the more obvious possibilities we know of today - possibilities that were either unknown to, or ignored by, Pascal. In the Calvinistic theological doctrine of predestination, it makes no difference what one chooses to believe since, in the final analysis, who actually gets rewarded is an arbitrary choice of God. Furthermore we know of many more gods of many different religions, all of which have different schemes of rewards and punishments. Given that there are more than 2,500 gods known to man [2], and given Pascal's own assumptions that one cannot comprehend God (or gods), then it follows that, even the best case scenario (i.e. that God exists and that one of the known Gods and theologies happen to be the correct one) the chances of making a successful choice is less than one in 2,500.

Second, Pascal's negative theology does not exclude the possibility that the true God and true theology is not one that is currently known to the world. For instance it is possible to think of a God who rewards, say, only those who purposely step on sidewalk cracks. This sounds absurd, but given the premise that we cannot understand God, this possible theology cannot be dismissed. In such a case, the choice of what God to believe would be irrelevant as one would be rewarded on a premise totally distinct from what one actually believes. Furthermore as many atheist philosophers have pointed out, it is also possible to conceive of a deity who rewards intellectual honesty, a God who rewards atheists with eternal bliss simply because they dared to follow where the evidence leads - that given the available evidence, no God exists! Finally we should also note that given Pascal's premise, it is possible to conceive of a God who is evil and who punishes the good and rewards the evil. [3]

Thus Pascal's call for us not to consider the evidence but to simply believe on prudential grounds fails. As the atheist philosopher, J.L. Mackie wrote:

Once the full range of such possibilities is taken into account, Pascal's argument from comparative expectations falls to the ground. The cultivation of non-rational belief is not even practically reasonable. [4]

This website then, is a call for the rejection of Pascal's wager. A call for all of us to use our reason to decide whether the central claims of Christianity are true or false. It is also a reminder that our choices have a moral dimension that cannot be ignored.

We have seen in this website that the Christian claim of a special status of the Bible is untenable. We have also seen that many important details about Jesus' life given in the gospels are either false or historically suspect. And we will examine Christian Theology as it is and show that it is a confused irrational system. The balance of evidence, far from being inconclusive, shows that the major teachings and claims of Christianity are false. These parts show that one of the main assumptions of Pascal's wager, that we cannot know the truth or falsity or religious claims and are thus forced to make a wager, is false.

As we have mentioned above, there is a moral dimension to Pascal's wager. We have seen in this website that Christianity, in all its forms - Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Protestantism and the Fringe Churches - has inflicted tremendous harm on civilization. When one makes a wager to believe, then one becomes morally responsible for the propagation of suffering that Christianity have been bringing and will continue to bring upon the world.

The Roman Catholic Church continues its horrible track record of bringing misery to its followers and to non-Catholics. It's illogical stance on contraception leads to millions of unwanted pregnancies and, indirectly, to many thousands maternal and infant deaths. It also means that poor third world countries with Catholic majorities, such as the Philippines and Brazil, continue to be burdened by overpopulation, poverty, hunger and disease. It is widely recognized that the opposition of the Catholic Church to the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS is at least partially responsible for the high rate of new infections in Africa and elsewhere. Its irrational position on this has led to the pronouncement that if a husband infected with HIV/AIDS wants a normal conjugal relationship with his wife, he should do so without a condom. Life takes a back seat to theological nonsense. The moribund structure of the Church also allows for the horrendously high number of sex abuse committed by its clergy on innocent young Catholics. The recently departed pope, John Paul II bears a huge responsibility for this continuing infliction of suffering on humankind.

The Fundamentalist Protestant churches inflict their own brand of horror on the world. With scientific creationism and intelligent design creationism, they are trying to bring science, and the world, back into the dark ages where faith and ignorance reign supreme. The fundamental irrationalism of this branch of Christianity has meant that many of the flock have been fleeced by TV evangelists, some of whose have sexual escapades comparable to the infamous Pope Alexander VI. This irrationalism breeds belief in the efficacy of faith healing to the detriment, and death, of many. Needless to say, fundamentalism breeds intolerance.

The fundamentalists have joined forces with the Catholic Church in their absolutist opposition to abortion, leading the current fundamentalist leaning U.S. government to withhold funds from organizations that aid poor women in third world countries. It has been estimated that almost 5,000 women needlessly die each year due to this misnamed "culture of life" policy.

This moral responsibility for all these also partially falls on the so-called liberal Christians. While this group of Christians may do little harm directly, they provide the raw material (in "lukewarm" believers who are already positively disposed towards Christianity) from which fundamentalism builds itself. Furthermore by putting a "respectable" veneer on religious discourse, they prevent a much needed and long overdue logical, philosophical and scientific demolition of religious claims - since to even attempt to question religion per se is considered politically incorrect. As Sam Harris rightly noted in his book The End of Faith:

Religious moderates are, in a large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.[5]

It is time for liberal Christians to think through their belief system, whether applying words which lose all sense of their normal meaning just to keep some semblance of the religious life, is really worth the harm they indirectly help inflict on the world.

Furthermore amidst all this proven negative effects of Christianity, it is hard to see if there is much good that comes out of it. Some believers have tried to argue that Christians lead healthier lives than non-Christians, but the studies cited have been shown to be seriously flawed. Furthermore it is debatable whether Christianity actually makes a person moral. History seems to tell us otherwise. Many of the popes throughout history had been morally deficient human beings; so too were many of the church fathers, Protestant reformers and some modern evangelical preachers. For they preached intolerance and hate and sometimes actively encouraged the torture and murders of innocent people. Indeed recent sociological studies have shown that there is a negative correlation between religiosity and morality.

The world today, perhaps more than ever, is in need of our undivided, moral and rational, attention. The problems of the world, both natural and man-made are many: famine, floods, the greenhouse effect, the ozone hole and the irreversible extinction of countless species of plants and animals. The only chance the world has is for humankind to understand that this world is all we have, there is no other, no afterlife. Only we can solve the world's problems. The solutions for the problems of the world and for life in general are not to be found in Christianity. Christianity, in fact, is part of the problem.

On both intellectual and moral grounds the only course for a person to take is the rejection of Pascal's wager.


1.Popkin, Pascal: p257-258
2.Krueger, What is Atheism?: p 161
3.Gale, On the Nature and Existence of God: p345-354
Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: p200-203
Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification: p228-238
4.Mackie, op. cit.: p 203
5.Harris, The End of Faith: p 45
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