Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

Pascal’s Wager is the name given to an argument put forward by the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century. His argument for belief in God was based not on an appeal to evidence that God exists, but rather on the idea that it is in our own interests to believe in God and it is therefore rational for us to do so. It essentially argues that to believe in God is a better bet than not believing in God, and so it makes sense to believe “just in case”.

The argument runs as follows: If we believe in God, then there are two possible outcomes: 1) if he exists, we will receive an infinite reward in heaven, and 2) if he does not, then we have lost little or nothing. Conversely, if we do not believe in God, then the possibilities are: 1) if he exists, we will receive an infinite punishment in hell, and 2) if he does not, then we will have gained little or nothing. Pascal argued that "either receiving an infinite reward in heaven or losing little or nothing" is clearly preferable to "either receiving an infinite punishment in hell or gaining little or nothing", so it is therefore rational to believe in God, even if there is absolutely no evidence that he does in fact exist.

The Refutation Back to Top

Pascal’s Wager only works if the only possible criterion for entrance into heaven is belief in the Christian God and the only possible criterion for entrance into hell is disbelief in the Christian God.

Pascal assumes that his God is the only God, and that other religions have just been backing the wrong horse, so to speak. Perhaps, though, the wager should take into account the likelihood that God punishes skeptics and believers in other religions, or even different denominations of the same religion, even if they have lived a life of righteousness and virtue. As Homer Simpson says in an episode of “The Simpsons”: “Suppose we've chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we're just making him madder and madder.” This is sometimes referred to as the “avoiding the wrong hell” dilemma.
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear.
- Bertrand Russell (1927)

Also, if one argues that the probability that God exists (and therefore of either receiving an infinite reward in heaven or of receiving an infinite punishment in hell) is so small that these possible outcomes of belief or disbelief can be discounted, then atheism would be the rational course of action, as it is better to gain little or nothing than it is to lose little or nothing.

Additionally, Pascal’s Wager asks us to believe on the basis of a hypothetical theory, without any proof or evidence, whereas in practice a thinking person requires evidence for the truth of a belief.

And finally, the argument requires that the god in question does not mind that someone should believe in it merely in order to gain entrance to heaven and/or to avoid punishment in hell. Since a person’s eternal fate is being decided upon merely based on their decision to make a pragmatic and selfish choice, rather than on their actions and conduct throughout their lives, this suggests a somewhat petty and unjust god, undeserving of belief and worship. Pascal’s Wager can, at best, only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God, and not in actual belief.

Back to Top of Page | Home | Search | Contact
What is Atheism? | History of Atheism | Arguments | Atheism Quotes | Famous Atheists | References and Links
© 2011 Luke Mastin