Pascal’s Wager (and why it’s bullshit)

I’ve been on a Christopher Hitchens kick recently. Say what you will about his thoughts on Mother Theresa (a con artist), or George W. Bush (supporting the surge into Iraq), or Henry Kissinger (a war criminal), when he debated the religious he was always two things above all: smart and witty. As I watched him decimate the likes of the abrasive Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and enjoyed his running circles around the backhanded (and remarkably ignorant) host of “Wretched Radio”, it reminded me of the times I’ve been approached by the proselytizing, and one of their most common approaches gets to me like no other… a popular argument commonly referred to (when identified) as “Pascal’s Wager.”

It basically flows like this: if you don’t believe in G/god, and you’re wrong, you’re infinitely punished for your mistake. And if you believe and you’re right, then you’re infinitely rewarded via heaven. If you’re a non-believer and you happen to be correct about there not being an afterlife, then you’re still in the ground. You’re still dead. Right next to the religious person who was wrong in their assertion. It’s the making of a grid with four boxes, only one of them leading to eternal paradise, and only one side even proposing such a possibility.

“So why not take the chance?”

This is one of the oldest and most classic of the arguments in favor of believing in a higher power – at least, one with an assertion of an afterlife – and thus I think it deserves a specific rebuttal. Because the very concept of it to me, the thought that such an argument is still considered “valid” and not “insulting to the human mind”, is very, very stupid.

I propose to you, dear reader, a thought experiment. Go get a glass of water, or a bottle of water, or just whatever you’d like to drink (whiskey might be good, if you’re into that sort of thing), but don’t drink any of it just yet. Pour it into a glass and spend a moment just looking at it. Appreciate the view of it, the qualities of it. Now… supposed I was to tell you that you needed to take a drink of it to avoid a unicorn bursting through your front door, and kicking you in the groin. Hard. Like the mythical horse that it is.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? That a unicorn would burst down your door for not taking a sip of the drink you’ve afforded yourself? But consider, at the same time, I’m sitting next to you with my own drink (my whiskey, ‘cuz I like sipping whiskey) and I take a drink. And I tell you it’s to make sure that doesn’t happen to me. Do you reconsider then? It’s a pretty far-fetched thought, but if I’m showing you that I do it and enunciate that it’s for that very reason, then maybe I have some rationale behind that.

You’ve probably figured out that this is a parallel argument to Pascal: in his case, you don’t believe and you’re wrong, you burn for eternity in hell fire. In my scenario, you’d kicked in the balls (if you’re a lady, the area of your lady-balls… i.e. ovaries). Neither is particularly pleasant, right? So why would you risk the potential downside of not believing… not taking the drink, the “sure thing”?

Violent little sociopaths… Noah made the right choice there, I’d say.
Violent little sociopaths… Noah made the right choice keeping them off the arc, I’d say.

If I can’t prove to you that there is indeed a unicorn – or as I’d LOVE to do to somebody, show them a video of two people in a unicorn costume ready to storm in – then why in the name of logic and reason would you believe me? Surely I’m just insane, that I’ve made it all up. But… if you’re wrong… or you’re just not sure either way…

Now, please feel free to take a sip. If you don’t that’s alright too, nothing’s gonna kick you. But if you’re on the fence about worshipping a higher power already, that argument probably doesn’t hold too much weight, right? Right?

And THEN – this is where it gets good – Pascal’s Wager brings with it implied odds. In the way it’s presented as a one-or-the-other choice, it’s a coin-flip. One side, eternality in the form of either heaven or hell. On the other, nothingness. One side will determine whether you go to heaven or hell, and the other… you’re just dead and no longer exist at all, no matter your beliefs. Surely, if you’re going to flip a coin for eternity, you’d want to choose the side with the upside, yeah? But what about if that interpretation is incorrect?

Pascal didn’t take into account the idea of other faiths – other gods and goddesses, other concepts of heaven and/or hell, other afterlife scenarios and other structures. If we are to include them, as it would seem unreasonable not to, then the numbers grow more and more stacked in NOBODY’S favor. If we include what are considered the three major religions on the planet right now, those being Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, each with their specific beliefs and rituals that would need to be followed in order to ensure heaven, then the number goes to 3-1 against no matter WHAT you pick. Then factor in all of the other denominations – Hasidic Judaism, Catholicism, Shia Islam to be quick and only name three – your odds of picking the “right” one are even lower.

And that’s not including the other gods and concepts that have come up over the time humanity has been on the planet… how about Thor, or Zeus, or Osiris, Vishnu, Zoroaster, or – even the favorite atheist standby – the Flying Spaghetti Monster? All of a sudden that “coin flip” has turned into the roll of a MASSIVE multi-sided die, hasn’t it?

For the condensed version of this, it’s less like a 50/50 flip and more like hitting the lottery of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people worshipping the right god with the right credentials and rituals to get you to the “right” heaven.

So for anybody tempted to use Pascal’s Wager as a means to get me to believe, allow me to propose to you the purchase of a scratcher. If you don’t win, you better hope that Buddhism has some truth to it as well and you can at least win a free ticket to try again.

That’s a reincarnation joke, for anybody that missed it.
That’s a reincarnation joke, for anybody that missed it.

Truth be told, I despise the Wager; I see it as not a reasonable assertion or concept, but that of a play on fear. “You don’t HAVE to go to hell, here’s all you’d need to do” instead of a reasonable argument in favor of your faith of choice, trying to play on a person’s cowardice instead of speaking to their common sense. It’s underhanded and insulting to any thoughtful person for any number of reasons, my personal ones listed in my above examples. It’s the – forgive the pun – “Hail Mary” for anyone looking to score a last-minute conversion to their faith. If you try that with me, I’ll direct you to the above. If you still insist that this concept holds weight, I’m going to call you an idiot, then leave you alone to enjoy the rest of my day.

Believe what you like, and I’ll do the same. But don’t attempt to spiritually blackmail me into going to your church. That just makes you an inconsiderate asshole.

Stand firm, my friends. No need to… TallerEight… bad arguments.
(Or terrible puns. I’ll go stand in the corner now.)