The atheist's wager

By atheist wager

I have been an atheist since I was twelve years old. Most of my friends are atheists too, so sometimes I forget that most people have a belief in God. I’m not much for political correctness and rarely censor myself, but I don’t go around provoking religious people. There is very little to be gained by arguing with those who have faith. Their beliefs cannot be proven and they are not going to believe me regardless of my arguments against faith. I don’t usually have the time and energy for a senseless disagreement where neither side gains anything but annoyance with each other.

On a beautiful summer day, I found myself at a party talking to a friend. I had mentioned how some Mormon missionaries were out in my neighborhood and said something about wanting to convert “them”. At this point, a girl who had been eavesdropping turned to me and asked, “But what would you offer them?”

“I don’t have anything to offer. Maybe some more free time on Sunday.”

To which she replied, “I would prefer hope and salvation over a few hours back.”

I removed myself from the situation, it wasn’t my party and I didn’t want to cause a scene. The debate we would have had comes down to Pascal’s Wager. To sum it up, Monsieur Pascal theorized that belief in God was rational based on game theory and probabilistic outcomes.

To Pascal, there were two choices – believe in Christianity (I’ll address this later) or not. Along with these two choices are two possible outcomes – go to heaven or don’t.

Pascal's Wager
Go to heavenExtremely good outcomeVery bad outcome
Don't go to heavenHarmless outcomeNot a benefit

As we can see, an atheist can’t go to heaven (or at least according to Christianity, heaven is gained by faith not works). The two possible outcomes for our atheist is God is really and won’t allow the atheist into heaven or God is not real and our atheist doesn’t go to heaven because heaven doesn’t exist. Either outcome for the atheist results in a losing proposition.

For a Christian, their faith is justified in the next life and they get to go to heaven which would be an extremely good outcome, or their belief was wrong and there is no God and no heaven in which case they are no worse off than the atheist. Even if we assign a very small probability of God existing, the benefit is so great, Mr. Pascal would have you believe, that the only rationale choice here is to be a good Christian. Since this is the only way to heaven and the reward is so great, a rational person would have to be a Christian. Who wouldn’t want a little “heaven insurance” at the cost of a few prayers and a few hours in church? You’d have to be crazy not to, right?

Hey, thanks Blaise, but your little game theory diagram is woefully simplified. The problem isn’t choosing between Christianity and atheism. How amazingly Eurocentric of you to lay these out as your only two possibilities. In Western cultures, the choice comes down to the big three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Muslim. Even within these faiths there are Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews. Muslims have the Sunni and Shiite denominations. Christians? There are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons, etc.

That’s just the Western World. The Eastern World has Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and that’s just to name a few. The choice isn’t so easy between Christianity and atheism, is it?

Now ask oneself why one has chosen their faith? The most likely reason is because it was the faith inherited by their parents. They have been indoctrinated into the faith at an early age before rational thinking has been established. In the theists basic desire to be perceived as good, they absorb their religion and cling to it as true. Still, one could ask what harm does religion do? For starters, it divides humanity rather than unites, see the following list of just a few of the atrocities done in God’s name:


  • Detailed genocide against rival tribes throughout the Old Testament

Christians against Jews

  • Spanish Inquisition
  • Crusades
  • Holocaust

Christians against Muslims

  • Crusades
  • Bosnia

Muslims against Christians

  • Crusades

Shiite against Sunni

  • Iraq

Protestant against Catholic

  • Northern Ireland

It is without exaggeration to say that millions of people have died because they have different unproved religious beliefs inherited from their parents along tribal lines. Now imagine that Earth was invaded by an alien force with superior technology. Imagine, if you will, that humans were kept in cages and forced to fight each other to the death for the amusement of the aliens. Would you kill your fellow man and hope to gain favor with the aliens or would you resist by any means necessary and strive to regain human dignity? Which is the more moral option?

I propose as my answer to Pascal’s wager, two choices and two outcomes. The choices come down to theism (of any religion, not just Christianity) vs. atheism. The outcomes include going to heaven or not going to heaven.

Atheist's Wager
HeavenInherit the “correct” beliefs from parents and go to heaven at the expense of every human who inherited the “wrong” beliefsStand up to a corrupt God and demand dignity for the entire human race beyond my tribe
No God/No HeavenWorship a non-existent deity and not be rewarded in the afterlifeConcentrate on this life and focus on the issues that matter

If God only rewards those who follow the “correct” faith and faith is inherited from one’s parents, then the God who refuses to prove his existence is playing favorites over his creation based on tribal lines pitting groups of humans against each other just like our aliens. If, by chance and chance alone, one is born into the right religion and curries favor with God Almighty, then this person is actively collaborating with the enemy of humanity. The atheist may find himself in hell for his disbelief, but at least he is not a traitor. Until God accepts that religion is His responsibility and can provide some real proof and guidance as to His plan, He is completely unworthy of our worship. To continue to worship a deity that arbitrarily divides us as a species, rewards a chosen few for their faith in which there is no evidence, and has deliberately chosen not to intervene when His name is used inappropriately is no different from collaborating with the alien cage fighters. By dividing humanity amongst different sects with conflicting ideology and allowing war in His name, God is evil. To worship a deity like this is to commit an act of treason. Unless God proves his existence and changes the outcomes, we as a race owe it to ourselves to not worship Him.

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Tim said...

Nice article.


aangelstar14321 said...

Good article


Anonymous said...

Years ago, it was a discussion about this wager that finally pushed deep into atheism.

I was not raised with any religion, so I originally didn’t have strong feeling either way. When this wager was presented to me, I finally understood how Christian fundamentalists think.

The argument seemed ridiculous. I was always told that, above all, God was loving and just. Now, I was learning that God was willing to let hard-working, generous people burn for the rest of eternity because they just weren’t able to find their way out the darkness. The idea of good people being effectively being punished for crime they didn’t commit was bad enough. When voiced my confusion, I was told that I was thinking too much.

Apparently, God gave me a brain that I wasn’t suppose to used.

Telmi said...

Good arguments.

But the question is: Will fundies be swayed?

But let's hope for the best.

Anonymous said...

Very well written.

Joe B said...

Sound argument. I just wonder at the exclusion of the 9-11, 3-11, Khobar Towers, etc. from the Muslims vs. Christians column, and the recent military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Phillipines from Christians vs. Muslims column. It may seem to be a stretch, since the US is not (yet) a titular Christian theocracy. However, I cannot ignore the church's role as one of the prime sources of the Western Christian jingoist rhetoric that has allowed an American president to enter upon and pursue such an objectively perverse course.

Anonymous said...

I never understood the draw of Pascal's Wager myself. It's a silly argument and someone with anyone reasoning ability at all should be able to poke the entire thing full of holes. The entire premise to begin with makes numerous unfounded assumptions.

In any case, I've written about what the "real" Pascal's wager should be when all religions of the world and its impact are taken into account in one of my comments before.

My comment about your chart is that the negative outcome of "Theism/Religious" crossed with "no god/supernatural" is too tame. What you have is that the believer in whatever religion or superstitions has let fear drive their decision making process, and possibly that have wasted their only life on this earth in pursuit of tasks that have only increased the misery of their fellow humans. Everyday decisions around the world are driven by superstitious fear, whether it be of some "god", or some "unlucky date", or some "bad luck saying", or some other religious dogma over rational thought.

Just ponder the obstinance of friends, family or even strangers you have known who have made "mountains out of molehills", created strife or aggravation, in even the most simple circumstances due to an insistence on following dogma and superstition. Sure there are reasons to respect certain traditions, and to follow traditions when you understand their history, but its another thing to enforce traditions because of the fear it instills or if the outcome is completely unreasonable by any other standard. Faith is no different, it is ritualized superstition as I've heard it called.

And at it's worst, religion and superstition go hand in hand to promote bigotry, ignorance and intolerance against your fellow evolved monkey friends =)

and in the end.. for what? if your religion or superstitions are baseless, your life, in which you've started your process of dying as soon as you've emerged from the womb.. has been a wasted promoting "group-think", "us vs them", "black and white", "good vs evil", 1 vs 0, pure sheep mentality..

Anonymous said...

"The atheist's wager" is just timely for me. I've been thinking the "Pascal's wager" in the last few days. I've started reviewing various philosophy fields and topics last two weeks. Thank you very much for your insight - the other side of the coin!


Prof. Menrado D. Martinez
Ph.D. Candidate

Anonymous said...

Pascal's wager is just a means of putting odds on the outcome of having a belief or not having a belief. If you are just believing in God for the sake of falling into a better mathematical probability 'bucket' of going to heaven, and there is some all-knowing and all-powerful Christian diety out there, don't you think this diety would be able to see through this BS anyways? This is just an argument for feigning belief in God as a backup plan. You don't decide to believe in something because of probabilities, you either believe or you don't.

You can make a decision to read the bible, go to church on a regular basis, go to confession, etc, but how is that going to actually make you believe in God?

eel_shepherd said...

atheist_wager wrote:
"...If, by chance and chance alone, one is born into the right religion and curries favor with God Almighty, then this person is actively collaborating with the enemy of humanity. The atheist may find himself in hell for his disbelief, but at least he is not a traitor..."

I liked your article, and I am an atheist, but I have a quibble with the above quote, and it is that Hell Is The Worst Thing There Is, for the Xtian theist, or for the person who's listening to both sides of this question and is trying to make up his/her mind. There _is_ no offsetting virtue to being in Hell. There _are_ no "at least"s, such as "at least you're not a traitor." In Hell, that won't even show up in your scale of values and priorities. To say it would weigh like a feather against an anvil would be to understate the case. There would be no comfort at all to be drawn from that, cold or otherwise. Zero. And for that reason, I'd simply leave it out of my pitch, if it were me making it.

On to another matter. There is another flaw with M. Pascal's line of "reason", and that is: suppose that that's not the real wager before us as people. Regardless of whether the biblegod exists, or any god-concept, for that matter, the thing we all have in common is that here we all are, alive. Leading the existence of live entities in the world where things have weight and occupy space, along a time line. Suppose, then, as we're walking that plank, that we're all headed for an afterlife, and that our quality of experience in, and degree of access to, that afterlife is a function of what we were able to pick up about, appreciate, and use, from what was our current reality while we were alive and in it. i.e. meeting the biosphere which we were consistent with, and fully enmeshed in, openly and bravely. If we were to be "in the world but not of the world", as Xtians are exhorted to be, we would have flunked, and not have any good coupons in our kit bag, when we drop off the twig and find ourselves popped up another dimension, or whatever happens at that time. So, even for the afterlife fans, they could be blowing it by having misapprehended the wager that confronted them. They could have been standing in the middle of a _real_ dog race and betting on the _results of reports_ of some distant horse race that might not even have been going on.

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