Pascal’s Wager: It’s Always a Bad Bet

Dan Delzell Repackages Pascal’s Wager…And Fails

Twice in the last 24 hours I have found myself confronted by theists pushing Pascal’s Wager.  The first, was a person on Twitter who wrote the following:

@logicalbeing just like you and I will be one day (dead). If you are right I didn’t lose much. If I am you lost everything. I don’t want that 4 U.

I inserted the word (dead) into the text so that the tweet would make more sense to you.  Upon my dismantling Pascal’s wager in 280 characters (2 tweets) this person moved on to the ontological argument for god’s existence.  For some reason, this argument will not go away, no matter how many times it has been shown to be erroneous.

The other place where I encountered our friend Pascal was in Dan Delzell’s column today on The Christian Post, titled “Bargaining With God in the Dark Room”. Those of you who are regular readers will know that I have been particularly critical of Delzell in the past.  I continue to read his work because his readership is large and I want to know what types of things that popular evangelical pastors are saying.  In truth, though I often disagree with most everything Delzell says, I can understand where he is coming from and why he is doing it.  This post disappointed me.  I was disappointed because, over time, I have come to expect more from Delzell.  Pascal’s Wager really?  This theory has to be the easiest apologetic argument to debunk and has been refuted so many times, it is almost not worth getting into.  However, I can’t let it go.  Why?  Because today, Delzell shifted audiences.  Usually he is “preaching to the choir”.  Today he is specifically addressing skeptics.  He is trying to catch the unwary nonbeliever, and hoodwink that person with a failed argument.  I feel it my responsibility to counter that. (Or at least, if not a responsibility, it is something that I want to do).

Delzell writes:

“Think about this, especially if you are a skeptic. Wouldn’t you admit that you would follow Jesus if you came to know that He truly is your Savior and the Messiah? I mean….you wouldn’t turn away from Him if you knew that He is God….and that He is your only path to eternal peace and joy. You would follow Him then, right?”

This is a carefully worded paragraph that is designed to lead to the only rational answer.  Of course, anyone would follow a deity fi they knew, without a doubt that his existence was real and the religion that follows him is also real.  To do anything less would be an irrational ignoring of the facts.  The problem that I have is that I am certain that what Delzell would accept for proof, would be laughed off by most skeptics.

Delzell relates the story of a friend, Scott, who “made a deal” with god.  His friend, who is a scientist mind you, made the following bet with god one night, “God….if Jesus is your Son and He really is the way….and if He really is everything the Bible says about Him….then I will follow Him.”  Okay…now his friend must “test the theory of Christianity”.  The result:  His friend believes that god came to him one night and told him to a) not look for a new job (which his friend wanted to do) b) not move to a new city (which his friend wanted to do) and c) not to leave his current church (which his friend wanted to do).  The result of this “vision”?  His friend called home, told his wife that they are staying put—and is now, 20 years later living the same life, as a Christian.

Recall the quote from Delzell above, the challenge to skeptics.  This is the incontrovertible proof that Delzell is hoping will sway the skeptic?  I think not.  Not only do I find it lacking, but I would argue, so too does Delzell, which is why he then launches into what can only be described as pleading with skeptics to follow Christianity.

Dezell asks us:

“Try admitting this to yourself….that you don’t know for sure that Jesus is a fraud….and Christianity is false….and heaven and hell are mythical places, but not real places where people spend eternity. You are not 100% sure that there is nothing to it. You are not absolutely positive that it is untrue. You may think it is false….and you may even hope it is false….but let’s admit it….you don’t know for sure.”

This is what I was referring to when I mentioned pleading.  It reminds me of one of the phrases that John W. Loftus uses often in his book, “Why I Became an Atheist”.  Loftus says many times throughout the book that theists often demand “that I prove god impossible before they will admit that god is improbable”.  I think that is a great line and worth keeping in mind when having discussions with apologists.

Simply because we cannot be 100% sure that a deity does not exist, in no way should lead us to accept the existence of the Christian deity on absolutely zero evidence.  Period.  Delzell is asking the skeptic to abandon reason for faith, based on absolutely nothing.  To the skeptics who are on the fence regarding religion, I urge you not to abandon your reason.

Once again, I do not think that Delzell really believes this tactic is going to sway many skeptics, so his final effort is Pascal’s Wager (though he doesn’t define his argument with its appropriate name).

Delzell continues:

“So what would it hurt you to go all in? I mean, you would if you knew Jesus is the One you will stand before on Judgment Day. So why not tell God that you will follow Him if Jesus really is the path to salvation and peace. What have you got to lose? Scott did it….and look how it worked out for him.”

He continues mixing all of his arguments into one big final push:

“You would go with Jesus if you discovered Him to be the real deal, wouldn’t you? I mean, you wouldn’t reject Him if you knew that rejecting Him meant spending eternity is a “dark room,” would you? If you are an unbeliever, then Christianity is still just a “theory” to you. Why not test it? Why not bargain with God….just as seriously as Scott did that night 20 years ago in the dark room. You don’t want to miss out on heaven do you? From your perspective, if the Bible is true….then Jesus truly is your Creator and your Savior. Only He can save your soul and rescue you from sin, death, and hell. That is, if the Bible is true. And you don’t know for sure that it isn’t true….so, the smart thing to do is to go all in.”

This is pure folly and an attempt to play on the fears of the credulous.  Here are a few things to note.  First off, how can we possible assume that his friend Scott didn’t lose anything by taking Pascal’s Wager and betting on Yahweh?  We do not.  What if that other job that Scott didn’t look for led him to more happiness in life?  What if they job paid more money, was more rewarding of his skills, afforded him more time to spend with his family, etc?  What opportunities did Scott pass up by not moving to a different city?  We will never know the answers to those questions.  However, it is a complete fallacy to state that Scott did not risk much…he may have lost more than he could possibly fathom by taking the wager.  The point is, we don’t know.

Delzell shamelessly plays to people’s fears.  “You don’t want to miss out on heaven do you?”  This is pure charlatan nonsense.

Delzell concludes by saying the only smart thing to do is to “go all in”.  I beg to differ.  The only rational thing to do is to stop and think–to weigh the risk of going all in versus walking away.  I could never explain why Pascal’s Wager fails better than John W. Loftus.  So I won’t bother.  Instead, I strongly urge you to read what he has to say on the matter: Pascal’s Wager Debunked.

Once again, I find Delzell to be dishonest in his approach.  If he was playing honestly, he would have addressed the problems with Pascal’s Wager and offered why his path is the better choice than walking away.  Yet he didn’t do that.  He doesn’t want his unwary reader to even know the grave problems inherent in his argument.  This is not honesty, and in truth, may be one reason why we are seeing more and more people turn away from religion in this country.  People want honesty; they want to think for themselves, we all want reasons for what we do.  Most of us don’t want to place our lives in the balance of a bad wager.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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22 thoughts on “Pascal’s Wager: It’s Always a Bad Bet

  1. hausdorff from Troy, MI, United States

    It's so frustrating to see these same apologetic arguments show up again and again. They've been debunked over and over. The people spouting these things never address the obvious flaws, they just give the argument again. I guess they figure the average Christian won't look up the counter-argument.

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      I think it is quite telling that the vast majority of the arguments I see from Christians are the same re-packaged ones that have been debunked countless times. They are either unaware of the debunking, which is entirely possible. Another option is that they are aware of the problems, don't care and look to catch unwary atheists through dishonest means. A third option, would of course be that they reject the arguments debunking…though to me that is problematic in other ways. Most of those arguments are quite sound.

      1. hausdorff from Troy, MI, United States

        The issue with them rejecting the debunking is they never seem to address it. It's completely dishonest to just ignore the debunking and repeat your argument elsewhere.

  2. @cynicalagnosis from Arroyo Hondo, NM, United States

    Apologists don't live in a world of rationality. Using logic or skepticism is often not useful or successful in many cases. I find it best to delve into their world of magical thinking and expose the weakness within. Find what their particular dogma is and go from there. I have yet to find a belief that doesn't contain some massive inconsistancy. For example, protestants have trouble explaining the concept of "predestination" as opposed to "Arminianism". Or whether they are monotheistic or polytheistic. (Trinity, etc) (Aka Newcombs paradox) The choices are literally endless.
    I've given up on the idea of proselytizing theists for the most part for a "scientific" reason, of all things. So- aside from the fact they don't "want" to see reason, the human brain has a function where it tries to interpret gaps in input in a way that distorts the senses. The effect is they can't discern the difference between some truth and falsehood. Some scientists say that a percentage of people are naturally gentically pre disposed to this "god concept" way of thinking.
    That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it. :)

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      I agree with you, that a great tactic is to delve into the theists own beliefs. As they are the one making the positive claim, they have the burden of proof, and should be able to explain why they believe what they do. If they cannot, that too is okay, they should then at least be willing to admit that they have some thinking and learning to do, and the discussion can continue at a later time. I have never heard of anyone being converted or de-converted as a result of one conversation! Thanks for the comment and stopping by. I really appreciate it.

    2. hausdorff from Troy, MI, United States

      I think all approaches are good. When I was a Christian the scientific type arguments stuck in the back of my brain, they definitely contributed to my becoming an atheist in the long term.

  3. TNB from Mexico, The Federal District, Mexico

    I am a psychotherapist and I study how the brain and cognition functions biologically, how hallucinogenic drugs work, how behavior changes brain structures, how brain structures affect behavior and how we can work to change irrational beliefs in people, etc.
    But in studying these things, I know that many people of all types, including normal, intelligent and educated people (including scientists) with totally normal brain functioning and structures have experienced interactions of various kinds with a loving, accepting spiritual being / personality who communicates the desire to maintain a loving relationship with all and to improve the quality of our lives and of our relationships with others. (I have even met atheists who admitted to having such experiences but who expressed that they didn´t see any reason to try to improve their own or other peoples´ lives.)
    Most Atheists I have met, however, have not shared these types of experiences, so not experiencing, is not believing. This is natural human behavior for both atheists and believers considering their own differing sets of experiences.
    You have to excuse those of us who are absolutely sure that GOD exists because of our particular sets of experiences, for trying to share our experiences with you. Many people, like me, owe my life and know that the happy lives of others are owed to that spiritual being, as well.
    You can go on-line and read literally millions of people´s near-death experiences and spiritual rescue experiences which you can interpret any way you wish and can contribute them to anything you wish – many of these cannot be explained by what we currently know of human biology.
    My experiences include having been forewarned of 7 different life-threatening things, the first 2 of which I ignored as being irrational impulses, but then I witnessed the negative consequences of not acting on those irrational communications/ impulses / warnings: An accident where I was injured, but would not have been hit at all by the other driver if I had followed the irrational warning and 2), I would have been present to administer CPR to a stranger who had a heart attack, if I had heeded an irrational command-like impulse to stop and talk to the person just before he had the attack.
    After 2 such occurrences, I learned to act on such things though they seem totally irrational. This has indeed saved my life and the lives of several others on the next 5 occasions I experienced them: I managed to avoid a high-speed head-on crash after someone pulled into my lane directly in front of my car; on 2 other occasions I was present to take away weapons from people who intended to commit suicide (though I had no previous idea either person was suicidal or even in crisis) when I would and should have been working, instead; and paying attention to dreams warning me I had cancerous tumors, cause me to insist on additional testing (10 years apart) which located tumors that would have killed me at a young age when the doctors and screening tests originally missed the tumors on both occasions

    But all human experiences require human interpretation, decision, cooperation and action. When I read “sacred texts,” I´m reminded of the similarities to my experiences, but I always remember that we can put onto our unexplained experiences a variety of divine motives which fit in with our own prejudices or desires. Therefore, sacred texts always reflect human interpretations of these yet- to-be understood set of human experiences.
    We don´t yet know why some people have these types of experiences and some do not (though some are atheist for many years, then have and accept them as real or have them and reject them as not fitting into their belief systems.
    However, I believe that being intellectually open or curious can lead to people being willing to ask for such experiences and then receiving them. It´s then up to them to interpret what they have experienced.

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks for the long and well thought out response TNB, I very much appreciate you stopping by and commenting. However, I must raise the same objections as Veritas. There are numerous other explanations that could describe the experiences, you and others like you have had, other than divine intervention. A good discussion on this exact topic constitutes the bulk of Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World. I think it well worth a read if you have not already done so.

      The issue I have with "personal experiences" is that they are completely subjective. At worst case, and in NO way do I mean to imply that this applies to you, the person could just be flat out lying. In either case, I recommend checking out the book above, a) I think you would enjoy it from a professional point of view and b) I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  4. CJ Anderson from Austin, TX, United States

    One thing to keep in mind with Christianity is that if you decide to wager that Jesus is Lord, it is an all or nothing bet. The God of The Bible demands total allegiance. You cannot just pledge some or most of yourself. If you want to bet that Jesus is real then be prepared to vow everything. Pascal may have failed to mention that in his Wager.

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment CJ. I appreciate it. That is a great point, and one of the problems with Pascal's Wager. People, have, for millenia, been betting on gods. What happens if you pick the wrong one? There have been many wrathful deities out there…

  5. Veritas from Saint Albans, WV, United States

    With all due respect TNB, although I find your reply articulated admirebly and comprehensive, I have to say I feel the need to point something out. These experiences as you have explained them could be interpreted and therefore applied in nearly endless ways, as I assume you'd admit. Forewarning for example, whether by dreams, instincts, visions, voices etc.. Even if I concede that they were accurate and helped you and/or saved you, there is absolutley no explaination that could elucidate their mechanism (unless you have a scientific explaination with proof to put forward for scrutiny). What I am getting at is that you (or anyone else) is free to plug in literally any analysis or meaning they choose in the absence of a formal proof of mechanism. This could include magic, aliens, time travel, illness, ghosts, toxic exposure, loved ones speaking to you from beyond, telepathic entities communicating with you, Zeus, Allah, Jesus, and any other explaintion you can imagine. Please understand I am NOT doubting your honesty, your words or your experiences. However, had you written this on a pro-UFO site as an example, and claimed that aliens were feeding you important information from the future, you would have exactly the same experiences to write with the exact same amount of proof and believability as what you did write. I cannot explain your experiences, and I am guessing neither can anyone else. This leaves any imaginable cause open as the reason for it, but no matter what reason you give it has the same veracity.

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