Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bad Religious Arguments: Pascal's Wager

Pascal's wager goes as follows:

First, Pascal assumed that one could not use reason alone to determine if God exists, but rather must make a decision to believe or not to believe. (I object to this assumption on two grounds - first, that we may indeed use reason to rule out many definitions of God, and second, that one cannot necessarily *decide* to believe in or not believe in God. However, that's outside the scope of this post.)

Based on this assumption, Pascal argues that we should make the most rational choice, which can be thought of as a wager. The choice may be best represented as a matrix:








 God existsGod does not exist
Wager for GodInfinite rewardInsignificant relative to infinite reward/punishment
Wager against GodInfinite punishmentInsignificant relative to infinite reward/punishment


Now this of course makes a number of suspect assumptions which are also outside the scope of this post, particularly that God will reward those who choose to believe or act a certain way merely to achieve Heaven or avoid Hell.

However, the part I would like to focus on is God. If Pascal's Wager is to work, we must know which God to follow! Surely Pascal had in mind the Christian God, but the wager doesn't work if we pick the wrong God. In order to make the most rational wager, we must look at all the potential gods.

There are several questions we must consider. First, we may estimate a probability for each religion being the correct one. Second, we may compare all the various Heavens and Hells to see if some are better than others. Third, we may compare the various religions to find Gods which are more tolerant of those who believe in the wrong God. Finally, we must consider how likely it is we will succeed in pleasing a particular God if we try our best.

How may we estimate the probability of each religion being correct?

One possibility is to simply create a ratio of followers of each particular religion over all believers. Some religions may be combined while others must be separate. For example, if being either an Anglican or a Catholic will get you in the same God's good graces, we may safely combine them. However, if being a Mormon will get you in trouble with the Catholic God and vice-versa, we must consider them separately. A simple ratio doesn't seem like a very accurate measure of probable correctness, but it may be the only measure we have, if we're assuming (as we are) that one cannot use Reason to determine if a given God exists.

Heaven and Hell

Would you prefer 72 virgins or an eternal beis midrash? Harp music or nirvana? While any eternal Heaven may serve as "infinite good" for the purposes of our wager, we might have a personal preference for one over another. Everything else being equal, we should pick the religion with the most appealing Heaven. Similarly, not all Hells are equal. We can certainly rule out those religions with limited or no versions of Hell (sorry Orthodox Judaism and Buddhism.) We must avoid the worst Hells we can. To me, the Catholic (and certain other branches of Christianity) Hell seems by far the worst and most eternal.

Is a God Tolerant of Non-adherents?

We may safely throw out all the Gods who are tolerant of non-adherents, since we need not fear following the wrong God if He is the correct one.

How Hard is it To Please a God?

If we decide that we like one God's Heaven the best and fear His Hell the most, we still have to consider whether we will please Him if we try. If, for example, we will never please Him no matter how hard we try, there's no sense wagering on Him, since we'll be screwed either way. I would rule out Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, since their God only allows 144,000 people into Heaven and I don't like those odds. Certain other religions have exceedingly difficult standards, and others still are impossible to succeed in without having been born a certain way.

Conclusion

Based on careful consideration, I recommend a branch of Christianity which has 1) a large number of followers, 2) a very good Heaven and a very scary, infinite Hell, 3) an intolerant God, 4) and a relatively easy path to Heaven. For example, a Christian denomination that demands only that you believe in Jesus seems perfect.

So Pascal's Wager (assuming we agree with its basic assumptions) is only a bad religious argument if you're arguing for a different religion.

25 comments:

Random said...

Pascal's wager of course only addresses the rational argument for belief - it has nothing to say on the subject of whether the object believed in exists or not.

That said, it looks (to this non-Catholic) as if the answer to your question is Roman Catholicism - roughly a billion adherents, and the rest seem to check too...

asher said...

Looks like most people on earth took that wager seriously...very few people consider themselves atheists.

CyberKitten said...

asher said: Looks like most people on earth took that wager seriously...

I'm not sure that's the case. Or are you saying that Christians in particular & Theists in general decide to believe in God because it is dangerous to believe otherwise? That seems (to me) to be a rather strange position to take.

Sadie Lou said...

Cool post.
"a Christion denomination that demands only that you believe in Jesus--"

Salvation by Grace
Works can't Save You

Sounds right to me.
any religion that preaches salvation by works is dangerous.

Sadie Lou said...

*Christian

CyberKitten said...

sadie lou said: any religion that preaches salvation by works is dangerous.

'Dangerous' how exactly? If you are 'saved' only by the Grace of God - then does it really matter what you do in the meantime? Or is it your actions (Good Works) make you worthy of God's Grace? I'm presuming here that God doesn't dispense his Grace purely at random....

Sadie Lou said...

Works that please God are a byproduct not a requirement.
It's not like the second you become a Christian you start living a better life. It's a process of God growing you up in ways He desires for each individual person.
I think I've told you plenty of times that nobody is going to get to Heaven on their own "worthiness".
It's not like doing "Good Works" is going to save your ass. Then we would be able to boast about how good you are.
I say religions that preach about works are dangerous because they give people a false sense of being able to achieve God's grace on their own merits.
There is not one human being that God can look at and say, "That person is holy and blameless before me--they have earned their own way into heaven."

CyberKitten said...

Sadie lou said: I say religions that preach about works are dangerous because they give people a false sense of being able to achieve God's grace on their own merits.

So how exactly is God's grace achieved? I presume that God must have some reason to bestow His grace - even if it is a reason that we don't understand.

Sadie Lou said...

So how exactly is God's grace achieved? I presume that God must have some reason to bestow His grace - even if it is a reason that we don't understand.

It shouldn't be viewed in terms of achievement. I do not look at others that do not have God's grace and think," I have achieved God's grace. I am more in God's favor than you."
Grace is a gift, freely given.
Galatians 2:21 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

Christ died to give us grace. That's what Christians mean when we say," I have accpted Christ."
We have accepted the gospel that Jesus died on the cross for my (your) sins.
We only experience this Grace through Faith.
The Faithless have no Grace.

Jewish Atheist said...

Sadie Lou:

So you think I'm going to Hell?

Sadie Lou said...

Do you believe Jesus died so that you could live?

Jewish Atheist said...

No, I don't.

Do you believe I'm going to Hell because of something I (don't) believe?

Sadie Lou said...

I don't think you're a lost cause.
I find it disheartening that you spend more time trying to disprove the gospel to yourself and others and zero time researching it's validity but I'm not going to place eternal judgment on your soul.
Unrepentant sinners are going to hell, yes, if that's you--then it's you. That's God's call--not mine.

Jewish Atheist said...

I couldn't worship a God who would torture someone for eternity just because they didn't believe in or follow Him. I'm a good person; I don't deserve eternal Hellfire.

Foilwoman said...

Scary psychotic god, sure, let me sign up.

CyberKitten said...

JA said: I couldn't worship a God who would torture someone for eternity just because they didn't believe in or follow Him. I'm a good person; I don't deserve eternal Hellfire.

I agree. I find it impossible to believe that a 'loving' God would do that. Why is it SO important that we believe in him? Where is it our 'free will' to do so if the consequences of not doing so are so horrible? A God that would do that is not worthy of worship just fear.

Sadie Lou said...

JA and Cy--
Just by reading both your answers, I can assume that PRIDE stands between you and God.
JA--You think you are a good person; good enough to deserve heaven.
Cy--
You think God isn't worthy; you believe your definitions of what a loving God should be is the standard by which God should measure his worth.
Both are delusions of grandeur.

JA's standard of "good" = Himself.
CY's standard of a "good" God resides in his mind.

CyberKitten said...

sadie lou said: Cy--
You think God isn't worthy; you believe your definitions of what a loving God should be is the standard by which God should measure his worth.

So... You believe that a loving, merciful and forgiving God would torture people in Hell for all eternity for rejecting Him. It would seem that we have different definitions of those attributes.

Sadie Lou said...

Hello?
YES!
What kind of God would sit back and reward people for shaking their fists at God their whole lives?
You keep focusing on God's LOVE, FOREGIVENESS, MERCY but you forget to mention that a Holy God demands JUSTICE as well.
Think about it like this:
What kind of parent would I be if there were no consequence for my children's actions?
"That's okay if you hit your sister. I LOVE you anyways."
"That's okay if you wrecked my car and you don't care. I FORGIVE you anyways."
What kind of spineless, weak willed push over parent would I be?
My kids would walk all over me. They wouldn't respect me.
Now amp it up a million times and relate it to a Holy, Righteous God.
What kind of respect do you show Him?
Zero.
And he's supposed to FORGIVE you anyways?
I wouldn't respect a God like that. I'd tell a God like that, he can take his laws and shove it. I would live my life however the hell I wanted to because he's going to love me and forgive me no matter what I do to him or my fellow man.
Move over and let me have a sin party!
Are you kidding me?
The God I worship disciplines me and shows me right from wrong. When I screw up, I repent on my face and ask that he forgive me--not because he'll send me to hell if I don't but because he loves me so much that he has the guts to show me the boundries and I respect that.
A god with no boundries and no consequences isn't a god at all.

asher said...

And right before he took the cyanide pill Adolph Hilter said he believed in Jesus, fondly recalling his years a choir boy in Austria...and Jesus forgave him?

CyberKitten said...

All that I can say Sadie is that we have VERY different world views.

Sadie Lou said...

cy--
it's cool with me.

Jewish Atheist said...

sadie lou:

There's a difference between punishing your child for misbehaving and torturing him forever. When I say I'm a good person, I don't mean that I'm good enough to deserve everlasting reward (a.k.a. Heaven) just that I'm good enough to NOT deserve everlasting torture. I'm a little surprised that you think it's okay for God to torture people for not believing in Him.

Kelly said...

It's not like doing "Good Works" is going to save your ass. Then we would be able to boast about how good you are.

That also happens with faith--there are Christians out there who like to boast about their faith getting them to Heaven. It's quite similar, imo.

Foxius said...

Mr./Miss/Mrs. Jewish Athiest, this is indeed an interesting blog entry. I must say however, that I feel you looked too deeply into the probability/payoff strand of your argument. Surely it is irrelevant, for what exactly qualifies as a 'religion' or 'faith'?

Tomorrow I could create my own religion, with the greatest odds and payoffs possible so that via the Pascal's Wager argument, my faith is the most logical 'choice'.

Pascal's Wager would only be close to being valid if we make the very sketchy assumption that out of the choice of religions we have, all/most (certainly Christianity and Judaism) are based on factually valid Holy credentials, and are therefore somehow different from a text I could theoretically make up tomorrow.

(apologies if a double post appears)