Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager imagines belief in God as a wager. Suppose you bet that the Christian god exists and act accordingly. If you win, you hit the jackpot by going to heaven, and if you lose, you won’t have lost much. But if you bet that God doesn’t exist, if you win, you get nothing and if you lose, you go to hell. Conclusion: you should bet that God exists.

A thorough critique of the many failings of this argument will have to wait for another post. But this argument is easily turned around to make the Atheist’s Wager. If God exists and is a decent and fair being, he would respect those who used their God-given brains for critical thinking. He would applaud those who followed the evidence where it led. Since God’s existence is hardly obvious, he would reward thoughtful atheists with heaven after death.

But God would be annoyed at those who adopted a belief because it felt good rather than because it was well-grounded with evidence, and he would send to hell those who misused his gift of intelligence.

Here it is formulated as a syllogism:

  • God treats people fairly and will send honest, truth-seeking people to heaven and everyone else to hell.
  • God set up the world without substantial evidence of his existence.
  • Therefore, God will send only atheists to heaven.

The Atheist’s Wager can be different than Pascal’s Wager in that Pascal is assuming the Christian god, while the Atheist’s Wager can imagine a benevolent god. The difference is that the actions of the benevolent god can be evaluated with ordinary human ideas of right and wrong, while Christians often must play the “God’s ways are not our ways” card to explain away God’s occasional insanity as recorded in the Bible. For example, no benevolent god would send one of his creations to rot in hell forever. Or support slavery. Or demand genocide.

Of course, if a non-benevolent god exists, and the Christians stumbled upon the correct way to placate him, then the atheist is indeed screwed. But then we’re back to the fundamental question: why believe this?

Photo credit: maorix

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • Austin Cline, “Atheism & Hell: What if You Atheists Are Wrong? Aren’t You Afraid of Hell?,” About.com.
  • “Atheist’s Wager,” Wikipedia.

15 thoughts on “Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

  1. To Bob S,

    While critical thinking is undoubtedly important in this world, making it a requirement for entering heaven would mean that the majority of humankind will lose. Because only a tiny minority of people have thoroughly investigated the soundness of their religious beliefs. The remainder take them on faith, period.

      • I’m missing your question. You’re asking if a benevolent God would demand that his children use their brains?

        The main point about the “benevolent” qualifier is that this differentiates the god in the Atheist’s Wager situation from the Christian god.

  2. To Bob S,

    Here is a text you may be interested in. It comes from “Lumen Gentium”, a document of the Second Vatican Council:

    ” Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. ” (LG, #16)

    As you can see, honest atheists can make it to heaven according to the Catholic Church. So the basis of Pascal’s Wager is flawed.

    • Reminds me of the savage who, after being taught the gospel, asked the priest what would’ve happened if he’d died without knowing. “Oh, you wouldn’t have been blamed for your ignorance. You wouldn’t have gone to hell.”

      The savage replied, “Well then why did you teach this to me then?!”

      • To which it may replied that though salvation is possible without the Gospel, it is easier with it. Besides, the Gospel is not just about the afterlife, but also about the possibility of a better life NOW.

        • But the priest’s efforts opened up the avenue to hell for the savage. Not cool.

          I don’t see how it’s a better life now. Are you saying that the statistics show luck befalling Christians more than non-Christians?

        • A pagan who was not contacted by missionaries may or may not go to heaven. Read carefully the excerpt from Lumen Gentium.

          It would be a mistake to think that the people the Gospel has not reached are saved “by default”. In that case, it may be said that, indeed, Christians are doing them a disservice by bringing them the Gospel.

          Those who are saved are those who honestly sought for the ultimate truth and who followed the rules their consciences told them to follow. Because Catholics believe that God speaks to us in our consciences. If an atheist does that, then the Spirit is in him, even if he does not know it.

    • I think you mean, “honest atheists who don’t know the gospel.

      Most Christians would consign me to hell, given that I’m aware of the gospel but don’t believe. (Not that that’s an option available to me, of course.)

      • You would be hard-pressed to find a single text of the Catholic Magisterium claiming that atheists who heard about the Gospel are sure to go to hell. Things are not so simple, Bob.

        • Then I guess I’m confused. You get into heaven if you accept Jesus. The atheist doesn’t (and, in this case, he has no excuse that he hadn’t heard the gospel message). So Catholics say that this atheist may well go to heaven?

        • To Bob S,

          Atheists may implicitly accept Jesus if what they reject is a false picture of him, or if some cause beyond their control prevents them seeing the real Jesus for what he is and makes them see parodies of him instead. Many believers detract divert well-meaning atheists from belief by their demeanor or by their false theologies.

  3. So Bob, while evangelicals may strongly disagree, I see little evidence that you are to go to hell. In some sense, you are even probably closer to heaven than one who spends one’s life indulging in basic pleasures without paying any heed to the ultimate questions.

    Actually, the Catholic Church never said of anyone (even the worst atheist, the worst rapist, the worst mass murderer) that that one ended up in hell. The Church just does not have the authority to decide that. Only God does. When Christians say of the dead that they are in hell, they are faulty of hubris.

    • Is it just the evangelicals/conservatives who imagine strict rules about the entrance requirements to heaven and hell?

      Yes, I understand that the church or individual Christians can’t pass judgment (and say “It’s in God’s hands”), but they will clearly state the rules that consign atheists to hell. Right?

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