Pascal’s Wager

Adam Nehr


Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. . . . If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. . . . Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

—Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)

The religious frequently use Pascal’s Wager as a tool to try to convert nonbelievers. On the surface, at least, it appears irrefutable: How can you argue with a guaranteed upside gain and zero downside risk? Given those odds, isn’t belief the only rational path? (Leave aside, for now, the question of which religion’s god we are to bet on; for Pascal the only choices were Catholic Christianity or atheism. For the sake of the argument I’m about to offer, let us accept that framework.)

Actually, arguing with Pascal’s notion is easy, given that an antithesis to it is available that makes just as much sense as the Wager itself. Fair warning: to pursue this idea effectively, we will be required to give some rhetorical ground—temporarily, at least—so the debate can begin. Staunch nonbelievers may blanch at the idea of forming an argument that starts with a presumption that god exists. Further, we will have to examine some religious texts and make some assumptions about them that may also be uncomfortable for skeptics. But believe me, in this case it will all be worthwhile.

Now let’s add one more idea to the mix. We have all been exposed to religious texts and questioned the reasons for their obvious inconsistencies. The Bible, the Qur’an, the Torah—name the scripture of your choice: each has numerous internal contradictions. (Of course they all contradict each other as well.) Believers look past the contradictions in some passages yet take others verbatim and defend them with obsessive fervor. This adds another layer of contradiction in and of itself. Believers often presume that these multiple, layered contradictions can be overlooked or explained away as “God’s will.” To nonbelievers, of course, those same contradictions add proof for allegations that the texts are merely ancient anecdotes written by mere mortals. In the end, even the pious will agree that the texts contain some obscure and hard-to-understand passages, which gives us the starting point for the rest of our argument.

With the understandings that (1) for the sake of argument, God exists, and (2) the religious passages are written with entrained contradictions, we can now take on Pascal with reason and logic.

The core precept of Pascal’s Wager is that life is a test of human beings administered by God, a test in which the easiest way to score a passing grade is to believe without question. At least, that’s how most people interpret the Wager. But when we accept that precept, we accept a presumption that the test is about belief. What if the test is actually about intellect?

Pascal apparently never considered that there could be an antithesis to his Wager, and that will be its undoing. In fact, the simplest explanation for the existence of so many contradictions in religious texts (assuming a god actually exists) is that they are there to test whether—or when—reason has supplanted superstition in the mind of the common person. If the texts were completely logical and rational, then there would be no reason to question them. Thus, if the absurdities have a rational function, they must be there to detect when people notice that they are absurd.

If we first stipulate that God created the universe as an experiment of some sort, then this follows simply and logically. All the contradictions that dot the world’s scriptures receive a rational explanation—one that also passes the test of Occam’s razor. For this imagined god to test the intellect of his creations with absurd texts would be the simplest and most rational explanation of an overall scenario that includes (1) people with minds, (2) a god who created them, and (3) self-contradictory divine texts.

Of course, nonbelievers may hesitate to advance this argument because it starts with the presumption that God not only exists but also inspired religious texts with a purpose in mind. Still, it’s a powerful argument when contending with believers on the issue of Pascal’s Wager.

The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is simple: if a god exists and is testing us, it is just as likely that the test is about intellect as it is that the test is about belief. If the former is the case, then nonbelievers are closer to divine approval than anyone on Earth!

Armed with this argument we, the rational, can offer believers the idea that even if God exists, naïve belief in him would actually displease him. Yes, we must start the argument by conceding that God might exist. But by the end of our argument, God’s presence becomes irrelevant. In the end, the presumption of God is rendered moot, and the seeming safety of penitence is brought to par with the supposed danger of skepticism—and vice versa—all for the price of a temporary concession to superstition.

Adam Nehr

Adam Nehr recently retired from the Space Shuttle program, where he was a camera system designer and high-speed imaging specialist. He has also enjoyed a long career in commercial and fine art imaging. His 2004 show “Issues and Icons” challenged religious and political beliefs.

  Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. . . . If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. . . . Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. —Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) The religious frequently use Pascal’s Wager as a tool to try to convert …

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