“What if you’re wrong?” is probably the most common questions I’m asked when someone finds out that I’m atheist. It’s the modern form of a very old argument originated by Blaise Pascal, a Frenchman from the 1600’s. His argument was this: There are four possibilities. If you believe in God and he exists, then you are rewarded in paradise for all of eternity. If you believe in God and are wrong, you’ve lost nothing. If you don’t believe in God and he exists, then you are tormented for all of eternity. If you don’t believe and you’re right, you’ve lost nothing. Clearly, the only choice is to believe, right or wrong.
At first glance, this may seem like it makes sense. All you have to do is believe and you’re guaranteed an eternity in paradise. Who wouldn’t want that? Well, it’s not that simple. There are a few problems with Pascal’s Wager. First is that it doesn’t take into account that there is more than one possible god. Which one do you believe in? Maybe the god that exists is one that would rather you not believe than believe in some other god. If you believe in Allah and Yahweh exists, then you’ll be eternally tormented. Belief alone isn’t enough to ensure a favorable outcome. There could even be a god, like Loki for example, that rewards people for not believing in him. In that case, not believing would yield the greatest reward and belief would result in eternal torment. That’s the exact opposite of what Pascal said would happen. Just betting on a random deity isn’t a good bet.
A second problem is that there is no reason to believe that a god would reward based entirely on belief. What is so great about belief that would be worth eternal salvation or torment? If I were deciding someone’s eternal fate, it would be based on the person’s character. Were they a good person? Did they treat other people favorably? Did they have love in their life? Did they make an impact on someone else’s life? Do other people remember them favorably? Did they live a life that they would be proud of? Those are the kind of things that might matter to me. The one question that I wouldn’t consider would be if they believed that I existed or not. Belief just doesn’t matter. Wouldn’t a god be at least as good as me?
Third, if you say that you believe just because you find it statistically in your favor, wouldn’t a god see through the ruse? This is a god we’re talking about. The creator of the universe, and of you. Any god would know that you’re just playing the statistics and going for the safe bet. You can’t fool a god.
Fourth, the existence of a god does not mean that humans have an afterlife. It is entirely possible that there is a god, but death is the end for us. There is no reason to think that we somehow outlive our own deaths just because there is a god. What we do have evidence for, is that we don’t survive our deaths. Everything we know about consciousness indicates that it is a product of our brains. When our brains die, so do we.
Fifth, if we do survive our deaths, and a god exists, how do we know that it actually knows about us, or cares about what we do, or has the power to determine our futures? It’s possible that a god exists but doesn’t even know about us. We could be an unintended side-effect of this god’s real children, black holes. We could die and meet god, only to find out that we are actually just food for his favorite creation, the Vorsplat living on planet Farsnicket. We could die and meet a god that’s just as surprised to see us as we are to see him.
Sixth, belief is not a choice. One can’t simply decide to believe that a god exists. A belief is something that you are convinced of. You can want to believe that you can fly, but standing at the edge of a cliff will show very quickly that you don’t actually believe you can fly. Belief simply isn’t a choice.
When people use Pascal’s Wager in normal conversation, it isn’t used so formally. It takes a form more like, “What if you’re wrong?” or “Aren’t you afraid of Hell?”. My response to those questions is always a quick one. “Aren’t you afraid of Hell?” Nope. Are you afraid of the Hells of every other religion that you don’t believe in? “What if you’re wrong?” If I’m wrong, at least one god exists, maybe more. Does that god(s) know that I exist? Does it/they care? Does it/they have any power over me? Does it/they care what I’ve done with my life? Does it/they have cookies?