Believers often say that Skeptics have no values, or that atheists have chosen to disbelieve so that they can be free of the burden of obedience to a god. Contrary to these popular misunderstandings, Skeptics do have values, and atheists are sometimes better constrained by principle than Christians would like to admit. The Skeptic’s response to a popular argument of Christian apologetics illustrates one such principle and value.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th century mathematician who was also a Christian. He acknowledged his inability to know for certain whether or not the Christian god existed, but he saw belief as a choice. More specifically, he envisioned this choice as the wager a person might make on the flip of a coin.
”Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is,” said Pascal. “Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”
Here are the central assumptions about this coin toss, which has come to be known as ‘Pascal’s Wager.’
- There are only two choices, Christianity and ‘other’ (atheism).
- Every person makes a bet; no one can choose not to bet.
- There are equal likelihoods that the coin will fall with the Christian face up or the atheist face up.
- The potential winnings are much greater for the person who bets on the Christian face: eternal salvation and escape from eternal torture in hell. Pascal argued that betting on the atheist side, the bettor wins nothing.
Pascal summarizes this way, “And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.”
Most Skeptics I’ve talked to have a number of problems with Pascal’s Wager. Certainly there are logical problems with it, since there are more than two possible world views; our choices are not simply between Christianity and unbelief. Furthermore, even within those two world views, very few people consider Christianity and atheism to be equally feasible.
For a lot of us, though, the unavoidable problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it violates our values. Pascal’s Wager violates personal integrity by coercing people (Christians and atheists alike) to pretend they don’t see which way the scale of probability leans. We are asked to make a choice based, not on the facts, but on what the potential rewards and punishments might be.
The Wager treats belief and unbelief as matters of opinion, so that any bettor could honestly choose either way. The factual truth is therefore considered as unimportant and subjective as a dessert preference, so there is little surprise about where most people would place their bets. If choosing cherry pie would result in electrocution, and choosing hot fudge cake would bring everlasting happiness, only a crazy person would choose the pie.
To a Skeptic, however, the facts are not matters of choice. Betting on the facts might be good entertainment, but it isn’t the way we form beliefs. And for those who value the truth more than a false sense of certainty, Pascal offers only an obscene farce.
Pascal’s Wager is a crooked game; it’s the equivalent of a side show hustle. The stakes are not your soul, and where you place your bet doesn’t really matter. What matters is that while you’re focused on a flipping coin that won’t land in your lifetime, the hustler has already lifted integrity from your back pocket. And that’s the real cost for playing.