My approach to apologetics starts with the idea that if given a fair hearing, Christianity is the most reasonable worldview both in its explanatory power and the satisfactory nature of its answers. As such, I have never found Blaise Pascal's Wager particularly useful in my own approach to apologetics. After all, Pascal's Wager (the "Wager") essentially attempts to argue that if a person were to bet wisely on whether or not Christian God exists and to live his life accordingly, the wise man would choose to bet that God exists. Since it begins with the implicit assumption that one cannot come to conclude that God exists in any absolute sense, it generally doesn't jive with my own apologetics approach. Still, I think that it has been unfairly labeled a failure.
Pascal's Wager Stated
The "Pascal's Wager" essay on the Philosophy of Religion site summarizes the wager as follows:
Premise 1: It is possible that the Christian God exists and it is possible that the Christian God does not exist.
Premise 2: If one believes in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great reward and if he does not exist then one loses little or nothing.
Premise 3: If one does not believe in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great punishment and if he does not exist then one gains little or nothing.
Premise 4: It is better to either receive an infinitely great reward or lose little or nothing than it is to either receive an infinitely great punishment or gain little or nothing.
Conclusion 1: Therefore, it is better to believe in the Christian God than it is not to believe in the Christian God.
Premise 5: If one course of action is better than another then it is rational to follow that course of action and irrational to follow the other.
Conclusion 2: Therefore, it is rational to believe in the Christian God and irrational not to believe in the Christian God.
Properly speaking, the Wager isn’t an argument for the existence of God. Instead, it begins with the premise that God may or may not exist (Premise 1). Thus, it assumes as one of its core assumptions that it is not possible to determine absolutely that there is or is not a god. Starting from this point, the Wager then argues that the person with wisdom should choose to believe in God because it is the only means by which one cannot lose.
A Quick Thought on "Losing" in the Original Wager
Many skeptics argue that the believer does lose something if he believes in a God that doesn’t exist: he loses the fun of sinning. (Sinning is fun, that’s why we have to fight against it.) Theists counter that the fun lost is not the type of fun that leads to true happiness. Thus, even though Christians lose some fun they are ultimately happier for following a more moral road.
Also, skeptics argue that there is something lost from believing in a God that doesn’t exist – truth. But the Wager begins with the proposition that it isn’t possible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist, so there is no way to rationally arrive at absolute proof one way or the other. So, there is no way to know that the Christian is not the one following truth -- at least until we die. But even when we die, if the skeptic is correct and there is no afterlife we still won't know it because we will not be consciously aware of not being alive.
The Wager Does Not Argue for a General Theism
Many have raised a "false choice" objection to the Wager. This objection basically contends that the Wager offers only two choices -- to choose between the God of the Bible or no god at all. Thus, it is argued, that the wager fails to account for a myriad of other possible gods might exist. This argument is made, for example, by About.com's irrepressible Austin Cline where he argues:
The first problem lies in the implicit yet unstated assumption that we already know which god we should believe in. That assumption, however, is not necessary to the argument, and thus the argument itself does not explain which religion a person should follow. This can be described as the "avoiding the wrong hell" dilemma. If you happen to follow the right religion, you may indeed "go to heaven and avoid hell." However, if you choose the wrong religion, you’ll still go to hell.
The thing missed by so many who use this argument is that you cannot "bet" on the general concept of "theism." You have to pick specific doctrines.
Surprisingly, I agree with Austin Cline on something. The argument does assume that we know which god we should believe in. The Philosophy of Religion syllogism makes that clear. After all, Blaise Pascal was a Christian writer whose entire arguments were clothed in Christian language. His concept of God was that of the God of the Bible. Thus, for someone to assert that Pascal's argument does not itself identify which religion a person should follow shows either a woeful ignorance of the context in which Pascal wrote or a total and complete disregard of that context to the point of being deceptive.
If Christians are using the argument to argue for a generic theism as Mr. Cline seems to suggest is happening, I find myself once again surprisingly in agreement with Mr. Cline. The argument does not hold up if a general concept of theism is the goal. After all, a general concept of theism does not necessarily require a view that "a god" would have a system of divine rewards or punishment as exist in the Wager. The clockmaker god of Deism, for example, if followed to its logical conclusions, shouldn't care in the slightest what type of people we are because He has done nothing to reveal any such concern to us. Therefore, the general concept of theism isn't that to which the wager is addressed or intended to be addressed.
The Horse-Race Scenario
But what about other religions? If we are dealing only with possibilities, it is also possible that another god or gods exist, isn't it? Skeptics point out that this wasn’t a bad decision when there were only two choices: Christianity versus non-Christianity. But today’s world is much more cosmopolitan with a wide variety of choices in the religious deli. We can choose to be Hindus or Mormons or Pagans or Zoroastrians or Jews etc., etc. Thus, rather than being like a flip of the coin, it is more like a horse race. The skeptic argues that if you choose the wrong God in the deity horse-race, you are just as likely to lose as the skeptic so there is no benefit from belief. In truth, that is a flaw in Pascal's statement of the Wager, but Mr. Cline (as most atheists) simply points out the flaw but doesn't follow through on the effect of the flaw.
No Logical Flaw in Focusing on the Christian God
Pascal's version of the Wager starts with the statement that "it is possible" that the Christian God exists and it is also possible that He doesn't exist. If the Christian God exists then certain consequences follow. If the Christian God does not exist than other consequences follow. There is nothing unsound in starting with this point. This is not flawed logic any more than saying, "It is possible that Hawaii exists and it is possible that Hawaii does not exist." If it does exist, then we have a really nice place to vacation. If it doesn't exist, then we may have to go the the Bahamas for our island vacation. But there is no logical flaw in starting from the question of whether a particular island exists and asking what the consequences are which follow from that point. Likewise, there is no logical flaw in starting with examining the consequences that follow from whether a particular conception of God is true or not.
The Problem of the Possibility of Other Gods
But, Mr. Cline objects, the Wager fails to take the possible existence of other gods into account. These other gods make the wager useless. He says,
If you are going to really believe in a god, you have to believe in something — which means picking something. If you pick nothing, then your “belief” is literally empty and you remain an atheist. So, a person who picks risks picking the wrong god and avoiding the wrong hell.
A second problem is that it isn’t actually true that the person who bets loses nothing. If a person bets on the wrong god, then the True God (tm) just might punish them for their foolish behavior. What’s more, the True God (tm) might not mind that people don’t bother believing in it when they use rational reasons — thus, not picking at all might be the safest bet. You just cannot know.
This is a most common argument against the Wager. And, as I said before, Mr. Cline's objection has some, minimal merit. After all, if the Christian God does not exist then other gods who actually may exist could send the well-meaning follower of Christ to their religion's version of hell for not believing in that god. Thus, for the person who chooses to follow the Christian God, it would be untrue that "if he does not exist then one loses little or nothing" as Pascal's wager asserts.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it really is raised as an objection without really considering what it means (especially to the atheists) in light of the Wager. Basically, all this objection does is add more variables to the argument. But what exactly is the effect of this additional variable?
Adding the Additional Category
When the possibility of another god or gods is added to the equation, it creates three categories of possibilities that need to be considered: (1) The Christian God exists, (2) another god or other gods exist while the Christian God does not, and (3) no God or gods exist. The person to whom the wager is proposed now has three possible choices: (1) they can believe in the Christian God, (2) they can believe in another god or other gods, or (3) they can believe in no God or gods. How do these relate?
A. Believers in the Christian God
If one believes in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great reward. In this case, the people who believes in another god, other gods or no God or gods loses. If one believes in the Christian God and no God or gods exist, then the original wager holds: the believer who follows the Christian morality loses little or nothing.
The stickier question arises when one believes in Christianity but another god/gods exist. If one believes in the Christian God and He doesn't exist but another god or other gods exist, then the Christian might lose, but there is no certainty. Consider the possibilities: (A) The other god or gods may not have a heaven or hell. One may simply be returned to another cycle of reincarnation. One may simply be annihilated. (B) The god or gods may reward good behaviour and be a works oriented religion in which case, a truly devoted Christian who truly follows the teaching of Jesus to loves one's neighbor may even possibly win. (C) The god or gods may reward the person who honestly seeks him, her or them even if they choose wrongly. Most Christians follow God because they honestly believe they are following the one true God. Such a god or gods would probably reward the Christian. (D) As Mr. Cline suggests, "the True God (tm) might not mind that people don’t bother believing in it when they use rational reasons." If that is the case, again many Christians would win. (E) The other god/gods may insist upon following him/her/them or following a set of rituals to get into his/her/their heaven. If this is the case, the Christian will lose.
So which is it? There is no way to answer generally. There are simply too many variables to say that the Christian will either lose or win in this eventuality. However it is clear that even in this eventuality the only way the Christian clearly loses is if the other god/gods may insist upon following him/her/them or following a set of rituals to get into his/her/their heaven. In all other cases, the Christian could win (or at least lose little or nothing).
B. Believers in Another God or Other Gods
What about the person who believes in another god or gods in this modified Wager? Well, if the Christian God exists then that believer loses. If the other god or gods do exist, then there is no way to know whether the believer wins. Certainly, he doesn't lose if he has chosen the correct alternate deity, but this believer may not have lived his life in a way that is pleasing to a works-based god. There may be no reward for believers. Finally, if no god or gods exist, then the believer could still lose if the religion does not call on its adherents to be moral people because then he may not have lived a good life anyway.
C. Believers in No God or Gods
The poor atheist, however, finds himself in the worst possible situation. If the Christian God exists the atheist loses. If the Christian god doesn't exist but another god or gods exist, then the atheist is in the same boat as the Christian -- there are simply too many variables to say that the atheist will either lose in this eventuality. However, the situation is very much like the problem as originally stated by Pascal for when no god exists, the atheist gains gains little or nothing.(Two possible exceptions exist to this rule: (1) the atheist who lives by a good moral code without rational justification for doing so and the god/gods' rewards are good behavior, and (2) the god/gods exist(s) who doesn't mind those who "don’t bother believing in it when they use rational reasons" even when those reasons are obviously flawed because the rejected god/gods exist. These are the only two places the atheist might win.)
Summing Up the Results
So, looking at the Wager with this new middle ground added, the only way that the Christian really loses is if another god or gods exist who punishes people who don't believe in him. In all other situations the Christians either wins or loses little or nothing. The believer in another god or other gods may win if he has bet on the right god or gods, but in most cases is very much like the Christian in that most alternatives will leave him or her losing little or nothing. The skeptic, however, either loses or gains little or nothing most of the time.
It seems that if the possibility of another god or gods are added into the equation, Pascal's Wager, while not affording no chance of losing to the Christian, still provides the best odds of winning or losing nothing to the Christian. Atheism, however, remains the worst choice because there is almost no chance of winning. In most cases, the atheist is in no better position than the Christian, and in many cases he is worst off in virtually every scenario. Going back to the horse race analogy: Skeptics are the only group who, no matter which horse wins, still gain little or nothing regardless of the outcome and risk losing everything. Every other religious group has at least the chance of winning and regardless of whether they are wrong, the moral obligations that accompany the belief give them a benefit. Skeptics cannot win no matter what.