A Reversal of Pascal’s Wager

16 August, 2008

Christians view themselves as saved.  They will be magically transported to heaven, their body made whole, all injuries and sickness and pain gone, to spend an eternity basking in the glow of the eternal god(s).  But Christianity is tricky.

Early religions focused upon ritual.  Burn the right part of the goat and the gods will be pleased.  Offer wine and grain at the temple, the gods are happy.  Set aside part of your crop, the gods are pleased.  Burn incense, the gods are pleased.

Then came Christianity.  The early years of Christianity were, to be blunt, chaos.  During the first two hundred years, there were Christians who thought Jesus was all human, or all spirit, or a mix of both, or all bothat the same time.  There were believers who insisted that to be a Christian, one first had to become a Jew (complete with circumcision).  Others viewed the Jews as completely irrelevant.  Some viewed Jewish dietary restrictions as essential for Christians, others saw these restrictions as superseded.

As these different versions of Christianity warred with each other, the rhetoric was heated.  The term heresy was invented.  And every different version of Christian was called a heretic by the adherents of the other versions.  The arguments for and against the different gospels (and the different versions of the gospels) provide much of the early history of Christianity (the arguments about who got to run the different churches fills in other parts). 

These arguments were of supreme importance:  Christians claim that only the correct belief will save the soul.  If a ‘Christian’ believes one thing that is wrong in the eyes of God, to hell with you. 

Winners, however, write history.  The idea of balanced history (exploring all the different views of an event) is a very recent development.  The surviving writings are only those the winners (Erhmann calls this group the proto-Orthodox) chose.  As many of the other writings as possible were destroyed in the name of preserving orthodoxy — right belief.

All of modern Christianity, whether Appalachian snake handlers, Russian Orthodox nuns, high society High Episcopalians, Polish Roman Catholic grandmothers, or Southern Baptist pastors, follow the same basic teachings.  The Nicene Creed layed out exactly what must be believed in order to be a Christian.  All the other versions lost (though it may have taken until the 8th or 9thcentury for some of the Gnostic sects to disappear).  The trinity, the  death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sin through the suffering of Jesus are all part of this document.

Of course, it didn’t take long for Christians to start arguing over what the Nicene Creed actually meant.  First came the break between Catholic and Orthodox.  Later came the Brethren, the Lutherans, the Anabaptists, and all the other sundry splinter groups of Christianity.  And each and every group has (explicitly or implicitly) decreed that all the other groups are heretics.

So, Christians:  how do you know that your version of Christianity is the one and only proper way to be saved?   After all, the Nicene Creed did away with hundreds, possibly thousands, of other  beliefs.  What if one of them was the one truth?  There are now hundreds of different versions of Christianity.  Which one is correct?  They can’t all be right as Christianity is based upon believing exactly the right thing about exactly the right things.

I am an atheist (in case you didn’t already know by looking at the title of my blog).  I recognize the limits of my knowledge.  I learn new things every day and continuously revise my view of the world.  Today, for instance, I learned about a possible 9,000 year old burial on the shores of a lake in what is now the Sahara Desert (Hat tip to Pharyngula).  Wow.  I didn’t know that during the Holocene, the Sahara Desert was a grassland dotted with lakes.

I accept that I will never know everything about anything.  I pursue what interests me.  I also hold a profoundly naturalist view of the world.  All that is, all that was, can be explained through natural processes.  We may not have figured out these processes yet, but I have confidence that we will at least be able to form theories to explain all phenomena.  Since I see no need for god(s), since I see no evidence for god(s), I am an atheist.

But what about death?  I remember when I first realized that I would die.  I was around six or seven, living in Arizona.  I experienced my first taste of true horror.  I will die.  Someday, but I will die. 

As I matured, and my knowledge base increased, I was able to compartmentalize that thought.  As an agnostic (I have no way of knowing, so why worry) I was much more relaxed about death.  I realized I am really an atheist only eight months ago and have been surprised at how relaxed I feel about death.

Dying scares the shit out of me.  I don’t like pain.  I don’t like the idea of actually going through that process.  Death, however, is nothingness.  Before I was born, billions of people lived and died and I was nothing.  When I die, billions, maybe trillions, of people will live and die after me, and I will be nothing.

The Christian obsession with death has become more clear to me.  Death and dying scare them.  Dying because of pain and uncertainty.  Death scares Christians because, no matter how much a Christian believes, no matter how much they tithe, no matter how many prayers, how many sermons, how much selective reading of the Bible, how do they know?  Christians claim to have faith in their belief. 

So if there are hundreds, even thousands, of different versions of Christianity, how does a Christian know that they have chosen the absolute one and only right teaching — the right orthodoxy.  Seems to me that a Christian has a minisculechance of being right, no matter how much faith is invested. 

I may be wrong about god(s).  God(s) may exist though there is no physical evidence, no proof.  However, if I am wrong, at least I haven’t pissed off the almighty by believing the wrong thing.  I just don’t believe.

Come on over to the safe side.  Embrace rationality and embrace atheism.  You’ll piss god(s) off a little less.



  1. Here’s where we differ. If gods exist, I want to piss them off a lot because they’ve done an absolutely crappy job and have pretty much turned everything they’ve touched to shit. (Oh, wait… we aren’t talking about Bush?) Gods should have their asses kicked daily. (Bush should have his kicked hourly, by the by.)

    I see two scenarios. Lots of gods, gathered around a feast table, laughing about how well they’ve screwed up the peons on earth. Or one god, holding his head in his hands, muttering ‘How could I have created such a bunch of fucking idiots?’

    Or, my favorite, no gods, just a planetful of idiots with their head in the sand as they slowly kill themselves and everything else.

  2. ‘heads’

  3. Ric: I was trying to point out the absurdity of Pascal’s Wager given the miniscule possibility of even one Christian sect having it right.


  4. Of course you were. I was just riffing on my own.

    ‘heads’ as in ‘heads in the sand’.

  5. No problem. It’s my Friday. Your riff missed (me, at least).

    Heads in the sand. That makes sense. Of course, tails in the sand would at least bury the brains.

  6. I asked a Christian this once, how could they believe what was in the bible since man chose the books that would go into the bible, and a council voted on their interpretation of scripture. She said God directed it through man, and would have had the men make the right decision. What I realized; you can’t beat a supernatural force with logic ((magic beats logic in fantasy world)).

  7. However, if I am wrong, at least I haven’t pissed off the almighty by believing the wrong thing.

    I don’t know about that

  8. Good one (((Billy))), I have heard this argument before, and even used it myself, but you have done a good job of expanding and explaining it.

    I’ve actual had a priest tell me that “god directed it through man”. It’s a pity I didn’t know back then what I know now, because I would have asked the priest “but isn’t that what all the other ministers in all the other religions say, only one of you can be right”

  9. […] God, and I need you to follow along, dear surfers, because I am going to stretch our network out to Billy, who is questing for spiritual guidance, from the outside of Christianity looking in. This is your […]

  10. As our friend Bill Shakespeare observed in “Hamlet”, “To die…to sleep…perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub…for in that sleep of death who knows what dreams may come”? With a final observation that “Thus death doth make cowards of us all”. I suspect Bill captured the nut of the religious need in that soliloquy.

    This “divine inspiration” schtick takes a lot of desperation to buy into, in my opinion.

    “Moved by the spirit”. What a crock.

  11. Sarge: I hereby present you with a “Halleck” award (from the book Dune by Frank Herbert) for coming up with the perfect quote. Congratulations. You and Ex are the only two to have won one.

  12. Noble Crusade: Thanks for the link. The only thing I seek is knowledge — cultural history and natural history. But thanks for the link anyway. Should be fun and educational.

  13. […] presents A Reversal of Pascal’s Wager posted at (((Billy))) The […]

  14. I think a somewhat subtler flaw in Pascal’s Wager is also overlooked by believers.

    Most religious believers seem to believe you should sincerely accept God in your heart, be “born again,” etc. If a person accepts God as a cynical evaluation of a wager, that’s not very sincere, is it? Does God really want someone who is believing based on a “calculation,” like a person at a blackjack table picking a card because the odds are better?

  15. Modesty Press: Thanks for stopping by. That’s a wonderful flaw. I’ll have to look into that further, expecially in relation to some of the religious asshats I have known.

  16. If a god gave me this ability to think and reason, then failing to use that god-given talent, and instead choosing to believe in the supernatural, would surely piss off such a god.

    We win.

  17. Newbie: Welcom to my blog, and welcome to reality. Nice circular reasoning there. Near as I can make out, no matter what humans do would piss god off. All those piddly little rule.

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