The Costs of Trying to Defeat Pascal’s Wager

Concerning Pascal’s Wager, I wrote:

So what? When I die, I simply cease to exist. I have incurred no cost.

Peter replied:

I think this is a rather limited analysis of “cost”. No religion is cost-free, and Christians don’t usually claim that for Christianity either. There might not be any “cost” in terms of eternal wellbeing if you die and it turns out atheism was true after all. But you have still paid whatever costs Christianity – the pearl of great price – required of you during your lifetime.

Maybe a member of a rival monotheistic sect held a knife to your throat and demanded you convert, and you were a faithful witness where an atheist could have saved his skin by sacrificing his public commitment to atheism?

Maybe you could have been happy escaping a boring marriage, or having an adulterous relationship with your secretary? If you had been an atheist, there would have been rationalizations open to you that would allow you to explore these paths and still be faithful to your belief system.

Maybe you asked what you had to do to obtain eternal life, and you were told you had to sell everything you have, and you did so?

Maybe you simply liked sleeping in on Sunday mornings, or you could have had breakfast at a local cafe instead of putting the money in the offering basket?

It seems to me these are factors that need to be taken into account when considering Pascal’s Wager.

Okay, let’s have a closer look at these costs:

Maybe a member of a rival monotheistic sect held a knife to your throat and demanded you convert, and you were a faithful witness where an atheist could have saved his skin by sacrificing his public commitment to atheism?

The Cost:  It is easier for an atheist to lie.

Maybe you could have been happy escaping a boring marriage, or having an adulterous relationship with your secretary? If you had been an atheist, there would have been rationalizations open to you that would allow you to explore these paths and still be faithful to your belief system.

The Cost: It is easier for an atheist to cheat on his/her spouse.

Maybe you asked what you had to do to obtain eternal life, and you were told you had to sell everything you have, and you did so?

The Cost: It is easier for an atheist to be selfishly greedy.

Maybe you simply liked sleeping in on Sunday mornings, or you could have had breakfast at a local cafe instead of putting the money in the offering basket?

The Cost: It is easier for an atheist to spend time and money on himself rather than others.

The common theme is that the cost of being a Christian is that it is harder to behave in an immoral fashion.  It is harder to lie, harder to cheat, harder to live a selfish, greedy lifestyle.

Of course, if this cost is real, then the negative stereotypes about atheists are true.

If, however, the atheist is no more likely to lie, cheat, and live a selfish, greedy lifestyle, the costs mentioned by Peter are also incurred by atheists.

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8 Responses to The Costs of Trying to Defeat Pascal’s Wager

  1. apollyon911 says:

    The reality is, religious people are generally happier, in spite of ‘restrictions’ to their lifestyles.

    http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2014/12/24/religious-people-much-happier-than-others-new-study-shows/

    Maximum freedom, as enticing as it seems, does not appear to lead to a happier life.

    Atheists tend to be less happy than Believers:

    http://atheism.about.com/od/Atheist-Agnostic-Belief-Survey/fl/Atheists-Happiness-Satisfaction-Survey.htm

    It’s unclear why that is, but even though ‘correlation does not mean causation’, it certainly begs an explanation.

  2. Peter says:

    I should probably have added that in general the consciences of atheists don’t seem to be remarkably disfunctional compared to believers. I don’t know if there are statistics for behaviour such as lying, cheating on spouses etc comparing believers and atheists but they are probably similar. In fact I think most of the time our consciences are shaped by peer pressure and culture, which is generally the same for believers and nonbelievers if they live in the same society. With that out of the way, the points I wanted to make are:

    1. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are not cost-free. Pascal’s Wager doesn’t seem to really take this into account but it probably depends on the brand of religion: If it’s an easygoing church which preaches and practices mostly the same sorts of things as the culture in general, you could go along with it on the off-chance that it turns out to be true and gives you a ticket to Heaven. You have low-cost bet with a potentially infinite payout which only an idiot would pass up. That’s not the same as e.g. living as a Christian in Syria or Rome pre-Constantine.

    2. In practise atheists probably incur pretty much the same costs as believers of playing by moral rules, but in principle they get to be ultimate authority and interpreter of those rules and there’s probably a certain satisfaction in that even if their morality is conventional. There’s no cosmic father figure who will answer the hard questions for them: they have to determine the morality of their actions themselves, and bear the consequences. Ultimately they are and have to be sovereign – the cosmic throne is empty and they are compelled, whether or not they want to, to ascend it. Needless to say, that’s something you don’t get to do as a believer and for at least some atheists it might seem like a cost if they had to give it up.

    Of course there’s nothing to stop an atheist recognizing some ultimate authority outside himself: science, king and country, or what have you. But if they do that they’re not really acting as atheists anymore, they’re an “atheist plus something else”. Some thing outside themselves is playing the role of God for them.

  3. Andrew says:

    My understanding is that the wager understands that there is a cost. But the contrast on the atheist side is “have things a bit easier now, then dead” vs “have things a bit easier now, then miss out for eternity”, in contrast with “have things a bit tougher now, then dead”, vs “have things a bit tougher now, then eternal mercy”. If the atheist is correct, any benefits or costs are transitory. If the Christian is correct, then any benefits or costs are eternal.

    “Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” works if death is the end, but it’s a very foolish decision if not.

  4. Matt says:

    This is in the context of Sam Harris’ point that Pascal’s Wager assumes little or no cost to belief, right? The high cost of belief is obvious and, as he says, excruciating. See for instance http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/centralafricanrepublic/12018588/Christian-militias-in-Central-African-Republic-burnt-witches-at-stake-says-UN-report.html , and this is only one news report from the past day, not to mention the horrors throughout the history of Christendom. Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Without question, humanity would be better off without this murderous superstition.

    However the more important point, I think, is that one can’t will oneself to believe something that one doesn’t believe in the first place, so the wager doesn’t even get off the ground.

  5. Isaac says:

    Thanks Matt, for reminding me that if I ever end up going back in time and managing the civil rule of very ancient Israel, I’d better not allow any witchcraft, as it wasn’t allowed in that nation. Very relevant.
    I fail to see how this impacts the amount of good Christianity does for the world. It just might be that you’re a massive tool with no ability to independently apply logic.

  6. Kevin says:

    The alleged cost to society from Christianity is a separate issue over whether it is better for an individual to be a Christian or not.

  7. stcordova says:

    Thank you for covering this topic. 🙂

    I extracted tens of thousands of dollars from casinos with Skilled Wagering. There is a small enclave of skilled Christian gamblers. They use Pascal’s wagering ideas in every day life, and it is applicable to the question of eternal life.

    I wrote a little bit that echoes your views on wagering in the face of uncertainty and human fallibility and my journey through the casinos of the USA:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/philosophy/holy-rollers-pascals-wager-if-id-is-wrong-it-was-an-honest-mistake/

  8. Dhay says:

    Matt > However the more important point, I think, is that one can’t will oneself to believe something that one doesn’t believe in the first place, so the wager doesn’t even get off the ground.

    Actually, the process of coming to believe something that one doesn’t believe in the first place is called learning; although Matt makes it sound difficult by his claim that “one can’t will oneself to believe” it’s not something which requires a masterful effort of gut-straining willpower, but rather an easy skill or process which every schoolchild who now believes that Henry The Eighth had six wives, every university student who has absorbed and can reproduce and use course-related content, and even every person who gets information and viewpoints from the media – every one of us has mastered believing something we didn’t believe before, the willpower involved is merely that required to learn and retain information, which everybody does with an ease proportionate to their intelligence and practices at some level throughout their life.

    Those who have difficulty willing themselves to believe something they didn’t believe before are said to have Learning Difficulties.

    I rather think that an argument of the form, ‘[absurd claim] so the wager doesn’t even get off the ground’ fails at [absurd claim].

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