Gambling has long been perceived as an imprudent activity. Outside of being seen as unwise, it has also been labeled as sinful. Casinos ranking among opium dens, brothels, and saloons as notable dens of iniquity. Gambling parlors have long retained the reputation for attracting a “seedy” clientele. Ironically, one man believed that, despite the unrighteous nature of gambling, we should be hedging our bets for salvation. That individual was a mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal. This notion of wagering in favor of salvation is best explained in what has become known as Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal’s flagship postulation is really quite simple. A rational individual does not need proof of God to believe that God exists. Rather the consequences alone of disbelieve are so severe that it would be absurd to not wager on the side of religiosity. I suppose that the prospect of eternal firey damnation is a persuasive factor in motivating religious belief. The eminent risks of uncertainty and atheism are quite vividly depicted in the Abrahamic religions. However, despite the potential of devasting repercussions, there are several objections to Pascal’s Wager. One of the more notable counter-arguments being the Many Gods Objection. First posited by philosopher Denis Diderot, it contended that with all of the religious traditions in existence who is the correct god to venerate. This is certainly a fair consideration. Every religion proclaims that their deity or deities are the only true higher forces in the universe. Making the contingency for eternal salvation much more intricate. Clearly, a lot of these other theological traditions must be wrong if there is only one true faith. How is the correct god that will ensure salvation determined? That is a cosmic mystery and a firm point of refutation for atheists.
While the other arguments against Pascal’s Wager may be compelling, the moral considerations are most important. Personally, I am an agnostic. Meaning I do not have a horse in the race. I am not incentivized to defend theology or atheism, but rather honestly engage with the question of faith. I would question the insincerity of faith fostered by the potential of abhorrent outcomes. Is it really genuinely having faith in God if you are incentivized by the fear of being tortured next to Hitler in a fiery chasm for the rest of eternity? Especially when many fervent Christians speak of having an actual relationship with God. Rather than opportunistically treating their deity as a spiritual insurance plan. It does appear as if I have some company in being incredulous of individuals who hold faith motived by outcomes. The philosopher and staunch atheist Voltaire suggested that acceptance of the Wager merely supports self-interest and would not lend itself to proper worship of a holy deity. Personally, this is the firmest moral objection to Pascal’s Wager.
Granted, we could embark upon a length semantical debate about what actually constitutes faith. However, it does seem at least from the Judeo-Christian point there is a firm difference between faith and belief. The below excerpt from a Christian apologist website clearly makes this distinction:
However, the unstated assumption in the wager is that belief in God guarantees one a place in heaven. With regard to Christianity, the assumption is false. Belief in God, in and of itself, is not sufficient to ensure entry into heaven, since the demons also believe, but are condemned:
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (James 2:19)
The reasons that the demons shudder at the thought of God is that they know that they are destined for hell.1 Why don’t they repent and come back to God? God has set different criteria for salvation for angels (including the demons, who are fallen angels2). Whereas those who have never seen God directly can come to sincere faith at any time in their lives,3 those who have direct evidence of God’s existence are condemned by any act of disobedience.4
Believe in itself is clearly not enough to guarantee salvation. Clearly believing in the existence of God isn’t enough. Rather you must also act in accordance with the prescribed tenants of the religion. A theological satanist (there are forms that are atheistic) does believe in the Christian God, but will never see the gates of heaven. I would also apply this logic to a lot of “paper Christians”. Individuals who attend church and provide lip service to Christian values. In action, they are textbook hypocrites. Often sanctimonious and the first individuals to project their transgression upon others. Empty accusations always make for useful distractions. It should be overwhelmingly obvious that belief alone without taking faith in the heart is a recipe for self-deception. Could potentially land you in a fireside torture chamber until the end of time.
I suppose that the counterargument could be that a blatant disregard for Christian values isn’t true faith. Also, if one is to come to god out of fear for spiritual salvation and then end up coming to know him then it is true faith. Both are fair refutations. However, if an individual behaves in accordance with contingencies their motives are suspect. It one thing to undergo a spiritual metamorphosis even if it is spurred initially by frivolous self-interest. When there isn’t any further or spiritual or moral development within a person that is when their belief in God becomes inconsequential. Protesting moral virtue and living moral virtue should never be transposed or conflated. A righteous person does not need to advertise their good deeds. Anyone who has taken to heart the moral teachings of a specific theology already understands this on a personal level. Do you volunteer at the soup kitchen to help the homeless or for your own self-image? Even to secure your own position heaven?
The best answer to Pascal’s Wager pre-dated the life of Pascal. That was the wise words of Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
In all honesty, it is the best advice you can give to anyone. Regardless of what god/gods you pray to it is never a substitute for doing the right thing. If someone is using religiosity as a cloak for their true nature such subterfuge will be foiled. Sincerity goes a long way. Sincerity cannot be fabricated for one’s one callous gain. Hence why humans are quite adroit at picking up on someone putting on pretensions in a social situation. Eventually, those pretending to be moral will lapse back to old habits and those who are will continue to be virtuous. Which why we should focus more on being than believing.