Pascal’s wager, although it is not always known by that name, seems to loom large in the lives of many religious people. In fact, I have had people actually say to me, “Isn’t it better to just believe? If you’re wrong you’ll never know anyway and if you’re right then you will get to go to heaven.” Blaise Pascal argued that to belief was the safer “bet” and suggested that this was the way to approach religious faith.
There are two main flaws with this approach, one philosophical and the other, mathematical. From a philosophical standpoint I take issue with it because it somehow suggests that you can just make yourself believe and that doing so (in the absence of evidence I might add) is not only possible but right. In any context outside of religion people would balk at this idea. Just make yourself love him – he’s smart, rich and is nice to you. It’s a safe bet. It may be a safe bet, but it’s a lie. The very worst kind of lie – a lie to yourself. It is not only dismissive of the people who do struggle with their faith and stumble along, clinging to anything in an attempt to believe but it is inauthentic.
From a purely mathematical perspective it is also seriously flawed. It assumes that if you believe you “win” and if you don’t you lose. It doesn’t address the fact that you must choose one of the hundreds of religions in the world and that almost all of them are mutually exclusive. Christians believe there is only one way to heaven and that it is through Jesus Christ. Within Christianity, certain sects (Mormons would be a good example) believe that they are the one true church. By the time you count the number of religions and the number of sects that you have to choose from the odds don’t look nearly as good. You must make a choice and commit to one or the other – they all frown on passive religion or agnostic flitterings. Not really what I would call a good bet.
The fact is that if you don’t believe, the best choice is to say so and be done with it. I cannot tell you how many in- the- closet atheists I have met who for reasons of family, fear or laziness do not bother to renounce their church and tell the truth. I can’t imagine anything worse than lying through your life. It must feel very lonely to know deep inside that you don’t believe but that you can’t say anything. At least, as an atheist, you are being true to yourself and your ideals and you can work to replace that loneliness and loss with a sense of community and a philosophy that brings comfort and joy without having to make things up.