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A Wager of Fear May 30, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Religion, Skeptic, Thoughts.

Unless you’re completely clueless about theology, you’ll know what Pascal’s Wager is: A “gamble” whether to believe in the existence of God.

It states that

  1. If God doesn’t exist:
    • Not believing in God will gain you no additional benefit (negligible gain)
    • Believing in God would lose you nothing (negligible loss)
  2. If God does exist:
    • Not believing in God means you will be sent to Hell (infinite penalty)
    • Believing in God means you will go to Heaven (infinite gain)

So the natural choice is to believe in God. Seems like a pretty solid argument – to a seven-year-old.

We’ll never know whether Pascal was just being tongue-in-cheek with this proposal. But if you ever hear a religious “apologist” invoking Pascal’s Wager, it’s a sure sign that either his arguments are weak, or he’s out of touch with the world. The deficiencies of the Wager are immediately obvious.

More than one way

There are myriad religions in the world. This was true centuries ago and still is. When you factor in the possibilities of every god existing – Thor, Jupiter, Krishna, Allah, etc; and the fact that most religions will punish you for believing in other gods, then blindly making the Wager will considerably shorten your odds.

This also doesn’t take into account religions that don’t have a deity (Buddhism). It also assumes that all religions send nonbelievers to Hell – which is not the case (Judaism).

It doesn’t consider that if your life is indeed all you have, then spending your time and effort on a false religion wastes it.

And more damningly, it assumes that belief – even blind belief will get you into Heaven.

Blind faith

Pascal’s Wager plays on one of our most basic fears – the fear of death. It strips from religion any pretense of humanity and reason; basically demanding “believe, or die”.

Deathbed conversions are a prime example. One wonders how a such “conversion” can be real – surely a person should die as (s)he lived. I hear stories of families saying, with relief, “Oh, we told him to nod his head if he accepts God, and he did. Praise God!”

This cheapens both man and religion. If one can get religion just by paying lip service (or in this case, by nodding your head) only when there is nothing to lose; without ever pondering over its validity, its doctrines, or its historicity; without ever spending any effort on it; then it’s safe to say that the patient would have “accepted” whatever religion thrust at him. If he was unfortunate enough to have relatives of differing religions than I pity the poor thing. Or who knows, the patient could have been saying “Yes, whatever, stop annoying me!”

And you wonder who the conversion was meant to benefit – the “convert”, or the people doing the converting, to give them peace of mind.

To a lesser extent this applies to some who convert only after a near death encounter, where religion becomes the ultimate health insurance.

Belief is not a Choice

Can you “choose” to believe, like the Wager says? Can you “choose” to believe in Santa Claus, or “choose” to disbelieve in gravity? If I pointed a gun to your head and asked you to “believe” that my religion is true, and you said yes, does it mean you believe? If, like in Indonesia, the state rules that it is a crime not to “believe” in a religion, does that mean that Indonesia is the most religious country in the world?

We can never “choose” to believe – for anything worth believing in, it is not lip service or self-delusion that determines belief, but whether we accept the premises and rationale behind it.

Later today, the Federal Court will pass judgement on the Lina Joy case. This is about more than religious freedom – it is about your very right to think for yourself. She needs “certification” from the Syariah Court to renounce Islam. A New York Times article quotes a senior fellow at the Institue of Islamic Understanding saying that “If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem”.

If religion is automatic, then surely heaven will be filled to the brim! In fact, I’d say that if Islam were to force “Muslims” to “believe”, when they so obviously don’t, it is that which implies that Islam has no dignity, no self-esteem! Anyone wanna place a wager on the outcome?



1. Wilz - May 30, 2007

“Belief is not a Choice”

I think that short phrase was enough to sum up a lot of the misunderstanding a lot of people seem to have lol. They think they should believe, they want to believe, but do they believe?

I can imagine several answers though. Belief may not be a choice, but faith is a choice. And faith is in a totally different, untouchable realm altogether. The number of conversations prematurely ended by that word…

Though, differentiating faith and belief would help lawmakers see that forcing belief on people may sound alright from a rights standpoint, but is totally bonkers, but forcing faith on people sounds wrong right away.

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