Pascal’s Wager: Who really loses if they’re wrong?

It’s common for those who defend religious belief with Pascal’s Wager to claim that if they believe and are wrong, they lose nothing, and that if disbelieving and wrong they endanger their souls. Maybe, but there are a number of facts not in evidence assumed here:

  • That immaterial and possibly immortal souls exist. (unproven as yet)
  • That these souls require salvation. (not with all religions)
  • That a God exists and is needed for salvation. (not all religions have savior gods)

For the record, I do not deny that these things are true, but I refrain from believing because no good reasons exist for me to do so. The neurological model of mind and consciousness, in which the human personality is dependent on the activity of the physical substrate of the brain is perfectly sufficient for my needs.

It both conforms to and to an extent explains the data of human psychology and neuroscience without the need to posit anything non-material or spiritual.

I try to base my beliefs on good reasons and evidence, beliefs that are more likely to be true and thus with more reliably effective outcomes when I act upon them.

Beliefs are not trivial, nor always innocent, nor necessarily harmless, for they motivate and define our values, desires, intent, behavior and actions.

While it is true that souls, ensoulment and gods aren’t conclusively proven not to exist, that’s not the point, because the burden of proof lies always with those making the claim that they do, and religions have had thousands of years of opportunity to fulfill that burden by proving their claims, yet have consistently failed or refused to do so.

It is not the skeptics who must prove the claims of religion false.

Bear in mind though that the rejection of a belief in no way entails accepting its denial — lack of belief and active denial are logically very different things — I err on the side of lacking belief, not in believing in or claiming to know of a lack of something.

But do believers really lose nothing if wrong, other than hurt pride for feeling silly?

I suspect that no, they do not.

In fact, they lose quite a bit if they are wrong, and I’ll also argue that they lose even if they are right, given what is known of human history, particularly that of religions over the millennia.

Believers lose money, often large sums of it, to tithes, donations, and special fees charged by clergy, and of course, if you’re Christian, the church service collection plate. Religion is big business in the developed world, and the heads of large churches can become quite wealthy, often in the millions of dollars or even in the billions with world-spanning religious organizations like the Roman Catholic Church.

Believers can lose objectivity and the ability to evaluate belief systems impartially, their own religion, and others’ as well. They often lose the ability or the willingness to step back from their doctrines and dogmas and assess them critically, without a vested interest or emotional stake in them.

They risk losing the ability to deal honestly with religious critics or skeptics, in extremis even vilifying and demonizing them as enemies, condescending or dehumanizing them as somehow morally or spiritually inferior, pathetic, defective, sick, or evil.

Thus, believers risk losing their intellectual integrity, in developing a cavalier attitude toward what is likely to be true in favor of what feels good or comforting. They become more likely to deceive themselves, which can lead to piously deceiving others in the service of one’s God. In Christian circles, it’s known as “lying for Jesus.”

And if there is a God, if I’m wrong?

I still don’t lose anything, because if God were infinitely good, loving, just, and morally superior, it would be a logical impossibility for that same God to create a place of eternal torture for unbelievers out of a petty and vain need to be worshiped. My soul, even if it were to exist, would be in no danger if claims of God’s omnibenevolence are to be credible and logically consistent.

Now, you could special plead that God is somehow outside the very laws of logic themselves, and that they do not apply, but that doesn’t work, because then you can’t use logic to establish that God’s existence, and that would put apologists out of work.

There would be no more amusing debates between atheists and theists to watch on YouTube, and wouldn’t that just be a b*tch?

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