If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).
What if you are wrong? You have everything to gain and nothing to lose. It is foolish to not take the chance and just believe. “My religion, my God,” is the safe bet.
This is a version of an argument for religious belief formulated by Blaise Pascal in the 17th century. It is sometimes called Pascal’s Wager. Unfortunately, despite its popularity and appeal, it is has several serious flaws which are not as well known:
- The wager makes truth irrelevant to one’s method of choosing beliefs. One who proposes the wager is suggesting that we should hold beliefs based on what rewards they promise, not based on whether they are true. Surely one who decides that truth is irrelevant to belief sacrifices integrity. How much is your intellectual integrity worth? How much is believing the truth worth to you, even if that truth is uncomfortable?
- If one believes things on the basis of promised rewards (wishful thinking) instead of on the basis of truth (as determined by careful critical examination) one is more likely to be wrong than right. But Pascal’s wager asks that we go with the least likely of two possibilities “just in case.” Why shouldn’t we critically investigate the claim of a reward in heaven or eternal punishment in hell at least as carefully as we do other extraordinary claims? Because we don’t want to? Because the much desired promise is seen to be without foundation?
- The statement that "If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing" is not true. Suppose you're believing in the wrong God -- the true God might punish you for your foolishness. Consider also the deaths that have resulted from people rejecting medicine in favor of prayer. The time wasted worshipping and being afraid of, the many different and necessarily false gods.
- It does not take into account that there are many religions to follow. This wager works equally well for all of the competing religions, which means it doesn’t work at all. There are many mutually exclusive and contradictory religions out there each with their own route to salvation. Are the Hindus correct? Were the ancient Greeks? Even among Christians there is no agreement about which denomination is the correct one. Many fundamentalist hold that Roman Catholics will go straight to hell. Strict Muslims will hold that their hell (the real one) will be full of misguided Christians. Strict Christians will say the same! The wager does not work if there are many competing religions and denominations available, and, of course, there are.
- Pascal's wager is a failure if there really is an omniscient God since he will certainly know who really believes and who is believing as a wager (fire insurance). As Robert Ingersoll said over 100 years ago:
They tell us that to believe is the safe way; but I say, the safe way is to be honest.
See http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/wager.html for more information.