The Atheist’s Wager
One of the most powerful objections to Pascal’s Wager is that it illicitly assumes that if there is a way of getting into heaven then it is by believing in God. There are many other possible entrance criteria for heaven, however, and on some of these criteria it is by disbelieving in God that we earn an infinite, eternal reward. It may be, for instance, that there exists a God that punishes believers and rewards nonbelievers, and that it is in our interests to disbelieve in God. This objection threatens to undermine Pascal’s Wager.
A similar thought to this has been used by Michael Martin as the basis for an atheistic version of Pascal’s Wager, a pragmatic argument for disbelief in God. If any pragmatic argument of the form of Pascal’s Wager is sound, Martin argues, then it is an argument for atheism, rather than for religious belief.
Consider anything that you might do in order to get to heaven. Whether it is believing in God, or performing good works, or converting heathen, there are always two possible outcomes if there is a God. There are possible gods that would admit you to heaven because of what you have done, and there are possible gods that would consign you to hell for what you have done. Any action, then, could either lead to heaven or to hell. We therefore cannot decide what to do based on what consequences that course of action would have if there were a God.
We must, then, decide what to do based on what consequences that course of action would have if there were no God. We must assume that atheism is true in order to work out what actions are in our interests. Now it could be that religious belief brings sufficient happiness to those that possess it that it is better to be a believer than it is to be an atheist even if God does not exist; if that is the case then we are pragmatically justified in believing in God.
It is plausible to think, however, that if God does not exist then the cost of religious observance outweighs its benefits, that in an atheistic universe it is better to be an atheist. Given that assumption, if any pragmatic argument is successful, it will not be an argument for theism but for atheism.
This revised version of the Wager would go something like this:
(1) It is possible that God exists and it is possible that God does not exist.
(2) If one believes in God then if he exists then one either receives an infinitely great reward or an infinitely great punishment and if he does not exist then one loses little or nothing.
(3) If one does not believe in God then if he exists then one either receives an infinitely great reward or an infinitely great punishment and if he does not exist then one gains little or nothing.
(4) It is better to either receive an infinitely great reward or an infinitely great punishment or gain little or nothing than it is to either receive an infinitely great reward or an infinitely great punishment or lose little or nothing.
(5) It is better not to believe in God than it is to believe in God.
(6) If one course of action is better than another then it is rational to follow that course of action and irrational to follow the other.
(7) It is rational not to believe in God and irrational to believe in God.