The Sneaky Threat of Pascal’s Wager

The Sneaky Threat of Pascal’s Wager

In 2010, I visited a different church every week. Since I’m in the US, most of them were some denomination of Christianity. 

During these services, I never joined the congregation in standing, singing, or praying because it seemed the natural thing for a nonbeliever to do (or not do). Of course, this always gave me away as an outsider. 

I suspect this is why, after almost every service, people migrated toward me like white blood cells to infection, welcoming me and asking my name. “I’m JT,” I would respond warmly. “I’m an Atheist. 

Could you tell me why you think I should believe?” I enjoyed these chats, though I must admit none of them ever managed to convince me that god or Jesus is real. 

Far and away, the most common reason people offered was Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager says that you have everything to gain by believing in God and everything to lose if you don’t. 

In other words, if you choose to have faith, the best-case scenario after death is that you were right, and you will go to heaven. 

The worst-case scenario for someone with faith will be nothing more than ceasing to experience the world after they die. 

Alternately, if you choose not to have faith, then your best-case scenario after death is that you were right, and you will simply cease to experience the world. Your worst-case scenario is that you were wrong and will go to hell. 

So whether it’s reasonable or not, why not go with the first option just to make sure you’re covered? I came up with these possibilities on my own when I was eight years old, long before I ever even heard of Blaise Pascal and long before I learned that lots of people ponder this question early in life. 

There are several solid rebuttals to Pascal’s Wager, with Sam Harris’ response being the one I hear most often: “If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a ‘good bet.’ 

Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Quran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell); Buddhists could use it to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth, and the editors of Time could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for fiery damnation” ( 

But I’ve never heard anyone else respond to the wager the way I do. This shocks me because the one thing I’ve learned of philosophy is that every good “original” idea you have was already conceived by someone else at least a few centuries ago. 

Pascal’s Wager doesn’t argue that a proposition is true, it just promises more benefits than the alternative(s). If the standard for your beliefs is for them to be true, then Pascal’s Wager doesn’t help you. The wager applies equally to any proposition that includes a threat (and/or promise of a reward). 

For instance, what if I told you that invisible, incorporeal Smurfs are everywhere, waiting for you to die so they can tickle your soul for all of eternity? You’d probably say I was mad (and rightly so). 

But what if I added that your soul could be ferried off to an eternal paradise as long as you also believed in an equally invisible, equally incorporeal knight named Cletus—and, if you want, give me $10 every week so I can continue to try and save other souls from the clutches of the Smurfs. Again, you’d probably say I was mad. (Again, rightly so.) 

The absurdity of these propositions does not change if there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing—and nothing to gain and everything to lose by not believing. And even if you could turn a belief into truth by threatening someone, these claims are still silly. 

Forming our views around threats is a terrible way to determine what’s true. We should believe things because they are reasonable, because they are supported by evidence, and because they are consistent with how we know the universe to work.

 A man who walked on water and rose from the dead doesn’t fit that bill any better than spectral Smurfs. We’re usually contemptuous of people who threaten us. But slide a threat beneath the promise of infinite paradise, and it becomes the most popular argument for god’s existence. 

If your religion really is true, then you’ll have something more than a threat at hand when I ask you why I should believe. 

Sadly, though, it’s what I hear from most from believers, who usually couch their argument in assurances of Christian love. Even as they threaten me.


J.T. Eberhard

by J.T. Eberhard

J.T. Eberhard is the co-founder of the Skepticon conference and served as the event’s lead organizer for its first three years. His blog, What Would J.T. Do?, is at

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