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The Atheist's Wager is an atheistic response to Blaise Pascal's Wager. While Pascal suggested that it is better to take the chance of believing in a god that might not exist rather than to risk losing infinite happiness by disbelieving in a god that does, the Atheist's Wager suggests that:
- You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in god. If there is no god, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent god, he will judge you on your merits and not just on whether or not you believed in him.
It states that if you were to analyse your options in regard to how to live your life, you would come out with the following possibilities:
- You may live a good life and believe in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
- You may live a good life without believing in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
- You may live a good life and believe in a god, but no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a positive legacy to the world; your gain is finite.
- You may live a good life without believing in a god, and no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a positive legacy to the world; your gain is finite.
- You may live an evil life and believe in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
- You may live an evil life without believing in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
- You may live an evil life and believe in a god, but no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a negative legacy to the world; your loss is finite.
- You may live an evil life without believing in a god, and no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a negative legacy to the world; your loss is finite.
The following table shows the values assigned to each possible outcome:
|Belief in god (B)||No belief in god (~B)|
|Good life (L)||+∞ (heaven)||+∞ (heaven)|
|Evil life (~L)||-∞ (hell)||-∞ (hell)|
No god exists
|Belief in god (B)||No belief in god (~B)|
|Good life (L)||+X (positive legacy)||+X (positive legacy)|
|Evil life (~L)||-X (negative legacy)||-X (negative legacy)|
Given these values, the option to live a good life (L) clearly dominates the option of living an evil life (~L), regardless of belief in a god (B or ~B).
Assumes God rewards actions
As with Pascal's Wager, the Atheist's Wager suffers from the logical fallacy of the false dilemma, relying on the assumption that the only possibilities are:
- a benevolent god exists and punishes or rewards according to one's actions, or
- a benevolent god does not exist.
God could either be malevolent or not reward actions.
The wager is implicitly assuming that a god who only rewards faith (and punishes disbelief) is not a benevolent god. In this view, a benevolent god, by definition, would give priority to the actual behavior choices made by the individual in determining rewards or punishments, rather than basing rewards on the basis of whether the individual believes in the god or not. A way of viewing the Atheist's Wager is that any all-powerful god who would decide outcomes based on faith rather than actions is not a benevolent god, and therefore not deserving of worship from a good, principled person. The opposing view, that a benevolent god could require exclusive faith in him through a particular "true" religion, leaves open the question of how it is possible to know which of the hundreds of faiths is the one that reaps reward instead of condemnation.
Assumes legacy has value
The wager assumes that one's legacy either for doing bad or doing good has value to a deceased individual. It could just as easily be argued that if no benevolent god exists the only value of doing evil or good is during life.
Does not consider the costs and benefits of belief
The wager assumes that one's legacy will have the same value regardless of one's beliefs. This ignores both the costs one's religion can impose, and the benefits that can come from being a member of a church.
In the many human societies where practice of a particular religion is rewarded by economic and social benefits, a person with the appropriate set of beliefs will be able to leave a much better material legacy than one devoid of beliefs. Under this argument, however, it is just as valuable to feign beliefs as to actually hold them. Furthermore, it promotes adherence to whatever religion is dominant in the adherent's own region, even if this religion were abhorrent to the rest of the world.
Assumes objective definitions of good and evil
The wager also assumes that the god or gods who will judge one's life will share that person's ideals of "good" and "evil" - an assumption also made by those who attempt to act in accordance with the god of their faith.
Applicability of criticism
The Atheist's Wager can be viewed as a response to and parody of Pascal's Wager, rather than as an independent conjecture. In this context, the Atheist's Wager can be used as an argumental method to point out the false dilemma present in Pascal's Wager or to root out any confirmation bias present in the opposing party's argument. Proponents of the Atheist's Wager may therefore accept and encourage criticisms of the wager provided that it is then accepted that such criticisms apply to Pascal's Wager. In this context, criticism would ironically serve to strengthen the purpose and concept of Atheist's Wager rather than to damage it.
Notes and references
- Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Temple University Press (1990), pp232–238.