On Taking the “No-Risk Bet” and Believing in God

By Ed Buckner | 27 January 2023
Letters to a Free Country

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

About the Friday Freethought Perennials in general: This subset of my blog is to answer questions, nearly always already answered by me and by many others but posed again and again—over many years and in many places—on freethought, atheism, secular humanism, church-state/”This is a Christian Nation,” and similar topics. These answers are mostly not intended to be original analyses, breaths of fresh air, so much as just putting a whole series of things on the record (I’d say “forever,” except I know better). One source for many of these answers is the 2012 Prometheus Books book by me and my son (Michael E. Buckner), In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty. It’s available in many libraries and pretty readily in the used book after-market. I’ll cite writings of others that answer these things in more depth if I’m aware of them when I post these.

4. Shouldn’t atheists admit that they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by becoming believers? (last Friday’s should have labeled #3, by the way—the 2 was my error).

This one is a really old (365 years or more) chestnut and yet some believers have asked me, as if it was just obviously irrefutable, why I just don’t grasp that I should start believing so that I can go to heaven instead of hell. After all, if I’m wrong about believing—if there is no god—I supposedly have nothing to lose. But if I’m right, I can gain infinity—everlasting life. Where’s the downside, for heaven’s sake (so to speak)?

Dozens of philosophers and freethinkers have answered this and on this one I’m nearly certain there’s nothing new to say. But the question keeps getting asked, so I’ll set forth here a summary of the main points to answering this. Like many others in this series, the post is primarily for two groups: 1. people who honestly haven’t seen any answers and 2. people who know there are good answers but want a review of them or an easy place to find them.

Though it may have been dreamt up before him, Blaise Pascal, whose 400th birthday will be coming up this summer, is credited, in his Pensées (published posthumously; he died at only 39) with first analyzing the question. The popular name for the question or idea is Pascal’s Wager and it’s easy to find material on it, sometimes including material that misrepresents what Pascal wrote and often presenting the “wager” as if it’s an obvious and nearly certain claim that cannot be rebutted. (Start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_wager and read almost any modern atheist who has written very much. Good examples: Dan Barker in Losing Faith in Faith (1992) and in Godless (2008), Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2006), Tom Flynn/Theodore Drange in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007), Christopher Hitchens in god is not Great (2007), Herb Silverman in Candidate without a Prayer (2012), George H. Smith in Atheism; The Case Against God (1979), Gordon Stein in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (1980), and many others. Silverman, like Pascal a mathematician, even offers and justifies, a little light-heartedly, an opposite wager.

Pascal did claim that there’s a nearly infinite advantage to believing and almost no risk to not believing, but he did not frame this as an argument for belief, as he wrote that no evidence could be produced for or against the existence of a god. He didn’t really argue, as many have since, that atheists should simply switch to believers when presented with this “wager.” He claimed instead that atheists should be as open as possible to evidence and arguments, should try to assume the truth of theism, to sort of “try it on.”

But why not?

  1. Belief really isn’t just a simple matter of choosing to believe. You have to be convinced or persuaded, then your mind adopts the belief. Can you, however bizarre you think someone’s weird idea is, just say, “OK, say no more—I’ll believe that moonlight is toxic”? Won’t it take some evidence or someone you trust as an authority telling you it’s true before you can believe?
  2. Believing in a god presumably has to be sincere to work. Just saying or writing, “I believe in God!” without really meaning it probably won’t fool even your parent or your friend—and surely not an allegedly all-knowing, all-seeing deity.
  3. Since no one has every known what it would be like to live forever, how can anyone be sure that’s even a good thing? Especially if it seems to come with none of the pleasures associated much that we do treasure in life—anticipation, appreciation of something not previously experienced, and the like. And presumably with days stretching out forever singing the praises of an all-powerful being. Could it quickly turn into endless boredom?
  4. The claim that you have nothing to lose doesn’t hold up. You stand to lose in your earthly life:
    1. Self respect.
    2. Reduction of irrational guilt.
    3. Patience and tolerance for others and their beliefs.
    4. Time spent in worship or adoration or—and this is perhaps the biggie—time cowering in fear.
    5. Money that could be used on other things.
    6. Power to control your own life and affairs as independently, responsibly, and wisely as possible.
  5. Everlasting life? What does that really even mean? Since we cannot know the unknowable, how can we know that blindly believing in a god is what the God wants? (Silverman’s Wager applies, so ask Herb.) Why do we think that’s what the payoff will be and not just some imaginary extra money under our pillows when we pull a loose belief? There are hundreds, probably thousands, of beings that one group or another of humans consider to be a god—how can anyone know which is the right one to believe in to win the eternal life jackpot? Wishing has no direct bearing on success—and even though I keep fantasizing about winning that billion-dollar lottery, it keeps not coming my way. Does anyone really think that if I just really, really believed, like Dumbo and his feather or the audience and the Tinkerbelle effect, that would make time roll on and on and on? Or that hundreds of millions of dollars would be more likely to fall into my pocket? Maybe I don’t even have to buy a lottery ticket to win the lottery?
  6. The supportive group and community that comes from joining together with fellow believers? The fellowship and commiseration and sharing of joys and concerns that can accompany church or temple or mosque membership are real and mostly positive things—but those come from human beings, not from supernatural beings. If a group of people all believe in the importance of nature and halting global climate disruption and got together to discuss these things frequently, couldn’t that have the same benefits? The Unitarians proved, long ago, that you can have fellowship and community without requiring any belief in any gods.

To sum up—wagering may or may not be wise in general, but betting the only life you have on a doubtful proposition just because the odds seem to be intimidating or there appears to be a prohibitive favorite, doesn’t really make sense. Instead, ask for reasons, evidence, and logic, and think carefully, and read widely—as with any proposition that matters.

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Harmonic Atheist – Interview with Dr. Ed Buckner

Advice On Addressing Pascal’s Wager | Michael-FL | The Atheist Experience 25.04

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here