Atheist's Wager

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The Atheist's Wager, formulated by the philosopher Michael Martin and published in his 1990 book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, is an atheistic response to Pascal's Wager regarding the existence of God.

One version of the Atheist's Wager suggests that since a kind and loving god would reward good deeds – and that if no gods exist, good deeds would still leave a positive legacy – one should live a good life without religion.[1][2] Another formulation suggests that a god may reward honest disbelief, a reward which would then be jeopardized by a dishonest belief in the divine.[3]

Explanation[edit]

The Wager states that if you were to analyze your options in regard to how to live your life, you would come out with the following possibilities:[1][4][5]

  • 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:

A benevolent god exists
Belief in god (B) No belief in god (¬B)
Good life (L) +∞ (heaven) +∞ (heaven)
Evil life (¬L) -∞ (hell) -∞ (hell)
No benevolent 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, Martin argues that the option to live a good life clearly dominates the option of living an evil life, regardless of belief in a god.

Arguments Against Atheist's Wager[edit]

Pascal's Wager was based on his belief in the Biblical concept of salvation by faith. The results therefore are based on belief, as shown below.

God exists (G) God does not exist (¬G)
Belief (B) +∞ (infinite gain) −1 (finite loss)
Disbelief (¬B) −∞ (infinite loss) +1 (finite gain)

The Atheist's Wager is based on a belief that a benevolent god would give rewards based on living a good life. The assumption is that if a person lives a good life, and if there is a benevolent god, they will gain the +∞ (infinite gain) result.

Pascal ignored the concept that there might be a god who gives a +∞ (infinite gain) reward to people who do not believe. The Atheist's Wager ignores the concept that there might be a god who does not reward a good life without belief.

Pascal's Wager assumes that if a person lives a good life, but does not believe in God, and that God exists, they will receive the -∞ (infinite loss) result. The Atheist's Wager therefore does not answer Pascal's Wager, but rather assumes a different god than Pascal's Wager assumes.

Alternative Version of the Atheist's Wager[edit]

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”---attributed to Marcus Aurelius .[6]

A somewhat different and less formal version of the wager (shown above) has been posted on the internet in blogs[7] as well as Facebook status updates, often incorrectly attributed to Marcus Aurelius.[8] It stands apart from the atheist's wager in that it addresses the possibility of the existence of "unjust" (non-benevolent) gods in relation to worship, and also transforms the question into one that addresses polytheism by its plural use of the term god. It should also be noted that it makes two further assumptions without question: that a good and noble life will be remembered, and that living a good life is not an end in itself.

Importantly, the concept of worship being integral and corollary to the question of the existence of divine beings is ignored by both other wagers. This is particularly glaring in Pascal's wager where mere belief in a god is deemed sufficient for infinite gain (salvation by faith),[9] while ignoring the possibility of a god for whom belief is not enough, but who requires a particular form of worship and activity in order to avoid punishment in some form (an assumption that is easily found in most of the major faiths such as Catholic and Orthodox Christianity as well as Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism, etc.).

Lastly, all three wagers ignore another glaring conditional possibility; that if one believes in the existence of a god or gods--which by nearly all commonly known religious doctrines results in time, energy, resources, and work being spent on religious or faith-based activities--and if there is/are no god or gods, or even if there is/are a god or gods that simply do not approve of one's particular method of worship or activities--then any of this work which has not benefited humanity has been a substantial waste of time, energy, resources, and work.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Martin, Michael (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Temple University Press. pp. 232–238. 
  2. ^ Alvin F Berry. So What If...the God of the Bible Exists...Does It Really Matter at the End .... Dog Ear Publishing. p. 10. ISBN 9781457500206. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  3. ^ Philip A Stahl. Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook: All You Wanted to Know About Atheism and Why. ISBN 9780595427376. 
  4. ^ "The Atheists Wager". Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Pascal's Wager as an Argument for Not Believing in God. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  6. ^ http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/63966-live-a-good-life-if-there-are-gods-and-they
  7. ^ http://undeniably-atheist.blogspot.com/2010/06/great-quote-from-marus-aurelius.html
  8. ^ http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html
  9. ^ http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=james%202:24-2:24&version=NIV