Pascal's Wager Reformulated
by Bryce Anderson
What have we got to lose? Intellectual integrity, self-esteem, and a passionate, rewarding life for starters. In short, everything that makes life worth living. -George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God
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French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, "If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is." This argument, often called Pascal's Wager, has been a mainstay of religious apologetics ever since.

We all know, of course, that Pascal's Wager is a perfect and irrefutable argument for choosing religion over irreligion.[1] Otherwise, why would theists keep beating people over the head with it?

Nevertheless, it does have one major flaw: Once Pascal's Wager convinces the reader to take up a religion, it offers no guidance as to which religion to choose. Blaise Pascal himself chose Christianity, but according to his reasoning, any set of beliefs which bases the quality of your afterlife on your choices in this life demands consideration. In order to make it a proper tool for deciding between various religions, it must be expanded. Therefore I propose:

1) The two criteria for choosing a religion, in keeping with Pascal's Wager, must be "desire for heaven" and "fear of hell."

2) A proper formulation will allow the user to weigh these two criteria depending on his personal preferences (for example, a person more concerned with getting a really cool heaven than avoiding a really nasty hell would be able to modify the formulation to reflect that fact).

3) This can be expressed mathematically as:

R(max) = ( A * B ) + ( C * ( 1 - B ) )

R(max) being the proper religion to choose.

A being the niceness of heaven in this religion (on an arbitrarily chosen scale running from zero to ten)

B being the user's desire for heaven expressed as a number between 0 and 1 ( 1 demonstrating total desire of obtaining a nifty heaven, with no concern for the nastiness of the hell the user will end up in if wrong ). By this formulation, 1 - B will express the user's aversion to hell. If the desire to obtain an enjoyable heaven is equal to the desire to avoid an awful hell, then the reader should allow B to equal 0.5. If, on the other hand, one wishes to "go for broke," and desires the best possible Heaven without regard for the suffering one must endure if wrong, then let B = 1.

C is the nastiness of the hell being avoided by choosing religion R(max).

There it is. All you have to do to choose the ideal religion is to find out how nice the heaven is and how nasty the hell is. Then plug all the various religions into the equation, and whichever ends up with the highest number is your religion of choice for the remainder of your life. It should be noted that, in some religions (atheism, unitarianism, etc.), everyone goes to the same place. Therefore, you lose nothing if it's true and you don't believe in it. Such religions are automatically disqualified from analysis.

Now, to examine several religions according to the formula. For convenience, the scale will be from 0 to 10, with 10 being the best possible heaven or the worst possible hell:

Mormonism: Heaven consists of building worlds and having sex with numerous women. I'm not into the competitive rat race which "eternal progression" entails, but "numerous women" is fine by me. LDS Heaven gets a 6 for unambitious males, 10 for Type A personality males, and a 2 for females.

The Mormon Hell, usually referred to as the Telestial Kingdom, is a relatively nice place. Oh, you'll be sharing it with the likes of Timothy McVeigh and Hitler, but it's a pretty big place and you'll only have to meet them during certain limited social gatherings. Anyways, Joseph Smith said that people would kill themselves to be in such a beautiful place. LDS Hell gets a 2. [2]

For me, R(mormon) = ( 6 * .5 ) + ( 2 * .5 ) = 4

Atheism: Everyone goes to the same place (nowhere), so atheism isn't relevant to the discussion.

Buddhism: Heaven consists of merging with Nirvana, which is a consciousness expanding experience which will literally leave you wondering who the heck you are. Sounds like fun to me, so I'd give it at least an 8. Hell consists of living an eternal sequence of lives as a fruit fly. Again, sounds fun to me. But if you remember, a fun hell means a low score. 3.

R(buddhism) = ( 8 * 0.5 ) + ( 3 * 0.5 ) = 5.5

Now I have eliminated the LDS faith as a possible religious avenue.

Christianity: Heaven is a place either 1 mile square or 6,000,000 miles square, depending on who did the calculations. Inhabitants spend their time singing a rather repetitive song ("Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord"), not having sex, and enjoying the eternal radiance of the Lord of Hosts. Unfortunately, like a sauna, the feeling of the Infinite Presence gets old after twenty minutes, and uncomfortable in ninety. Christian heaven gets a 2.

Hell involves eternal suffering in a pit of fire, brimstone, woe and despair. Sounds nasty, so I'll give it a 9. See Dante's Inferno for a more complete analysis.

R(christian) = ( 2 * 0.5 ) + ( 9 * 0.5 ) = 5.5

When deciding between Christianity and Buddhism, coins are available under the cusions of most neighborhood sofas.

Let us end our survey of world religions with a discussion of Islam. It will be a somewhat trickier analysis, since Islam rewards practitioners according to deeds, and not just belief in the religious precepts, per se. For example, if one believes the doctrine of the more militant versions of Islam, a man who dies in a jihad will be swept into heaven, there to be greeted by seventy virgins, all his. That would definitely be a "perfect 10" heaven. On the other hand, the descriptions of the suffering awaiting the infidel are umatched in imagination and nastiness, if one is analyzing the same fundamentalist factions. Trust me, you immoral atheists, your rationalizations will not save you from Allah's judgement. Even if Socrates IS there, he'll be too busy screaming and begging for mercy to pay attention to an esoteric conversation. So the Islamic fundamentalist hell also earns a 10.

R(islam) = ( 10 * .5 ) + ( 10 * .5 ) = 10

Don't make the mistake of just looking up the nearest mosque. They'll probably be a bunch of namby-pamby liberals who think Allah is a kind and patient deity. Instead, make a thorough search until you find a mosque that teaches unimaginable glory for the righteous, and hideous, torturous, nasty suffering for the wicked.

Once you've analyzed each religion from a cost/benefit standpoint, using my formula, all that is left is for you to force yourself to believe whatever precepts are required by your new religion. It is my hope that this proposed tool can help any who have questions regarding matters of faith.


1) Actually, it suffers several major flaws. First, it's impossible to decide to sincerely believe something. Second, deciding on a religion based solely on self-interest might make God angry, which could get you stuck in the region of hell especially reserved for people who chose the One True Religion after being convinced by Pascal's Wager. More generally, if there is a God, he/she may very well be more interested in cultivating people who lived their lives with intellectual honesty. Third, and finally, his argument that "nothing is lost" by wagering for God is incorrect. If a person wastes their only shot at life by ignoring this world in favor of a non-existent next world, then they have lost something precious. My personal opinion is that, though Pascal was a brilliant thinker, you couldn't tell that just from the Wager.

But I'm not going to let any of this get in the way of a good parody.

2) Complication: There is a specific, separate type of hell in LDS theology called Outer Darkness. This place of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth is reserved for those who "partook of the Holy Spirit," and then fell away from LDS teachings. But for the purposes of this discussion, this fact is irrelevant. If you fall into the described category, your fate in the eyes of LDS theology is already sealed. Therefore, you'll want to maximize your odds by joining a different religion where you have a shot at winning.


Copyright 2000
by Bryce Anderson