Now lets set all these arguments aside and think for a minute . . .
If you [non-Christian/non-theist] are right, then I’ve wasted my life and you haven’t. You’ve been free of religious dogma, religious moral restraints, and that nagging guilt of always fearing a God, etc. etc. Neither of us is going to heaven, neither of us are going to hell. However, if I [Christian theist] am right, then I’ve rightly used my life and you’ve misused yours. I’m going to heaven and you are going to hell. It seems that there is much more at stake so that Christianity is the reasonable choice. You have everything to gain, comparatively little to lose, and the threat of hell is neatly avoided. If I’m wrong, well I haven’t lost nearly as much as if you’re right
Fortunately, the scenario given above is not Pascal’s wager, though it does come close. Everything after the first line is about right. Pascal’s “Natural Theology” includes the Wager after considerable argumentation and debate about evidences for God’s existence. He presumed to carry his own respective burden of a proof, offered evidences in favor of God’s existence, addressed arguments against God. And then returned to the Wager to cover all his bases. Namely, he showed how reasonable people can still make a decision whenever they face a cognitive crossroads, an inconclusive truth.
Even still, to some people the wager I gave above sounds reasonable enough right? Wrong. If it were 99.9999% likely that God does not exist, an almost certain gain of one mortal life (the atheist bet) can be a better bet than that 1% chance of Immortal life (the Theist bet). The same works in the negative. A 0.0001% chance of hell might be, for all our judgment abilities, a safer risk than a 99.9999% chance of a wasted earthly life. Put in more humble terms, I can have one cupcake now–with 99.9999% likelihood. Or if I devote myself to good dieting, self-control, exercise, humility, and integrity, all by faith in the name of Jerry, then there is a 0.0001% chance I might get to inherit Jerry’s Cupcake factory at the end of my life. It will be in my family’s name for future generations. Frankly, if those were my options then just give me my cupcake.
To properly employ Pascal’s wager, the precondition for the wager is that the evidence is roughly equal on both sides–for and against God’s existence. If the evidence were 50/50, Pascal’s wager justify’s theism in the face of agnosticism or atheism given a cursory cost/benefits analysis. And it also works if the evidence heavily favors theism but is still inconclusive, say, it’s 90% likely that theism is true but that blasted Problem of Evil just won’t settle down and submit.
Anytime people use Pascal’s wager when they have not shown strong evidence either way–that is not really Pascal’s wager but a bastardization of it to exempt people of their respective burden of proof, or short-cut through the duty of clear and reasonable thinking. That’s intellectually dishonest and an embarrassment to Pascal.
In term’s of Casino or Card games, Pascal’s wager is like “Evens/Odds”–if the card is Odd you win, no-God exists; if they’re Even then I win–God exists.
Because our knowledge is partial and the evidence is incomplete we can come to crossroads where both routes look equally tempting to our reasoned judgments. Supposing that both possibilities are equally live: God exist/Evens or No God Exists/Odds–we might still have to make a choice as to whether we’ll believe in God or not. If we refrain from belief, we’re still non-believers ans so we’ve made a choice. In that case, Evens/God exists makes the most sense. Just speaking pragmatically that option is solid.
It might be objected that we can’t just “choose” to believe what we don’t think is true. Correct, we can’t. But if we are truly reasonable people and we are trying to follow the evidence, then we do come crossroads where the “truth” is inconclusive, we don’t know. In those cases I know from experience that we can give a friend the benefit of the doubt, we can suppose that X is true, or we can have “faith” that Z is right.
But the trick is, we are rarely that reasoned and rational. To even be able to choose what to believe in a 50/50 probability case, we have to be willing to be wrong, we have to have the courage of conviction, and we have to be intellectually honest with ourselves about the REAL reasons for our belief or disbelief.