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The Atheist’s Wager

The Atheist’s Wager, popularised by the philosopher Michael Martin and published in his 1990 book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Atheist’s Wager is an atheistic response to Pascal’s Wager – or more importantly, it was an attempt to show that Atheists or no more or no less moral than supposed religious people that believe in a God.

For some background information, who was Michael Martin? Michael Lou Martin (February 3, 1932 – May 27, 2015) was an American philosopher and former professor at Boston University. Martin specialized in the philosophy of religion, although he also worked on the philosophies of science, law, and social science. He served with the US Marine Corps in Korea.

Martin is the author or editor of several books, including Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1989), The Case Against Christianity (1991), Atheism, Morality, and Meaning (2002), The Impossibility of God (2003), The Improbability of God (2006), and The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2006). He sat on the editorial board of the philosophy journal Philo and wrote many reviews and articles for journals and magazines including Free Inquiry.

Morality of Atheists

Atheists are more easily suspected of evil deeds than Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists – even by fellow atheists, according to the authors of a new study. The finding suggests that in an increasingly secular world, many – including some atheists – still hold the view that people will do bad things unless they fear punishment from all-seeing gods.

The results of the study “show that across the world, religious belief is intuitively viewed as a necessary safeguard against the temptations of grossly immoral conduct,” an international team wrote in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. It revealed that “atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous.”

The study measured the attitudes of more than 3,000 people in 13 countries on five continents. They ranged from “very secular” countries such as China and the Netherlands, to those with high numbers of religious believers, such as the United Arab Emirates, the US, and India. See the inset chart for a summary of their findings.

See more here on “Who are More Moral, Atheists or Christians?” Of course, Atheists would argue against these studies – here and here are several. The point here is that these “straw model” philosophical wagers are attempts to justify one’s position.

Getting back into the specifics of the different wager’s arguments, Pascal’s Wager stated the following outcomes simplified, based on God’s existence and one’s beliefs in God:

A GOD EXISTSNO GOD EXISTS
BELIEF IN GODInfinite positivityNothing
NO BELIEF IN GODInfinite negativityNothing

Given these values, Pascal argues that the option to believe in God clearly dominates the options. With these outcomes, it seems to justify the belief in God and dispels many of an Atheist’s arguments to the contrary.

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Martin’s argument is a little more nuanced. The Atheist’s Wager states that if one were to analyze their options in regard to how to live their life, they would arrive at 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 simplified table shows the possible outcomes:

A BENEVOLENT GOD EXISTSNO BENEVOLENT GOD EXISTS
BELIEF IN GODNO BELIEF IN GODBELIEF IN GODNO BELIEF IN GOD
GOOD LIFEInfinite positivityInfinite positivityFinite positive legacyFinite positive legacy
EVIL LIFEInfinite negativityInfinite negativityFinite negative legacyFinite 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. A clever way to say, everything is equal, so my ideas or as good as yours.

Like all “straw models,” they are based on assumptions, and on both Pascal’s and Martin’s wagers one could dispute the findings accordingly. A couple of observations:

  • Pascal’s assumption of, “believe in God,” what do you have to lose seems insufficient to be convincing proof. Would a God appreciates this argument? It is also a potential scam to get people to follow someone for individual gain.
  • Martin’s assumption of, an “Evil life,” will produce negativity can be false. Sometimes crime does pay, hence Martins’s outcome could also be false. In today’s world, this seems to be increasingly the case.

Perhaps you could come up with a better wager. But one thing is for sure, we tend to set up the wager to say, “heads I win, tails you lose.”  Please place your wager in the comment section below.



See more in this series of Sunday Thoughts – click here.

 RWR original article syndication source.