Positive Atheism Forum: Why Not Take Pascal's Wager?

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "~~Cookie!~~ :)"
Subject: Re: ?? Questions??
Date: September 07, 2001 8:14 AM

The choice is yours. You can choose to determine truth from falsehood by doing the philosophical equivalent of shooting craps if you want. I don't care.

I would never do this because gambling is not a very good way to determine truth from falsehood.

I don't want to have spent my only chance to live having lived a lie. Being able to determine truth from falsehood increases the chances that I won't spend my only chance to even exist living a lie. This means so much to me that I have spent no small part of my life learning the best ways humankind has devised for determining truth from falsehood.

I would never assert that a thing is true simply because I stand to live in comfort if I assert that it is true (regardless of whether it is, in fact, true).

I would never assert that a thing is true simply because I stand to live in pain if I don't say that it's true (regardless of whether it is, in fact, true).

I could not fathom suddenly realizing that I just spent my only-ever chance to even exist by telling people that something is true -- when I cannot demonstrate the truthfulness of what I've been telling people.

Can you imagine just how unlikely it was that I was even born?

Can you imagine just how unlikely it is -- on top of that -- that I am alive right now?

First, imagine the sheer long shot unlikelihood of life even forming on this planet -- or anywhere. Can you imagine just how lucky I am to be alive? for life to even be at all?

But here it is: one planet that we know of has not only produced life, but has produced life forms that can actually marvel at the wonders of their own existence.

Secondly, can you imagine the sheer long shot unlikelihood that of all the life forms I could have been for my single shot at existence (if that), I happened to have come out as one of those life forms that is capable of contemplating the wonders of your own existence! And I happen to have learned the joy of such contemplation early in life -- age 8 or 9, to be more precise, but that's beside the point: I came out as a human rather than as a centipede or a Kashmir rock shrew.

Thirdly, can you imagine the sheer long shot unlikelihood of the sperm and ova that eventually fertilized to become me coming together at all? I mean, what if it was the next sperm over or the ova that came down one month later? The chances of a fertilized ova reaching birth are still pretty slim, what if my zygote didn't make it? or what if it was a different father or a different year? Would that still have been me that came out, or would it have been somebody else? and what if my grandfather didn't meet my grandfather, and on down the line? what if that meteor or comet which caused the mass extinction which promoted the growth of our ancestor species had been just a few hours late or early and had never hit Earth? would humans have evolved? What if one of the big ones which missed had been a few hours earlier and had hit, wiping out all life?

Fourthly, can you imagine the sheer long shot unlikelihood that time happens to be now instead of some other era? Imagine all the fifteen or twenty billions of years that have already elapsed since the Big Bang. And this is just the beginning -- how much longer does the Universe have before it reaches equilibrium (if it ever does)?

Now, imagine a trail of ants along side Highway 30, which connects Oregon to Maine. You're driving along Highway 30, and at a certain moment you decide to toss a single penny out onto that trail of ants. You're a good shot, so whichever time it is that you decide to do it, you'll at least hit the ant trail with that penny.

Here's the deal: The chances that time will be during one of the years when its my turn to be alive are about same as the chances that you toss that penny out and hit a specific ant that we marked before you started. In other words, all of time is from coast to coast of the United States, and my life span is the diameter of a penny. But -- time happens to be right at the moment when it's my turn to be alive! Can you imagine? It could be a thousand or a million years ago! -- or a hundred thousand years from now! but it's now! when it's my turn to be alive!

I can tell you right now that I'm not going to spend my only opportunity ever to be alive telling people to believe in gods, and angels, and demons, and Jesus, and the Cross, and Hell, and the Pope, and talking donkeys, and the price of a human slave, and the Sun standing still, and how to burn the carcass of a goat to appease a jealous, vindictive deity, and people eating their own dung as punishment for not burning goats properly, and the price of a daughter sold into human slavery versus the price of a son, and loaves and fishes, and a giant mountain so high that you can see all the countries of the world from the top of it, and withering fig trees, and a plague of frogs so that the land stinketh, and a man who sacrifices his only daughter because he promised God that he would, and a pool of water that becomes agitated every so often while desperate people wait for a miracle because greedy religious hucksters have told them all these things are true even though nobody can prove these things to be true! I just won't do it.

And if I had done this, and then suddenly, moments before it was all over, I realized what I had done, I think this realization would be more painful for me than any of the Hell-fire and brimstone punishments ever devised by devious religious hucksters.

Meanwhile, I have absolutely no reason to believe what these cretins have told me about Heaven and Hell and Jesus and demons and talking donkeys and the Pope and any of that stuff.

Similarly, I have no reason to believe the stories about Irish Leprechauns, either.

What is the difference? The difference is that the Irish Leprechaun stories were not told to me from my Mother's knee and repeated solemnly every Sunday so that if I ever expressed doubts I was immediately whisked aside and told what would happen to me if I doubted, and then returned to the social circle only after it became clear to the adults that I had heard their solemn warning. The difference is that nobody was ever burned at the stake for saying that there are no such things as Irish Leprechauns. That's the only difference.

So, if I don't see any reason to believe that something is true, I will not tell myself or anybody else that it is true. I have no reason to believe that the Roman Catholic myth is true, so I will not go along with Pascal. Furthermore, I will not take the other side of Pascal's wager and say that the Protestant myth is true, because I have no reason to believe that it is true, either. Pascal gave us only two choices: Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. I have no reason to think either of these myths are true.

I am not worried about possibly being wrong and ending up in the Christian Hell. Why? Because there is only one source where we learned about the Christian Hell: the Christian Bible. The Christian Bible tells us a lot of things that cannot be proven false, such as Heaven, Hell, God, Jesus, demons, Satan, talking donkeys, religious leaders commanding their followers to cut off their own genitals, people offering their daughters to rapists to save their male visitors from those rapists, people eating their own children, the sacrifice of 32 virgins by this fellow named Moses to a volcano god named Yahweh, the ritual dashing of helpless infants against the rocks, and all sorts of savory tales that I don't really want to think about.

However, the Christian Bible also tells us things that we can prove to be absolutely false. The Christian Bible tells us that the Earth is flat and has a lid on it rather than the globe we know it to be. The Christian Bible tells us that the bat is a bird rather than the mammal that we know it to be. The Christian Bible tells us that the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter is 30:10 -- that is, 3:1 rather than approximately 3.1415926534 ... :1. The Christian Bible tells us that God created all animals after their own kind about 6,000 years ago, and we know that all life forms evolved from a single parent organism. The Christian Bible tells us that plant life thrived on Earth before the Sun and Moon existed and we know the Sun existed almost half a billion years before the Earth even formed.

If the Christian Bible cannot be trusted in its reports about things that we can test, why should I believe its reports about things that we cannot test? If the Christian Bible were very accurate in its reports about things that we can verify, I would have a very tough time with this question. But fortunately, the Christian Bible makes thousands of statements that we can show to be utterly false. Thus, I remain without any reasons to believe what it has to say.

Finally, if there were such thing as a god, I would believe one thing about this god. What I would believe about this god is reported by almost everybody who has ever said that a god exists. What I would believe about this god is that the creation would be a reflection of the creator. In other words, if the god created humans, then we could examine the human and have at minimum a glimpse of what that god was like.

When I look around me, though, I just don't see any life form -- not even the most brutal of humans or malevolent of microorganisms -- I don't see any element of creation reflecting the personality of a god who would sentence His creatures to eternity in the Christian Hell simply for believing the wrong religion. When I look at nature and when I look at humankind, I just don't see them having been created by a god who would do that.

Just add up all the pain that will ever be experienced by all the living organisms who will ever live on Earth. Add that pain together, and it will not begin to approach the amount of pain that a single Child Of God would endure in the Christian Hell -- just for believing the wrong religion! -- just because the first two humans were not protected by their own Heavenly Father from the wiles of a talking snake!

No. When I look at life and reality, I do not see it having been created by a god who would do that.

My only other alternative is to suspect that this is just a tale that was written by a sick, hallucinating, schizophrenic man who had been banished to an island for his delusions and who had convinced his followers that he had something to say about God so they smuggled his writings out of the penal colony and they ended up being voted into the canon of the Christian religion by desperate politicians who realized that this tale would increase the chances that the citizens of their state and members of their religion would be more submissive, more obedient, if this myth was included into the canon of Christian Scripture. That is much easier for me to believe than that any entity in the entire universe could be so utterly evil as to send any of His creation to the Christian Hell for even a minute.

Fortunately for me, even after I spent three years trying to find a valid reason to believe the Christian myth, I was unable to find any reasons for believing it. So, I do not have to tell anybody that it's true. Most importantly, I do not have to tell myself that it's true.

And if I can help it, I will never experience the horror of waking up one day and realizing that I had spent my only chance to live telling people this myth is true even though I can find no reasons for believing that it's true.

But you can do whatever you want. It's your life and it is wrong for me to tell you what to do with it. I can only speak to what I will do with my life, and I have done the best that I can to tell you what I would do given the situation you described to me.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: Belden
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: September 29, 2001 5:23 PM
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888

I could not find 'Pascal's Wager" here.

Could you direct me?

Thanks!
Bob Hartley

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Cliff Responds:

I apologize for forgetting to note that "Pascal's Wager" was not explained in my original response! Here it is:

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What is Pascal's Wager?

The modern Pascal's Wager basically says, if the Christians are wrong and there is no Christian Hell, one has lost nothing in becoming a Christian because when you die, that's it. But if the Christians are right, if there is such a thing as the Christian Hell, one has lost everything in remaining an atheist. Thus, they argue, you best become a Christian just in case, even if you are very sure that Christianity is not true -- because you really don't know for sure and you surely don't want to take any chances with your eternal future!

This is, by the way, the single most common castigation we receive from the rank-and-file Christians who would like us to think that they're writing in purely out of Christian love and compassion.

The moral fallacy behind this one is that you are gambling on which is the truth rather than trying to discover what the truth, in fact, actually is!

I also suggest that you can determine the trustworthiness of our source of information about the Christian Hell, the Bible. In this case, the Bible is patently flawed. Since the Christian Bible shows itself to be untrustworthy regarding such things as geography and biology, things that we can test and verify (or refute), why on Earth would we trust its wholly untestable claims?

Others show that this "bet" only allows two options: Christianity and atheism. The truth is that we have 5,001 different options, the 5,000 (or so) deities that humankind has endorsed -- plus atheism. This means that if Mohammed was right, both the Christian and the atheist will end up in the Islamic Hell (and I don't think I'd want to go there!).

Someone recently pointed out that to do Pascal's Wager properly, one would need to figure out who claims to have the most miserable Hell, and then believe that religion -- just in case.

Actually, I think I'll go ahead and continue to believe none of them, simply because none of them seem very likely and all of them appear to have been invented solely for the purpose of controlling the masses. This, I think, is our most important clue in this discussion.

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I will post this clarification on the Forum piece.

Thanks for writing!

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Terry Watson"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888
Date: September 12, 2001 11:53 PM

Dear Editor,

After speaking with Christians over the Internet for several years, I've come to the conclusion that Pascal's Wager, or some variant, is the most often advanced "argument" they use against atheists. Michael Martin, in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification really shows why this argument is so ridiculous.

First, which god do you believe in? Some Christians claim that you should believe in the Christian god, because heaven is the greatest reward you can receive, and hell the greatest punishment. Thus, even if there is no evidence in any direction, it would be best to guard yourself against the worst. But for most atheists, heaven sounds like a dreadful place, since it's populated with guys like Jerry Falwell all worshipping Yahweh for eternity. Perhaps Islamic Paradise would be more interesting. So which god -- and which heaven -- do you choose?

The problem becomes more complicated, though, since you also have to consider not just all gods that happen to be worshipped, but all possible gods, where a possible god is one who is defined without contradicting characteristics. And there are an infinite number of those. Should we just choose one anyway? But one of those possible gods is a god who rewards atheists and punishes theists (any theists), and how do you handle that one? If you believe in him, you are punished.

And if you'd like to see a Christian apologist get his dander of up, try asking him to disprove this anti-theist god. The results are always amusing.

     :)

     Terrence

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From: "Tom Ayerst"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: October 18, 2001 4:35 PM
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager

I thought you might be interested in the results of a discussion of the Wager on the C2 wiki (c2.com) and the why.clublet.com wiki: The actual Wager:

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Let us then examine this point, and say, "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. "That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; where-ever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.

Blaise Pascal, "Pensees" #233

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The summary of the discussion on C2:

Pascal's wager is posed to someone trying to choose between belief in the Christian God and belief in no god. It makes the following assumptions:

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Unbelievers in the Christian God are excluded from infinite happiness.

A rational act of will can lead to faith. The existence of a Christian God is possible and probable.

The existence of other gods who offer infinite happiness, while possible, is improbable.

Infinite happiness is better than any other outcome.

It is necessarily rational to choose the best outcome.

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If a reader does not accept those assumptions, the wager argument fails because it is subject to the Bifurcation Fallacy and the Antecedent Assumed Fallacy.

The relevant links if you want to add to it are:
http://clublet.com/c/c/why?PascalsWager
and
http://clublet.com/c/c/why?PascalsWagerDiscussion

Cheers

Tom

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Cliff responds:

Pascal's Wager is itself patently unreasonable: it is the epitome of the opposite of what I mean when I say "Human Reason." This is because rather than trying to discover which is the truth, Pascal's Wager instead wants us to place a "bet" on a favored outcome based solely upon our own prospects for personal gain. Pascal's Wager, if translated to a modern election, would be the equivalent of buying votes.

To me, to use Pascal's Wager in an argument is to forfeit the argument itself. Anybody who tries it on me has certainly lost her or his credibility with me as someone who honors truthfulness.

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From: "Jared Lessl"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager
Date: December 13, 2001 1:28 AM

I visited New York City last year and one evening we went to a comedy club. This one comedian did a routine along these lines:

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I mean, we really don't know what God wants. We see a cult that worships snakes and laugh at them, but, you know, what if they're right? What if I die and while I'm in front of the Pearly Gates, St. Peter looks at me and says "Where's your snake?"

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-- Jared Lessl

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From: "Hector Lopez"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888
Date: January 02, 2002 11:24 PM

Dear Cliff and Forum,

Let's say you want to take Pascal's wager. If you don't believe in a god, how can you just believe for the sake of the wager? Deep down, you really still don't believe. God will know this (because he supposedly knows all right?) and will send you to hell. He will also know that you chose to follow him for your own personal gain and not because you love him (which I think majority of theists do: they couldn't possibly "love" a "being" that doesn't have any evidence to even support its existence), another reason to send you to hell. Pascal's wager is a pitifully weak argument.

Hector

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Added: September 10, 2004

From: "O'Toole, Brian"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Date: February 25, 2002 2:32 PM
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888

Pascal's wager contains (at least) two fundamental errors:

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1) "Reason can decide nothing here. According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions."

2) "But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite."

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First, it is a mistake to say that reason is neutral on the matter of the existence of God. If the existence of an entity cannot be verified either by observation or reason, then it is reasonable to deny the existence of the entity. Simply, there is no reason to believe in the existence of God. In contrast, it is reasonable to believe in a force named "gravity" even though it is not directly observable. This error alone is sufficient to discredit Pascal's argument.

The second error is more subtle and more important to us atheists -- especially "strong" atheists. The idea that nothing -- or something pathetically finite -- is lost by believing that God exists is false. Much is lost: freedom, integrity, sanity. Religious belief necessarily detracts from a full experience of the true and the real.

To be an atheist is to know that God does not exist with the same certainty that every adult knows that Santa Claus does not exist. You've heard that before, and it seems simple, but I'm placing the emphasis on certainty. We do not conclude that Santa does not exist, we know that he does not exist. We are absolutely certain that there is no real entity corresponding to the notion of Santa Claus. This is because we are certain that Santa was created (by man) as a myth. In other words, Santa is not just false -- a failed or useless hypothesis -- he is a consciously created lie. We achieve absolute certainty by being convinced of the lie (as opposed to an honest mistake.)

Pascal's argument only arises because for many people there is some uncertainty about the existence of God. There doesn't need to be.

Brian O'Toole

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From: "Tim Vock"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888
Date: April 12, 2002 1:44 PM

Pascal's Wager is fatally flawed for two reasons:

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1. False Assumptions

2. Asking the Impossible

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False Assumptions:

In order to accept the benefits, as Pascal saw them, we must make some assertions.

The first presupposition is that there must be a finite chance of the existence of God. This is clearly not the case. In the same way that any student of math can prove the non-existence of square circles or numbers that are both even and odd, any student of logic can prove the non-existence of God. Using the definitions of "square" and "circle", it can be shown that nothing can have the properties of both. Using the definitions of "omniscience", "omnipotence", "omnipresence", "Creator", "Judge", etc. (by whatever properties one uses to define "God"), it can be shown that nothing can have the above properties. Therefore, like square circles, the idea of God is logically impossible. As there is no finite chance of his existence, then Pascal's Wager becomes meaningless.

The second assertion is that there is absolutely zero downside to believing in God. This is also not the case, even if the only "penalty" is simply wasting an hour a week going to church. Just as buying a lottery ticket may only cost a dollar, it is still not worth it in terms of risk-reward because the odds are so incredibly stacked against the possibility of winning.

The third assumption is that God will choose to give you eternal life if you believe in him and not if you don't. This simple assumption conflicts with even most believers' perceptions of God.

 
Asking the impossible:

Let's say I held a raffle and you bought one ticket -- one chance in 10 billion. If I pick your name out of the hat, then you go to heaven. In this way there is a small, but finite chance you will win, so to speak. You realize your odds are 1 in 10 billion, however. You can hope to win, but because you are intelligent, but cannot expect to win.

Now, suppose I had said, "Whoever's name I pick can get into heaven only if they believed their name would be picked the whole time." Were this the case, I wouldn't even need to pick a name out of the hat. Anyone that knew anything about the nature of the raffle could not make themselves believe they'd win. Therefore, everybody would die. But Pascal would say in this case, "Believe that you are going to win, because you have nothing to lose if you believe even if you don't." That is asking the impossible.

Finally, it would imply a type of God I would never want to believe in, much less worship.

Timothy M. Vock
Engineer

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From: [Anonymous]
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: September 29, 2001 1:12 PM
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888

What if you pick the wrong god?

Actually, to do a "why-not...?" on this question, you'd need to choose the god with the worst hell. Otherwise, you haven't taken the thought to its fullest extremes.

So good luck on your choice! I've heard that there are thousands of gods out there!

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From: "William T. Flowers"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: November 27, 2002 5:57 AM
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888

Dear Mr. Walker,

There is another approach that demonstrates the failure(s) of the Pascal's Wager argument. It is not really different, only simpler for the theist to understand. I like to call it "Willie's Wager."

Willie's Wager

1. Either William is God or William is not God.

2. If William is God and you worship and obey William during your life, William will give you whatever you desire for all eternity after you die. If you choose not to worship and obey William during your life, William will give you an eternity of what you fear the most, more than any Hell you could ever imagine.

3. If William is not God, then it doesn't matter what you do. Your life will just end one day and there will be no eternity.

4. Therefore, you should spend your life worshipping William and obeying all his instructions just to be safe.

Furthermore, it is a better bet to believe in William over all other possible gods since William offers both the best "Heaven" and the worst "Hell."

Now doesn't that seem rather silly.

Yours in the search for truth,

William T. Flowers
Dothan, Alabama

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From: "Billy Coppin"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: April 09, 2003 11:23 PM
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888

Dear Editor,

First off I'd like to say I love your website. I stumbled upon it by accident and am looking forward to reading many of the readers comments. For your info, I consider myself an agnostic although I am leaning towards theism. I am currently taking an introductory philosophy course at the university.

Regarding the post by Terry Watson, I wish to address the following statement:

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... But one of those possible gods is a god who rewards atheists and punishes theists (any theists), and how do you handle that one? If you believe in him, you are punished.

And if you'd like to see a Christian apologist get his dander of up, try asking him to disprove this anti-theist god. The results are always amusing.

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My reply:

First I would like to assert three things:

If you want someone to prove that an anti-theist God doesn't exist, you must first prove that he does exist. Otherwise it cannot be proven. This is mainly the reason why no one can disprove the existence of God: no one has yet to prove his existence! The Christian God is slightly different because Christians accept him by "faith" and not by proof.

Regards,
Billy Coppin

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From: "Francois Tremblay"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Date: August 16, 2004 13:52
Subject: FORUM_Why_Not_Take_Pascal's_Wager_8888

We do consider Pascal's Wager.

When considered objectively, Pascal's Wager provides a strong argument for being an atheist, not for being a theist, because of the hypothetical infinity of possible gods all with the same evidence (i.e. none). I call this concept "Reverse Pascal's Wager," and have posted an article explaining it in detail.

The only way to break free of this dilemma ("Reverse Pascal's Wager") is to try to prove a specific religion, such as arguing for the Bible. But the arguments used to prove the Bible can usually apply to any other dogma as well. There seems to be no definite way of getting out of the fact that Pascal's Wager is an atheistic argument.

François Tremblay

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