A long-standing salvo in the war between believers and atheists is the famous Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s wager, first proposed by scientist/philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, essentially says something like this:
Either there is a God, or there isn’t. If you choose to behave as if there is (betting on God), and you turn out to be right, you will receive untold rewards in the next life. If you’re wrong, there is no penalty. On the other hand, if you choose to behave as if there is no God, and there turns out to be one, your suffering could be infinite (that is, you may up in Hell).
From this, Pascal concludes that if there is even the remotest iota of a possibility that God is real, one should believe, purely from a pragmatic, cost-benefit perspective.
Before moving forward let me state up front that I personally subscribe to the “weak” atheistic position known as theological noncognitivism. This means that I do not believe that the term “God” has any meaning at all, or to put it, perhaps crudely, another way, I believe that when people refer to “God,” they literally don’t know what it is they are talking about. For the purposes of this discussion however, you should take “God” to mean the Judeo-Christian God, a higher being of some conceivable form who created the universe, rules Heaven, and has some stake in how we humans behave.
Now, the problems with Pascal’s Wager are myriad. First, it’s an entirely Eurocentric proposition. Which God do you worship? If you choose to follow the tenets of the Judeo-Christian God, and it turns out the Greek Gods are running the show, your punishment and torment might be worse than if you remained neutral. For another thing, even if you pick the correct God, how do you know that you are following his desires correctly? There are probably as many interpretations of the Bible and the Christian faith as there are world religions. For another thing, can “hedging your bets” this way truly be classified as belief? Obviously an omnipotent God will know what you’re up to.
Pascal says if you act as if you believe it long enough, eventually you will come to believe it, but I’m not sure that God is going to buy that argument.
But let’s ignore these problems and take the wager at its face. I would argue that Pascal’s proposition, that the “God side” is pragmatically the best, is wrong. I would offer a counter wager, which I’ll call, Berger’s Bet. It goes like this:
If there is no God, and this life is discrete and finite, any actions you take based on a belief in God where you would otherwise take a different action diminishes that life.
If there is a God, and you live your life believing that there is not one, and acting accordingly, God can hardly fault you, since this is how He made you, and assuming your lack of belief didn’t make you a completely irredeemable person, you should have an eternity to make up for your mistake.
Therefore if there is even the slightest chance that God DOESN’T exist, you should take an atheistic position, living your life as if each moment is impermanent and precious, and your actions can only be judged by you, in this world, for their own sake. If you do the right thing, it will be the right thing whether there is a God or not.
This last idea, that your best bet is to always do the right thing regardless, has already been put forth by Michael Martin in his “Atheist’s Wager,” but I am taking it a step further. I am not arguing you should always behave well, although that would be nice. I’m saying you should always be true to yourself, and to do that, you should “bet” against God. If you’re wrong, and God exists, it’s gravy. If you’re right, you won’t be around to celebrate, but at least you will have lived the most honest life you possibly could have lived.