JR'S Free Thought Pages
On Lotteries, Christianity and Pascal’s Wager
Lord, please buy me a Lamborghini
By Johnny Reb, March 2019
Every week in Canada it seems there are nauseating promotions on TV imploring people to buy a lottery ticket such as Lotto 6-49. If people who squander their hard earned money on such swindles were aware of the chances of winning anything of significance, they’d never entertain the idea.
Their probability of winning such a lottery is not only small; in fact it is less than the probability that you will be murdered on the way to buying that lotto ticket. In other words, the odds are infinitesimal - and in mathematical or practical terms - non-existent. No matter how long or how often people participate and regardless of the time they invest and their futile calculations to come up with the magic combination of six numbers, they all will end up with exactly the same thing: Nada, zilch, zero, nil, nothing, rien du tout, diddly squat.
Another famous lottery is called Religion and I will get to its lottery aspect shortly. Religion exists in numerous, generally incompatible and mutually exclusive categories and sub-categories. Some of these differ radically, some subtly but all of them tease their adherents with the chance of winning a blissful eternity provided that they first make some personal sacrifices in the here and now. But which religion of the literally thousands on offer, if any, should we follow? And how great a sacrifice should be made in becoming a disciple? If the adherent makes the wrong choice or is insufficiently sacrificial, the consequences could be catastrophic. And if, as all evidence (or lack thereof) suggests, there is no reward or prize to begin with, then any level of adherence, however small and half-baked will have been a colossal waste of precious time in a very short life.
Although any of the thousands of other religions, deities and other metaphysical entities invented by homo saps would suffice, I’ll focus on Christianity since it is a religion of which I am familiar.
But first, consider the probability of winning Lotto 6-49 which requires some understanding of high school and undergraduate college mathematics; specifically, combinatorial and probability theory. You have about as much chance of winning the millions in Lotto Canada as you do being struck by lightning or living 120 years. For those of you not familiar with Lotto 6-49, the contestant must choose 6 different numbers between and including 1 and 49 and arranged in no particular order (called a “combination” as opposed to a “permutation” for which the ordering would be relevant). For example someone might choose 7, 19, 33, 39, 44, 47 or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 both of which are equally likely of winning the multi-million dollars.
The sample space for this event can be calculated by considering the number of possible outcomes using a formula from combinatorial theory.
The number of combinations (selections without ordering) of choosing r items from a set of n is provided by the formula C (n, r) = n!/r!(n−r)!where n! (n factorial) represents n × (n − 1) × (n − 2) × · · · × 2 × 1 (where n is a positive integer)
In our experiment we have 49 choices in which we must select 6 distinct numbers.
Therefore: C (49, 6) = 49!/(6!) (49-6)! = 49!/[(6!) ( 43!)] = 49 x 48 x 47 x 46 x 45 x 44/ 720 = 13, 983,816
Since there is generally only one winner, the probability is 1/13,983,816 (almost 1 in 14 million odds) which is roughly .0000000071 – or statistically zero. Consider recruiting a baseball player for your pro team with such a batting average, normally rounded off to three decimal places (that’s .000)
Lotteries are fool’s games designed for mathematical morons.
There is another, quite unique lottery, called religion. Like Lotto 6-49, it, too has millions of deluded followers and, like Lotto-6-49, is a massive scam. Like the aforementioned lottery, the player’s chances of winning are incredibly small, although not logically nonexistent. Unlike some other games of chance such as poker or the stock market which can involve degrees of expertise and skill, anyone who buys a ticket, whether it is the first they have ever bought or the thousandth; whether their choice of numbers is purely random or the result of a delusional painstaking analysis of previous winning combinations; whether they strongly believe that they will win or are resigned to the fact that, almost certainly, they will not, has the same slim chance of winning at least ten dollars, at most, tens of millions. And though the chance is slim, it is indestructible. Only by not playing at all or by playing incorrectly (which amounts to the same thing) is this chance eliminated. Such is the status of Lotto 6-49 – and religion.
Are these two lotteries equally worth playing? Are both or either of them perilous? And do they, on balance, both promote immorality, the notion of something for nothing. Lotteries, many sponsored and touted by our sock puppet corporate capitalist governments, surely say something about their ethical status and it therefore ought to surprise no one when they also make lame excuses in attempting to atone for the crimes of hedge funds, banks and corrupt multinational Canadian companies, the most recent being SNC Lavalin.
That choosing religious belief over non-belief is something of a gamble was not lost on the Catholic Jansenist apologist and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pascal, known as “God’s Bookie” in philosophical circles, attempted a futile intellectual justification, for the Christian religion. It was never completed; but his notes and drafts were published in 1670, after his death, under the title Pensées (Thoughts), and this is the work for which he is best remembered.
Let us now deal with Pascal’s lame attempt to justify belief in the Christian religion by employing his knowledge of gambling and games of chance.
Pascal’s infamous “Wager” sets out a cunning, if blatantly contrived, fallacious case for religious belief. The non-believer, Pascal informs us, stakes his entire life on the chance that Christianity is false; the believer, on the possibility that it is true. The fact that these probabilities cannot be calculated seems to deter Pascal not one whit as his faith overrules his quite remarkable mathematical mind. Given the acute scarcity of evidence, consider the very likely reality that not only Christianity, but all the other thousands of mutually exclusive religions, are delusional and therefore false.  There is no afterlife, no eternal reward or punishment, no omnipotent omniscient god and no cosmic justice. One life is all there is. If that quite obvious likelihood is the case, then the religious believer has wasted an incredible amount of intellectual anguish and time. In the “long run”, as the late great economist John Maynard Keynes observed, “we are all dead”. And though the non-believer will have been right, he will not be dead in some elevated kind of way; his fate will be identical to that of the true believer.
Now imagine, for example, that the Christian religion is true. If so, then, in the long-run, the believer will be rewarded for his faith, worship and dedication while the non-believer will begin an eternity of unimaginable torture and torment in hell, the Christian deity’s punishment for disbelief. Such is the consequence of losing with an atheism ticket in the lottery inherent in the massive offerings of the religious marketplace. Pascal’s unconvincing position is that even if you lose you will be no worse off than an atheist who has been right all along. And if you win, you will be a whole lot better off than an atheist who has not. Considered in this way, the odds seem stacked against atheism. But consider all the other religions that attempt to bribe non-believers with their own systems of reward and punishment? This becomes an endless lottery of entertaining thousands of religious imperatives with their enticements, bribes, deceit and manipulation.
In the end, the argument of Pascal’s Wager does not convince any rational person. The choice is surely not a simple one between belief and non-belief for there are many varieties and degrees of both scepticism and belief in considering evidence and argument. Pascal’s Wager is grounded in premises which we know to be false: either that the true religion is so obvious that it stands out among all of the competitors or that all religions are somehow in a postmodern non-rational sense, fundamentally true. Pascal’s own tormented life suggests that he himself ruled out the latter improbable scenario. As a devout Catholic, he submitted to the disciplines of one of his Church’s more rigid and puritanical sects when less problematic, complicated and more mainstream options were available. To Pascal, Jansenism was the true path; anything else was, at best, dubious and at worst, downright deceitful. Pascal it seemed had two hard drives in his cranium, one for his mathematical genius and the other reserved for credulity and faith.
In their pristine state, most religious systems are like the rigidity and doctrinaire fashion of Pascal Catholicism. Few grant much validity to the endless competitors that exist, or perhaps, particularly in cases for a given religion and the competition are quite similar – like Christianity and Islam. And when religions have little in common, they are clearly irreconcilable. If any one of them is true, the rest must be false. Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are all blasphemous by the standards of Christianity for all deny a key Christian tenet – that there is only one God. And Christianity, with its doctrine of the Trinity, is blasphemy by the standards of Islam which is even more dogmatic in its monotheism. But even if all religions were somehow fundamentally valid, it is far from clear what might give them their essential, shared legitimacy although, if such a quality existed, there is every reason why it might be shared by certain types of religious scepticism and atheism as well.
Ironically, too great a commitment to a religion (or even political ideology), resulting in fundamentalism and perhaps verging on fanaticism (the refusal to think one could ever be wrong) has often been deemed to be destructive. Remember the religious fanatics in the outstanding 1961 movie Inherit the Wind about the famous Scopes Trial. Frequently, those who seem the most committed to a particular religion have been widely disparaged as zealots even by their co-religionists, some of whom say that this fanaticism is, in itself, a sin.  I would also argue that believing without evidence (aka “faith”) is a sin, an intellectual vice and affront to ones rational faculties. And surely a government or any other organization that sponsors and supports lotteries, which are legalized forms of gambling often causing addiction, obsession, greed and selfishness, are themselves immoral.
Let’s now expand upon the idea of Christianity as a lottery. Consider how suspect it makes the piety of the Pharisees and how favourably it treats religious slackers and opportunists who opt for last minute repentance – the Prodigal Son, the meek, the poor in spirit. These days, while it the fundamentalist who argues that there is little or no chance of salvation beyond the faith as more ecumenical Christians have suggested that even atheists can share in the Christian prize of everlasting life. Increasingly, in this liberal revision, eternity belongs, not to Christians especially, but to the moderates of all faiths, even the agnostic or non-believer. But when the atheist can finish ahead of the Christian in the race for salvation, what distinction is there between the irreligionist and true believer? Why should anyone jump through the Christian hoops when any ticket or even none at all might win an ultimate reward? We are back to the feeble claim that almost everyone is in some absurdly implausible pious way, righteous. Notwithstanding the confused position of agnosticism, if anything, the lottery element in Christianity has been increased by all this silly agnostic conviviality. In contrast, if the Christian faith could be demonstrated to be true or even plausible, the path to salvation would become more like a game of skill than a game of chance, and dedication and commitment would become more akin to an athlete’s training schedule. In any event, if there was evidence or a cogent argument for Christianity or any other religion, there would be no need for “faith”. Pascal, not an unintelligent man, surely believed this. Convinced that his own particular version of Christianity was correct, he recommended that non-believers go through the motions of its prayer and ritual. Were they to do so for sufficiently long, he argued, they would build faith like a man who works out in a gym every day to strengthen his body? But any belief based on faith can only be true by a process of randomness or pure luck. It’s difficult to think that a mathematical prodigy such as Pascal did not ponder on these factors regarding the notion of faith.
Ultimately however Pascal was dismissive of the idea that salvation is a game of chance. On the contrary, he says that the game can be won but only provided we observe the prescribed pious schedule and regimen. It was John Calvin who said that the prospects for salvation are essentially precarious and contingent on the caprice of god. God, he argues, is both omnipotent and omniscient; no genuine Christian apparently denies this. And no Christian denies that God is the creator of all things in the universe. But if the creator is omniscient, he necessarily must know in advance the future and destiny of his creations – whether they are going to Heaven or Hell . Even the most righteous, says Calvin, are mistaken to believe that they are safe since all people are guilty of sin. In the end, he reckons, God alone knows which of his creations will be damned and which will be saved.
If Calvinist predestination follows logically from the characteristics Christians ascribe to God it also paradoxically seems to conflict with (even negate) much Christian practice. What, for example, could be the purpose of prayer? I know I’m a sinner but please make me a winner (in the heaven/hell lottery). The common practise of Christian prayer becomes vacuous if winners and losers are determined in advance of the game of life. Should we hedge our bets by praying, worshipping god and extending thanks just in case we are, unwittingly, part of the elect? But what would be the point? Whether we are or are not one of the chosen few, church attendance, piety and prayer are apparently colossal wastes of time. If being moral, doing good deeds, being caring, empathic and compassionate are reduced to prudence, whence ethics? Why be charitable or abstemious? Why be good at all? Christians such as Adolph Hitler and the 97% of people in US prisons (some of whom have committed heinous crimes) and who claim to be Christians might be saved and yet highly intelligent, ethical and decent people who happen to be atheists such as Richard Dawkins, A C Grayling and the late Carl Sagan will very likely be given a one way ticket to hell, joining Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking.
These are the kinds of Christian conundrums, contradictions and dilemmas that will not go away once the conceptually vague God is depicted as a capricious vindictive tyrant as he is throughout in the Old and New Testaments. And there’s much more that could be mentioned. For example, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, accepting the logic of the predestination argument, questioned why anyone at all should be damned. After all, if, as Christians claim, God is all-powerful, his inflated ego scarcely needs to damn anyone. If he damns someone, he does so capriciously, neither to deter nor to reform but out of a mean spirited blood lust. And those whom he damns are his own creations, created in full knowledge of the punishment to come. This, Schopenhauer argues, removes “revolting” (Art’s wording) Christianity’s claims to be moral.
Is Lotto 6-49 any better or worse than the Christian lottery? I leave this decision to the reader.
People who fantasize about winning a lottery usually contemplate the kind of decadent life of luxury and leisure it will provide for them. In a similar fashion, Christians dream about the kind of everlasting life they someday expect to have when they die on earth. Which of these dreams is more covetous? Is it the craving for thirty or forty years of the wealthy good life or the desire for an eternity of....whatever ...with Jesus? And which is the more selfish; to desire the lottery prize which can be possibly shared with others or the Christian afterlife - which cannot? Whereas lottery winners can be charitable, Christian winners must spend eternity in some undefined cosmic realm aware that millions of ordinary, decent ethical people, including some of those they once loved, are suffering unimaginable torments in hell. How will these Christians cope? Surely not, as Thomas Aquinas believed, by eternally gloating and taunting those condemned to eternal damnation, the afterlife equivalent to waving wads of loot at hungry homeless people panhandling on the street.
If the nationally sanctioned lottery is morally questionable because of whatever greed and selfishness it encourages, Christianity is, I submit, unquestionably worse. What Christianity fosters is a great deal more insatiate and self serving than any game of chance. And whereas Christianity, like the game of casino capitalism, is always played to win, I doubt that any numerate or mathematically literate person plays the lottery with a serious expectation of the jackpot. The lottery is played less for the money and more for the very shallow and very accessible cheap thrill of taking part; for that brief moment when everyone with a ticket comes equally close to ten or twenty million dollars of money for nothing. 
Perhaps what makes the lottery morally reprehensible is the fact that it does in fact offer something for nothing. Many people believe that success achieved by chance (such as the silver spoon genetic lottery) is somehow bogus whereas success achieved through intellect and skill is more legitimate, more authentic. This is what informs the prevalent view of the impoverished masses that inherited wealth, unlike earned income, is fair game for higher progressive taxation. In practice, however, it is not easy to sort out which aspects of any person’s good fortune reflect his or her skill and which reflect luck. Most people overestimate their talents (the Dunning Kruger Effect) and those who are most prone to embellish their abilities tend to have much lower intelligence and physical abilities than those who do not. Talent or skill might be a function of either nature or nurture, but in either case they are a form of inheritance, a genetic stroke of good fortune. Many political philosophers, especially those on the left, think that people delude themselves by attributing their personal successes to their own efforts, the proverbial myth of the meritocracy and self-made man. But success, material or otherwise, relies not only on hereditary intellectual and physical traits, but the interplay of so many external factors that no-one can know for sure how influential they are. Chance and randomness undeniably play a larger role than most of us care to admit. And if so, the lottery, as a perfect game of randomness and chance, offers a metaphor for a world of chaos and contingent events. It demolishes our delusions of complete personal control, even free will, and to foment much needed humility in us all.
[1} To sum up, Pascal’s Wager posits that since the
existence of God can neither be proven nor disproven, it is a better “bet” to
believe than to not believe in the Christian god, since with belief you have
nothing to lose. Actually you have a lot to lose, namely a life of delusion and
hours spent listening to boring sermons, praying and agonizing over your nagging
existential doubts. Despite this Pascal informs us that with disbelief, if God
does exist, you are not only banned from heaven, you will end up in a nasty
house of infinite fire and torture called hell. Scepticism and believing on the
balance of evidence or lack thereof is considered a “sin” against the Christian
cosmic sky daddy.
There are a plethora of problems with Pascal’s infamous wager. The major flaw is that it commits the fallacy of bifurcation. It only considers two options when there are, in fact, at least four: The Christian God and afterlife, some other god and afterlife, atheism with afterlife, and atheism without afterlife. Therefore Pascal's wager is invalid on this single basis alone.
 I strongly object to the notion of sin as an ethical concept; a sin is strictly confined to the religious realm in which it is regularly invoked to designate “a violation of god’s will”. In other words moral rules are grounded in raw power, that “might is right”, an adage most conservatives I know endorse. For example, the Catholic Church deems birth control sinful and morally wrong. In other words, people who would rather impede a mindless sperms trip through a woman’s cervix to the uterus are sinners. Why is the attempt to not bring another unplanned, perhaps unwanted, child into the world considered immoral? But the Lord works in mysterious ways, I’m told. This makes about as much sense as when as a kid in Sunday school I was told that I was “born into sin”. There are endless inane examples such as these. Consider Puritans having no problem murdering Quakers or someone watching Huguenot families burned at the stake as heretics. Religion and Ethics are independent and autonomous as there is no reason to consult a cleric or religious leader on moral matters than it would be to consult Donald Trump or a hedge fund manager. Consider the secular person of conscience who stops to help a street person who is hungry as opposed to a religious person who stops to help, not out of compassion, but from the hope that he will be rewarded by his god?
 I can recall about twenty years ago a shocking poll revealing that over 80% of Americans believe that “there is a heaven whereby people will live forever with God when they die”. In a more recent poll this has reduced to 72% and with almost 60% still believing in eternal torment in hell for non-believers. As John Lennon declared in his famous song “Imagine”, there is no heaven and no hell. One doesn’t need an imagination to believe there is no heaven or hell, only a functioning brain with a small dose of scepticism, reason and logic.
 Are lotteries really any better or worse than the gamble Christians take on the existence of an alpha male god with his morally bankrupt rewards and punishments? Lotteries are surely one of the many symptoms of our lust for the almighty dollar, untrammelled greed and decadence. Contra Gordon Gekko in the 1980s Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, greed is not good. But what is “greed”? One of the online dictionaries defines greed as “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food “and provides synonyms such as “avarice”, “acquisitiveness” and “rapacity”. On that conception, it would seem most people are not greedy. All most people want is more freedom, real democracy, justice, egalitarianism and better material lives than they have at present. Despite the appalling behaviours of psychopathic ghouls such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump, money cannot be merely an end in itself. Surely the person who thinks this is in dire need of psychological therapy. Money and other material goods are simply means to ends and are rarely, if ever, except for the aforementioned multi-billionaire psychotics and their ilk, never ends in themselves. Material things, in fact, are inherently without value. Any value lies in their eventual consumption and is entirely in the mind of the beholder. This is as true of a twenty dollar bill as it is of the prospect of a twenty million dollar payout on the Lotto 6-49.
The current immoral ideology and dogma of corporate kamikaze capitalism called no-liberalism is the quintessential crypto-fascist world view, akin to Dante’s Inferno run by Hannibal Lector. If we actually had “free enterprise”, and not corporate welfare bum monopolies, and free markets and not the blank checks to corporations to pillage the dying planet’s resources and all living species in the so called international “free trade” agreements such as NAFTA, it might be a good thing.