I’ve had to deal with vulgar* expositions of Pascal’s Wager my whole life from friends and family. The basic logic is “you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!” There are many ways to critique this “argument”, but the bizarre media circus around Harold Camping’s prediction of apocalypse illustrates an extreme case of one the major issues with the wager: people turned their lives upside down based on their sincere belief. If they were right, they would be “Raptured.” If they were wrong, what did they have to lose? Well, it turns out a lot. Their life savings, their jobs, their self-respect. It reminds me of the logics which you encountered after the Branch Dravidians fiasco. Some members of this cult were faced with the choice: follow the Messiah, or follow the false Messiah. They struggled with the possibility that if they turned their back on David Koresh they were turning their back on the Messiah. But of course this really wasn’t a 50/50 proposition. The risks, as we now know, of continuing to follow Davis Koresh were actually rather high. Belief was not without cost.
I’m not here denying all material and psychological benefits to religious belief. I can accept the concrete importance that religious institutions have in facilitating civil society and channeling social energies. I can also accept the power of religious belief in pulling people through difficult life circumstances. I am not an atheist who believes that religion is the “root of all evil,” and I am in general agnostic as to whether religion is beneficial or deleterious to human flourishing (this is a really complex question embedded in your normative frame). But, I do want to enter into the record that belief is not without some potential costs. The “bet” of belief is not one where you gain all the upside without a risk of downside. I believe the naive attraction of vulgar wagerism is that believers often have a difficult time understanding that the kooks like Harold Camping and his followers are not different in kind, but rather a bizarre twist on the normal. Conventional orthodox Christians have to grapple with perplexing predictions in the Bible itself. Camping clearly lacked balance and perspective, but he and his followers were all too human.
When faced with Pascal’s Wager from friends and family I rarely bother to rebut it. I change the topic as best as I can. I’m not interested in discussions of religious philosophy, especially when I know that my interlocutor is likely to get upset and perplexed at startlingly new perspectives. But now I wonder if the media circus around Harold Camping’s failed prediction, and the human tragedy consequent from the belief in him by his followers, will allow me to rapidly respond in shorthand to Pascal’s Wager. “How did Camping’s Wager turn out?”
* I qualify with vulgar because I am well aware that Blaise Pascal’s arguments were considerably more subtle than the reductions formulated by the typical believer.