Pascal's wager, universalism and atheism

In popular level discussions on Pascal’s Wager, many people find the standard atheist response persuasive. To give some context, I’ll briefly summarize the wager and the response.

Pascal suggested that if Christianity was true, one had everything to gain if one believed it, and everything to lose if one did not. If it was not true, he argued, one had little (or nothing) to gain by not believing it, and virtue and the attendent happiness to gain by believing it. So he argued, out of self-interest, we should wager on its truth.

The standard atheist response is to point out that someone could make the same argument for a few other religions, notably Islam.

But I don’t find this persuasive, for one main reason: it still does not raise the value of betting on atheism. Even if you had two options which equally predict damnation for rejecting them, you still have nothing to gain by picking neither. You just ensure you have no chance of avoiding hell and gaining heaven.

And the same point would seem to apply to any philosophy or religion which teaches that no matter what you do, life will turn out great in the end, or at least that there is no possibility of ending up in a place like hell. (I’m thinking of various forms of universalism or annihilationism). Why would one bet on an option which, if wrong, has infinitely negative consequences, and if correct, would end up making your bet irrelevant anyway?

Another response to Pascal has been that he suggests we should abandon our duty to seek the truth for the sake of pragmatism. As far as I understand him, however, he is actually making a different argument. He is arguing that we should put our effort into trying to get ourselves to believe Christianity, so that later he will suggest to someone who has trouble believing that they do the kind of things Christians do, because then belief (he believes) will inevitably follow. This is a sensible policy, as it just builds on the nature of human beings: our plausibility structures are affected by what we do and what our environment is like.

And I think this would apply to atheism and all worldviews which imply a universal destination (i.e., that everyone ends up in the same place no matter what they do). Why, out of pure self-interest, would you not spend your energy trying to at least make absolutely sure none of the alternatives like traditional Christianity or Islam, which believe hell, are true [edited typo here–AF], and that you therefore have nothing to worry about? If there is any doubt at all that they might after all be correct, wouldn’t we, again out of self-interest, be obligated to come some kind of resolved conclusion about such matters?

And if William James is correct and we have to make our decision based on inconclusive evidence, why would we not bet on at least one of those hell-affirming variants?