Pascal’s Wager is an argument proposed by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, which attempts to demonstrate that it is rational to believe in God. It does not provide evidence or proof that God exists, but it sets up belief as a rational choice we can make and outlines the potential consequences of each choice. Many Mormon leaders bring up this wager as if it is proof that God does exist, but it only suggests that we’re better off supposing that God does exist because we have everything to gain and everything to lose.
It posits that human beings wager with their lives that God either exists or does not.
Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas if God does exist, they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (an eternity in Hell).Pascla’s Wager, Wikipedia
Pascal’s Wager can be represented in a simple decision matrix. It combines our fear of suffering in hell and our hopes of salvation together to entice us into belief. Much like church leaders who use fear and fearmongering and ridicule unbelievers while imploring members not to bail.
|God exists||God does not exist|
|Believe||Infinite reward (Heaven)||Finite loss (Missed opportunities)|
|Don’t Believe||Infinite loss (Hell)||Finite gain (Free lifestyle)|
This matrix shows the possible outcomes of believing or not believing in God, and whether God actually exists or not. Pascal argues that, from a rational standpoint, it is better to believe in God.
From a Mormon perspective, Pascal’s Wager can be interpreted in the following way:
- The wager proposes that humans must choose whether or not to believe in God. Along with believing in God, Mormons also would believe that their church is the one true church, and it is led by God’s chosen prophets to lead us, that the church was founded by Joseph Smith who also translated the Book of Mormon. If God exists, the church and everything that comes with it is true, and a person believes in Him and lives accordingly, they will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven, even the celestial kingdom. If God does not exist, then a believer has not lost much by believing, since they had a good life and positive community.
- On the other hand, if a person does not believe in God, the church, Joseph Smith, and the prophetic callings of all subsequent church leaders, and it is all true, then they will be punished with eternal damnation. If God does not exist and a person does not believe in Him, then they have gained nothing by not believing.
- Therefore, it is more rational to believe in God and the church and to live good Mormon life than it is to not believe in Him.
This arrangement is consistent with the teachings of the Church, which emphasize the importance of faith, repentance, and obedience to God’s commandments. Mormons believe that faith in God can bring them peace, joy, and a sense of purpose in life, as well as the hope of eternal life in God’s presence.
This philosophical wager asks us to analyze our human position, on this side of the “veil”. Here our actions can be enormously consequential, but our understanding of those consequences is flawed. While we can discern a great deal through reason, we are ultimately forced to gamble on a belief.
How ironic that Pascal’s Wager frames our belief into the very thing the LDS church asks us not to do: Gamble! It’s like saying that you should always carry an umbrella with you, just in case it rains.
There are many arguments and criticisms against Pascal’s Wager, and each spells out the flaws in logic and lack of evidence. Étienne Souriau was one such French philosopher who argued against Pascal’s Wager by stating that the wager assumes God is also taking this bet. Assuming that God takes the bet also assumes of course that God does in fact exist, so we’re already begging the question.
In order to accept Pascal’s argument, the bettor needs to be certain that God seriously intends to honour the bet; he says that the wager assumes that God also accepts the bet, which is not proved; Pascal’s bettor is here like the fool who seeing a leaf floating on a river’s waters and quivering at some point, for a few seconds, between the two sides of a stone, says: “I bet a million with Rothschild that it takes finally the left path.” And, effectively, the leaf passed on the left side of the stone, but unfortunately for the fool Rothschild never said “I [will take that] bet”.Pascal’s Wager, Wikipedia – Criticism
So essentially, we can choose to believe in God and heaven, but in reality, it’s not a guarantee it’s going to be what any of us think it is. It’d be like there is a God, and he looks down on us to say: “Hey, I don’t know how you got these crazy ideas. I never promised you any of this! I just want you to be good and kind people. Live your life. That’s why you are all there.”
Pascal’s Wager is an argument that suggests it is rational to believe in God, even if there is no conclusive evidence of His existence because we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing. However, the argument can be challenged by the possibility that there may be many gods, each with different beliefs and expectations. This highlights a major flaw in Pascal’s logic.
If there are many gods, each with different beliefs and expectations, it would not be sufficient to simply believe in any god or gods without considering the specifics of each religion and their respective doctrines. Pascal’s Wager does not provide guidance on which god or gods to believe in, or which religious practices to follow. Therefore, it is possible that believing in the wrong god or following the wrong religion may result in negative consequences, rather than the positive ones suggested by Pascal’s Wager. The existence of multiple gods could challenge the notion of a singular and omnipotent being, as described in many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This rebuttal referring to the many gods available to choose from is often referred to as an argument from inconsistent revelations.
The church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or the Mormons or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshipers of Kali or of Odin.John Leslie Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, Arguments for and Against the Existence of God
How do we know which God we should follow here? Which God are we meant to follow? The entire premise of the wager assumes there is only one God to follow, the Christian God. There are so many religions, how do we know you picked the right God? What if a different God actually exists and the Christian God does not? We would end up putting all that time and effort into worshipping the “wrong God”? We would dedicate our entire life and still suffer in the next life because we chose poorly. It is also unclear whether picking the wrong religion would upset the “real God” any more than being an atheist.
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
If you don’t see any evidence of a god. Perhaps you can just live your life to the best you can. Do what you can to serve humanity. To many, this seems like the ultimate fulfillment of life. Then, if it turns out there is a God, and that God is just, he/she would reward you for the good you have done. Likewise, if there is a God, but an unjust God, he is not worth the effort to worship. If in the end, there is no God, then you have found fulfillment already and have benefited humanity.
There is a quote attributed to Marcus Aurelius along these lines which is a perfect answer to Pascal’s Half-Wager: “If God is just, he will understand. If he is not just, he is not worth the worship anyway.” Though the quote is usually misattributed to him as follows:
Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.Marcus Aurelius
While this is a sentiment that many follow today, it isn’t quite the same “homerun” many assume it is when sharing the misattributed quote. When checking the actual test, keep in mind though that Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor in the years 161 – 180 CE. He’s not talking here about a Christian God, note the mention of plural gods. Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian. Like all emperors who preceded him, he was a Roman pagan and was deified as a Roman deity upon his death. Christianity didn’t really spread into the Roman Empire until Constantine and Thessalonians hundreds of years later. The Edict of Milan in 318 accepts Christianity, and later with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380CE Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire with help from the Nicene Creed. Anyways, Marcus Aurelius did say some things that must have been paraphrased or simplified in a different translation and attributed to him. The original was in Latin and is nearly 2000 years old, but the most accepted translation that appears in many published renditions due to its readability is from Hammond. Here it is which follows the same logic, but note, he states that the Gods do exist (meaning the Romain Pagan Gods).
You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think. Now departure from the world of men is nothing to fear, if gods exist: because they would not involve you in any harm. If they do not exist, or if they have no care for humankind, then what is life to me in a world devoid of gods, or devoid of providence? But they do exist, and they do care for humankind: and they have put it absolutely in man’s power to avoid falling into the true kinds of harm. If there were anything harmful in the rest of experience, they would have provided for that too, to make it in everyone’s power to avoid falling into it; and if something cannot make a human being worse, how could it make his life a worse life?Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Translated with Notes by Martin Hammond
Twisting the Wager
In an interesting twist, the wager can also be turned around. Here’s a re-written Pascal’s Exmormon Wager which states that rationally, it is better to leave the church. It would go something like this:
- If there is no Mormon God, then leaving the church was the right thing to do. We are able to live a full life without guilt, shame, and submitting to the authority of the church our whole life. We don’t need to tithe or give countless hours of our life attending church or the temple or serving in callings.
- If there is a Mormon God, he will know that I labored for many months and years working in the most sincere good faith to harmonize the obvious problems with doctrine. He will know that I spent many hours in terrified prayer and loneliness pleading “Where art thou?” and seeking guidance and assurance. He will know that I plead with esteemed Mormon scholars and leaders for guidance and answers to no avail. He will know that I read and studied thousands of pages of doctrine and history and science and philosophy seeking to both honor my testimony and also be able to survive as a person of integrity. He will know that I did all of those things in wide-eyed devotion, nothing wavering. He will know that after this grueling and exhausting journey from orthodoxy to nuance to disbelief, I presented myself before him with the results and pleaded for any reason not to deny what every fiber of my being was screaming at me: that the church is a cult and a lie, and that he did nothing.
- The Mormon God, if He is just, will not condemn me. He will see my heart and the damage done by the church that bears His name. If he does not, he is not the God I ever worshiped.
Therefore, while Pascal’s Wager provides a compelling argument for believing in God, it does not necessarily account for the possibility of multiple gods or the specific beliefs and expectations of different religions. It is up to each individual to consider their own beliefs, experiences, and knowledge before deciding what to believe, and to be aware of the potential consequences of their choices. Question everything and make up your own mind based on your own experiences.