Is Pascal’s wager a common argument for believing in religion or believing in God?
One of the most common arguments for believing in religion is known as Pascal’s wager or Pascal’s bet. This wager can be simplified in the following manner:
|If you believe in God and the hereafter, and it does exist, then you gain everything. |
If you believe in God and the hereafter, and it does not exist, then you lose nothing.
Therefore, it is better to bet that it does exist
Theory of Defending Against Possible Harm
Before Pascal, this idea was originally introduced by Imam Ali, who is quoted in Mizānu ‘l-A`māl by Abu Hamid al-Ghazāli (1328, n.p.) to have said:
“The astrologer and the physician both say, `The dead will never be resurrected.’ I say: `Keep your counsel. If your idea is correct, I will come to no harm; but if my belief is correct, then you will surely lose.’”
Imam Ali’s argument in theistic discussions is called: to defend against possible harm. Ayatullah Nasir Makarem Shirazi (n.d.) in his book Fifty Lessons on Principles of Belief for Youth talks about the bond between things of benefit and of harm to one’s self. For example when one is at crossroads, one would not choose the path upon which there is a great danger, nor would one traverse any of the paths without investigating them.
Likewise, there existed men of great character, who were preaching about the existence of God; the existence of heaven and hell, eternal punishment for those who reject. Wisdom states that one should investigate to make sure they are going to do that which brings them benefit.
Or likewise, there are many religions that give their own direction. Wisdom states that one should investigate to make sure they are going to do that which benefits them most.
Common objections in response to this wager are as follows:
- Which god should one bet on (i.e. the god of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.)? How does one know that they are betting on the correct god? If this is unknown, does it even matter if one believes or not?
Such an argument does not discount the validity of the wager, rather it brings about a need to identify the correct god. If the ‘correct god’ is identified, then one can make the best wager possible.
- A follow up question would be, how can one discern which god an individual should bet on?
By logically thinking about the various deities proposed by religions and their qualities, then narrowing down to the correct religion and its god.
One can begin by narrowing down to the categories of polytheistic or monotheistic belief systems. A train of thought that can be used to determine the correct choice between polytheistic and monotheistic beliefs system is to note the unity in all creation (one genetic code for all beings, the interdependence of all creatures, etc.). The similarity and harmony between the creation is indicative of it being created from one source (i.e. only one source could be responsible for the repetition that is seen in all life). And if only one being was the creator, it begs the question of the purpose of the partner that may be ascribed to god. And if there is no purpose to gods in addition to the creator, logically there should only be one god, the creator. Therefore, only monotheistic religions should be considered. This is one of multiple ways that the conclusion of choosing a monotheistic religions can be derived
- Individuals do not always believe in things that benefit them and thus one is not necessarily sincere in believing in God. Without sincerity is one properly believing? If not, then why follow Pascal’s wager?
Attaining sincerity in belief is a work in process. This does not belie the truth of the wager. In fact, by accepting Pascal’s wager and discerning ‘which god to bet on?’, an individual moves closer to sincerely believing in God.
Islam’s three levels of submission
In Islam, there are three levels of submission: submission of the body, intellect, and heart.
In the first level, one submits because they feel that they may lose. In accepting Pascal’s wager, one believes out of fear that they may face harm in the afterlife, thus they complete the submission of the body.
In deciding on which god to choose and logically concluding on the god of Islam, one fulfills the submission of the mind. Thus two of the three steps of submission are completed in this way.
Submission of the heart is attained by submitting to god with your entire being without any doubts or rebellion against God. It is working towards building certainty in faith that can help attain the submission of the heart.
Rather than discount the entire bet because of one’s lack of sincerity, one should work towards attaining sincerity in religion by submitting to God with body, mind and heart.
Ghazālī, A. Ḥ. (1328). Mīzān al-amal. Cairo.
Jaffer, J. H. (2017). Recorded lecture #2 – Theology 101. Toronto.
Makarim Shirazi, N. (n.d.). Fifty lessons on principles of belief for youth.
Muṭahhari. M. (2013). Islam and religious pluralism. (Ḥasan, S. S. A., Trans.). Stanmore, Middlesex, United Kingdom: The World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri.
Rizvi, S. S. A. (1975). Need for religion. Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania: Bilal Muslim Mission.