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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Let's start off with the most famous of Pascal's aphorisms:

The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.

Over the centuries, these simple, beautiful words have been routinely distorted, misused, and abused to justify all manner of irrational beliefs. This is a blatant contradiction of both the spirit and the letter of Pascal's argument. Far from authorizing a willfully obscurantist contempt for reason, Pascal is simply saying that religious belief cannot be justified rationally. To believe in God requires a leap of faith, and faith is a thing of the heart, not of the head.

In common with many religious thinkers through the ages, Pascal effects a radical separation between faith and reason. On this reading, faith is antecedent to reason; it comes from the heart and provides us with immediate, intuitive knowledge. Reason can only give us second-order knowledge by ordering, clarifying, and arranging the insights already given to us by those faculties that the heart represents: intuition, sensitivity, and sentiment. It is therefore only through the heart that religious truth, including the question of God's existence, can be apprehended. Pascal wants to convince the skeptic that the only way to God is through the heart, not through elaborate rational proofs that are ultimately irrelevant.

Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.

Contrary to popular belief, Pascal's Wager is not an attempt to prove the existence of God. As we've already seen, Pascal argued that the question of God's existence was not amenable to rational proof or disproof; you either believed in God's existence or you didn't, and whichever position you took would always be a matter of faith.

What Pascal is trying to do with his famous Wager is to convince the skeptic not that God exists, but that believing in his existence is perfectly rational. Pascal effectively says to the skeptic, "What have you got to lose by believing in God?" If the skeptic ends up believing in God and it turns out that God doesn't exist after all, then he's lost nothing. On the other hand, if he doesn't believe in God, and God really does exist, then come Judgment Day, the skeptic has some serious explaining to do.

As a great mathematician, Pascal thought himself well placed to convince the cultured despisers of religion of faith's reasonableness. Even so, each individual would still need to make that final leap of faith for themselves before getting there.

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.

Throughout his work, Pascal confronts the fundamental paradox that exists at the heart of human nature. Down here on earth, man is everything. He can control the natural world, making it bend to his will. He is lord and master of all he surveys, with the potential to destroy as well as preserve the world around him.

At the same time, from the standpoint of eternity, man is nothing, an insignificant speck occupying a tiny little planet in...

(This entire section contains 984 words.)

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a remote corner of the cosmos. From one perspective, man is all-powerful; from the other, he is weak and achingly vulnerable, prone to destruction at the hands of nature red in tooth and claw, a nature utterly indifferent to his fate.

Despite this vulnerability, despite being the weakest reed in nature, as Pascal puts it, man is still superior to the universe that threatens to destroy him at every turn. Why? Because, unlike all the stars and all the planets, all the stones and rocks, the trees and the animals, he is a thinking being. He is aware—profoundly aware—of his own mortality. Man knows that he will one day perish, and it is this self-knowledge that allows him to transcend the limitations of his surroundings to attain a more disinterested perspective on life. It is this insight, more than any other, that makes Pascal not just a proto-existentialist but a key thinker of the Christian humanist tradition. Pascal seeks to do justice to all facets of the human personality: earthly and transcendent, material and spiritual, temporal and eternal.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

As someone who lived during a time of bitter religious conflict, Pascal was acutely aware of the dangers to which religion could lead. In the above quotation, he draws our attention to religion's recurring capacity to provide motivation for the most heinous and barbaric of crimes. In Pascal's day, it was depressingly common for both Catholics and Protestants to persecute each other, often resorting to the most brutal methods to enforce religious conformity.

While it would be something of an anachronism to see Pascal as an ecumenist ahead of his time, he was nonetheless alive to the way in which religious convictions can so easily be used as a convenient mask for the most evil of acts. A cursory glance at some of history's bloodiest episodes furnishes us with numerous examples in support of Pascal's argument. Whether it was the depredations of the Crusades, the recurring pogroms waged against Jews, or the brutal massacre of French Protestants on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572, men have all too often used their deepest, most sincere religious convictions as a justification for morally reprehensible acts that they would otherwise never seriously contemplate.