The remarkable Persian chronicler, Ibn Rustah, reported in the thirteenth century that a monarch in the Caucasus had decided to observe Muslim, Jewish and Christian rites equally. Apparently, the king declared: “I have decided to hedge my bets.”
This is the earliest recorded reference to a piece of metaphysical mathematics usually referred to as Pascal’s Wager – a bullying tactic used in modern times principally by evangelical Christians to attempt to force their belief system upon other people. The essence of this proposition from a Christian perspective, formulated in the seventeenth century by the noted mathematician Blaise Pascal (although variations have been found in a variety of religions throughout history) is as follows:
Either God exists or he does not. If he does exist and you believe in him, you gain eternal life. If he exists and you don’t believe in him, you risk eternal damnation. If he doesn’t exist, your gain and losses are finite and therefore negligible.
The logic behind Pascal’s Wager, therefore,
is that one could use Game Theory (a field to which Pascal was a heavy
contributor) to show that the option of believing in God dominates the decision
matrix that results.
To anyone tired of dealing with boorish evangelicals (and yes, there are other kinds!) who invoke this principle, there are two quick and easy defences. The first is for atheists, although agnostics may use it too. It is known as the Atheist’s Wager, and the principle is as follows:
The best bet is to live your life with a focus on making the world a better place. If there is no God, you will have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he will judge you on your merits and not just on whether or not you believed in him.
The Atheist’s Wager in effect rejects the Protestant principle of sola fide, and most evangelicals will respond by saying that good works alone are not sufficient to win God’s favour. For this reason, I suggest the following response to Pascal’s Wager, which I call the Agnostic’s Lemma. It works as follows:
Any number divided by itself yields unity. While it may be the case that the stakes of this decision are infinite, I believe that there are an infinite number of possible religions – the many different sects that exist today, in all their varieties, and many more to come in the future. Since infinity divided by infinity gives unity, choosing a religion becomes a metaphysical lottery where the infinitely high gain of winning is offset by the infinitesimally low odds of choosing the winning religion. I therefore choose to remain agnostic.
A lighter version of the Agnostic’s Lemma is found in Homer Simpson’s comment: “But Marge, what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder!”
Pascal’s Wager proceeds from the assumption
that there is one and only one true religion. While people are free to believe
this, we are also free to believe (as the Sufi do) that every religion reveals
an aspect of a divine truth – that rather than God hiding a winning lottery
ticket in one and only one religious doctrine, a more intricate divine plan
beyond our understanding guides our diverse metaphysical realities. While a
prophet may share a glimpse of the divine, any human is flawed and incapable of
understanding the immensity of a divine plan conceived by an unknowable entity
of infinite capacity.
This is part of a principle I call NUTMOG –
No-one Understands the Mind of God. NUTMOG is a strong defence against any
attempts at belligerent evangelism, or exclusionary metaphysics. (Atheists who
can handle a pantheistic metaphysics should treat ‘God’ in this proposition as
the God of Spinoza, which was Einstein’s position, or perhaps replace the
phrase with ‘no-one can determine metaphysical answers by a process of
I am not opposed to evangelism, per se. I
have fond childhood memories of friends of my parents setting up their musical
instruments in the town
In general, however, I feel that the fundamentalist
evangelicalism prevalent in the
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The centrepiece of this instruction, therefore, is to teach people what Jesus commanded. And what did Jesus command? One and only one thing. John 13:34-35:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
The instruction to ‘make disciples of all nations’ is therefore an instruction to teach the nations of the world to have love for one another – which indeed would be a way towards peace on Earth, and goodwill to men.
If one believes the Great Commission was an instruction to spread the word of Jesus around the world, then this mission appears to be concluded. Today, especially in the age of the internet, the teachings of Jesus are very widely distributed, and most people are well aware of the basics of this ministry. Indeed, Christianity is currently the most popular religion in the world. As far as spreading the good news goes, this part of the evangelist’s mission is (arguably) concluded. All that is left is loving one another, as Jesus did.
This is the view of the post-evangelical movement, which sees a
Christian’s relationship with God and their fellow man as the most meaningful
aspect of Christianity, and rejects any formulation of Christianity which leads
to exclusionism and bigotry, since these are not an expression of love.
It will be an uphill battle to convince
committed evangelicals that their mission is concluded, and freedom of belief
means that they always have the choice to continue what they’re doing if that’s
what they wish, but perhaps the following argument, which might be called the Post-Evangelist’s
Gambit, can be used to some effect:
Your goal is to convert people to Christianity. If you attempt to do so using tactics that people find boorish and belligerent, it will have the opposite effect and disincline them from choosing Christianity. Therefore, the best way to achieve the goals of evangelism is to live a life of love and service to the community, thus demonstrating God’s love and the truth of Jesus’ teachings through your own actions.
If these responses to Pascal’s Wager do not sway the committed evangelist, perhaps at the very least they will ease the burden of anyone bored of being harassed by them. Freedom of belief protects our right to choose, but it does not excuse boorish behaviour. Religion should inspire people to great deeds, not obligate them to annoy their neighbours.