The Grand Design, an extract of which appears in the Times today, sets out to contest Sir Isaac Newton’s belief that the universe must have been designed by God as it could not have been created out of chaos.
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” he writes. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.
“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Pursuing the prayer thread through the labyrinth of the Web, I eventually found a bizarre “Place Bets” video. This invites potential punters to put money on whether I will repudiate my atheism and embrace religion by a certain date or continue to affirm unbelief and take the hellish consequences. This isn’t, perhaps, as cheap or as nasty as it may sound. One of Christianity’s most cerebral defenders, Blaise Pascal, reduced the essentials to a wager as far back as the 17th century. Put your faith in the almighty, he proposed, and you stand to gain everything. Decline the heavenly offer and you lose everything if the coin falls the other way. (Some philosophers also call this Pascal’s Gambit.)
Ingenious though the full reasoning of his essay may be—he was one of the founders of probability theory—Pascal assumes both a cynical god and an abjectly opportunist human being. Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice. Meanwhile, the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe. I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.