Edmond's Blog

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The theological roulette

The global religious market was made possible by two inventions of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662): the mathematics of probabilities and the redefinition of theology as a strategic game. The latter is known as Pascal’s Wager.

Slave trade insurance was the first global-scale application of probabilities in economics. The reintroduction of slavery in Christianity was not a resurrection of pre-feudal economics. It was rather a crude form of the human commodification which is inherent to all modern production. “Its product is the self-conscious and self-acting commodity…the human commodity” (Karl Marx. Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 111). Modern evangelism inscribes itself in the same logic, i.g. an evangelist is vouchsafed in proportion to the number of won souls. The soul commodity needs to be insured in its own way. Pascal’s Wager was the first to offer a model of theological risk-assessment.

Pascal knew better than the proponents of Intelligent Design that the probability of a pre-ordered universe was impossible to calculate. “’God is, or He is not’… There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… “. He redefined theology as strategic gambling.

Most criticism of Pascal’s wager has focused on the binarity of coin tossing. Pascal ignores not only the multitudes of gods, but also the number of variables involved in each betting. His own Lettres Provinciale, where Pascal debates a Jesuit priest over the use of Penance, offers the best example. Both contenders agree not only about the existence of the Christian God, but also on the importance of Penance. What they disagree upon is the case-based administration of the Sacrament by the Jesuits. A protestant would probably agree with Pascal is his rejection of casuistry, while differing in Sacramental Theology. To make things even more ambiguous, the Nominalist crisis had already questioned any possible answer regarding the will of God.

Pascal’s wager stands only for the blind bet before the cards are dealt. The real game begins when another human player (like the Jesuit in Lettres Provinciale) makes his call. For what is worth, bluffing has its own place in the game. We might, as well, trade the flipping coin for another gambling machine invented by Pascal: the roulette. The particular god one worships is in most cases a matter of chance posing as destiny, in a fashion similar to a gambler’s supperstion. The similarity does not end here. Just like the other global roulette, the financial marked, the player is brainwashed to trust an expert who directs his bet and pretends to foresee the outcome.

Evangelism becomes another signaling game on the global religious market.

The concept of signaling refers to strategic models where one or more informed agents take some observable actions before one or more uninformed agents make their strategic decisions. This leads to situations where the uninformed agent care about the actions taken by the informed agent not only because the actions aspect payoffs directly, but also because the action taken say something about the type of the player. This in turn creates incentives to select actions to send the right signal about type.

An instructive example of signaling game is offered by fireflies’ light signals. When a firefly receives a light signal, it does not know whether the sender is a mating partner or an alluring predator. The bug has to asses the signal from incomplete information. It has to gamble the reproductive payoff against the risk of being eaten. In order for the game to continue, the probability of finding a sexual partner has to be higher than the probability of being eaten. In other words, signaling partners have to outnumber signaling predators.

A similar game is played on the religious market. The informed agent (preacher, evangelist, theologian) sends a message that allegedly comes from God. The receiver has to make a strategic decision on whether or not to accept the message. He is observing the messenger and listening to him in order to assess the probability of being true. He is acting from incomplete information. What he does not know is that the real information the messenger posses is not about God, but about the game. The messenger knows what to say and how to act to induce the right answer from the receiver. In order for the game to continue, the uninformed agents have to outnumber the informed agents, whether in the pews or even in the pulpit. It is the same as with the firefly.

However, as soon as the receiver understands the rules of the game, the religious roulette stops. No wonder the secret is well guarded.

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