I. A Theology of Statistics

I saw that under the sun:
    the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
    nor bread to the wise,
nor riches to the intelligent,
    nor favour to the knowledgeable,
but time and chance happen to them all.               

For man does not know his time.
    Like fish that are taken in an evil net,
and like birds that are caught in a snare,
    so the children of man are snared at an evil time,
when it suddenly falls upon them.
Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

In his 1986 novel The Songs of Distant Earth, Sci-Fi legend and antitheist Arthur C. Clarke relates his idea of the demise of God in the following way:

‘Fortunately for mankind, Alpha faded out of the picture, more or less gracefully, in the early 2000s. It was killed by a fascinating development called statistical theology…

In various forms, this debate had been going on for several thousand years. But by the twenty-first century, the new information technologies and methods of statistical analysis as well as a wider understanding of probability theory allowed it to be settled.

It took a few decades for the answers to come in, and a few more before they were accepted by virtually all intelligent men: Bad things happened just as often as good; as had long been suspected, the universe simply obeyed the laws of mathematical probability. Certainly there was no sign of any supernatural intervention, either for good or for ill.

So the problem of Evil never really existed. To expect the universe to be benevolent was like imagining one could always win at a game of pure chance.

Some cultists tried to save the day by proclaiming the religion of Alpha the Utterly Indifferent and used the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution as the symbol of their faith. Needless to say, so abstract a deity didn’t inspire much devotion.

Once again Clarke has proven prophetic, with just such a view becoming popular in recent years. For the next few weeks I’ll be interacting with the implications contained in Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and Markets (2005) and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (2008). Both are fun and fascinating, and both argue convincingly that randomness is a bigger part of life than we think. This raises important questions regarding our beliefs about God. Does luck or chance even exist, and should Christians believe in it? What about Christian statisticians? Or atheists for that matter? Should Christians gamble, or take out insurance? Is God probable? Given the regularity of so much of the world according to statistical distributions, can we still affirm God’s involvement in human affairs?

Could we develop a theology of statistics?