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Columnists

Bussed-up

Agnostics anonymous

Although Blaise Pascal enjoys lasting fame for his philosophical writings and his work on binomial coefficients in triangles and the study of pressure in fluids, only true aficionados of the history of public transport remember to give him his due as Father of the Autobus.

In 1662, Louis XIV decreed that horse-drawn carriages should run at set times on set routes across Paris, 'for the benefit of a great number of persons … who have not the means to ride in chaise or carriage.' Having concluded that 'all human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room,' Pascal resigned himself to humankind's restless nature and became a shareholder in the company that set up the 'Carosses à Cinq Sous'. The Sun King's decree was fulfilled and Paris had public transport for the first time.

The Parisians were not particularly grateful; they threw stones at the carriages and the experiment was soon abandoned. It would be 165 years until the next bus.
In London, the recent 'atheist bus' campaign has met with more success. Last October, Ariane Sherine sought to raise £5,500 to have buses emblazoned with atheist slogans. With Richard Dawkins matching all donations, her appeal has amassed more than £125,000, and as a result, buses bearing the legend 'THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE' will soon be gracing the London streets.

Why that rather tepid and un-Dawkinsy 'probably'? Sherine wanted to reduce the risk of legal challenges, and also 'it means the slogan is more accurate, as even though there's no scientific evidence for God's existence, it's also impossible to prove that God doesn't exist'.

That's where Pascal's famous contribution to probability theory comes in. 'Pascal's Wager' contends that it's better to gamble on God's existence rather than his nonexistence, since 'If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing'. The most common modern rebuttal is that there isn't a simple toss-up between God and no-God. There are multiple faiths, and so not only must one gamble on a god existing, one must hit on the correct one.

The atheist bus was a response to Christian bus advertisements, but Bill Oddie, an opponent, was presumably referring to another religion with more form in this area when he said, 'They're speaking straight to extremists. I'd like to know how they sleep the night after one of those buses gets blown up.'

As an agnostic, I feel there's no point waiting a lifetime for a particular god if several might turn up in the end; and I could much more easily 'stop worrying and enjoy my life' if extremists on all sides could just rest content with 'probably'.