“I believe because it is absurd” – and the irony of believing a rational person said that

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by Neil Godfrey

There’s an interesting article discussing the origin of our belief that Tertullian wrote, “I believe because it is absurd”, at aeon.com,

‘I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme

by Sam Dresser.

The article is another warning not to thoughtlessly take on board popular “knowledge” that “everyone knows to be true”.

I learned of it through another discussion, one on the Westar Institute site, clarifying the diverse meanings of the word “faith” by Bernard Brandon Scott, The Trouble with Faith.

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9 thoughts on ““I believe because it is absurd” – and the irony of believing a rational person said that”

  1. Great article, thanks for the link Neil.
    People will believe something no matter how absurd or impossible it is as long as it agrees with what they WANT to be true.
    One thing I am learning from Vridar and other sites is that you should look for evidence that disproves what you think or want to be true.

    1. • “People say they love truth, but in reality they only want to believe what they love, to be true.” —Myself
      • “There is nothing easier than self-delusion. Since what man desires, is the first thing he believes.” —Demosthenes (c.333 BCE)

  2. Voltaire (1765) [now bolded and formatted]. “ONZIÈME LETTRE. – Écrite par Mr. Théro à Mr. Covelle.“. Collection des Lettres sur les Miracles, écrites a Genève et a Neufchâtel (in French). pp. 136–137:

    Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning.

    Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

    1. The above Voltaire (1765) quote is the source of the widely used paraphrase (often mis-attributed as a direct quote): Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.

  3. Harrison, Peter (2017). “”I Believe Because it is Absurd”: The Enlightenment Invention of Tertullian’s Credo”. Church History. 86 (02): 339–364. doi:10.1017/S0009640717000531.

    Voltaire (1728) [1726]. Le dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers. Par Mr. St. Hiacinte. (in French). p. 32. “C’est pourtant ce ridicule que St. Augustin a trouvé divin; il disoit, je le crois parce que cela est absurd, je le crois parce que cela est impossible.”

    Voltaire (1879) [1764]. “Foi”. Dictionnaire Philosophique (in French). Œuvres complètes III. p. 158. “La foi consiste . . . à croire les choses parce qu’elles sont impossibles…”

    1. “NPNF1-07. St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John; Homilies on the First Epistle of John; Soliloquies”. http://www.ccel.org. Tractate 29 on John 7.14-18:

      [Per Augustine] Dost thou wish to understand? Believe. For God has said by the prophet: “Except ye believe, ye shall not understand.” [Isa. vii. 9].
      Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand; since, “except ye believe, ye shall not understand.” Therefore when I would counsel the obedience of believing toward the possibility of understanding…

      Cf. “Credo ut intelligam“. Wikipedia.

    1. • Farrar appears to be the source of the Seneca mis-attribution.

      Gibbon, Edward (1840) [1776–1789] [now bolded]. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. p. 27:

      The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

      Farrar, Frederic William (1881). “State of Roman Society – Seneca”. Seekers After God. Macmillan & Company. p. 45:

      “The common worship was regarded,” says Gibbon, “by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful.” And this famous remark is little more than a translation from Seneca…

      Hubbard, Elbert (1903). “Seneca”. Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Philosophers. XIV. The Roycrofters. p. 60:

      Gibbon, making a free translation from Seneca, says, “Religion was regarded by the common people as true, by the philosophers as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

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