Why Our Declining Biblical Literacy Matters

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Songwriters such as Nick Cave (pictured) and the late Yolngu star Gurrumul have often drawn on the scriptures in their work.
Paul Bergen/EPA


Meredith Lake, University of Sydney

Biblical literacy is likely lower in Australia today than at any point since the convict era. General levels of familiarity with the Christian scriptures are difficult to plot precisely, but studies of Bible reading habits, and data on various forms of Christian socialisation, indicate a significant decline in Australians’ exposure to the Bible over the last half century.

A 1960 study found that nine in ten Australians had a Bible at home. It was rivalled only by a cookery book and a dictionary, and far outstripped works by Shakespeare. Sixty one per cent of Bible-owning Australians picked it up at least once a year. Thirty eight per cent had read it within the previous two weeks. (Mind you, it seems that apart from the most regular churchgoers, most people read the Bible in a cursory manner if at all.)


Read more: Jesus wasn’t white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s why that matters


A 2002 survey found that 29% of Australian adults still read the Bible at least once a year, with 8% reading it frequently. In 2010, around 10% of Australian secondary students read the Bible weekly or more, and a further 15 to 20% browsed it occasionally.

Overall, though, since 1960 the proportion of annual Bible readers has dropped by half, and regular readers by three-quarters. In less than two generations, the proportion of Australians who never pick up a Bible for themselves has leapt to seven out of ten. The rising use of online Bibles and Bible apps may modify this picture, but 2013 data indicates that Australians read less of the Bible online than their counterparts in the UK or the US.

A working knowledge of the Bible, and a critical skill in interpreting it, remain extremely useful in a secular society.
shutterstock

In parallel with declining Bible reading, fewer Australians identify as Christian at the census. Similarly, the proportion of people attending church at least once a month has fallen from 36% in 1972 to 15% in 2014. So fewer Australians have been exposed to the public reading and preaching of the Bible, and to its inculcation through liturgy and hymnody.


Read more: Friday essay: who was Mary Magdalene? Debunking the myth of the penitent prostitute


Does it matter if Australians are becoming less familiar with the Christian scriptures? I would argue that, even aside from matters of faith, a working knowledge of the Bible, and a critical skill in interpreting it, remain extremely useful.

Firstly, the world is still an overwhelmingly religious place.

While Christianity has declined in its former European strongholds, and in related societies like New Zealand and Australia, it has spread widely in the global south. In 2018, it remains the most practised faith in the world. Effective global citizenship can only benefit from a working knowledge of its key text.

Shaping Our Culture

Secondly, biblical literacy is worthwhile because of the Bible’s dynamic role in creative culture.

Shakespeare’s plays contain many biblical references.
First Folio of Shakespeare’s works (and used for three subsequent issues). Published in 1623. Wikimedia Commons

The foundational role of the Bible in shaping English language and literature is well attested. Common phrases such as “the powers that be”, “from strength to strength”, “in the twinkling of an eye” and “escaped by the skin of my teeth” all come from English translations of the Bible.

Classic texts from Shakespeare’s plays to T. S. Eliot’s poems to the speeches of Martin Luther King assume some knowledge of biblical stories, images and ideas.

Among Australian creatives, too, literary lights such as Patrick White, Elizabeth Jolley, Tim Winton, Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas all make powerful use of biblical narratives and imagery. Songwriters from Nick Cave to the late Yolngu star Gurrumul have drawn on the scriptures in their lyrics.

Biblical stories and symbols have also inspired visual artists such as Grace Cossington Smith, Arthur Boyd and Margaret Preston. Reg Mombassa’s popular creation, “Australian Jesus”, offers a subversive take on the gospels.

Each of these Australians has found the Bible an enlarging influence on the imagination. Audiences can easily miss key elements of their work without a degree of biblical literacy

Reg Mombassa’s popular creation, ‘Australian Jesus’, offers a subversive take on the gospels.
Paul Miller/AAP

A Colonial Legacy

Thirdly, the Bible is a substantial – and unresolved – part of Australia’s European cultural baggage.

It loomed especially large in the process of colonising Aboriginal land and forging settler societies. The legal fiction of terra nullius, for example, drew on a particular interpretation of Genesis 1:28 – “replenish the earth, and subdue it”.

Most British colonists assumed that European agriculture was the proper means of fulfilling this divine command. Failing to recognise Indigenous forms of land use, they deemed the land “waste”, belonging to no one, and ripe for the taking.

At the same time, a minority of colonists drew on verses like Acts 17:26 – “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” – to affirm the common humanity of Aboriginal people, and to denounce settler greed and violence.

Crucially, as Indigenous Australians interpreted the Bible for themselves, they used it to demand just treatment and to assert their unique relationship to country. As the Mabo case made its way through the courts, for instance, plaintiff Dave Passi liked to quote from the Old Testament: “Do not move an everlasting boundary stone, set up by your ancestors” (Proverbs 22:28).

The ConversationIn all these ways, the Bible has been bound up with the Australian experience of colonialism. As such, a robust biblical literacy can aid understanding of the past and contribute to present day reconciliation.

Meredith Lake, Honorary Associate, Department of History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Marxism and Existentialism

And Since I am to speak of existentialism, let it be understood that I take it to be an “ideology.” It is a parasitical system living on the margin of Knowledge, which at first it opposed but into which today it seeks to be integrated. If we are to understand its present ambitions and its function we must go back to the time of Kierkegaard…

sartre

Compared with Hegel, Kierkegaard scarcely seems to count. He is certainly not a philosopher; moreover, he himself refused this title. In fact he is a Christian who is not willing to let himself be enclosed in the system and who, against Hegel’s “intellectualism,” asserts unrelentingly the irreducibility and the specificity of what is lived. There is no doubt, as Jean Wahl has remarked, that a Hegelian would have assimilated this romantic and obstinate consciousness to the “unhappy consciousness,” a moment which had already been surpassed and known in its essential characteristics. But it is precisely this objective knowledge which Kierkegaard challenges. For him the surpassing of the unhappy consciousness remains purely verbal. The existing man cannot be assimilated by a system of ideas…

We see that Kierkegaard is inseparable from Hegel, and that this vehement negation of every system can arise only within a cultural field entirely dominated by Hegelianism. The Dane feels himself hemmed in by concepts, by History, he fights for his life; it is the reaction of Christian romanticism against the rationalist humanization of faith. It would be too easy to reject this work as simply subjectivism; what we ought rather to point out, in place it back within the framework of its period, is that Kierkegaard has as much right on his side as Hegel has on his. Hegel is right: unlike the Danish ideologist, who obstinately fixed his stand on poor, frozen paradoxes ultimately referring to an empty subjectivity, the philosopher of Jena aims through his concepts at the veritable concrete; for him, mediation is always presented as an enrichment. Kierkegaard is right: grief, need, passion, the pain of men, are brute realities which can be neither surpassed nor changed by knowledge. To be sure, Kierkegaard’s religious subjectivism can with good reason be taken as the very peak of idealism; but in relation to Hegel, he marks a progress toward realism, since he insists above all on the primacy of the specifically real over thought, that the real cannot be reduced to thought. There are today some psychologists and psychiatrists who consider certain evolutions of our inward life to be the result of a work which it performs upon itself. In this sense Kierkegaardian existence is the work of our inner life – resistances overcome and perpetually reborn, efforts perpetually renewed, despairs surmounted, provisional failures and precarious victories – and this work is directly opposed to intellectual knowing. Kierkegaard was perhaps the first to point out, against Hegel and thanks to him, the incommensurability of the real and knowledge…

Now, in the present phase of our history, productive forces have entered into conflict with relations of production. Creative work is alienated; man does not recognize himself in his own product, and his exhausting labor appears to him as a hostile force. Since alienation comes about as the result of this conflict, it is a historical reality and completely irreducible to an idea. If men are to free themselves from it, and if their work is to become the pure objectification of themselves, it is not enough that “consciousness think itself”; there must be material work and revolutionary praxis. When Marx writes: “Just as we do not judge an individual by his own idea of himself, so we cannot judge a … period of revolutionary upheaval by its own self-consciousness,” he is indicating the priority of action (work and social praxis) over knowledge as well as their heterogeneity. He too asserts that the human fact is irreducible to knowing, that it must be lived and produced; but he is not going to confuse it with the empty subjectivity of a puritanical and mystified petite bourgeoisie. He makes of it the immediate theme of the philosophical totalization, and it is the concrete man whom he puts at the center of his research, that man who is defined simultaneously by his needs, by the material conditions of his existence, and by the nature of his work – that is, by his struggle against things and against men.

Thus Marx, rather than Kierkegaard or Hegel, is right, since he asserts with Kierkegaard the specificity of human existence and, along with Hegel, takes the concrete man in his objective reality. Under these circumstances, it would seem natural if existentialism, this idealist protest against idealism, had lost all usefulness and had not survived the decline of Hegelianism…

Between the two World Wars the appearance of a German existentialism certainly corresponds – at least in the work of Jaspers – to a surreptitious wish to resuscitate the transcendent. Already – as Jean Wahl has pointed out – one could wonder if Kierkegaard did not lure his readers into the depths of subjectivity for the sole purpose of making them discover there the unhappiness of man without God. This trap would be quite in keeping with the “great solitary” who denied communication between human beings and who saw no way to influence his fellow man except by “indirect action.”

Jaspers himself put his cards on the table. He has done nothing except to comment upon his master; his originality consists especially in putting certain themes into relief and in hiding others. The transcendent, for example, appears at first to be absent from his thought, which in fact is haunted by it. We are taught to catch a presentiment of the transcendent in our failures; it is their profound meaning…

Kierkegaard was unwilling to play the role of a concept in the Hegelian system; Jaspers refuses to cooperate as an individual with the history which Marxists are making…

It is one more existentialism which has developed at the margin of Marxism and not against it. It is Marx with whom we claim kinship, and Marx of whom I wish to speak now… It was at about this time [1925] that I read Capital and German Ideology. I found everything perfectly clear, and I really understood absolutely nothing. To understand is to change, to go beyond oneself. This reading did not change me. By contrast, what did begin to change me was the reality of Marxism, the heavy presence on my horizon of the masses of workers, an enormous, somber body which lived Marxism, which practiced it, and which at a distance exercised an irresistible attraction on petit bourgeois intellectuals…

Why then has “existentialism” preserved its autonomy? Why has it not simply dissolved in Marxism?

Lukacs believed that he had answered this question in a small book called Existentialism and Marxism… Lukacs fails absolutely to account for the principal fact: we were convinced at one and the same time that historical materialism furnished the only valid interpretation of history and that existentialism remained the only concrete approach to reality. I do not pretend to deny the contradictions in this attitude. I simply assert that Lukacs does not even suspect it. Many intellectuals, many students, have lived and still live with the tension of this double demand. How does this come about? It is due to a circumstance which Lukacs knew perfectly well but which he could not at that time even mention: Marxism, after drawing us to it as the moon draws the tides, after transforming all our ideas, after liquidating the categories of our bourgeois thought, abruptly left us stranded. It did not satisfy our need to understand. In the particular situation in which we were placed, it no longer had anything new to teach us, because it had come to a stop…

Marxism stopped…

Existentialism has been able to return and to maintain itself because it reaffirmed the reality of men as Kierkegaard asserted his own reality against Hegel. However, the Dane rejected the Hegelian conception of man and of the real. Existentialism and Marxism, on the contrary, aim at the same object…

Far from being exhausted, Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it…

Let us go further. We agree with Garaudy when he writes (Humanité, May 17, 1955): “Marxism forms today the system of coordinates which alone permits it to situate and to define a thought in any domain whatsoever – from political economy to physics, from history to ethics.” …

As soon as there will exist for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life, Marxism will have lived out its span; a philosophy of freedom will take its place. But we have no means, no intellectual instrument, no concrete experience which allows us to conceive of this freedom or of this philosophy…

Why, then, are we not simply Marxists? It is because we take the statements of Engels and Garaudy as guiding principles, as indications of jobs to be done, as problems – not as concrete truths.

– Jean-Paul Sartre (1960)


See Also

Existentialism is Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946, PDF)

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Keiji Nishitani (1990, PDF)

Why Religion is not Going Away and Science will not Destroy It

church-holy-saviour-istanbul

At the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul. Photo by Guillen Perez/Flickr

Peter Harrison | Aeon Ideas


In 1966, just over 50 years ago, the distinguished Canadian-born anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted the global demise of religion at the hands of an advancing science: ‘belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge’. Wallace’s vision was not exceptional. On the contrary, the modern social sciences, which took shape in 19th-century western Europe, took their own recent historical experience of secularisation as a universal model. An assumption lay at the core of the social sciences, either presuming or sometimes predicting that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, Western, liberal democracy. Then something closer to the opposite happened.

Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements. Secularisation, as predicted by the social sciences, has failed.

To be sure, this failure is not unqualified. Many Western countries continue to witness decline in religious belief and practice. The most recent census data released in Australia, for example, shows that 30 per cent of the population identify as having ‘no religion’, and that this percentage is increasing. International surveys confirm comparatively low levels of religious commitment in western Europe and Australasia. Even the United States, a long-time source of embarrassment for the secularisation thesis, has seen a rise in unbelief. The percentage of atheists in the US now sits at an all-time high (if ‘high’ is the right word) of around 3 per cent. Yet, for all that, globally, the total number of people who consider themselves to be religious remains high, and demographic trends suggest that the overall pattern for the immediate future will be one of religious growth. But this isn’t the only failure of the secularisation thesis.

Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularisation – that science would be a secularising force. But that simply hasn’t been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life in the form of public goods. A social safety net might be correlated with scientific advances but only loosely, and again the case of the US is instructive. The US is arguably the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world, and yet at the same time the most religious of Western societies. As the British sociologist David Martin concluded in The Future of Christianity (2011): ‘There is no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice.’

The story of science and secularisation becomes even more intriguing when we consider those societies that have witnessed significant reactions against secularist agendas. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed secular and scientific ideals, and enlisted scientific education in the project of modernisation. Nehru was confident that Hindu visions of a Vedic past and Muslim dreams of an Islamic theocracy would both succumb to the inexorable historical march of secularisation. ‘There is only one-way traffic in Time,’ he declared. But as the subsequent rise of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism adequately attests, Nehru was wrong. Moreover, the association of science with a secularising agenda has backfired, with science becoming a collateral casualty of resistance to secularism.

Turkey provides an even more revealing case. Like most pioneering nationalists, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was a committed secularist. Atatürk believed that science was destined to displace religion. In order to make sure that Turkey was on the right side of history, he gave science, in particular evolutionary biology, a central place in the state education system of the fledgling Turkish republic. As a result, evolution came to be associated with Atatürk’s entire political programme, including secularism. Islamist parties in Turkey, seeking to counter the secularist ideals of the nation’s founders, have also attacked the teaching of evolution. For them, evolution is associated with secular materialism. This sentiment culminated in the decision this June to remove the teaching of evolution from the high-school classroom. Again, science has become a victim of guilt by association.

The US represents a different cultural context, where it might seem that the key issue is a conflict between literal readings of Genesis and key features of evolutionary history. But in fact, much of the creationist discourse centres on moral values. In the US case too, we see anti-evolutionism motivated at least in part by the assumption that evolutionary theory is a stalking horse for secular materialism and its attendant moral commitments. As in India and Turkey, secularism is actually hurting science.

In brief, global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. The science and secularism pairing is so awkward that it raises the question: why did anyone think otherwise?

Historically, two related sources advanced the idea that science would displace religion. First, 19th-century progressivist conceptions of history, particularly associated with the French philosopher Auguste Comte, held to a theory of history in which societies pass through three stages – religious, metaphysical and scientific (or ‘positive’). Comte coined the term ‘sociology’ and he wanted to diminish the social influence of religion and replace it with a new science of society. Comte’s influence extended to the ‘young Turks’ and Atatürk.

The 19th century also witnessed the inception of the ‘conflict model’ of science and religion. This was the view that history can be understood in terms of a ‘conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought – the theological and the scientific’. This description comes from Andrew Dickson White’s influential A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), the title of which nicely encapsulates its author’s general theory. White’s work, as well as John William Draper’s earlier History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), firmly established the conflict thesis as the default way of thinking about the historical relations between science and religion. Both works were translated into multiple languages. Draper’s History went through more than 50 printings in the US alone, was translated into 20 languages and, notably, became a bestseller in the late Ottoman empire, where it informed Atatürk’s understanding that progress meant science superseding religion.

Today, people are less confident that history moves through a series of set stages toward a single destination. Nor, despite its popular persistence, do most historians of science support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Harrison

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Skateboarding: An Existential Art


Rodney Mullen (born August 17, 1966) is an American professional skateboarder, entrepreneur, inventor, and public speaker who practices freestyle and street skateboarding. He is widely considered the most influential street skater in the history of the sport, being credited for inventing numerous tricks, including the kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip. As a result, he has been called the “Godfather of Street Skateboarding.”

Rodney Mullen won his first world skateboard championship at the age of 14; over the following decade, he won 35 out of 36 freestyle contests, thus establishing the most successful competitive run in the history of the sport. Over the following years, he turned from freestyle, translating his accumulated skills to a newer, different form of skateboarding.

Mullen has appeared in over 20 skateboarding videos and has co-authored an autobiography, entitled The Mutt: How to Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself, with writer Sean Mortimer.

My Name is Human

Highly Suspect – My Name is Human


I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling myself
Fuck everyone else
Gotta remember that nobody is better than anyone else, here
(Do you need some time to think it over?)
Look what they do to you
Look what they do to me
Must be joking if you think that either one is free, here

Get up off your knees, girl
Stand face to face with your God
And find out what you are
Hello, my name is human
And I came down from the stars

I’m ready for love and I’m ready for war
But I’m ready for more
I know that nobody’s ever been this fucking ready before, hey
(Do you need some time to think it over?)
So figure it out or don’t figure it out
I figured it out
The bigger the river
The bigger the drought

Get up off your knees, boy
Stand face to face with your God
And find out what you are
Hello, my name is human
And I came down from the stars

Fire world, I love you
Fire world

I’m up off my knees, girl
I’m face to face with myself
And I know who I am
I stole the power from the sun
I’m more than just a man
(No longer disillusioned)

(I’m not asking questions)
(‘Cause questions have answers)
(And I don’t want answers)
I came down from the stars (so I’ll take my chances)
(And what are the chances)
(That I could advance)
(On my own circumstances)
(Said “what are the chances?”)
Hello, my name is human (and what are the chances?)
(I don’t want your answers)
(I’m not asking questions)
(So you keep your answers)
And I know who I am (so you keep your answers)
(I’m not asking questions)
(I’m taking my chances)

I Believe Because it is Absurd

the-incredulity-of-saint-thomas

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-1602), by Caravaggio, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany. Courtesy Wikipedia

By Peter Harrison | Aeon Ideas


Religious belief is often thought to evince a precarious kind of commitment, in which the degree of conviction is inversely proportional to correspondence with the facts. Exhibit A for this common characterisation of religious belief is the maxim of the third-century Christian writer Tertullian, who is credited with the saying ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ This paradoxical expression makes a routine appearance in philosophical evaluations of the rationality of religious belief, in contemporary polemics addressed to an imagined opposition between science and religion, and in virtually every reputable dictionary of quotations.

Scholars of early Christianity have long known that Tertullian never wrote those words. What he originally said and meant poses intriguing questions, but equally interesting is the story of how the invented expression came to be attributed to him in the first place, what its invention tells us about changing conceptions of ‘faith’, and why, in spite of attempts to correct the record, it stubbornly persists as an irradicable meme about the irrationality of religious commitment.

On the face of it, being committed to something because it is absurd is an unpromising foundation for a belief system. It should not come as a complete surprise, then, that Tertullian did not advocate this principle. He did, however, make this observation, with specific reference to the death and resurrection of Christ: ‘it is entirely credible, because it is unfitting … it is certain, because it is impossible’ (For Latinists out there: prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est … certum est, quia impossibile). This might seem to be within striking distance of the fideistic phrase commonly attributed to him. Puzzlingly, though, even this original formulation does not fit with Tertullian’s generally positive view of reason and rational justification. Elsewhere, he insists that Christians ‘should believe nothing but that nothing should be rashly believed’. For Tertullian, God is ‘author of Reason’, the natural order of the world is ‘ordained by reason’, and everything is to be ‘understood by reason’.

One likely explanation for this apparent incongruence is that, in his paradoxical juxtaposition of impossibility and certainty, Tertullian is drawing upon a principle set out in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Addressing himself to the credibility of highly improbable events, Aristotle observes: ‘We may argue that people could not have believed them, if they had not been true or nearly true. And that they are more likely to be true because they are incredible.’ His point seems to be that the apparent incredibility of a reported claim can actually provide a reason for believing it, since a witness seeking to perpetuate a false story would most likely have come up with something that at least seemed plausible. If this connection is on the right track, Tertullian, who almost certainly knew Aristotle’s Rhetoric, is not advocating belief without justification, but suggesting that we sometimes have good reasons to believe the highly improbable.

This leaves us with the question of how Tertullian came to be attributed with authorship of the rather different expression: ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ For this, we need to look to two decisive moments in the early modern period.

In the middle of the 17th century, the physician and polymath Thomas Browne drew attention to Tertullian’s original remarks in his bestselling Religio Medici (1643), or The Religion of a Physician. Crucially, not only did Browne introduce numerous readers to this relatively unnoticed passage in Tertullian, but he lent it an entirely new interpretation, proposing as a general principle that the strength of one’s faith is inversely proportional to the probability of what is believed: ‘Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith.’ Before long, numerous sources were quoting Tertullian, albeit disapprovingly, as having said: ‘I believe, because it is impossible’. The philosopher John Locke thus makes reference to this new version of the paradox in his classic An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), summing up the view of most of his contemporaries that this was a ‘very ill Rule for Men to chuse their Opinions, or Religion by’.

A key element of the background to this development was the rise of sectarian disputes in the wake of the Reformation. Protestants chastised Catholics for their overcredulous ‘implicit faith’ – the giving of assent to doctrines promulgated by the Church but without a full comprehension of what was being assented to. A prime case was the doctrine of transubstantiation – a theory, based on Aristotle’s philosophy, of how during the Mass the elements of bread and wine could become the body and blood of Christ. For many Protestants, this was an emblematic instance of believing something that was literally impossible. The maxim ‘I believe because it is impossible’ thus first gained currency because of its deployment in anti-Catholic polemic.

The second phase in the transformation of Tertullian’s original remarks came when the French philosopher Voltaire introduced the ‘absurdity’ condition. In the entry for ‘Faith’ in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), Voltaire concludes a characteristically entertaining account of the exploits of the notoriously promiscuous Pope Alexander VI by defining faith as ‘believing things because they are impossible’. The first appearance of the phrase ‘I believe because it is absurd’ comes subsequently in one of Voltaire’s 1767 publications, in which Voltaire attributes to the church father Augustine (rather than to Tertullian), the maxim: ‘I believe because it is absurd, I believe because it is impossible.’

Thereafter, ‘I believe because it is absurd’ became the standard form of the credo, and it was increasingly applied indiscriminately to all religious belief. Lending the phrase greater authenticity was its circulation in Latin as credo quia absurdum – a reverse-engineered version of Voltaire’s je le crois parce que cela est absurd. The misattribution of the saying to Augustine serves as a helpful marker of Voltaire’s influence, and for many years Augustine was regarded as the author of the paradox. While attributions to Augustine are rare today, Voltaire’s subtle insinuation of ‘absurdity’ into the new ‘I believe’ version of the paradox has persisted.

Since Voltaire’s time, the maxim ‘I believe because it is absurd’ has continued to serve the purpose intended by its Enlightenment originator – a gesture towards the inherent irrationality of religious belief. Thus in 1928, Sigmund Freud cited the motto as evidence of the infantile nature of religion, which he characterised as always attempting to shield its beliefs from rational scrutiny. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer similarly maintained that the maxim typified a particular religious psychology that attended both the birth of religion and its regrettable contemporary manifestations: ‘The motto “I believe because it is absurd” exhibits its old force here and everywhere,’ he complained in 1951. Reference works, though generally less partisan, often convey similar sentiments. Typical is the offering in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (1996), where the entry on credo quia absurdum est reads: ‘Also known as Tertullian’s dictum or paradox. Literally (Latin), I believe because it is absurd: that is, the very impossibility of a proposition becomes (mostly in theology) a kind of motivation for belief in it.’

One of the more conspicuous sites for the contemporary deployment of the maxim has been unflattering comparisons of fanciful religious belief with the ‘facts’ of science. In his lecture ‘Science as a Vocation’ (1917), Max Weber invented for himself an even more extreme Latin variant of Tertullian’s saying (Credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est – ‘I believe nothing except that which is absurd’, which Weber attributes to Augustine) in order to illustrate what he thought was an intrinsic tension between science and religion. Contemporary science vs religion warriors such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have predictably followed suit, pointing to Tertullian as a personification of the irrationality of religious belief.

Much could be said about the differences and similarities between religious and scientific commitment, but it is worth observing, in brief, that the contemporary sciences afford conspicuous instances of justified belief in both the impossible (quantum mechanics) and the staggeringly improbable (Big Bang cosmology). This brings us back to the original context of Tertullian’s remarks, which were not about belief motivated by the absurdity of its object, but whether is it ever warranted to believe in things we consider to be impossible or extremely improbable. Clearly, that remains a live question.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Harrison

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Commentary

This reminds me of Kierkegaard. I wonder why he wasn’t mentioned:

Revelation is marked by mystery, eternal happiness by suffering, the certitude of faith by uncertainty, easiness by difficulty, truth by absurdity; if this is not maintained, then the esthetic and the religious merge in common confusion. … The religious lies in the dialectic of inwardness deepening and therefore, with regard to the conception of God, this means that he himself is moved, is changed. An action in the eternal transforms the individual’s existence.


When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he related himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.


When subjectivity, inwardness, is truth, then truth, objectively defined, is a paradox; and that truth is objectively a paradox shows precisely that subjectivity is truth, since the objectivity does indeed thrust away, and the objectivity’s repulsion, or the expression for the objectivity’s repulsion, is the resilience and dynamometer of inwardness. The paradox is the objective uncertainty that is the expression for the passion of inwardness that is truth. So much for the Socratic. The eternal, essential truth, that is, the truth that is related essentially to the existing person by pertaining essentially to what it means to exist (viewed Socratically, all other knowledge is accidental, its degree and scope indifferent), is a paradox. Nevertheless the eternal, essential truth is itself not at all a paradox, but it is a paradox by being related to an existing person… The Socratic inwardness in existing is an analogue to faith, except that the inwardness of faith, corresponding not to the repulsion exerted by ignorance but to the repulsion exerted by the absurd, is infinitely deeper.

–  Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846)

Man’s Search for Meaning


Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called logotherapy.

According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search for Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in the United States.” At the time of the author’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.

Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp’s inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a hope in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that hope, he is doomed.

An example of Frankl’s idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were “decent” Nazi guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.

His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation, which he separates into three stages. The first is depersonalization—a period of readjustment, in which a prisoner gradually returns to the world. Initially, the liberated prisoners are so numb that they are unable to understand what freedom means, or to emotionally respond to it. Part of them believes that it is an illusion or a dream that will be taken away from them. In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realized that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, unable to be grasped in their depersonalization.

The body is the first element to break out of this stage, responding by big appetites of eating and wanting more sleeping. Only after the partial replenishing of the body is the mind finally able to respond, as “feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it”.

This begins the second stage, in which there is a danger of deformation. As the intense pressure on the mind is released, mental health can be endangered. Frankl uses the analogy of a diver suddenly released from his pressure chamber. He recounts the story of a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.

Upon returning home, the prisoners had to struggle with two fundamental experiences which could also damage their mental health: bitterness and disillusionment. The last stage is bitterness at the lack of responsiveness of the world outside—a “superficiality and lack of feeling… so disgusting that one finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings any more”. Worse was disillusionment, which was the discovery that suffering does not end, that the longed-for happiness will not come. This was the experience of those who—like Frankl—returned home to discover that no one awaited them. The hope that had sustained them throughout their time in the concentration camp was now gone. Frankl cites this experience as the most difficult to overcome.

As time passed, however, the prisoner’s experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing but a remembered nightmare. What is more, he comes to believe that he has nothing left to fear any more, “except his God”.


frankl.jpg

Man’s Search for Meaning (PDF)

Memento Mori

charnel

The Charnel House by Henry de Groux (1866-1930), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mons, Belgium. Photo by Getty


Memento mori – invitations to reflect on our own mortality – have been common throughout history. Two ancient traditions that made reflection on death central to their paths are Buddhism and Stoicism. For both, the starting point is the fact that our normal perceptions of value are deeply flawed, as we are constantly craving or loathing things that in reality are unimportant. The Buddhist texts offer a neat list of these: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. The Stoics had a word for them, which translates as ‘indifferents’. The things that we are so keen to pursue – wealth, material possessions, sense pleasures, comfort, success, people’s approval, romantic love and so on – are bound to disappoint and distract us from what really matters, which is our ethical and spiritual progress.

But arguing that we shouldn’t spend our lives seeking those things is not enough. The urges are strong and engrained in us, and both traditions knew it takes more than reason to begin to shake them. It takes sustained reflection on vivid and even shocking imagery to make the point on a more visceral level. This is where death meditations come in.

One of the most striking examples of this is the meditation on corpses presented in the Buddhist Satipatthana Sutta. In ancient India, corpses were left out in ‘charnel grounds’, and people would have had the opportunity to observe the various stages of decomposition. The text is nothing if not thorough, describing in some detail ‘a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter … being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or various kinds of worms’, eventually turning into ‘bones rotten and crumbling to dust’. On observing this, the monk reminds himself that ‘This body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’

Reminders of death are everywhere in the Stoic literature, albeit generally less graphic. The nearest the Stoics come to such detailed descriptions is with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: ‘Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. Or that everything was born to die.’ He is also concise and to the point in his assessment of human life, which is ‘brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.’

Epictetus advises to keep death always at the front of our minds: ‘Day by day you must keep before your eyes death and exile, and everything that seems terrible, but death above all; and then you will never have any abject thought, or desire anything beyond due measure.’

These reflections are meant to alert us to the fact that the things we find attractive and desirable are ‘shiny on the outside, but on the inside are pitiful’, as Seneca put it. Practices that instigate detachment from the things of the world are a preparation for death in the sense that the recognition that they are not important should make it easier to accept that soon enough we will not be around to enjoy them.

The ancients knew that such practices should be handled with care. Their intention was to elicit equanimity, not aversion. The Buddha warns that if a meditation of this kind were to evoke loathing, the monk should switch to a different one. To illustrate this, one discourse reports the case of a group of monks who engage so enthusiastically with contemplating the unattractiveness of the body that a number of them end up killing themselves. On finding out what happened, the Buddha decides to teach the survivors the more soothing practice of mindfulness instead.

As the Buddha advised, we need to be alert to the possibility that death meditation could be detrimental if we overdo it, or do it in the wrong spirit or state of mind. But why do it at all, if we’re not Buddhists or Stoics? Not everyone is convinced that preparing for death is a good idea. In ‘On Physiognomy’ (1580), Michel de Montaigne muses that it’s a bit like putting on a fur coat in summer because we’ll need it at Christmas: ‘It is certain that most preparations for death have caused more torment than undergoing it.’ Why weigh ourselves down with thoughts of our demise when we can choose to enjoy life and leave the end to take care of itself?

While that is an appealing perspective, there are reasons to keep mortality towards the front of our minds. According to the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun (2008), the fear of death is with us all the time, whether we realise it or not. Even if we are not racked with it, death anxiety sneaks into our life in many disguises. It is what causes us to distract ourselves through the pursuit of wealth and status, for instance, or seek comfort through merging with another, or a cause. But such denial ‘always exacts a price – narrowing our inner life, blurring our vision, blunting our rationality. Ultimately self-deception catches up with us.’

Sometimes, we are shaken out of our denial by a great crisis, such as terminal illness or bereavement, or by another significant life event. Unexpectedly, Yalom argues, such experiences can evoke a sense of awakening, leading to a dropping away of trivial concerns, to reprioritising what matters in life and a heightened perception of the beauty around us: ‘[T]hough the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.’

But we needn’t wait for pivotal experiences, says Yalom. By confronting our finitude through therapy, or reflection on death, a lasting shift in perception can arise. Yes, the process might evoke some anxiety, but ultimately it is worth it, as it can make our life richer and more vibrant.

By highlighting the fact that time is short, death meditation can help us to put things in perspective and appreciate the present more. It can remind us that the things we get so worked up about are not worth it – our appearance, career, how our achievements compare with those of our peers, the satisfaction of material desires, disputes with neighbours and tradespeople. Marcus Aurelius draws out this aspect of it well: ‘think of the list of people who had to be pried away from life. What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six feet under.’

Death can happen at any time, as Seneca is fond of reminding us: ‘There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you, so you must wait for death at every point.’ But this thought need not lead us to brood on the unsatisfactory quality of the human condition. Instead, it can open the way to a deep acceptance of it, together with the awareness that we had better make the most of what we have here and now. This is no glib hedonism, but a bittersweet recognition that any joy in life is always and necessarily intermingled with death and transience.Aeon counter – do not remove

Antonia Macaro

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Gone Away

This one goes out to Jordan O’Connors, a great friend of mine since childhood, who I lost last summer. It’s hard to miss a day without thinking about him or grabbing my phone to call him before realizing that he’s gone away. Jordan was possibly the only person that could understand and empathize with the core of my being. We shared a type of platonic, brotherly love and a love of philosophical inquiry. It’s a novel and difficult feeling when you come to understand that part of yourself can die while you are still living. Having been raised to believe in eternal life, the reality of death just seems to make of life an absurdity. This song is a cover of The Offspring’s song of the same name (1997) and Five Finger Death Punch’s efforts to publicize the atrocities and grievances of war are to be admired.

Gone Away

Maybe in another life
I could find you there
Pulled away before your time
I can’t deal, it’s so unfair

And it feels
And it feels like
Heaven’s so far away
And it feels
Yeah, it feels like
The world has grown cold
Now that you’ve gone away

Leaving flowers on your grave
Show that I still care
Black roses and Hail Marys
I can’t bring back what’s taken from me

I reach to the sky
And call out your name
Oh please let me trade
I would

And it feels
And it feels like
Heaven’s so far away
And it stings
Yeah, it stings now
The world is so cold
Now that you’ve gone away
Gone away
Gone away
Yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah
Ooh, yeah ooh ooh

I reach to the sky
And call out your name
Oh please let me trade
I would

And it feels
And it feels like
Heaven is so far away

And it feels
Yeah it feels like
Heaven’s so far away
And it stings
Yeah, it stings now
The world is so cold
Now that you’ve gone away
Gone away
Gone away
Yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah
Ooh, yeah ooh ooh
Yeah ooh, yeah ooh ooh

And it feels
And it feels like
The world is so cold
Now that you’ve gone away