Friday, April 13, 2018
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.