Happy Birthday, Blaise Pascal!

Blaise Pascal, crayon drawing by Jean Domat, c. 1649, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Blaise Pascal, born on June 19th, 1623 in Auvergne, France, was a mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, theologian, inventor, and writer.

This polymath was so talented in so many areas that any one of them could have kept his memory and influence alive to this day. Steven West writes in Philosophize This that we could ‘feel completely inadequate when we learn that he invented the calculator (yes, the calculator) at age 18.’ David Simpson writes in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy, he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion, he was a defender of Christianity.’ Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon write for Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s principle of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason.’

Pascal’s Wager is probably his best-known idea, keeping his name alive in popular culture as well as among scholars. The argument can be summarized thusly: You can believe in God, or not believe in God. When it comes to the effect of the state of your belief on your possible eternal afterlife, if you don’t believe in God, you may very well be damned for all eternity. But if you do believe in God, you may achieve salvation. When it comes to the effect of your state of belief on your life here on Earth, whether or not you believe in God, your life will not be affected hugely. We’re all constrained as a matter of course by cultural expectations and codes of behavior, after all. The religious constraints we might find inconvenient and even tedious sometimes don’t, generally, significantly burden your life more than any others, while the practice of religion can add a great deal of meaning and satisfaction to life. Since we stand to gain much more than we might lose, all in all, it’s the most logical and therefore best bet to believe in God.

Now Pascal is an extremely intelligent man, and he knows belief is something you can’t just flip on like a light switch. That’s why he advises that the prudent person will choose to believe in God for the reasons described above and then behave as if they believed it. With enough acts of piety, religious study, and time among other virtuous and true believers, they are bound to end up believers themselves. This is very insightful psychologically: it accords well with what we now know about how the brain works, and his ‘fake it till you make it’ belief formation process is very like modern cognitive behavior therapy. Enact the change you wish to see in your mind, and your mind will follow, or to use modern terminology in common use, your brain will be ‘rewired’.

I’ve heard many people object to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that they think religion does have too many negative effects to accept that the wager in favor of God-belief is a good bet. To ignore what your reason tells you about how unlikely it is that anything exists outside of the natural world, and that contradictions within and among the scriptures of the world indicate that none of them are divinely inspired, and so on, makes you a traitor to reason and critical thinking and science. It undermines your ability to perceive and understand the real world on its own terms. And betraying your own powers of reason, so that you can feel safe about an afterlife that no-one can demonstrate happens anyway, infantilizes you by subjugating your critical thinking to your superstitious fears.

I don’t buy the first objection anymore, though I once found it convincing. After all, few are better at reasoning and critical thinking than Pascal. His formidable powers of reason don’t appear undermined in any serious way overall considering his incredible lifetime achievements in mathematics, physics, logic, practical invention, and science. Choosing to believe in God clearly doesn’t seem to hamper his intellect one bit.

I still object to the Wager, but on these grounds: I think Pascal, unjustifiably, assumes too much when constructing his argument in the first place. Why, for example, bet on the idea that God would even be pleased by and liable to reward belief in him, even if eventually sincere, when it originates in this sort of self-serving calculation? Why not assume instead that God, if he exists, would reward honesty itself, whether in believers or nonbelievers, so long as their state of belief results from good faith efforts to seek truth? This seems, to me, more in line with the inclinations of the creator of a rational, ordered universe, the ultimate expression of reason, which in turn requires fearless, honest inquiry if it’s to be known, understood, and appreciated in the fullest way possible.

But this wager is just one relatively minor result of Pascal’s exploration of this fascinating world, and given his pioneering inquiries in the areas that would later be known as probability theory and game theory, it’s not surprising that, in brainstorming, he came up with this possible solution to the problems of belief vs. reason. And whether or not he got it right, it’s long captured the public imagination and really does make us think, as he’s done exquisitely during, and throughout the centuries after, his all-too-short life.

Learn more about the great Blaise Pascal:

Blaise Pascal – by Desmond Clarke for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – by David Simpson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Blaise Pascal: French Philosopher and Scientist – by Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon for Encyclopædia Britannica

Pascal’s Wager and – +EV your way to success!! – by Steven West, Philosophize This!

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When Philosophy Needed Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike, by Peter Adamson

From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato

If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.

Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.

All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.

While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.

Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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What Leaving Religion Has Done for Me

I grew up as a member of a large and generally very religious, very conservative Catholic family. As I describe in an earlier piece, both sides of my family are close-knit and traditional, with a tendency to insularity. When I was much younger, I loved it. Religion, especially in its more traditional and fundamentalist forms, has many upsides: a strong sense of community, a feeling of intimate belongingness in a group that shares a creed, a mythology, a history, and an identity. There are things I remember fondly: the warmth that suffuses family faith-based rituals, like putting on a fresh new dress for Easter morning, or the excitement of Christmas midnight mass, with its rich decorations, solemn rituals, and stirring hymns. We would return and light the tree, a luminous and dream-like vision to a child who just woke up from the wee-hours car ride home. There were pancake breakfasts and coffee socials after Mass, Sunday school friends, singing in the choir, and suppression of giggles as my brother, sisters, and I pulled faces at each other during the hour-plus long service.

I also remember that religious fervor, that soaring feeling, that high, that rush of heart-swelling emotion that would come over me sometimes as I sought connection with the divine. In my mid-teens, Jesus was my ‘drug’ of choice. (Not that I did much in the way of drugs later, ahhh-hem.) The Catholic religion has many elements that suit a romantic temperament: prayers and chants, candles and incense, a baroque artistic sense, a preoccupation with death, suffering, and self-sacrifice, and a deep veneration for martyrdom. And no-one is more romantic than a teenager.

But that feeling of belongingness can also lead to insularity, so that you feel removed to some degree from the broader human community and from the wider world of ideas. There was a feeling of loneliness sometimes, of separation from the world. I remember times when my religious compatriots and I would bad-mouth secular people: their music, clothing, slang, history, practices, and beliefs and ideas (I later learned we were mostly wrong about what they actually think and believe). It felt satisfying, in a way, as it made me feel part of some exclusive club, but it felt a bit mean too. We portrayed the rest of the world to ourselves as a lost, sad, evil place compared with what our religion had to offer. We could rest easy, satisfied that we knew the truth and could lead more meaningful, ‘holy’ lives, here on earth and after death. (Though, oddly enough, I feared death terribly in those years, and thought of it often. Try as I might, the always vague promise of the joys of heaven failed to console me. I thought perhaps God was testing me: tests of faith are an important theme in Catholicism.)

As I approached adulthood, and began to meet people from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, faith faded and gave way to doubt. I’d always been a curious person, but my youthful shyness and anxiety, combined with my insular upbringing, kept me mostly isolated from the world beyond family and church. It wasn’t until I entered the workforce, and then attended junior college, that I discovered the wider world, one of dazzling variety, and found it suited my personality to a T.

Slowly, I began to emerge from my religious shell. I began to let down my guard, thinking: if my religion is true, my faith will survive running the gauntlet of questions, challenges, and opposing ideas, gaining strength along the way. After all, if integrity and love of knowledge are virtues and God is good, God would prefer even an honest atheist to an intellectually lazy believer. So I opened myself up to discovery, to an enthralling diversity of beliefs, ideas, cultures, and practices, a world with a rich and varied history. Science, literature, philosophy, history, art, culture, religion itself, all became available to me to explore, to consider, and to critique, honestly, in its own terms, and on its own merits. There were no more heresies and dogmas: now, there were facts and theories, truth and falsehood, useful ideas and otherwise. There was no more sin and redemption: now, there were systems of ethics and self-improvement, and considered moral judgments derived from considerations of good and bad, help and harm, beneficence and selfishness, virtue and non-virtue. The supernatural gave way to the natural, certitude to a healthy skepticism, blanket acceptance of creed to understanding, faith to belief ‘wisely apportioned to the evidence’.

I came to value the sense of belonging to humanity as a whole over the sense of belonging to a narrower community of belief. My newfound cosmopolitanism broadened my sense of care for and responsibility to my fellow human beings beyond the scope of any one ideology. The world was no longer divided into ‘Us’ (in my case, Catholics) and ‘Them’, the poor benighted souls wandering this world lost, hopeless, and forlorn. Instead, I came to understand that all of these tools we’ve developed, from morality to literature to government to art to religion, are products of the great quest to better ourselves, to attain the happiness and fulfillment that all humans seek. Religion, like culture, language, and so on, I came to understand as a human creation, and no more or less important, sacred, or immune to change and criticism than any other artifact. Religion lost its magic: since humans made religion, humans can reform or unmake it. I could glean the best of what it has to offer, and explore its history, appreciate its role in moral progress, gain insight from its ethical and metaphysical theories, enjoy the creativity which gave rise to its fables and rituals, and discard the rest.

Likewise, the whole of the great treasure trove of human thought became available to me for study and consideration. There is no list of banned books, no heresies. Instead, there are good ideas and bad ideas: theories that better explain the workings of the universe, and those that do not; beliefs that accord with reality and with reason, and those that do not; ideologies that lead people to do good and to lead better lives, and those that do not; literature and art that arouse the best emotions and enrich understanding in us, and those that do not.

Many religions, including the brand of fundamentalist Catholicism in which I was raised, lead many adherents to restrict the education of their children to a cherry-picked, often distorted or flat-out-wrong, circumscribed array of ideas, scientific theories, and historical accounts that accord with the doctrines of their faith. Many of these children remain ignorant of the wider world of human thought and history until something in their experience or personality compels them to look beyond the teachings of their youth. For example, my own dear grandmother, out of love but misguided by her piety, did a disservice to the education of her grandchildren by attempting, and in some cases succeeding, to restrict our education in this way. Her religious beliefs led to her conviction that a broad, liberal education offered too many temptations to disbelief, so she felt compelled keep us from learning anything other than that which would accord with her fundamentalist Catholic faith. As I later discovered, she was right, not for the reasons she thought. Truth, in my opinion, holds fast in the face of challenges; it does not give way as easily as error does. Each new thing I learned, then, was not a temptation: it was a window of opportunity for growing in understanding, and for replacing bad ideas with better ones. Fortunately, I inherited, and was inspired by, her adventurous side, her love of people. Over time, I encountered and fell in love with the wider world of ideas, through the people I came to meet and the broader education I eventually received.

Now, in place of memorizing and reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I immerse myself in Aristotle and Mill, in Hume and Kant, in Wollstonecraft, Rose, Stanton, Jefferson, and Paine, in Avicenna and Aquinas, in Rawls, Pinker, Newberger Goldstein, and Hitchens. I can immerse myself in the teachings of religious founders as well, including the historical Jesus, endlessly more complex, fascinating, and inspiring than the blonde, haloed icon of the Baltimore Catechism. I have the opportunity to explore what all of these thinkers and reformers have to offer, to seek to understand their ideas on their own terms, putting aside those distorted accounts produced by religious rivalry. I can also, without fear of divine censure, explore the bad ideas people have conceived, from belief in witchcraft and satanic possession to the defense of torture, to racist ideologies, to ‘holy war’ and terrorism to social Darwinism (a sadly misleading term, does a disservice to a great thinker by associating his name with eugenics, a pseudoscientific theory contrary to his own ideas). I can try to enter the minds of those who created these dangerous and immoral ideas, in order to really understand how they came up with them, and to better explain why they are so terrible.

These days, I think of myself as a happier, more morally responsible, more intellectually honest, and more informed person than I would have been if I had remained religious. In that, I speak for myself only. Yet I know that this is true for many others, whose accounts celebrate the benefits of their own religious deconversions. It’s my impression that the most joyful, most passionate, and yes, the most resentful converts from religion are those who were brought up in more restrictive, fundamentalist belief systems. Critics say that such people gave up their religion because it was too hard, so they took the easy way out; or, that they just wanted to be able to ‘sin’ freely. I’ve had these accusations thrown at me many times. In a sense, they’re right, but not for the reasons they think. Many of these religions are too hard because their restrictions and demands are contrary to human nature since they’re based on deeply flawed accounts of it, and much of what they deem ‘sin’ is not wrong after all.

Many people attribute their own best qualities, of character, of behavior, of outlook on life, to religion, whether it’s the one they were brought up with or one they converted to. While I recognize the fact that religion can give a deep sense of fulfillment, the evidence indicates religiosity is not more of a predictor for good behavior than secularism. Study after study, personal account after personal account reveal that religious people commit most crimes at about the same rate, are about as generous, and behave about as morally overall than secular people.

My own observation is that people use religion to justify whatever way they are inclined to behave, good or bad. As the physicist Steven Weinberg points out, good people do good things, and evil people do evil things, regardless of religion. Many of the kindest, wisest, and most wonderful people I know are religious, and credit their religion with their moral successes. I’ve also known plenty of religious people use their beliefs to dodge responsibility for their bad behavior with excuses such as ‘the devil made me do it’ and ‘well, of course, I’m just a sinner’. They use this get-out-of-jail-free-card, such as this particular one available to Catholics (but of course, not necessarily endorsed by all Catholics): ‘I’ll just go to Confession later’. Some are otherwise good people who hold what I think are immoral beliefs, because they were taught to believe this way, and threatened with eternal punishment if they don’t. Others aren’t morally praiseworthy people in any sense of the term, and go through life doing only that which serves their own short-term self-interest. Religion, for these, is a matter of convenience or habit.

All of these things are basically true of the non-religious people I’ve come across, including my secular community of friends, family, and co-workers. Some are kinder than others, some are morally committed to doing good, some have a more nihilistic, selfish, or jaded view of the world. Yet here’s why I generally prefer a secular brand of morality over the religious: secular people generally take goodness more for granted. While this might sound counter-intuitive as an indicator of a better moral character or as a way of habituating oneself to better behavior, I think it’s excellent for both.

For example, when complimented on a good deed, a secular response is generally something along these lines: ‘well, obviously, it’s the right thing to do’, or, ‘it just feels right / good’, or, ‘of course, that’s how decent people behave’. These sorts of responses indicate that they see goodness as the default position, as required by reason, as a basic human instinct, or both. After all, human beings go through day to day life being decent to one another: we pay the asking price for the things we want, we step aside to let others pass on the sidewalk, we obey the rules of traffic, we say please and thank you, we lavish food, money, and medical care on strangers as well as family and friends, we spend huge amounts of our time communicating complex thoughts and ideas, and so on and so on. We take all this for granted, to our credit. When we compare the human species with all others, even to our closest relatives the chimpanzees, we find that our level of cooperation, generosity, and tolerance is quite remarkable. In all other species, some combination of predation, raiding, warfare, murder, infanticide, and/or indifference to suffering and the welfare of anyone besides close kin and allies are par for the course. With humans, however, such behavior makes the news.

Since goodness is the default, it’s badness has to be explained: by mental illness, alcohol or drugs, a bad upbringing, a momentary selfishness that overcame one’s better side, or by faulty ideology or culture. Therefore, most good deeds are not terribly remarkable: they are a natural product of sociability combined with reason. Sociability gives us the instincts to cooperate and help others; reason shows us that the more widely we extend our cooperation and good-naturedness, the better off everyone is in the long run.

Since secular people (as well as many liberal and progressive religious people) tend to believe in the basic goodness of human nature, they tend to be liberal in politics and morality, and broad in their conception of human nature. For example: since it’s everyone’s basic duty to help one another out, it’s right and just that we all pay taxes to create public welfare systems for those less fortunate than ourselves. To not institute public welfare systems is to say that it’s right that people should enjoy the benefits of civilized society, while being permitted to shirk their responsibility to care for those whom it hasn’t benefited. Another example: since most kinds of human behavior are good or at least morally neutral, there’s only a narrow range of behaviors that should be prohibited, namely those that actively harm others. Human nature, with its unique combination of advanced intelligence and strong social instincts, has evolved to include a wide variety of ways of being that are not only valid, but worthy of celebration, as they are indicative of the wonderfully fascinating, complex, endlessly inventive creatures that we are.

It’s no surprise, then, that secularists and adherents of the more liberal religions, which share this belief in basic human goodness and the broadness of human nature, have been on the forefront of reform and civil rights movements throughout history. Abolition of slavery, religious liberty, women’s, worker’s, and gay rights, indeed all of the great movements for reform and freedom, originated with the dissidents, the broad-minded, and the humanists. Religion is made for human beings, not the other way around.

An aside: there are certain leading secularists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who claim that the only ‘true’ religious believers are fundamentalists. They argue that liberal and reformed believers just want to pick and choose the ‘nice’ parts and discard the rest, which constitutes a betrayal of their religion. I think this view is not only historically inaccurate, it’s based on a more basic categorical error. Religions are not, and have never been, eternally ‘fixed’ systems that do, or ‘should’, remain constant over time. They are better understood as belonging to a category of things that include culture and language, all of which come gradually into being from thoughts and practices that are products of human nature, and change over time. Culture, language, and religion evolve as human nature evolves and as the totality of human knowledge and wisdom expands and is applied to current circumstances. It’s no more true to say that the only ‘true’ religion is that which remains wedded to a particular holy book or creed established by a synod, or a particular interpretation of these, than it is to say that the only ‘true’ communicator of English language is one who strictly adheres to the first Webster’s dictionary, or considers the Canturbury Tales or the works of Shakespeare as the eternal exemplar of ‘true’ English grammar and style.

Let’s contrast the more liberal, progressive, humanist views of secularists and moderate believers with the views of some of the more fundamentalist and hierarchical religions, usually descendants of tribal belief systems. This includes the brand of conservative Catholicism I grew up with (which is not reflective of all variants of Catholicism, some of which are quite tolerant and emphasize social justice). In these belief systems, humans are born in sin, ‘fallen’, weak and corrupt, and it’s only through the greatest struggle, and never without divine help, that we can achieve goodness. Their view of human nature is narrow: people are created to fulfill one of a number of comparatively few, narrowly defined roles, and behavior and proclivities that aren’t in accordance with these are sinful. Their view of life is one of spiritual warfare: we are beset on all sides by Satan and his agents as they vie with God for dominance over our souls. The way to redemption, then, is a lifetime of constant prayer, diligence, and suffering, battling one’s way to an eventual union with God that relatively few can achieve.

Secularism and the liberal religions, with their naturalist view of morality, emphasize the ordinariness of human goodness and the value of habitual, systematic, readily achievable goodness. The more rigid, fundamentalist religions, on the other hand, emphasize the difficulty of defeating evil and the value of relatively rare exploits of good deeds through heroic self-denial. While the latter may be more romantic and exciting, I think that the secularist and humanist view of human nature has been more conducive to human flourishing overall. It promotes a greater quantity of goodness in the world by making it understandable and accessible. This is readily apparent when we examine the evidence throughout history and up to the present time. Where we find tolerant governments and secular or progressive religious belief systems, we find less warfare, a higher standard of living, and a system of laws that protect all citizens from oppression, from each other as well as from government itself. Where we find civilizations dominated by religious fundamentalism, rigid ideologies, and aristocratic and ‘ordained’ hierarchies, on the other hand, we find the opposite.

In sum: leaving religion behind, for me, has proved not only emancipatory, but has provided a wonderful opportunity for learning, for critical thought, and for personal growth that I may never had had otherwise. I still have a residual distaste for religion, especially for its more ritualistic trappings, as one has a distaste for imbibing a substance one has overindulged in, or for fire after one has been burned. I shy away from churches, am creeped out by rote prayers, and feel depressed when listening to Gregorian chants and solemn hymns. (I feel very differently about other forms of sacred music, and wouldn’t you know it, I never heard any of them in the church of my youth.) Yet I seek wisdom from any source in which it may be found, and since I know that there is much to be found in religious traditions as there is in any arena of human thought, I look for it there, too, despite the inclinations I sometimes have against it. And one day, when my residual aversion to religion has finally worn away, I’ll be that much less in the sway of the kind of bias that blinds the intellect and blunts the understanding.

*Listen to the podcast version here or here on iTunes
*Also published at Darrow http://darrow.org.uk/2015/04/12/what-leaving-religion-has-done-for-me/

What Does ‘Lapsed’ Mean Anyway When Referring to an Ex-Religionist?

I’ve long thought it strange to be referred to as a ‘lapsed Catholic’. I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic religion, which I rejected in my early adulthood. 

‘Lapsed’, in pretty much every other common usage of the term, refers to a kind of just letting something go or expire, such as letting an insurance policy or subscription ‘lapse’ by forgetting to pay on time, or it could refer to simply losing interest. Many who still subscribe to the religion of their parents, either because they still actually believe in it or because they just let their membership continue (as it never occurred to them to examine their beliefs, its own brand of carelessness), are simply unaware that many who no longer believe made an active decision to reject religion, for the best of reasons. 

For myself as for so many others, rejecting the religion of my youth was a long, thoughtful, difficult, yet ultimately emancipatory and joyful process. Those who refer to me and others like me as ‘lapsed’ because they intend to imply carelessness, laziness, or lacking the strength of character necessary for satisfying religious demands, are doing us an injustice. Such dismissiveness may be simple thoughtlessness, but more often, it’s indicative of a desire to cast aspersions on deconversion (unless, of course, we’re talking about deconversion from a rival religion!). Yet, remaining within the comforting cocoon of the belief system of one’s youth, with its automatic community membership and societal approval, actually seems to me to be the easy way to go. Critiquing and then rejecting one’s beliefs out of principle is much harder, and especially so for those leaving a religion that’s enforced by threats, such as hellfire or isolation from the community. For so many of us, rejecting religion is not at all a passive thing: it’s matter of acting on logical and moral convictions and of commitment to personal integrity.

A core assumption behind religious commitment is that faith is necessary for becoming a truly good human being. Many believe that life is a test and faith is necessary for passing it, for proving one’s worthiness of redemption. Knowledge, or fact-based belief, is not enough, because faith, believing without proof, is much more difficult. The faithful, therefore, prove themselves most worthy of eternal reward. 

I know I’m not alone in thinking that this is a strange assumption. As I mentioned earlier, it seems to me that holding onto unquestioned beliefs is the easy way to go. It’s what we do when we just want to to go with the flow, to avoid conflict with friends and family, to feel that easy assurance that we’re doing all that’s really required of us. On the other hand, requiring ourselves to carefully consider and weigh the evidence before accepting a truth claim, and to examine a theory’s tendency to generate accurate predictions before we consider it worthy of belief, requires an intellectual rigor that’s difficult and often very inconvenient. Of course, I’m not claiming that the process of questioning one’s beliefs is exclusive to the non-religious; many religious people subject their beliefs to the process of rigorous examination and find they remain convinced of the truth of their beliefs. What I am saying is that the assumptions behind referring to the no-longer-religious as ‘lapsed’ are fallacious and unjust.

Another common assumption behind the supposed superiority of faith is that it’s a mark of humility, traditionally a high religious virtue. Putting aside for the moment the assumption that it’s always a good thing, I’m not at all convinced that humility has any direct link to faith. In fact, saying ‘I don’t know’ when the evidence is unavailable, ‘proportion[ing] belief according to the evidence’ as Hume says of the wise man, is much more humble, much more honest, it seems to me, than the cannot-be-questioned assertions of faith. Epistemic humility, holding oneself accountable to the evidence, is much more appropriate. given how tenuous knowledge claims really are. In a world where our beliefs are constantly challenged and what we think we know is disproved by better arguments and new scientific discoveries, the assertions of faith appear more like a form of arrogance than anything else.

So, while I know that many religious people do honestly examine their beliefs and remain confident they believe what’s true, none have the right to assume that those who no longer hold religious beliefs have carelessly ‘lapsed’. Most of us, you can be assured, have not.


Revised Aug 8th 2015, original version was posted 24th April 2013