Let’s read Pascal (34): “All people seek happiness” as a principle in apologetics and cultural engagement

Let's Read Pascal

Pascal, Aristotle and Augustine agree on two points: 1) all people seek happiness; 2) the means of seeking happiness are radically diverse.

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pascal, Pensées 425)


Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.4)

In the following passage from the Confessions, Augustine introduces a distinction between what we might call the subjective experience of seeking happiness and the objective truth of what is sought. Some people, in thinking they seek happiness, are in fact actively fleeing that which alone can give them the happiness they think they pursue:

It is not, then, certain that all men wish to be happy, since those who wish not to rejoice in You, which is the only happy life, do not verily desire the happy life. Or do all desire this, but because the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, so that they cannot do the things that they would, they fall upon that which they are able to do, and with that are content; because that which they are not able to do, they do not so will as to make them able? For I ask of every man, whether he would rather rejoice in truth or in falsehood. They will no more hesitate to say, in truth, than to say, that they wish to be happy. For a happy life is joy in the truth. For this is joy in You, who art the truth,  O God, my light, the health of my countenance, and my God. All wish for this happy life; this life do all wish for, which is the only happy one; joy in the truth do all wish for. I have had experience of many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived. Where, then, did they know this happy life, save where they knew also the truth? For they love it, too, since they would not be deceived. And when they love a happy life, which is naught else but joy in the truth, assuredly they love also the truth; which yet they would not love were there not some knowledge of it in the memory. Wherefore, then, do they not rejoice in it? Why are they not happy? Because they are more entirely occupied with other things which rather make them miserable, than that which would make them happy, which they remember so little of. For there is yet a little light in men; let them walk— let them walk, that the darkness seize them not. (Augustine, Confessions X.22.33)

Now of course Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Augustine’s beatus esse and Pascals “être heureux” do not describe identical notions, but that is precisely the point: there is no consensus about what true happiness is.

I offer five reflections on these quotations:

1) The tension that arises from humanity sharing a common goal yet employing radically diverse approaches to reaching it captures well the Christian condition of being “resident aliens” in our contemporary culture or “elect exiles” as the ESV of 1 Peter 1:1 has it. We are not utterly alienated form our culture (because we share the goal of seeking happiness) but we cannot feel completely at home in it (because we differ profoundly on the means of achieving that goal).

2) It is hard to overestimate the extent to which understandings of happiness can be radically divergent. Just because everyone seeks happiness, it doesn’t follow that we all recognise each other as being engaged in the same search that we are, as these reflections from Pascal illustrate:

And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature. (425)

True nature being lost, everything becomes its own nature; as the true good being lost, everything becomes its own true good. (426)

In seeking happiness the human race is united; in its understanding of the happiness it seeks, it is radically divided.

3) It is a good general principle, when engaging with ideologies, ideas or people with whom we disagree, to begin with the assumption that they are seeking happiness and, then to try to understand what happiness is being sought and how it is being pursued. Very rarely will a position make no sense to the person who holds it; if it doesn’t make sense to us it may well be that we haven’t understood what notion of happiness underlies it. This is a particularly valuable principle for Christian academics working in secular disciplines, when the assumptions under-girding those disciplines can be radically at odds with biblical truth: audi alteram partem. It is also a helpful principle in addressing personal conflict at the workplace, among friends or in family contexts. Those who disagree with us often have reasons that make perfect sense once we understand what happiness they are seeking and how they are seeking it, and until we comprehend and engage on that fundamental level, our attempts to scratch the surface of their position will most likely only cause irritation and entrenched opposition.

4) The common acknowledgment that all people seek happiness provides the sort of Anknüpfungspunkt (point of contact) that Paul discerns in 1 Corinthians 1, and offers a wonderful opening for apologetic conversations in our contemporary culture in which, as Aristotle somewhat awkwardly puts it, “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement” say that happiness is to be sought. If Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks seek wisdom, what does our society demand and yearn for? There could no doubt be many responses, but I think that “happiness” would be high on any list. To put this in terms of Tim Keller’s fourfold schema drawn from 1 Corinthians 1:

  • You seek happiness
  • But it is not to be found in the way you are seeking it now
  • Happiness is to be found only in Christ
  • Here is how you can find it in him

5) Something in Aristotle’s formulation caught my eye: “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness” we seek. That is not the same as saying that all people seek happiness. It is one thing to acknowledge that all seek happiness; it is quite another actively to seek it (just as it is one thing to say one believes in Christ, and quite another to live a life in step with that profession). So perhaps part of the way we might engage with non-Christian positions within the academy, and part of our apologetic strategy more broadly, can be to challenge the disconnect between people’s profession of seeking happiness and their actions. And of course, the challenge is also thrown out to Christians: how great a chasm is there between the happiness in God we may claim to pursue, and the actions of our daily lives?

Let’s read Pascal (32): A Pascalian lesson on how to critique scepticism

Let's Read Pascal

Pensée 394 is a brief reflection on the principles that underpin sceptical traditions:

All the principles of sceptics, stoics, atheists, etc., are true. But their conclusions are false, because the opposite principles are also true.

Perhaps one of its most insightful reflections contained in this pensée is that a system can be perfectly self-consistent and non-contradictory (I know the presuppositionalists would contest that—let’s just assume it for the moment) and yet lead to false conclusions because other systems built on similarly non-contradictory sets of principles are also true. In examining a theory, position or system of belief, we must not only “see whether it hangs together”, but also see whether a system built on the opposite principles would be equally robust. In addition, this pensée shows that there are more ways to critique a position than to claim that its principles are false.

This pensée also has a Chestertonian whiff about it: it is the very asymmetry of Christianity, the fact that it takes account of contrary principles, its sheer unwieldiness and historical detail, that makes it (as Chesterton might say) quite uniquely human, and quite uniquely true.

Let’s read Pascal (22): Don’t underestimate the power of habit in shaping what you believe

Let's Read Pascal

There is a website that will tell you how many days of your life you have spent watching particular TV series.

According to “statistics brain”, in 2013 the average American watched 5.11 hours of television per day, or nine full years over a lifetime (though the Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to think that in 2012 it was 2.8 hours per day; either way, it’s quite an investment of time). According to the same site, the average American youth spends 900 hours a year in school, and 1200 hours a year watching TV, consuming 16000 thirty-second TV commercials over the same period. In 2005 the Guardian calculated that the average London commuter would see 130 adverts in a 45 minute journey through the capital, and in a day we are “exposed to” around 3500 advertising messages, though of course we cannot recall them all and we do not notice many of them consciously.

How many of those TV hours and how many of those adverts reflect a life that is lived, to quote Don Carson, with “eternity’s values in view”? Some, perhaps, but the overwhelming majority do not.

On a daily basis, we are enculturated (habituated, indoctrinated, evangelized, proselytized, brainwashed: choose your verb as a function of how insidious you find the situation) subtly and repeatedly into viewing the world and ourselves in a certain way. We are enculturated into wanting certain things (whether those “things” be objects, lifestyles, values or character traits) and, by default, into not wanting other things that are simply absent from the ambient enculturation.

What does this have to do with Pascal? The link is in the importance of recognising the role that habituation has in shaping who we are. The reader need not worry: this post will not turn into a tirade against capitalism or the marketing industry. I do however want briefly to explore how belief formation functions, both in relation to marketing and more broadly. In reading through the Pensées again this year, one of the book’s themes that has given me most pause for thought is Pascal’s insistence on the importance of custom (enculturation, habit) in the way we form beliefs. Here is one example from, pensée 252:

For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated? Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter. Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow, and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc. (Faith in baptism is more received among Christians than among Turks.)

Pensée 252 continues with Pascal stressing the importance of custom not just in arriving at beliefs, but at maintaining the beliefs we hold:

Finally, we must have recourse to it when once the mind has seen where the truth is, in order to quench our thirst, and steep ourselves in that belief, which escapes us at every hour; for always to have proofs ready is too much trouble. We must get an easier belief, which is that of custom, which, without violence, without art, without argument, makes us believe things, and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that out soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary. Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom, and by not allowing it to incline to the contrary. Inclina cor meum, Deus. (“Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!”, Psalm 119:36)


I feel that it would take a whole book to tease out the consequences (and to question some of the assumptions) of what Pascal says here, but let me just touch on just one point in this post. It flows from the sentence “It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary”. In other words, we try in vain to believe something that cuts against the grain of our habits. This is why what we believe will always, ultimately, be linked to how we behave or, to put it another way, this is why epistemology is rightly understood as a branch of ethics. Our beliefs follow our behaviours as much as our behaviours follow our beliefs, and the cognitive/behavioural dissonance engendered by claiming to believe one thing while living as though the opposite thing were true will eventually resolve itself by either a change in belief or a change in behaviour.

This, I think, is the sense behind Pascal’s much maligned and almost always spectacularly misquoted advice to the skeptic to “Kneel down, say your prayers, and you will believe”, as if Pascal were goading us to pretend to have faith. Let me quote the relevant pensée (250) in full:

The external must be joined to the internal to obtain anything from God, that is to say, we must kneel, pray with the lips, etc., in order that proud man, who would not submit himself to God, may be now subject to the creature. To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride.

First of all, this pensée is not only talking about the unbeliever coming to faith, but about any prayerful encounter with God, whether by believer or unbeliever. Secondly, Pascal explicitly states the limits of the thought’s application in its final sentence: ‘To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride’. If I seek the Christ who did not come to be served but to serve, the Christ who made himself nothing, and the Christ sent by the God who “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), if I seek this Christ in a spirit of intellectual or moral pride then we will most likely not find him, however acute our reasoning powers. The whole person must come to God, not just the mind. Another way of putting this is that lifestyles and habits generate plausibility structures and restrict our freedom to believe certain things, regardless of whether those things happen to be true or not.

I don’t think there is anything more controversial here than saying that, if we are exposed to n hours of TV and n commercials per day, enculturating us into particular habits of mind and behaviour, our desires will increasingly reflect a proportion of the choices offered to us, rather than other choices that happen not to be offered (after all, the companies do not pay for advertising for disinterested aesthetic reasons). Similarly, we are likely to find ways of living not reflected in this enculturation to be alien and implausible.

These Pascalian reflections raise an interesting set of questions for Christian academics to ponder:

  • Are there any lifestyle choices, values or character traits that “fit” particularly well with my discipline?
  • If there are, why do they fit well? What do they reflect about the discipline itself? How, in turn, is the discipline formed by them?
  • How do these choices and values predispose the discipline to holding certain truths, and how do they make other truths seem implausible?
  • Is there any point at which my discipline and people in it are professing to believe one thing but behaving/writing as if a contrary thing were true?
  • Where does an enculturation into my discipline resonate with an enculturation into the values of God as revealed in the bible, and where is there the greatest dissonance between the two?

Thank God for atheists like Peter Boghossian, but watch out for atheist Newspeak

Unbelievable Brierley With the dust now beginning to settle on the Peter Boghossian/Tim McGrew debate on the Unbelievable radio show last week, two thoughts remain with me from the exchange.

The first is that the church should be thankful for atheists like Peter Boghossian. This is not meant as an ironic comment, neither is it by itself an adequate systematic theology of atheists. What I mean is what Blaise Pascal means when, in Pensée 391, he notes that “scepticism helps religion”. Down the rolling centuries the church has been pushed and prodded to work out its most penetrating and rigorous theology in the face of unfaithfulness from within and opposition from without, and there is a great value for thinking Christians in having sceptics like Boghossian push us to think more carefully. When the sceptics are at their sceptical best, they are also at their most religiously helpful.

Admittedly, there wasn’t much in Boghossian’s leading argument in this particular debate usefully to sharpen the theology of thinking Christians. His insistence on defining faith as “belief without evidence” is alien to me, as it is to all the Christians with whom I can recall ever having discussed the matter, as well as alien to all the Christian books I can recall having ever read on the subject, whether “popular” or “academic”. Nevertheless, where there are Christians who think that faith in Christ is indeed to be equated with a belief in the absence of evidence, Peter Boghossian is doing us all a favour in pointing out that this sort of thinking just will not do. In his argument, Boghossian kept returning to the point that many Christians use the word “faith” in the peculiar way he suggests. Although this is far from my own experience, and far from the experience of his interlocutor Tim McGrew, he is nevertheless providing a service to the church to insist that those who do hold this definition of faith would do well to return to a biblical understanding of faith as trust in a trustworthy object (in this instance, God) or, as the first entry in the OED has it, “Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).” If some people understand the word “faith” wrongly, the problem  is not with the notion of faith but with their understanding of it. Where the Christian Emperor is to be seen parading his new clothes, we should be thankful for the little atheist boy who points and laughs. But the boy over-reaches himself if he maintains that the king has never worn any clothes in his life, and never will. If I may beg the reader’s indulgence for one more sentence flogging this analogy of diminishing returns, the embarrassed regent has an ample wardrobe waiting for him in the pages of the bible.

The second point that remains with me from the debate, and a somewhat more substantial one, is Peter Boghossian’s definition (in chapter 9 of A Manual for Creating Atheists) of faith as a virus, and his suggestion that it is to be equated with a mental illness that ought to be medically treated with a view to its eradication. I do not want to engage with the question of the appropriateness of such remarks; readers of this blog will have to judge for themselves whether this language is apt, and no doubt opinion will be split. The point on which I want to focus is broader. Boghossian, by talking of religious faith in this way, is (among other things) seeking to frame public debate and public perception. He is trying to write the public story within which religious faith makes sense, and can be understood. This is a common tactic in which people on all sides of this and other debates engage. One need only think of Edward Bernays’ brilliant re-branding of cigarettes as “torches of freedom” to understand the power of such a move. It is classic public relations or, as it used to be called, propaganda.

The principle, as everyone knows, is that those who succeed in framing the terms of the debate succeed in the debate; if you get to set the language used to identify and describe an object, you are three quarters of the way to imposing your view of that object. To understand the importance of a debate’s terms for its outcomes, just think for a moment about the terms of current debates around religion in the public sphere. The prevailing terms can become so natural and “common sense” that we cease to notice them, so let me highlight their contingency and their peculiarity by substituting politics for religion in the following phrases. Imagine a world in which we spoke not of the political left and right, Democrat and Republican, but of “political communities” (after the style of “faith communities”), each with their “community leaders” or “community spokespeople”. Imagine a world in which people with political convictions became “people of politics” (like “people of faith”), whatever those convictions happen to be: everything from the most extreme ideas to the most mainstream. Imagine a world in which such a varied array of political conviction had to be dealt with en bloc, as if it were a coherent whole. Imagine a world in which it was considered “child abuse” to encourage children to think about political issues such as social justice, welfare or the environment, lest they might begin to form convictions about these issues (other than the conviction that they do not matter). Imagine a world in which the constant refrain was that such “people of politics” should all focus on what they have in common and forget everything else, and that when they mention their points of disagreement they are considered socially divisive, bigoted and intolerant. Imagine a world in which “people of politics” are supposed to be peculiarly unfit to participate in debates in the public square, except when those debates have to do with their particular “community interests”, and that holding a political conviction is good reason to be barred from public debate. A strange world indeed. The more one thinks about it, the more peculiar is the set of terms and categories that we have at our disposal today for talking about what the bible speaks of very differently. Here, by contrast, is a brief and by no means comprehensive tasting menu of biblical passages concerning faith:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—[…] I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 1:1-2; 5:13)

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us,  2  just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us,  3  it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. (John 1:6-7)

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:29-31. Don’t take verse 29 out of the context of verses 30-31!)

I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me (2 Timothy 1:12)

Orwell BBC mircophoneDuring his exchanges with Boghossian, McGrew mentioned George Orwell’s[1] “Newspeak”, perhaps the most powerful articulation for three generations of the principle that “he who sets the terms controls the debate”. Orwell’s essay “The Principles of Newspeak” (excepts of which are available here) repays careful reading by anyone interested in the public exchange of ideas. Here are some key passages:

1) The language we use determines not only what is thought, but what is thinkable

I begin by quoting Orwell, from towards the beginning of the essay:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc,[2] but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak[3] forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.

Later in the essay, Orwell describes the effect of this policing of vocabulary on the possibility of dissent:

Ideas inimical to Ingsoc could only be entertained in a vague wordless form, and could only be named in very broad terms which lumped together and condemned whole groups of heresies without defining them in doing so.

We might think this a somewhat alarmist idea, and fancy that we are not in the least the prisoners of our language. If so, it may be beneficial to reckon with Orwell’s comments on dimension of time and memory:

In 1984, when Oldspeak was still the normal means of communication, the danger theoretically existed that in using Newspeak words one might remember their original meanings. In practice it was not difficult for any person well grounded in doublethink to avoid doing this, but within a couple of generations even the possibility of such a lapse would have vanished.

Even so, we may still be tempted to dismiss any suggestion that our thoughts are constrained in this way. If so, let me offer the analogy of a supermarket shopping trip. In the supermarket we are so occupied by the panoply of choice available to us that it rarely (though sometimes) crosses our minds to question what is not available and why it is not available, so intent are we of selecting our purchases from among the range in stock. If something we are seeking is not on the shelves we are, by and large, content to choose the closest alternative, and we are also happy (or at least happily unaware) to have our expectations and desires shaped by what is available in the store. After all, we have choice, even if that choice has been chosen for us.

2) How Newspeak works

Orwell explains that the Newspeak of 1984 operated by…

the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds”. It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

In this respect we might think of the notion of religious faith which, if the Boghossian definition prevails, will henceforth be known only as “belief without evidence” or, alternatively “believing to know things you don’t know”, to the exclusion of other dictionary meanings and common usages.

3) The power of words: Orwell’s “B vocabulary”

In Orwell’s Newspeak, certain words carry a particular ideological charge. They are part of what he terms the “B vocabulary”. Here is his description of how the B vocabulary functions:

The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them. Without a full understanding of the principles of Ingsoc it was difficult to use these words correctly. In some cases they could be translated into Oldspeak, or even into words taken from the A vocabulary, but this usually demanded a long paraphrase and always involved the loss of certain overtones. The B words were a sort of verbal shorthand, often packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, and at the same time more accurate and forcible than ordinary language.

By way offering a chillingly effective example of the subtle power of B vocabulary, Orwell evokes “goodthink”:

To take a single example: the word goodthink, meaning, very roughly, ‘orthodoxy’, or, if one chose to regard it as a verb, ‘to think in an orthodox manner’. This inflected as follows: noun-verb, goodthink; past tense and past participle, goodthinked; present participle, good- thinking; adjective, goodthinkful; adverb, goodthinkwise; verbal noun, goodthinker.

The very use of such a word communicates not just a concept but an attitude to it. We all do this, when we choose to say that spending has either been “cut”, “slashed”, or “restrained”, for example, but the restriction on thought comes when only one of these terms is acceptable in the public sphere. It becomes more insidious when, instead of saying that someone has been killed, we choose (or, in some circumstances, are constrained) instead to say that they were “wasted”, “rubbed out”, “dispatched” or “terminated”, or perhaps class them as “collateral damage”. Orwell again:

No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax Ministry of Peace, i. e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.

Similarly “the faith virus” is, to employ a euphemism of our own, something other than ideologically neutral.

4) Out with the old words, in with the new

Orwell points out that:

the special function of certain Newspeak words, of which oldthink was one, was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them. These words, necessarily few in number, had had their meanings extended until they contained within themselves whole batteries of words which, as they were sufficiently covered by a single comprehensive term, could now be scrapped and forgotten.

Once we have “faith communities” with their “community leaders” and “people of faith” and the transcendental value of tolerance, what further need have we for the differences between the world’s religions, not to mention their respective truth values? Once we understand faith to be “belief in the absence of evidence”, what does the object of that faith matter? As Orwell continues:

Greater precision would have been dangerous. What was required in a Party member was an outlook similar to that of the ancient Hebrew who knew, without knowing much else, that all nations other than his own worshiped “false gods”. He did not need to know that these gods were called Baal, Osiris, Moloch, Ashtaroth, and the like: probably the less he knew about them the better for his orthodoxy.

Nowadays, the orthodoxy has changed. Today, it is orthodox “goodthink” that every take on ultimate reality (the Hebrew religion included) is false in its own terms, provided that we do not look into any of them too carefully, and apart from that take on ultimate reality which says we can’t know ultimate reality, which is so intuitively correct that we do not need to look into it too carefully.

5) The politics of reducing syllables

Orwell makes an intriguing point about the political power of abbreviation and contraction:

So far as it could be contrived, everything that had or might have political significance of any kind was fitted into the B vocabulary. The name of every organization, or body of people, or doctrine, or country, or institution, or public building, was invariably cut down into the familiar shape; that is, a single easily pronounced word with the smallest number of syllables that would preserve the original derivation. […] This was not done solely with the object of saving time. Even in the early decades of the twentieth century, telescoped words and phrases had been one of the characteristic features of political language; and it had been noticed that the tendency to use abbreviations of this kind was most marked in totalitarian countries and totalitarian organizations. Examples were such words as Nazi, Gestapo, Comin- tern, Inprecorr, Agitprop.

Might we think of “faith-head” and “godbotherer” as such “single easily pronounced word[s] with the smallest number of syllables that would preserve the original derivation”, like “Commie” or “fascist”? It depends of course on the context and spirit in which such terms are used, but it would take an intellectually reckless soul to venture the blanket answer of “no”.

6) Duckspeak and the fact-value distinction

One of the primary purposes of Newspeak, for Orwell, is to communicate a set of values under the conscious radar, so that there should be no distinction between the object to which a noun refers and the attitude that should be taken towards that object:

The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness.

In the following paragraph, Orwell gives title “duckspeak” to such speech that communicates values under the conscious radar (we might think of the political dog whistle):

Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning “to quack like a duck”. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when The Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

7) The “old” becomes untranslatable

It matters little for the Newspeak society, Orwell argues, that fragments of the “old literature” remain, for they become neutered:

When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable.

Might it not be that, although the bible remains in circulation today, for many it is unintelligible and untranslatable? It is not that they disagree with the bible, but that it has become sufficiently alien to their culture that it is no longer seen to pose a threat. I pose this as a genuine question; my suspicion is that it is true in part but not in toto.

As I begin to draw to a close, let me be clear. Not all that atheists say is Newspeak, and Christians can sometimes do it too. In fact, returning to the first of my two points in this post I think that this is one of those areas in which the Christian and the atheist can mutually agree to keep each other honest. This is one of the reasons to thank God for atheists like Peter Boghossian.

One final reflection. It is also the case, of course, that each academic discipline has chosen to frame the terms of its own debate in a certain way, to the exclusion of other possibilities. A fruitful exercise for any academic, Christian or not, is to take the most common words and terms used in her discipline and consider what assumptions, what politics, what biases are inherent in framing the discipline in just that way. Who is almost bound to win the debate, given the way it is set up? What alternative terms could be used (or perhaps have been used in the past), and how would the discipline change if they were (re)instated? Finally, and following Orwell’s description of Newspeak, how do the terms used in the discipline not only shape what is thought, but dictate what can be thought?


[1] I am well aware that Orwell was, by and large, no friend of orthodox Christianity (though the relation was complicated), and these reflections are not an attempt posthumously to baptise him. I do, however, think that his reflections on Newspeak shed some welcome light on certain moves in the rhetoric of contemporary atheists and this light, if nothing else, makes us think.

[2] Or “English Socialism”: the ideology caught in the cross-hairs of Orwells’ Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[3] Orwell defines Oldspeak as “Standard English, as we should call it”.

Let’s read Pascal (19): A fascinating insight into Pascal’s apologetic method

Let's Read Pascal

Pensée 246 provides a fascinating insight into Pascal’s apologetic method, and into the order he had in mind for the final version of the material we know as the Pensées:


—After the letter That we ought to seek God, to write the letter On removing obstacles; which is the discourse on “the machine,” on preparing the machine, on seeking by reason.

I take it from this brief thought that Pascal set out first to convince the non-believer that they ought to seek God, and only then did he proceed to remove obstacles to belief, before stressing the importance of custom in belief (which Pascal refers to as “the machine” or “the automaton”) and, finally, seeking God by reason. I find Pascal’s order compelling, but strangely alien to much contemporary apologetic practice. Placing first the injunction under which we stand to seek God mirrors the order of the climax of Paul’s Areopagus address:

Acts 17:29-31  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.  30  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

First, Paul stresses God’s command that all repent, and only then does he introduce the proof of the resurrection.

When we lead off in apologetics with “seeking by reason”, I think Pascal would say that we are doing a disservice to our hearers.

Let’s read Pascal (17): things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them


Let's Read Pascal

In seeking to persuade, either in apologetics or in academic writing, what is our task? It is not, Pascal warns us, simply to stack up the facts in favour of our case. That will never penetrate to the heart of the matter, because it will never penetrate to the human will. It is the will that directs and marshals which facts we choose to dwell on, and what meaning we give to them:


There is an universal and essential difference between the actions of the will and all other actions.

The will is one of the chief factors in belief, not that it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them. The will, which prefers one aspect to another, turns away the mind from considering the qualities of all that it does not like to see; and thus the mind, moving in accord with the will, stops to consider the aspect which it likes, and so judges by what it sees.

To persuade is not to change the “things” we see (or at least should not be, on pain of dishonesty) but to change the way that people look at and understand those things, which things they see as important, and which things they use as interpretative frameworks to understand others. This is true of the way people see Christianity; it is true of political positions; it is true of debates within and between academic disciplines.

The way we see things is not determined solely by the things themselves, any more than the way a young love-struck romantic sees his beloved is determined solely by the beloved herself. Pascal says “The will is one of the chief factors in belief”: if we want not to believe a given thing, or if we want to reject a given position, then we will find reasons and “facts” that induce us to do just that, and the hapless apologist who addresses such a rejection with yet more facts is merely throwing wood on a fire in the hope of dampening it down.

To persuade is to change not what is seen, but the aspect in which it is seen. One consequence of this fundamental realisation about human belief formation is that it is no mere appendage to an apology for the Christian faith–or to any argument that seeks to persuade for that matter–to show how it is not simply true, but also good and beautiful. In fact, seeing a position as good and beautiful more often than not precedes any assent to its truthfulness.

Pascal will have much more to say about the importance of convincing people that they should want Christianity to be true before convincing them that it is true. Much the same could be said of any argument in the arts and social sciences: if we have not convinced someone that they should want something to be true, they will not invest the effort in finding out whether it is true, and if for some reason they do investigate the matter they will likely see the “facts” in its favour as supporting the view of things in which their will has been truly invested all along.

Let’s read Pascal (13): “Custom is our nature”

Let's Read Pascal

In the second section of the Pensées Pascal has a series of thoughts (I almost wrote ‘posts’!) that probe the place of custom and habit in our lives. For Pascal, custom plays a large part in forming all our beliefs, not just our religious beliefs:


Custom is our nature. He who is accustomed to the faith believes in it, can no longer fear hell, and believes in nothing else. He who is accustomed to believe that the king is terrible … etc. Who doubts then that our soul, being accustomed to see number, space, motion, believes that and nothing else?

In this thought I love how Pascal begins with the example of religious faith, establishing the role that custom plays in arriving at and maintaining religious belief, and then widens the circle to include empiricists who believe only what they are accustomed to seeing. One point that this thought makes brilliantly is that everyone ought to be aware of the role of custom in forming our faith commitments, not just those faith commitments that carry a religious label. Empiricists are just as custom-dependent as religious believers. If we deny that custom has had a role in bringing us to the commitments we hold—whether they be religious, atheist or agnostic, left or right wing—then we are displaying a worrying ideological naivety. If we are not aware of influences on us we are much more vulnerable to being manipulated by them.

One possible reaction to this truth is to lurch to the conclusion that all beliefs formed in part by custom must necessarily be false. Not only is this belief itself conditioned by custom, but it is also wrong. Alvin Plantinga sketches a helpful example:

Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist… If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he prob­ably wouldn’t be a pluralist. Does it follow that … his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process?

Alvin Plantinga, ‘A Defense of Religious Exclusivism’, in The Ana­lytic Theist, ed. James F. Sennett (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 205.

There is a falsehood abroad that the only authentic or free choice is a choice without any conditions whatsoever: a choice in a vacuum, without influences or predispositions. Such a choice would be impossible and unjustifiable. We always choose and think within a framework of predispositions and plausibility structures. That is not wrong, it is just being human.

As Christian scholars we will do well to think about the customs and traditions of thought that operate in our own disciplines. What habits of thought reign unchallenged simply because they are customary? And what habits of thought are helpful for our disciplines, though they are established on custom?

Custom has a right and proper role to play in bringing us to the convictions we hold, both academically and in broader life. Everyone does it, and custom per se, like faith, is neither good nor evil: it depends what the faith is in, and it depends what has become customary. Custom is neither to be slavishly and unthinkingly obeyed, nor naively ignored. The dangerous position is not the one that acknowledges its customary predispositions, but the one that naively pretends it has none.

Let’s read Pascal (8): Pascal on the importance of making your arguments beautiful

Let's Read Pascal

In a series of reflections in the first section of the Pensées (entitled “Thoughts on Mind and Style”), Pascal meditates on the nature and place of beauty in our speech and in our reasoning. His reflection in pensée 16 merits careful reflection for both apologists and academic writers alike. What are we seeking to accomplish when we write to persuade? Here is Pascal’s answer: we are seeking to bring the hearer’s head and heart into harmony by bringing our own thoughts and expressions into harmony:


Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.

It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ.

There are many points that could be made from these two short sentences. One of the most fruitful in my eyes is that we never speak to the head alone, but always also to the heart, whether we realise it or not. Our academic and apologetic arguments never trade in the sole currency of truth, however much we may wish to believe otherwise and however much our hearers would maintain otherwise, but always carry a weight of goodness and beauty as well. A harmony is established between the head and heart of those to whom we speak, I take it, when they see that the ideas we are communicating are not only true but also good and beautiful.

Later in the same pensée Pascal adds a further crucial point: the goal of our communication is not that our point be beautiful and compelling to us (it will almost certainly be that in any case), but that it be beautiful and compelling to our hearer:

This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them.

This is the golden academic principle of walking in the other’s shoes, or audi alteram partem. Persuasiveness is a hearer-dependent notion.

With all this talk of beauty, is there not a danger of sophism? Is Pascal not at risk of saying that argumentation is all in the style, not in the substance? Not at all, for that naïve cavil assumes that goodness, truth and beauty can operate in splendid isolation from each other. Pascal is of a different opinion:


Eloquence.—It requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.

Truth has its own beauty, its own elegance, and the job of the academic writer or the apologist is not to bolt on some gratuitous “beauty” to an argument but to find the beautiful within the truth and draw it out in order to bring the hearer’s heart and mind into harmony in its contemplation.

Lest all this talk of beauty scare off any but the poetically minded, Pascal reminds us that the sciences as well as the arts are very capable of, and indeed demand, an aesthetic sensibility:


Poetical beauty.—As we speak of poetical beauty, so ought we to speak of mathematical beauty and medical beauty. But we do not do so; and the reason is that we know well what is the object of mathematics, and that it consists in proofs, and what is the object of medicine, and that it consists in healing. But we do not know in what grace consists, which is the object of poetry. We do not know the natural model which we ought to imitate; and through lack of this knowledge, we have coined fantastic terms, “The golden age,” “The wonder of our times,” “Fatal,” etc., and call this jargon poetical beauty.

So the beauty of mathematics and medicine is, in fact, for Pascal easier to apprehend than that of poetry, for the latter has been obscured by a welter of fine-sounding but ultimately empty concepts.

For anyone who writes to persuade, the first section of Pascal’s Pensées provides a concise and penetrating style manual.


Richard Dawkins just doesn’t get it. He says so himself.

Description=Richard Dawkins Photograph: Jeremy Young 05-12-2006I was looking back at the 2011 New York Times profile of Richard Dawkins today, and one line jumped out at me. Dawkins just doesn’t get it. That’s not my high-handed dismissal of him; it’s what he says about himself. Here’s a snippet of the NYT profile:

Professor Dawkins’s closest intellectual ally on progressive evolution and convergence is Simon Conway Morris, the renowned Cambridge evolutionary paleontologist. And Professor Morris, as it happens, is an Anglican and a fervent believer in a personal God. He sees convergence as hinting at a teleology, or intelligent architecture, in the universe. Ask Professor Dawkins about his intellectual bedfellow, and his smile thins. “Yes, well, Simon and I have converged on the science,” he says. “I should think in the world there are not two evolutionary scientists who could rival each other in their enthusiasm for convergence.” As to Professor Morris’s religious faith? “I just don’t get it.”

The reaction that we Christian scholars face from our academic colleagues is sometimes hostility, but often just open-mouthed bemusement. They just don’t get it. How can anyone with the brains to snag tenure in a respectable institution of higher education still cling on to a belief in God and Jesus Christ which, it seems, is equivalent for Dawkins to believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden?

And that’s why part of our apologetic task and privilege as Christian academics is just to be around in the university, doing good, normal academic work and being a regulation human being with no wide-eyed hysterics and no foaming at the mouth. Many of our colleagues are soaked in an intellectual atmosphere which dictates that thinking people must have abandoned all that parochial, blood-soaked religion a long time ago, and in the normal course of life they receive no encouragement whatsoever to doubt that narrative. So one important step in beginning to pick away at the pervasive myth that thinking people can’t be Christians is just to show up to work each day and… be a Christian. Books like Kelly Monroe’s Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians can be helpful, but there’s nothing quite like having a living, breathing twenty-first century believer working in the lab or in the office next door to remind our colleagues that even for cynical academics faith is a live and respectable option.

In fact, “I just don’t get it” is not all that bad, as reactions go. It has already made significant progress from buying into the narrative that no thinking people sign up for Christianity any more.

The NYT profile is headlined “A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy”. It could well describe the Christian academic’s attitude to the now orthodox patter that thinking people can’t be followers of Christ.