Let’s read Pascal (23): “Scepticism is true”

Let's Read Pascal

In pensée 432 Pascal seeks to inhabit the sceptic’s own position in order to “improve” upon it:

Scepticism is true; for, after all, men before Jesus Christ did not know where they were, nor whether they were great or small. And those who have said the one or the other, knew nothing about it, and guessed without reason and by chance. They also erred always in excluding the one or the other.

Two points emerge from this thought:

  1. Without revelation from God, scepticism can be considered the most attractive option because it refuses to defend a position which is not well grounded.
  2. That same scepticism, however, is hard to maintain. To take Pascal’s example, it ought not commit itself to thinking that humanity is either great or insignificant. Such scepticism, if it is hard to hold in theory, is impossibly difficult consistently to maintain in practice.

To paraphrase Dickens and to put words in Pascal’s mouth at the same time, scepticism is both the best of positions and the worst of positions.


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 (18): Pascal and the misplaced awe of the new atheists

Let's Read Pascal

There has been not a little talk in new atheistic circles recently about the appropriateness of wonder and awe in a universe without God. Much of the rhetoric comes down to saying something to the effect of “atheists can feel awe too”, which no Christian should want to deny: one does not need to believe in God in order to benefit from his gifts. The question hangs not over whether the atheist feels awe, but over whether the atheist’s feeling of awe has an appropriate object within her view of the world. Pascal cuts to the quick of this issue in pensée 194. The whole thought is well worth reading and reflecting on; here I reproduce only the closing sentences.


Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?