A Short Interview with Professor Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland (Australia). Professor Harrison has published extensively in the area of intellectual history with a focus on the philosophical, scientific, and religious thought of the early modern period. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Oxford, Yale, and Princeton, is a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His most recent books include The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago, 2015), Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science (Chicago, 2011), and The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge, 2010). We thank Professor Harrison for taking the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions for us about his upcoming article in the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, which is titled, “‘I Believe Because it is Absurd’: The Enlightenment Invention of Tertullian’s Credo.”

How did you come across the topic of your article?

The saying “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd) is routinely attributed to Tertullian, and is often taken to exemplify the irrational nature of religious belief.  However, anyone familiar with Tertullian’s writings knows that he did not write those specific words, and certainly did not make the general claim that the absurdity of a proposition provides a justification for believing it. So the questions occurred to me, on encountering yet another reference to “Tertullian’s maxim” in a popular contemporary work: how did Tertullian’s original words come to be transformed into the now familiar version; what motivated the change; and why, against the weight of scholarship, has the erroneous version of the saying persisted for so long?  Digging a little further, I also found that there was a long history of misattribution of the saying to Augustine.  So there was a secondary issue to investigate.


What inspired you to write this article?

One of my general interests is the way in which historical myths are constructed and put to work to support particular ideological positions.  This happens quite a lot in the history of science, for example, where distorted historical claims are used to promote the idea of a perennial conflict between science and religion.  I was involved, a few years ago, in a wonderful collaborative endeavor with other historians of science to catalog and expose a number of such myths. This resulted in the collection, edited by my friend Ron Numbers, entitled Galileo goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard, 2009).  In the case of credo quia absurdum, it seems that a similar kind of mini-myth had slowly coalesced around Tertullian’s putative saying, and was used to support the idea that religious belief was inherently irrational or anti-rational.  So I was prompted to investigate how the modification of Tertullian’s original words took place, and to track down who would have had an interest in inventing and perpetuating the modified maxim.


Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?

While there were a number of key actors involved in the invention of the paradox, I was delighted when I found what I am almost certain is the first full reference to the expression “I believe because it is absurd” [je le crois parce que cela est absurd].  It occurs in a number of variants in Voltaire’s works, but the earliest complete expression comes in Le Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers par Mr. St. Hyacinte (1768).  Given the controversial nature of its contents, Voltaire suggested that this little play had been written by the satirist Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe, and first published in Holland in 1728. Not only does this work contain the first full reference to the maxim in its now familiar form, but it also attributes it to Augustine.  The misattribution is important because it serves as a marker for the subsequent influence of Voltaire’s formulation of the paradox.  It is repeated in a number of Voltaire’s classic works, such as later editions of the Dictionnaire philosophique.  From there it found its way into a wide range of different works, including numerous dictionaries and handbooks that have lent their authority to the modified formula. The fact that Voltaire turned out to be the source of this form of the paradox also confirmed my hunch that the invention of the paradox was likely to have come from an Enlightenment source hostile to Christianity.  As it turned out, then, credo quia absurdum was destined to become a small part of a more general Enlightenment story, one that Dan Edelstein has recently and aptly described in The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2010) as ‘the story we tell ourselves about our values, our government, and our religions’.


Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?

These days we can get a great deal of research done without leaving our desks, owing to the remarkable range of printed and manuscript sources that have been digitized.  This paper, which surveys quite a wide range of sources from the patristic period to the present, would have taken much longer had it not been for such handy resources as Early English Books Online, Gallica, and Google Books.  The fact that I am now based in Australia also means that I am some distance from the great libraries of the Northern hemisphere. That said, I needed several days in the British Library consulting both primary and secondary sources in order to complete this article. I had also planned a visit to the Bibliotheque nationale de France, to consult the 1661 French translation of Tertullian’s De carne Christi, and a few other French sources, but in the end, and somewhat to my surprise, I was able to track down online versions of all of the relevant translations.


Is there anything else about this article and the process through which you wrote it that you would like to share?

I was fortunate in being able to present a draft of this piece to one of our regular work-in-progress seminars at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities here at UQ.  The practice is for colleagues to read a pre-circulated draft of a paper and we then meet to spend about 90 minutes discussing it. These sessions are enormously helpful, not least because they give one a sense of how different readers are likely to receive the paper. We also have a number of gifted linguists here, which helps with any issues of translation. (And one of the best aspects of these events is the pizza and beer that follows).  I also received some helpful advice from one of the readers to whom the editors of Church History sent the article for review.  This enabled me to incorporate some important revisions to the final version of the paper which I think significantly improved it.

Leave a Comment