‘I Believe Because It Is Absurd’: Christianity’s First Meme by Peter Harrison.
Religious belief is often thought to evince a precarious kind of commitment, in which the degree of conviction is inversely proportional to correspondence with the facts. Exhibit A for this common characterisation of religious belief is the maxim of the third-century Christian writer Tertullian, who is credited with the saying ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ This paradoxical expression makes a routine appearance in philosophical evaluations of the rationality of religious belief, in contemporary polemics addressed to an imagined opposition between science and religion, and in virtually every reputable dictionary of quotations.
Scholars of early Christianity have long known that Tertullian never wrote those words. What he originally said and meant poses intriguing questions, but equally interesting is the story of how the invented expression came to be attributed to him in the first place, what its invention tells us about changing conceptions of ‘faith’, and why, in spite of attempts to correct the record, it stubbornly persists as an irradicable meme about the irrationality of religious commitment.