Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Why is fundamentalist religion (and other forms of irrationality, such as conspiracy theories and mysticism) so potentially dangerous? Because, as Voltaire put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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35 Responses to Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

  1. hoosierarmymom says:

    Interesting blog. I like Voltaire myself. As a Christian who fully acknowledges the dangers inherent in extremist ideology of any kind, I can fully appreciate the connections you have made with this quote. But I would also say that Obama has made the American public buy into his absurdities to the point that the lovefest many have for him no matter what, we could well see that evolve into attrocities. I am not at all comforted when I see so many argue against anything one presents about the ObamaMessiah’s record regardless of the amount of evidence one presents. I think he and his “followers” may well prove to be more dangerous than any religion in the U.S. today. Simply put, there are absurdities to be bought into in more than just the religions of the world, IMHO.

    I am thinking I may be looking for a pirate ship and crew before the year is out. :-)

    • Bill Graham says:

      Why do you hold cognitive dissonance, or rather, how?

      2+2 does not sum to 5 no matter what your opinions are.

      • santitafarella says:

        Bill,

        I agree, but when you put a lot of intervening numbers around 2+2—in other words, a lot of blue smoke and mirrors around a subject—you can quickly forget the simple equations you started with. Your cognitive dissonance is burying something amidst a lot of noise.

        —Santi

    • lea says:

      Be our guest and leave. Did your religion cause your absurd addiction to stupidity and racism?

  2. hoosierarmymom says:

    Also, please forgive my writing skills. I have been in IT for so long, I don’t have any writing skills anymore. LOL!!!

  3. santitafarella says:

    Hoosier Army Mom:

    I’m okay with you not liking the Obama cult. I don’t like cultic behavior of any sort either. We need a world of human “cats” who are not easily herded, not human “dogs” who run in agressive packs.

    Having said that, I am a very strong supporter of Obama, but I have my eyes wide open, and wherever he is wrong (from my perspective) I certainly will resist him.

    But I’d like to point out something about the Obama cult which you might (or might not) agree with: Obama is a product of a culture that follows things, not based on reason, but on affiliation.

    And where is this taught? By religion, of course. We are taught from a young age not to be critical thinkers, and it’s okay to declare your allegiences and stick with them in the face of contrary information, and then we are surprised and appalled at politicians who use media and propaganda techniques to sway large audiences.

    Well, what do you expect? Rationality, complexity, and nuance is not valued by much of our culture. It makes us all vulnerable to stupidity. I don’t think that Obama is a “stupidity”—but he uses the techniques of stupidity to get his way. All religionists and politicians and corporations in the United States do this, and when you are at the skewering edge of this stick you complain. But when your ideology uses the same techniques to gain power, might you be tempted to defend it?

    —Santi

    • greenpaul1 says:

      Hi, I have fought my whole life against “stupidity”. I am a retired musician/educator. You have hit a bulls eye with me. Thank you. The worse part is teaching people to think especially those one-issue voters(abortion) who will bring down this country yet because of their irrationality.

    • Anonymous says:

      but you idealize the TEA PARTY????

  4. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi
    An honest self criticism of US culture ,vulnerable to propaganda and herd like unthinking acceptance of mass media pronouncements.Obama and others will exploit this of course. We are not immune in UK either to the creeping mental paralysis brought on by the rule of mass media and mass entertainment. We have however largely escaped the dead hand of blind religious fundamentalism which undoubtedly paralyses the critical and rational mental functioning of much of small town America. Ironically the puritan founding fathers responsible for the origin of American protestantism left our shores.After Cromwell’s time we Brits with typical pragmatism re-instated the monarchy and a rational broad ‘anglican’ religion capable of encompassing many ideas and preferences developed. Interesting how Voltaire apparently admired British intitutions especially the unwritten and pragmatic Constitution which still seems to save us from the worst excesses. US does it appear remains largely insular and ignorant of much of the rest of the world. More outward looking might develop those critical faculties.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    Like Voltaire, I too am a big fan of the British. Indeed, I married an English woman (from the Midlands). I have tried to puzzle out why the British are (in general) so much calmer and sensible about religion (as compared to most Americans). There is so much religious fanaticism in the United States—it’s breathtaking how pervasive it is—and it is mixed in, and seems to live perfectly comfortably with, consumerism. Very odd.

    —Santi

    • “it is mixed in, and seems to live perfectly comfortably with, consumerism. Very odd.”
      It is not really so odd to me once I realized that christianity is based on one absurdity after another. For all the criticism they hurl at other religions, christians are perhaps the most dangerous because they justify all their actions as , “good deeds, glorifying god”. Christianity will one day be known as “Christian Mythology” just as ancient Greek and Roman religions became mythology. Why? Because it is based on absurd stories supported by something equally absurd: faith.

  6. aunty dawkins says:

    Is American Christian fundamentalism due to the fact that conflict, compromise and negotiation between different religious factions hasn’t been as neccesary in American history? Puritan Protestantism was able to expand and dominate unimpeded. Did the doctrine of manifest destiny include a protestant religious mandate too ,even if unarticulated as such? In comparison religious wars were endemic in medieval and post reformation Europe and Religion of course was the catalyst for the so called ‘English revolution’ in 17th century. As for the apparent conflict with consummerism, money is no barrier to Church going in UK! Cosummerism is the driving force of capitalism and the protestant work ethic it has been argued was responsible for the growth of capitalism in Europe and presumably the US. (RH Tawney ‘Religion and the rise of capitalism’)

  7. abtfulmind says:

    Well, the test for whether religion has caused intellectual torpor is simple: all “religious” people should tend to have failing intellects, while all non-religious people should have strong intellects. So, let’s cut to the chase. Einstein was religious (eg. “God does not roll dice” in his objection to quantum theory), Leonardo da Vinci was a Catholic, C.S. Lewis was a brilliant Oxford Don and Anglican; the list goes on and on to include Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, Plank (starting to get the idea that we are looking at some of the greatest thinkers in the last thousand years?).

    • theguy says:

      Einstein was not religious. The God does not roll dice quote was not actually referring to the God of Christianity. Read The God Delusion if you don’t believe me.

    • JCannon says:

      Einstein made public a statement dispelling the rumor that he was a religious man. He said he did not believe in a personal god. His references to god were about nature. C.S. Lewis can hardly be considered a great intellectual, da Vinci lived in a time and place where Catholicism had a monopoloy.

    • Alan Robertson says:

      There are many scientists who are religious but the issue is whether they apply science to their religion?

    • Vire70 says:

      Even were all those you quoted theists (and they weren’t, Einstein in particular), it really doesn’t prove what you want it to. You see most scientists of past ages lived in periods when religion was the overt and oppressive majority; where being an atheist wasn’t really an option. You were either a theist, or dead (and for a modern day example, see Sharia Law). So when people list famous scientists of the past and say ‘Ah-hah! This scientist was known to be religious so that proves it!” they’re simply misunderstanding history.

      A better examination is to look at modern western society, a place where people actually have a choice as to be religious or not. And what do we see? A massive discrepancy between religiosity and education. This applies on low levels in populations; higher educated populations gravitate towards less religion. And it extends into the upper echelons of education, the most well known and respected scientists of the world have an undeniable tendency not to be religious.

      I will end this with a greatly relevant quote from Christopher Hitchens:
      “Let me tell you something. For hundreds and thousands of years, this kind of discussion would have been impossible to have, or Sam (Harris) and I would have been having it at the risk of our lives. Religion now comes to us in this ‘smiley-face’ ingratiating way….because it has had to give so much ground and because we know so much more. But you have no right to forget the way it behaved when it was strong and when it really
      did believe that it had God on its side!”

  8. Helen says:

    Einstien might not have been “religious”, but he believed in a strong ethical code and objective morality: i.e. laws and rules that guide the universe and should order our lives. The problem today is that religious and non religious alike fail to rationally seek answers to problems and concerns.Religious people comment that issues are not supported in the Bible and non-religious people seek answers within the natural sciences or merely say that everyone should be able to determine his own moral code: relativism. I am a Catholic and firmly believe in the correlation between faith and reason. All in all reason will lead to truth which is what we are seeking right? I firmly support a previous comment on leadership and following based on affiliation. This is the ‘therapeutic state effect’ in which the state panders to the feelings of others and seeks control through the media and psychology.

  9. Wow! The clearly wrong and uninformed spewing of opinion as means of swaying or stating belief is not checked on the comments to this quote?
    Who’syourmamy, straight from FOX to your ‘beliefs’? Cute, way to spew and re-spew as it were. If you don’t KNOW the difference between opinions created to sway your beliefs and Truth, facts, and reality, then you really have no basis to form an honest opinion of anything do you?
    Way to get your propagandized ‘beliefs’ public to prove your incapacity to think for yourself.
    You are exactly the believer of absurdities that this quote is referring to. Congratulations!
    May we all assume, rightly, that you are also a ‘believer’ of the christian faith. Faith, which is in short the absurd ‘belief’ in what one KNOWS is not and cannot be the truth!
    Appease the Ignorant Masses of Religitarded Sheeple and you reap what you sow. Ask the pope, Hilter and Shrub to a bit lesser extent….

    • Anonymous says:

      Way to criticizes some people for watching a news station you believe is “spew”. In raging at others for stating their OPINIONS in a civilized manner, you have relegated yourself to pretentious, insecure and bigoted. You don’t have to agree with people, and when you don’t there is a decent way to do so. Apparently you weren’t taught such respect. In the future if you disagree with someone, you should consider keeping your mouth shut to avoid sounding closed minded. Grow up.

  10. Garry says:

    One problem for me. The ‘conspiracy theorists’ referenced at the top are not under the influence of ‘absurdity’, rather they are trying to disabuse ‘conspiracy deniers’ of their tragic folly. For it is the conspiracy deniers that are commiting or condoning attrocities under the influence of the absurdity of the official version of 9/11 and other official versions of history.

    • vire70 says:

      I agree. Too often I see people who I’d otherwise consider completely rational when it comes to topics such as religion, go on to commit the exact same irrational errors as the religious when you bring up another topic that they don’t like. 9/11 is a good example here. My position on 9/11 is that I don’t know what really happened but that I doubt the ‘official story’ due to gross inconsistencies. This is more or less my same position in regards to the existence of God. As it is for many atheists.

      And yet when you bring up a topic like 9/11 they can engage in such utter deluded denial. You see them making countless excuses to explain away inconsistencies… in the same vein as the religious do with the bible. It makes me lose a bit of hope for the ‘rational community’ when they can be so utterly blind about one thing just because it doesn’t happen to appeal to them. One would have hoped this sort of imbecilic behaviour would be checked in those who break free of the shackles of religion but then they seem to get just as caught up in it if you bring up another topic like politics.

  11. J. A. Le Fevre says:

    Men were once like cats – each thinking and working on their own, for about 2.5 million years. Then spiritualism was invented (religion basic), and they began working together like dogs in packs (hunter-gather bands to be more politically correct – see Boehm, ‘Hierarchy in the Forest’). Lifespan about doubled, innovation accelerated and the archaic (cat like) humans were driven extinct (see: Upper Paleolithic Revolution – try wiki or google). With the Neolithic Revolution, organized religion was introduced and men became like sheep or cattle. Most were disarmed and sent to the fields to farm, leaving fighting to the kings and nobles. While I do blame (credit) organized religion for turning men to sheep, it was Mother Nature who condemned the independent thinkers (ie. Neanderthals and contemporaries) and the aboriginal hunter/gatherers will likely go extinct in a few generations. The problem with free thinking humans is they have not competed well against the sheep (or their armies).

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t think religion can be blamed as the only sheep making agent. Nationalism, politics and religion are all part of the tribal ‘isms’. Historically the main carrier of the isms has been violence.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Good point.

      • William says:

        Religions is not the only one to blame,but it must be acknowledge that religion has (and will continue) to be the main and most powerful reason of why innocent and willingly ignorant continue to die.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Violence? Or mankind’s compulsion to rule? Man’s favorite sport is war, and it is because the desire to control makes “logical” sense–if you control others, the earth, etc… you can be more sure of eating, copulating, and therefore existing. Religion is a form of “organized” control: the priestly cast makes sure it is getting paid and fed by “assuring” others they will get their sex and food too… and it will all be “blessed”.

        Cheers. Loving this blog. Elizabeth

  12. How Obama got into this discussion God knows. So who was your solution hoosier…Rick Santorum?

  13. Pingback: Conspiracy Theories Survey | Prometheus Unbound

  14. editor says:

    LOL, Voltaire defeats his own thesis with this saying as atheists are the ones who have committed massive atrocities in the name of their absurd anti-God and anti-religious utopias. Ironic isn’t it?

  15. Alan Robertson says:

    There have been anti-religious types who committed mass murder and many religious people doing it do. You are failing to see the generality of the argument here. Any belief system which is not grounded on rational thought is liable to irrational actions. Unfortunately people only learn to reason and be educated in science after people manage to brain wash their children with their own pattern of irrational thought. The bar is not very high. What 4 year old will argue with their parents? In this way the most stupid thoughts can be transmitted generation after generation without incurring any opposition.

  16. Tom Kelly says:

    Hi!
    Mysticism absurd, irrational?

    Irrationality the alternative to reason? Nothing higher than reason can exist, nor anything other than existence and non-existence, either?

    Is not the very idea of human beings as equal a mystical one? And is their deserving equal basic human rights a mystical idea? If this universe/mulitiverse began from scratch at the moment of the last big bang, reason might suggest that what that the nature or content of big bang contained, along with the nature or content of any medium/media into which it has been expanding ever since, has determined every happening in our universe/multiverse ever since. Reason might also then suggest that, unless we ourselves created or contributed to the creation of the last big bang and any medium/media in which it occurred/has been expanding into ever since, there is no such thing as free will, but only predetermined will, a product of DNA and circumstances outside our control. I suggest that it was this or similar reasoning which drove three famous mystics, the Buddha, Socrates and Jesus of Nazarerth, respectively to declare, if indeed they did so:

    “Enlightenment is the end of suffering;”

    “He who knows what is right will do what is right;”

    and

    “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

    I believe that this great truth, that all men and women, like children, are always doing their best at whatever level of consciousness they find themselves, for that is our nature, has been glimpsed by our species for millennia but that, until now, we have struggled to comprehend it, and accordingly paid a lot of lip-service to the notion that all human beings are equal, and that most if not all our wars and injustices have resulted from our failure to grasp our equality, our sinlessness and the irrationality or absurdity of Shame. If this world is unfolding as it should, we can none of us do wrong. If it is not, surely the thee is no right, no wrong?

    Please forgive me if I am wrong.

    Much love.

    Tom Kelly.

    • Alan Robertson says:

      I think your discussion has mystic elements not susceptible to conventional reasoning. Not necessarily wrong but not capable of being proved. I have spent a lifetime discussing with religious types why they believe. The important issue is not what people believe but why. The key issue is what constitutes proof. This is not only about religion as extreme nationalism and politics share common attributes.

      Basis of Proof – A Logical Hierarchy
      1) Repeatable, demonstrable experiments. E.g Acid + Base = Salt + Water
      2) Historical external evidence e.g geological
      3) Logic e.g maths 2 + 3 = 5 Although this is absolutely true by definition we are dealing with closed systems which may not reflect external reality.
      4) Recorded events. E.g Film. With the modern ability to edit film recordings the value of this evidence is becoming less.
      5) Multiple present day eye witnesses, especially if independent.
      6) Written records. As Churchill said ‘History will be very kind to me for I shall write it.

      Lower categories have some value but not if they are contradicted by higher forms of evidence.
      For example if it was written down that Napoleon ate ham and eggs on the Isle of Elba this would tend to be believed as an unremarkable and uncontradicted statement. On the other hand an historical record of something miraculous would not be believed if it is contradicted by normal experience. Much history written by the Romans we believe because it’s not contradicted by anything else.

      Likewise mathematical proof is subordinate to observation. Mathematical formulae are only of use insofar as they describe the real world.

      Criteria which have no value
      1) The person making the assertion is very important or has a PhD. Has a Crown, fancy uniform, many medals, dog collar etc. Variant. Person believing is a scientist. Well scientists, engineers, business people etc have to be rational in their day job but is the scientist being scientific in his own personal beliefs? Don’t look at the person look at the idea.
      2) Millions of people believe it. This is a demonstration of the power of brain washing particularly of children who tend to believe everything their parents tell them.
      3) Faith. Valuing an idea which is not supported by any evidence turns logic upsidedown. Valuing an idea which is not supported by any evidence is not a virtue but in any other field would be regarded as stupid.
      4) The idea is nice/poetic/makes me feel uniquely valued and I want it to be true. Nb Gods chosen people, master race etc. e.g Man is created equal – we hold this truth to be self-evident.
      5) It can’t be disproved so it might be true. (Variant, just because something cannot be proven does not mean it is not true). There are things which can be shown to be true, things which can be shown to be untrue, some things have a probability of being true and a huge number of ideas which can’t be proved or disproved. Generally ideas which can’t be tested have no value as they do not influence everyday existence. In practice nobody believes the vast numbers of ideas which could be true. So we are left with people picking and choosing which ideas they like but which they cannot differentiate from a vast number of absurd ideas. If you choose to believe in a religion, why not all religions and why not fairies?
      6) Relativism. All existence is perceived through sentient experience. So if it is true in your conscious mind, it is as true to you as any external reality. Similar in many ways to item 5. Technically this is a correct argument but could be used to justify anything whatsoever however fantastic, criminal or insane.

      • Tom Kelly says:

        Heartfelt thanks for such a reply, Alan.

        Fantastic? Criminal? Insane? I plan to look at those interesting terms at the end

        Reality – “whatever THAT may be!”

        I don’t know if the sum of the angles in every triangle in the uni/multiverse comes to 180 degrees, but am willing to accept they do. I don’t know if every human being who has ever been conceived has had her/his own “reality,” but am also willing to accept they have, identical twins included.

        Until recently, we may have thought of subjective reality and objective reality as quite separate and distinct, and the content of one’s reality not accessible to others (if there really are others, of course, and you are not all just figments of my imagination) as being less real than those features on which most of us seem able to readily agree and to objectively verify using scientific methods of measurement.

        Now?

        Now we have quantum physics. Now we have means to measure brain waves and also the effects focused attention – consciousness – has not only on what we consider living creatures but also on what we considered inert matter.

        If I ask you to think of a white horse, you can somehow manage to move around molecules of certain neurotransmitters and to alter certain neurons resting membrane potentials so as to think of a white horse: you can move matter with your mind.

        In the near future, it may become possible to play back our imaginings, our dreams and even our hallucinations to others on a computer screen – or as a hologram.

        Meantime, I agree with Eckhart Tolle when he writes, “The human condition: lost in thought.” I believe, but doubt I can yet prove, that we are beings who have agreed to allow ourselves become temporarily lost in human form, lost in thought, lost in a mental condition, lost as irrational creatures subject to emotions we gradually learn to identify, to accept, to understand and to control as we ascend in consciousness, which I perceive as why we are here individually and as one species: We are all mental cases, we are all insane or none of us is, and it ill become any of us therefore to label anyone else as being insane as though they are fundamentally different from us.

        I desperately sought a meaning, any meaning in life, for life, of life for 49 years, then had a series of three experiences I called mystical. It was perhaps pure but exponentially accelerating bliss, peace. It was as though I experienced the last big bang, and every human beings’ every experience since it, and all transmuted to joy, and more. Others having similar experiences may have called them numinous, noetic, peak, out-of-body, near-death, pure consciousness etc.

        Fantastic? I believe it is from encounters with the fantastic, the imagined, the creative, the “unconscious” that philosophical insights and scientific breakthroughs (often the same thing)such as Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s, Einstein’s, Bohr’s, and Hawking’s, Carl G. Jung’s and Eckhart Tolle’s, yours and mine arise.

        Criminal? As far as I am aware, most “Western-style” democracies’ codes of law, at least, are based on some mystical notion that all human beings are created equal and so ought to be treated as equals before the law, the exceptions traditionally being anyone we have allowed doctors to label as that curiously indefinable thing, “insane.”

        When physics and chemistry meet, we see that it is all physics. Nowadays, I believe that physics and metaphysics are again meeting in the our minds, and a great meeting of minds is emerging, as we see that any distinction between what is natural and what is artificial is as artificial as any distinction between what is natural and what is supernatural: The “God” of our uni/multiverse is Nature, and we are all part of that, not separate from it and we have nothing of which to be ashamed, after all, contrary to what so many world religions, like so many Serpents in The Garden, have led us to believe – until now. And with a single thought, we can think (or direct?) ourselves back out of thought and into the Now, which I believe is “The Kingdom” of God here on Earth to which Jesus referred.

        Thank you for so powerfully reminding me of all this, Alan! I am at twinsoul@cox.net should you wish to continue the discussion in private or by phone.

        I wish all readers and contributors their best year ever, YET, in 2014!

        Tom.

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