Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction
Pensées No. 894
Blaise Pascal, seventeenth-century genius on many levels: mathematician, physicist, inventor, essayist, and philosopher.
I came across this familiar quote from my old friend Blaise Pascal as I was reading The Anatomy of Evil by Dr. Michael H. Stone.
Dr. Stone’s book is an in-depth study of the personality traits and behavior that constitute evil, how it is that a cute little baby can grow up to be a Charles Manson, Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.
Inspired by the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, where the sinners get progressively worse, Dr. Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, presents a 22-level hierarchy of evil, ranging from murderers whose crimes, though shocking, are at least understandable — a son murdering in cold blood his abusive father — to those who commit unspeakable crimes without remorse. Evil done through religious zeal is at one of those levels (I think it’s 8 or 9).
After citing Pascal’s famous quote, Dr. Stone illustrates the point with the transcript of an “honor killing” inadvertently recorded by the FBI after they planted a bug in the St. Louis home of Zein Isa, a Muslim fundamentalist who had emigrated to the US from the West Bank.
Zein’s sixteen-year-old daughter Palestina was becoming Americanized and increasingly defiant. She shortened her name to Tina and began dating an African-American. Zein became unhinged. “In his interpretation of his culture,” writes Dr. Stone, “this called for an ‘honor killing,’ lest the girl disgrace the family by dating a man objectionable to the father.”
The three voices on the tape are Zein, Tina and Zein’s wife Maria (not Tina’s mother but Zein’s second wife, a Brazilian who just happens to be a Christian).
ZEIN: Here, listen, my dear daughter, do you know that this is the last day? Tonight you are going to die.
MARIA (the mother, after hearing Tina’ shrieks, and holding the girl down): Keep still!
TINA: Mother, please help me!
MARIA: Huh? What do you mean?
TINA: Help! Help!
MARIA: Are you going to listen?
TINA: Yes! Yes! Yes! I am! (coughing) No, please!
ZEIN: Die! Die quickly! Die quickly!
ZEIN: Quiet, little one! Die, my daughter! Die!
From The Anatomy of Evil, Dr. Michael H. Stone, MD. Page 106.
Zein was an uneducated man from a small town in the West Bank. He undoubtedly thought he was doing the right thing, and many in his traditional, misogynist culture would agree and condone his heinous crime.
Read the book, if you can stomach it, to find what is universally considered “evil,” and what breathtakingly horrendous crimes land some individuals, the worst of the worst, on level 22 of Stone’s hierarchy of evil. Damn book gave me nightmares.
The Anatomy of Evil is an important reference for people who work in the justice system and students of social psychology. But for me, the implications of Dr. Stone’s scientific approach to explaining evil are troubling.
What does it say about human nature that, under certain circumstances, ordinary people can do extraordinary evil? Is the capacity for evil built into our brains? Is there “evil” in each of us? Do bad people act out what good people think?
“We don’t like to be reminded that only humans can do these things,” Dr. Stone writes, “that evil is an exclusively human phenomenon.”
Pascal demands that we confront, not avoid, our propensity to do evil. He believed that man, ever since Adam’s fall, is fundamentally flawed and corrupt, in a sinful state of “wretchedness.”
Unworthy of God, yet the only of God’s creations who are self-aware, Pascal rates humans as both “the glory and the scum of the universe.” Self-awareness makes us human, it’s that part of us that is distinct and higher than our physical selves, the scummy part.
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed
In confronting our nature, in knowing our limitations and shortcomings, we become capable of God. Through the mystery of faith, we can move beyond the physical world — and evil — to the realm of God, salvation, and everlasting life. [If you’re thinking, “Oh, brother! A religious nut,” consider this: Pascal is one of history’s greatest mathematicians and scientists.]
When I read Anatomy of Evil, or the daily litany of sordid horror, great and small, in the news, the scum label comes through loud and clear. I also examine my life, my thoughts and actions. Believe me, I’m well aware of my own wretchedness.
But knowing our wretchedness is only half the battle. Solving the human dilemma, and the problem of evil, requires a leap of faith, a spiritual experience — a matter of the heart, not the mind. The power of reason, says Pascal, can’t cross the chasm that separates us from God and salvation. Faith can.
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t
Reason cannot prove God exists, can’t sort out the Big Questions in life, Pascal argues, so humans must rely on faith: “… only faith which responds to God’s grace, not purely intellectual enquiry, will explain human life properly and bring knowledge of God and true happiness.”
In Pascal’s view, Zein is outwardly a religious man, but he’s prideful, unaware that he’s caught in his baser instincts. “It is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness,” Pascal says, “and to know his own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can free him from it.”
Consider those slick-haired televangelists, with the used-car salesman’s smile, who preach a prosperity gospel, quote scripture, praise Jesus, all the while enriching themselves, living in multi-million-dollar mansions, flying in their private jets.
Think of the damage they do to the public image of God and to religion as they cheerfully go about their business, unaware of their own “wretchedness.”
The other side of the coin, in Pascal’s view, are humanists devoted only to reason and what’s “real” and provable, for whom faith is a logical absurdity and the source of a lot of what’s wrong in society.
There are only three types of people; those who have found God and serve him; those who have not found God and seek him, and those who live not seeking, or finding him. The first are rational and happy; the second unhappy and rational, and the third foolish and unhappy
Pascal’s quote about evil done through religious conviction is today often associated with Muslim extremists, especially the 9/11 terrorists. But the Europe Pascal knew was terrorized by Christian extremists, such as in the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, which went on for 300 years. Religious wars — Christians joyfully killing other Christians — began a hundred years before Pascal’s birth and continued through most of his life.
Blaise Pascal: Passion of a Mind on Fire
Pascal, a brilliant 17th-century mathematician and scientist, wrestled with the logical absurdity of faith and what he saw as the spiritual bankruptcy of reason.
Reason told him the universe was impersonal, mechanical and ultimately meaningless: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” He was dissatisfied with the limitations of rational inquiry, of life without spiritual experience.
He had a passionate heart and a powerful mind, and between them was a tug-of-war.
The tipping point (literally) in his life came one evening in 1654 when Pascal’s carriage almost went over the side of a bridge. Pascal, who was in poor health, sat helpless as he watched his horses plunge to their deaths. Believing he had been miraculously spared, he instantly had a dramatic religious conversion that he summed up in one word: “Fire.”
His faith caught fire as he realized that the “God of the philosophers” was not the God of the Bible. The God of the philosophers (the Chief Engineer of a mechanical universe) does not change the course of people’s lives, does not guide them through their trials and tribulations, does not deliver them from evil, nor, most important, offer them salvation and eternal life.
The God of the Bible interacts with humans. The God of the philosophers is a cold abstract concept.
Pascal lived at the dawn of the Age of Reason, a time of great political and religious upheaval. Philosophers and intellectuals proclaimed that man had outgrown God and religion.
Pascal rose to defend the Christian faith in writings such as his Pensees or Thoughts, notes and musings he jotted down in the years following his conversion but never organized before he died.
Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true
A beautiful mind gone to waste, the intellectuals of his day grumbled. Years later, Goethe would remark, “I’ll never forgive Christianity for what it did to Pascal.” [Oops! My bad. Nietzsche actually said that. See comments at end of post. ]
Even today, the science community doesn’t know what to make of Pascal’s conversion; some say he injured his head in that carriage accident and went batty.
Pascal doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of the great figures in the history of science just because he “got religion,” proving scientists can be as narrow-minded and ideological as the religious faithful they look down on.
You cannot mix the supernatural with the natural, scientists say. Keep that mumbo jumbo over there and we’ll stay over here in the “real,” logical world. They won’t accept that science is not the only authority.
Scientists won’t accept that there is Something Else — another part to us than you can’t pick apart, analyze and prove.
But a basic precept of science is absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Case in point: the search for the “God particle,” the elusive Higgs boson, which according to theory holds all matter together.
Despite all the incredible advances in technology, despite great leaps in human knowledge and more educated people than ever before, the world is filled with misery and evil is still done.
Atheists who use science to attack religion are unwilling to consider religion, or any sort of metaphysical thinking, in their understanding of the world.
Yet, as Marilynne Robinson writes in Absence of Mind, “Reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science.”
I can see Pascal smiling at that.
The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason
For people of faith, God also consistently exceeds expectations. And that’s the difference between true believers and atheists.
Blaise Pascal: An Extraordinary Life
What a rare individual was Pascal, a genius of the highest magnitude with a mind on fire for his faith.
Pascal published his first scientific paper when he was eight years old. At the age of seventeen he presented a paper on the mathematical attributes of sections of cones, which led to projective geometry. When he was just twenty-three, Pascal made major discoveries in physics and proved the existence of the vacuum. He invented the syringe and hydraulic press, and formulated hydraulic principles that led to such devices as the controls on airplanes and the brakes on your car.
He helped shape the field of calculus. While gambling with dice Pascal came up with the mathematical theory of probability.
Pascal’s pascaline could mechanically calculate numbers up to 999,999,999.
His inventions include the pascaline, a mechanical device he built when he was nineteen that could add and subtract, a precursor of the modern-day calculator and computer. A computer language is named after Pascal.
His last great scientific effort produced something we’re all familiar with today, especially city dwellers. As Pascal lay sick and confined to bed in his Paris apartment, he watched the world pass by his window and noticed poor people trudging along while the rich rode in carriages.
In response, he conceived of and designed a system of public transportation using omnibuses (horse-drawn, of course) running along established routes, and this transportation system was instituted in 1662, the same year that Pascal died, at the age of thirty-nine.
His final flash of genius to benefit the foot-weary Parisian poor was the beginning of modern mass transit.
Want to know more about Blaise Pascal? I highly recommend Rick Wade’s article, Blaise Pascal: An Apologist for Our Times on the web at Leadership U. I’ll save you narrow-minded science folks a trip: you won’t like the evangelical tone.
“You always admire what you really don’t understand.” Blaise Pascal