Looking for black cats that don’t exist and other pointless pursuits

Looking for black cats that don’t exist and other pointless pursuits February 1, 2020

“A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. A theologian is the man who finds it.”

religion belief imagination christianity black cat
A real black cat named Tosh. (Kátia Goretti Dias Vazzoller, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

You’ve probably seen this well-known pithy quote in various guises before, but, to atheists and agnostics, its truth is always self-evident no matter how it’s dressed up. The version above is credited by the website Goodreads to acerbic American journalist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken (1880-1956).

Another slightly shorter, pithier iteration I found on the website Faith is Mental Illness credited it to notorious British Victorian novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): “Religion is like a blind man in a black room looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and finding it.” For what it’s worth, Wilde’s notoriety stemmed from his imprisonment for homosexuality, which is neither here nor there.

The malleable black-cat quote has been attributed to lots of people over the decades since it reportedly first surfaced near the end of the 19th century, including, falsely, to evolution discoverer Charles Darwin, but its actual origin is unknown, as Garson O’Toole wrote in his 2015 book, “The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat.”

Still, it exactly captures the absurdity of supernatural religion in the eyes of people who don’t believe in it, and perfectly evokes the practical implications of its wholly imaginary nature.

A science version of the quote also exists that rings true for the flip side as well: “Science is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat while using a flashlight.”

The Catholic saint Anselm (1033-1109) supposedly told his acolytes (as many other Christian fathers over the ages told theirs) that faith is the ultimate fake-it-till-you-make-it activity. He believed just choosing to arbitrarily believe in invisible beings was how you came to fully believe in them, not through close attention to reality or any other discipline of mind. St. Augustine agreed, if the historical quote website I visited is correct:

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe,” Augustine wrote.

Martin Luther, the lion of the Protestant Reformation, frequently said much the same thing. In fact, as I’m wont to remind people, he believed reason is “the Devil’s greatest whore,” and that believers should shun it or find their faith eroded.

So the black cat in a dark room conceit is appropo. It is the equivalent of ardently but arbitrarily believing in things you will never find in the real world, as you will never find a cat that doesn’t exist, no matter how dark someone imagines it may be or how light the room.


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