Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Myth that there is a myth that religion causes violence

Last night I had the privilege to be at a dinner with a speaker who had come to St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN for a talk titled, “The Myth of Religious Violence”. He admits early on that there have been and still are people who abuse religion to promote violence. His thesis is a much more complex historical analysis of how we view religion today and how we justify violence. It has some very simple errors too.

When I had a chance to ask Mr. Cavanaugh a question after the talk, I found that he is very interested in reducing violence in the world and believes that one way to do that is to examine empirically (he used that word), what it is about religions that promotes violence and what in religion helps to build community and promote peace. Also, to be fair, and “level the playing field” as he says, we should apply those same standards and same questions to things like nationalism, something else that we know can be used to promote a strong secular society or can be used to get people to kill.

I thanked him for his time and said I think we are heading for the same goal, just along different tracks. I wanted him to have the experience of a respectful interaction with a non-theist, and I wanted to give others a chance to ask questions. Because, here’s the thing, I could have spent the rest of the night ripping his childish arguments apart. He may want to examine religion empirically, he may even believe he is doing it, I have to take him at his word, but once he starts doing that examination he does a horse shit job of it. He appears as a scholar who says “level the playing field”, but right underneath that is a big baby screaming that life is not fair.

He discussed Hinduism and Native American spirituality, two “religions” that before the modern definition of “religion” were just ways of life. For these indigenous people, their spiritual life was their life. Everything from how to plant their fields and build their homes to what caused the rain was tied into beliefs about how the world works. Beliefs that were arrived at through definitively non-empirical methods. He thinks it is funny that modern Europeans at first recognized this, but then proceeded to define which parts of their life were the religion and which were not. He also thinks it was a way to exert power over them by saying the things we, the colonizers, say are religion can only be done in your private life. We, your new government, will say what you can do in public life.

What he never addresses is, isn’t that what governments do? Whether they be theocracies or Kings anointed by Popes or spiritual circles or democracies, leaders decide when they will punish you for public behavior that is anathema to what they consider civil and right. What is different and new in our modern world is that citizens expect to have some say about those rules. He kept using the phrase “imposing our western liberal values” on the rest of the world. Those values are freedom of speech, equal pay for equal work and respect for the dignity of all. They are not strictly western, liberal or even modern.

When he talks about how the modern world defined certain aspects of social life that used to be normal, that were used to guide ancient people in decision making, but now we now call religion, what I hear is that people realized, through empirical means, that they were allowing their lives to be guided by superstition. In the past people saw no distinction between how we decided what to eat, who we slept with, how we choose our leaders and their superstitious beliefs in what was above the clouds because that’s all they knew, that’s what they were taught.

It is difficult to go back into history and determine what the Pope or King or Priest or peasant believed. It is just as difficult to know what Mr. Cavanaugh believes, because I have yet to here him say anything specific about his religious beliefs. In the end it is less important what those individual beliefs are, and more important what is actually true.

When Galileo looked to the heavens and realized his spiritual leaders were wrong, he knew he had a problem. Before that, we can hope that people who believed the earth was the center of all things were not lying, it was just what they knew. The concept of their being a religious belief different from a scientific belief would not have occurred to them. After that, if  they were intelligent enough to examine the evidence but insisted on teaching what they thought their God had told them, then they were teaching a lie. It doesn’t matter what kind of belief you call it, it matters that you can demonstrate the truth.

We know some people did lie. We know because we have a Pope who outwardly said he was an atheist. In Cavanaugh’s world, people like that can’t exist. He talks about the Roman word “religio” which covered many daily habits, habits we would call “secular” today. He talks about the Medieval world, where being part of a “religious order” referred to certain types of Orders. If you weren’t in one of those you were “secular”, you could still be a monk, you just weren’t in one of those orders. He leaves no room and no place for non-believers. And, if you look for atheists in Medieval Europe, you’ll find their words in the notes made by the inquisitors who were deciding if they should be burned at the stake. They weren’t published, they didn’t have public meetings, they didn’t have a YouTube channel.

I hate to be in a position of defending violence, but under the right circumstances, if my country, the one that states all men are created equal in its founding documents and has since improved on that statement to include women and non-white people who don’t own land and is still debating this and hopefully will continue to openly discuss these issues of human rights and human dignity, if that country was really threatened by a theocracy or a charismatic dictator, I would kill to defend it. I would kill, and risk dying for Mr. Cavanaugh’s right to worship whatever the hell he wants because we are living in a country where he has agreed to allow me to not worship at all.

I hold that right as sacred, it defines who I am and I find it completely reasonable to defend it. Freedom isn’t free. I have considered the path of the complete pacifist and I admire those who would hold that ground while a tank rolls over them, but every legal system has a provision for self defense, even the laws of Moses. If Cavanaugh and I were to sit down and examine every war throughout history I expect we would agree 99% of them were unjust. If we were to discuss why they were unjust or what justice means, we’d probably end up poking each other in the eye because we couldn’t agree at all.

Cavanaugh never says what he would like the world to look like because I think if he tried, his entire thesis would fall apart. It is easy to say the word “religion” has a modern meaning. Most words mean something different from what they meant 500 years ago. It’s easy to say we have privatized religion, because we have. I can think of many great reasons for doing that. Cavanaugh never addresses them, he just quote mines Harris and Hitchens and scoffs at their worst arguments, arguments that many atheists distance themselves from. He says nationalism is just as bad or worse than religion at promoting violence, but he never delineates when nationalism goes wrong or acknowledges the value of the modern nation state that gives us clean drinking water and defined borders so we can negotiate peace and so we can live under a rule of law.

When he talks of what I guess he thinks is a better time, when we all lived a spiritual life, I wonder how he thinks this could be applied to the modern world. Does he imagine Barack Obama addressing the nation on national television saying, “Ladies and gentleman, our friends and allies in the Mideast face a grave threat, but last night I had a dream. I dreamt that a beam of white light shown upon the White House and a pure energy of love and forgiveness flowed through that light. Then a dark cloud appeared over northern Iraq and I knew it was our bombers and our aircraft carriers that must carry that light to them.” They would be swearing in Joe Biden before he finished the next sentence.

I have no problem using myth and story to express an idea. What I have a problem with is abusing that language to promote violence. It is too easy to do. If our president spoke that way, we would have the additional burden of first interpreting his vision and his symbolism to understand what he was justifying then we could start the reasonable conversation about dealing with innocent people being caught in the middle of a conflict partly caused by ancient beliefs in who is destined to control the land and partly caused by recent actions by us to control the resources just below that land. Fortunately, we live in a world where language like “God told me we must smite the enemy” can be questioned without the act of questioning first being considered godless, which 500 years ago meant evil. It was something that you could only express in private and even then, there were no laws protecting your right to express that thought. Your friends or family might call you out and label you a heretic which had much worse consequences than being unfriended on Facebook.

In the last question of the night in front of the audience, a friend of mine asked about how he figured we could allow for the irrational and superstitious beliefs of religious people to be tolerated and even incorporated into daily life. My friend acknowledged that not all religious beliefs are irrational, but when they are, they are the end of rational conversations. Examples could be given about allowing foreigners to cross our borders for work, or allowing same-sex couples equal rights, or a woman having control over her body, or the right to make an end of life decision. Cavanaugh responded that what stops conversation is when one person decides that the other person is irrational. If two people come into a conversation and one concludes the other is irrational based strictly on the knowledge that they are religious, then the conversation is over, it never gets started. He says we can open conversations and prevent violence by entertaining others' beliefs.

My friend recognizes the difference between rational and irrational and happens to find a lot of irrational beliefs in religion. Cavanaugh also apparently recognizes the difference between rational and irrational, but gives a lot more leeway to belief systems. I don’t know what he considers rational because he doesn’t discuss it. He also doesn’t discuss how one can have a rational conversation with an irrational person. The only thing left to discuss is specific beliefs and how those beliefs inform actions. The world has been moving ahead with that for 500 years. Mr. Cavanaugh apparently wants to reverse that. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Liberating Theology


I recently got into a bizarre Facebook foray with a local theologian. He welcomes many viewpoints into his circle so someone posted a list of problems with Christianity. Knowing him, I know several of the items in the list are ones that he agrees with. He has promoted Liberation Theology throughout his life, a philosophy which has no problem speaking out against the authority of the church that has provided him with a job. 

So when he dismissed the list as “reductio ad absurdum” and a bludgeon, I was surprised. When I pointed this out using equally strong language, he doubled down and asked for permission to simply defend his faith. I didn’t give him that permission. I’ve been trying to figure out why he thinks he deserves it.

This is probably hard for him to see because people in his position have enjoyed this special privilege for thousands of years and they’ve taught that anyone who has this faith should expect the same special consideration. That expectation is based on a few special actions by a few people a long time ago.  

Jesus was a rebel who opposed the Roman power structure. He and/or his followers started a movement based on strong moral values. Jesus and his followers had a degree of claim to the moral high ground because they were protesting a corrupt, depraved system in the midst of political and moral decay. They had good reason to rebel against it, and they did it with a high degree of respect for the people caught up in that system. They did a better of job of it than our more recent peace movement against Vietnam. They hated the oppression but loved and forgave the soldier.

Paul overstepped his bounds when he wrote about women not speaking in church and what is shameful in bedrooms. Once he had decided he had found a divine and absolute authority, he felt he could interpret it however he wanted. That is the error of all religions and it amazes me that it continues to be repeated. The Bible is contradictory because any  attempt to reconcile justice and mercy, authority with compassion, is going to be difficult and fraught with contradiction. We have a history of people trying to find absolute truth, but we treat it as if they had found it.

There may be an absolute right way to handle criminals and ignorance and blind hate, but we are all only ever on a journey to discover that. If Jesus had it or found it, he did a lousy job of passing it on. Praying to him or singing songs about him is not going to recover it. It’s more likely that he didn’t have anything that hadn’t been discovered before, he just had some good writers around him at the right moments.

I admit it is amazing that he could respond to such cruelty and violence with reason and compassion, and I’ll even give that he created some new pieces of a worldview that we are just beginning to experience on the worldwide scale. But I only give him that based on the quality of the writings that are his legacy. Those writings don’t depend on him actually existing, let alone him having risen or any expectation that he will return. Anything written that uses his name but lacks quality should be judged as such. 

It is a twist of history that those who opposed the authority of the Catholic Church were viewed not just as disruptive to the corrupt power structure, but also to the moral structure. Somehow an institution that was corrupted by power managed to maintain its authority as a keeper of morality. It doesn’t matter any more how that happened. That power has been tamed and should only be granted based on the same standards we bestow any authority. That is, by reason and demonstrated truth.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Free Will

I’m reading The Brother’s Karamazov so I’m thinking a lot about the classic arguments for and against God. Nothing new here really, but I think I cover a lot of the poor solutions to the usual questions about why God acts like He does. I start with “free will” and cover not only the objections to it, but the objections to the objections.

Free will, as used by a believer in God to explain why God doesn’t simply show Himself and clear up all the confusion, does not work as a solution to that confusion. It explains why we experience having a choice to love God or not but only by matching up the explanation to the experience, not by examining where that experience might have come from or what other purposes it might serve. This makes the explanation no better than Rudyard Kipling’s story of how the leopard got his spots. The failure of the explanation can be found by attempting to understand God’s mercy and looking at His track record of justice here on earth.

If God is perfectly merciful, if all sins will be forgiven, then He can’t tell us. If He does, he has no way to mete out justice, he can no longer threaten punishment for sin. To be perfectly just, he must at some point decide that a sinner’s free will must be restricted, that they have lost their right to choose for themselves. Even if only some sins under certain conditions are forgiven, we can’t be told what those conditions are, because then we would just meet them, knowing we could get away with the sin.

If God is only postponing the punishment until after life, that is no more merciful than punishing us while we are here. Depending on how long after life the punishment lasts, it could be less merciful. Acts of justice and mercy by living people are not usurpations of God, they are attempts to guess what he is thinking, knowing that He can’t tell us. Most traditions say we can’t fully know the mind of God.

If we don’t have a clear statement of what is a sin and what the punishment is there can’t be justice. People have put their full faith in the hands of religious leaders to interpret justice and they have had that trust broken time and again. If no exceptions are allowed to the system of justice, there can be no mercy. God is either merciless or powerless.

Regardless of how much power he actually has, he can’t wield it in any way that makes a difference in our lives. If he did, we would come to know him through time as we experienced those differences. This leads us back to those who claim they do know God and know what is just. Anyone can make a claim, but they must demonstrate their knowledge leads to a world where sinners are met with justice and forgiveness is given when it is warranted and that their claims match whatever historical documentation they are claiming as their source.

The free will answer to Euthyphro’s dilemma leaves us in the position of making decisions for justice and mercy based on our knowledge of the world and our ability to reason. If that knowledge and ability is given to us by God, so be it. Our use of it ends up with the same result as a natural world that doesn’t seem to care about justice or mercy. Free will as defined by religion looks exactly like consciousness as defined by evolution.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Frank Schaeffer is Not an Atheist


This is my review of Frank Schaeffer’s new book Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God. I gave it two stars. 1 star for his story telling and 1 for his liberal Bible study. He won’t say who his audience is. He wants to claim neutrality. But many atheists are saying he is clearly no atheist. I say this book is best for people willing to question the source of their religious feelings and want to learn more about Biblical scriptures and the traditions they say they are following. It refers to a few philosophers, but it is not a philosophy book.

My review is written in short sentences, so it (hopefully) gets read on Amazon.com. I expand it afterward:

Positive reviews for this book are an indicator of the complete lack of understanding of philosophy in culture today. Frank asks Philosophy 101 questions and comes up with bizarre answers. He goes on a rant about not being able to define the word “significance”, then ends the chapter with “it is if I say it is.” I wouldn’t mind that so much if he didn’t rail on Dawkins and Dennett for things they haven’t said. He quotes the Bible and others, but when he speaks against atheists, he puts thoughts in their heads and tells us they are wrong. The New Atheists never said that there is no meaning, okay Frank?

I find it suspicious that he doesn’t know the basics of how science works. He says all science is circular, showing a lack of knowledge of the last 400 years that have demonstrated the premises of the scientific method to be completely workable and in a very real sense, true.  I was starting to believe he was insincere until he said, “my hunch is that things were beautiful before we were around to observe them”. Of course they were, but that says nothing about God or materialism. We evolved to be aware of beauty, to reflect on it, and to create words and art to describe it. That all this happened without a creator does not make it meaningless.

The redeeming quality of the book is his liberal Bible studies. And he admits that he is cherry picking. I admire that. He quotes someone saying Christianity should be reforming itself. I agree. But he comes up with weird stuff, like saying the Enlightenment was an “empathy time bomb” set by Jesus. In other words, after the Kings and Popes had their power taken away, after people were allowed to think for themselves without threat of torture, then he says it was Christianity’s idea to be inclusive and multi-cultural. Wrong.

Now for the details:
Frank starts his book with the story of some unlikely circumstances that resulted in him meeting a good friend. Then he reflects on that and what she and others have meant to him throughout his life. Early on he says, “My brain recognizes but can’t explain how love and beauty intersect with the prime directive of evolution: survive. Nor can I reconcile these ideas: ‘I know that the only thing that exists is this material universe, and I know that my redeemer liveth’.” A few times it seems like he is getting close to making that reconciliation, but then the chapter ends and the next starts with another story of his grandchildren. For an atheist reading this, I think they will find it frustrating. For an open-minded Christian, I think they can find some good places to start a discussion or think about these philosophical issues.

Philosophers, biologists and physicists are referenced throughout, but only in brief introductions. I’ll get to some misrepresentations of them later. First, if you haven’t heard of Frank Schaeffer, he comes from somewhat famous parents. They started something called the L’Abri Institute that created much of the foundation for fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. Frank admits he was “personally conditioned” by that (his italics, he loves italics). He has since renounced their teachings and regrets how they have been used. He speaks lovingly of his mother, who despite preaching about the sin of homosexuality, would gladly have them for dinner and listen to their concerns.

He also tells of his own guilt over being a terrible father and how he grew into a decent grandfather. He is still married to the woman he got pregnant as a teenager despite their difficult early years when he believed what his father taught about men being the rulers of their house. He also credits his parents for teaching strict rules about being faithful. If not for that, he may have made things worse by cheating on her. He says his religiously based “irrational guilt” kept him from doing that. He doesn’t explain why he calls that “irrational”. He does talk about the philosophy of materialism and theory of evolution leading to a conclusion that multiple sex partners would be a rational choice. But he ignores that the values of good parenting and family are easily traceable via evolution, the very things he says he discovered later in life. This pattern is repeated throughout; acknowledging the value of strict religious rules and passing over the values we all have through the evolution of civil society.

Almost every time Frank refers to a philosopher or theologian, he gets it wrong. Most of his quotes are in support of his argument, and they are terrible. Most of his comments on “New Atheists” are merely characterizations and misrepresentations with no quotes to back up what he is claiming they said. He quotes from Howard Wettstein; and summarizes by saying “I believe that psychology explains away altruism and debunks love and that brain chemistry undermines my illusion of free will. I also believe that the spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of my Creator”.  If we were to find the people who said those things about psychology and chemistry, we would see that they or other psychologists and chemists also said that these sciences are in their infancy and we don’t fully understand consciousness.

Frank and Howard want to claim sole proprietorship of mystery and wonder. They want to say spirituality is real and not have to explain what it is, let alone how they can claim it is real. Wonder does not belong to anyone. It is not taken away when you discover truth. Answering one question does not end all questioning. It almost always leads to more questions.

You might be wondering where the “atheist” part of this book comes in, given my quotes from Frank so far. He does say things like “religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure” and “we act as if our pet paradigm can be stretched to fit every case” and “don’t go to church if it is not helping you be a better person” and “Belief is never the point – actions are.” These are usually said in a context that denigrates metaphysical naturalism a few sentences later. He talks about actions being more important than words, but never discusses how no matter how much good someone does, if they speak against inclusiveness, tolerance and acceptance, those words are still bad and cause others to make poor choices and take bad actions.

In the middle of the book he quotes chapter and verse extensively. He sticks to the good stuff about Jesus bringing women into the conversation and speaking out against the literalist interpretations of the Old Testament. He quotes Jacques Ellul who discussed how Nietzsche and Marx questioned ideology and the power of the Christian churches. Ellul said it would be better if Christians today did that work themselves, questioning the elites of their own churches. This is the redeeming value of the book. I will simply agree with it and leave Christians to decide to do that work or not.

After quoting a large section of the Sermon on the Mount he says, “if only the rest of the gospels were consistent with this passage.” He says this with no irony. Yes, “if only”. If only any prophet or philosopher got it all right and handed us a book that gave us rules that worked perfectly in every situation in all times. What a wonderful world we would have. But that isn’t reality. It is simply wishful thinking. Choosing one of those prophets and believing that he meant to be consistent, but somehow the message got messed up and it’s our job to fix it, that’s not thinking at all.

Statements like that are where his Bible study goes south. At another point he compares a section from Luke 10 on going to hell to Luke 6 on mercy and forgiveness, asking which is Jesus. But I ask, why ask? We have had 2,000 years to figure out that one of those passages is good for society and one is not. Whether or not a particular historical figure agreed with either one does not affect my life choices. It only changes you if you are first trying to figure who in history is special then deciding to follow everything that person said. I don’t think that is a good strategy. Today, we can know who said what, who changed those words later, who translated them, who misused them and we know the effect of doing all that on world history. We can learn from all of the wisdom of the ages.

It gets worse when he gets away from the Bible and tries to discuss the meaning of life. In Chapter 14 he types “Earth’s place in the universe” into google and finds “our place within the universe is very small and insignificant”. This puts him a riff about the word significant. He asks, “less significant than what? Where’s the standard?”, “it’s subjective”, “it’s as nonsensical as Pope Paul V threatening Galileo.” He says “today’s secular science… assigns us a contradictory groveling insignificant, significance.” He then brings in environmentalism and claims this a new form of original sin, calling us culpable for destroying other life forms despite our insignificance. Then he jumps to a rant about the poor quality of modern art.

It gets weirder when he quotes Sagan’s entire Pale Blue Dot  saying Sagan “takes great pains to obliterate any sense of cosmic significance” and calling it part of the “secular theology of nothingness”. He says this theology is in conflict with itself since it sees us as “nature at her worst” yet seeks to find signs of life elsewhere. He then names Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens claiming “Religion’s chief sin, they argue, lies in elevating humankind above the pond scum from whence we came.” No reference for any of them saying anything like that is provided. He winds down this free association with the question that led him to write this book, “if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness?”

The answer Frank, is found in all the places you just referred to but failed to understand. Words have meaning. We use them to communicate. Breaking them down and understanding that they are “just words” is something fun for college freshman to do in a dorm room, but you’re writing a book about meaning. You should be clarifying, not deliberately obfuscating. Sagan asked them to turn the camera back toward Earth so we could see our real place in the solar system. He’s not saying we’re nothing, he’s saying we’re something, and there is a lot more. There is much for us to know and learn and explore and it matters that we are aware of it.

He spends next the few chapters expanding on these themes, including a perfectly useless history of art criticism in the mid 20th century. He plays with definitions of other words like “natural”, saying murder is “natural” therefore a naturalist perspective says it is not wrong. He never defines spirituality but says those who believe it is an illusion “tend to demote notions of beauty along with demoting us (humans).” I realized at this point that he honestly doesn’t understand the philosophy of materialistic naturalism. He rarely uses the word “materialism” without including “meaningless” in the same sentence.

He never mentions the premises of science. He never talks about the wonder of science or how it constantly questions itself, the very essence of the title of his book, that you live with the contradiction of knowing and not knowing. He promotes the idea that Christianity should examine itself, but never acknowledges that is almost the definition of what science is. He doesn’t seem to know that the idea that everything is natural, is a premise, and if it were shown to be faulty, we would look for a different premise. The important thing to note is that in 400 years, it has repeatedly been shown to be a premise that helps us understand the stars, to build bridges and to cure cancer.

Frank’s message is no different than any sermon I’ve heard, liberal or fundamentalist. He quotes a story of a hanging in a concentration camp then says, “Either God is evil and should be punched in the mouth, or there is no God. Which is it? Perhaps there is another possibility: Jesus’ co-suffering love is the best lens through which to reconsider God, or at least to reconsider ourselves.” The only difference is Frank goes on to say the God of the Old Testament is “apparently a vindictive monster” and sometimes Jesus is “trapped in pre-Enlightenment ignorance” and that “we need to forthrightly pick and choose what we follow in the Bible.”

At this late stage in the book, he finally asks a philosophical question, what does “good” mean?

As an answer he tells the story of Mother Maria, a chain smoking, bar hopping nun who helped Jews escape Nazi’s and paid for it with her life. He says, “To me, Mother Maria’s death is an example of love embraced as a stark life-changing and essential fact as real as the carbon compounds that form the basis of life.” He follows that up with more of his questions that he can’t answer and for a second, I have hope that he has turned it all around when he says, “Our best hope is not found in correct theology, the Bible or any other book, but in the love we express through action rather than words.”

If he ended there, or if that came earlier and he expanded on that theme, this could have been a great book. But he continues, “Our best hope is that love predates creation and thus that the Creator sees us as ever young. Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is. Our ultimate hope is that God will be looking back at us as we’d like to be seen.”

That’s not atheism.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The First Fundamentalists


Before I get back to the beginning of fundamentalism, take a look at a few quotes through the ages of Christianity. Try to determine what time they come from.

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremist agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse."

 “With regard to heretics two points must by observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by ex-communication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life.”

"From this disease of curiosity are all those strange sights exhibited in the theatre. Hence men go on to search out the hidden powers of nature (which is besides our end), which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know. Hence also, if with that same end of perverted knowledge magical arts be enquired by. Hence also in religion itself, is God tempted, when signs and wonders are demanded of Him, not desired for any good end, but merely to make trial of."

The first are the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman. He was recommended for canonization by Tony Blair. He wrote eloquent apologia that brought Anglicans back to the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote this in his book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864. The second is Thomas Aquinas, considered one of the more liberal theologians. He was considered a heretic in his time, in the late 13th century, for attempting to reconcile faith with reason. He was later canonized not long after his death. The last is from the 4th century, from St. Augustine. He wrote prolifically during a time when no one was quite sure what the gospels and epistles meant. The Universal Church owes many of its concepts to him.

 In the time of Augustine, there were no Popes and the Bishops rarely met. For the peace of Rome, this was a problem. Most of you have probably heard of the emperor Constantine and the council of Nicea in A.D. 325. It is true that he called the council to try to settle the discord with the many Christian sects. There are many myths about what was settled. I’m going to skip the gory details, but I will refer you to A.D. 381, a great book on the topic. One myth I will dispel is that Constantine did not create the connection between government and religion. His meddling in religious affairs however did create a pattern that led to it.

Before the councils, and mentioned much less often, Constantine declared Christianity legal. That is, he passed a law of religious tolerance. Unfortunately that did not last. After Constantine, succeeding emperors continued to hold councils attempting to influence Christianity for their benefit. None succeeded at it until Theodosius. If you look him up in the Catholic Encyclopedia you will find some euphemistic language about how he expelled the Arian influence and spread the Augustinian understanding of the Trinity throughout Byzantium. It doesn’t mention how he did that.
The word was spread because if you were a Bishop and you didn’t spread it, you didn’t keep your church. And you weren’t given a pink slip and a pension. If you were non-Christian, your temple might be destroyed and your books burned. If you were Christian but not the right type of Christian, you might do a little better. The difference in types are hardly worth discussing, but they carried the maximum penalties at the time. It was chiefly a matter of Jesus’ divinity. Was he there at the beginning, did he get the Holy Spirit through God at birth, or did he receive it at his Baptism, or what? Apparently getting this right was more important than remembering how to smelt iron or maintain the aqueducts or how to read Greek or any number of things that had been important just a few decades earlier.

There is no way to know all of the things they lost or destroyed but one interesting story tells us that science was on the verge of becoming modern just as Rome was falling. Newton’s discovery of Calculus in the 17th century led to all of the great discoveries of electricity, flight, even space travel, but 1,900 years earlier, Archimedes had begun to discover the very same principles. We know this because a book of Prayers was found in 1908 that had been written on papyrus that had Archimedes notes on it, but had been erased by a 14th century monk. Where would we be now if that math had been developed 1,000 or more years earlier?

Augustine introduced the metaphor of philosophy as the handmaiden of religion. “Natural Philosophy” at that time being a precursor to science. It is a fashion now to credit Augustine’s idea as a contributing factor to the discovery of technology throughout the Middle Ages. But that does not answer why literature, architecture, medicine and basic technologies not only didn’t progress under Roman Catholic rule, they regressed. While Spain and Baghdad were cultural centers, Europe languished. Europe’s Kings were more concerned about the Second Coming or correctly understanding the Trinity than the education of their people

Two hundred years without a strong class of scholars and a weakening empire led to another turning point with Pope Gregory the Great. He would have known of the politicking at the Council of Constantinople in 381 and that Augustine’s version of the Trinity would not have come to dominate Christianity without the support of emperor Theodosius and his military. Yet, he writes, “all the four holy synods of holy universal church we receive as we do the four books of the holy gospels” and of course he added his own authority as the successor to Peter. With this he proclaimed that the Bishops of the 4th century merely clarified the word of God. The history of emperors and armies enforcing their interpretation was swept under the rug.

More than history was lost. The Greek philosophers were comfortable with the idea of not knowing something. They were exploring the idea of the supernatural, not just a single god and how it was constructed and how its words were delivered. They were asking about the universe, not simply one god’s interest in the works of men and women. For the Church though, that one god and its relation to man, was the primary issue. This to me is what it means to be a fundamentalist. Regardless of what you think that one god stands for.

When Europe began to consolidate again after Charlemagne in 800 A.D., the wars continued. The need to reconquer Jerusalem led to the first Crusade in 1096. Pope Urban II offered everyone an indulgence remission of sins allowing for direct entry to heaven or reduced time in purgatory. This was the first time this was tried and I suspect the response was more than he expected. Again, a precedence was set and such indulgences continued for centuries. The definitions of Jesus set down in the 4th century were further enforced by the Inquisitions in the 12th century. As Christendom spread to the New World, the idea of bringing souls to Christ spread with it. As seen in the quotes at the top of this entry, these ideas influence Western thought right up to the present.

First in the series

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fundamentalists react

To understand what the Fundamentalists were reacting to, you need to know where liberal Christianity came from. Finding the roots of any philosophy always comes with the danger of not starting early enough in history, but you have to start somewhere. A good place would be the end of the “Dark Ages” because it was then that scholars started to more freely comment on the Bible.

The Italian scholar Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” in the 14th century when he noted the lack of Latin literature over the preceding centuries. The name came to also denote the lack of historians and of any decent architecture. This was primarily a European phenomena as Baghdad in Iraq and Cordoba in Spain were flourishing.

If you look at lists of important writing through European history, you will see a huge gap after the Greeks, then Erasmus. He wrote of free will and religious tolerance, those were radical ideas in his time. He wrote of the need for church reform, as did Martin Luther, but Erasmus wrote in Latin and was less partisan than Luther. He did not gain as many followers. This is unfortunate as Luther was less tolerant of other religions and his Lutheran party became increasingly violent, something the scholar Erasmus wanted to avoid.

Fighting over who should be able to interpret the Bible and how, led to war. Catholics were reading mass in ancient languages and telling the congregation what it meant and Luther and others believed the scripture alone should be one’s guide. This was known as Sola Scriptura. This led to wars. At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, part of the treaty stipulated that princes within the Holy Roman Empire could select either Lutheranism or Catholicism as their official religion. (Thank you oh wise Prince for selecting for me from so many choices). Later in that century, John Calvin entered the debate with another form of Christianity. Relative peace was maintained until 1618, the beginning of the 30 Years War.

Noteworthy, during this time, were the trials of Giordano Bruno and Galileo. Bruno’s ideas were less scientific than Galileo’s, but they were still considered wrong strictly based on dogma, not on a review of his scientific accuracy. Some consider the trial of Galileo more of a political one rather than anti-scientific, due to the pressure on the Roman Catholic Church from the emerging Christian sects. They may have wanted to demonstrate their resolve to remain dogmatic. Also at this time, one of the largest monarchies of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg family, was allowing their subjects to choose how they practiced Christianity, further upsetting the Vatican. Notably, near the end of this war, Descartes published his famous works, stating, “I think, therefore I am”. He is considered the father of modern philosophy.

Finally, when the 30 Years War ended, The Peace at Westphalia stated that Christians had the right to practice their faith publicly under any denomination (any Christian one of course). Pope Innocent X called the treaty null and void, but his powers were diminished. This was the beginning of modern international law, ending the feudal system.

Soon, critiques of the Bible were openly discussed. Scholars began to notice errors and discrepancies. This became known as Higher Criticism. It is not criticism as in "criticizing", but a search for the true meaning of the text. Also about this time was the earliest written statement that the Bible was inerrant. I don’t think the statement came so late because it was a new idea, so much as it was the first time that anyone felt the need to write it down and make an explicit rule for their denomination. Simply saying the Bible is the word of God had been sufficient up until then, in my opinion.


You might also notice that Isaac Newton was born near the end of The 30 Years War and his scientific breakthroughs were nurtured by the newly formed Royal Society. The society performed experiments, published their results and reviewed the works of their members. They repeated each other’s experiments and compared results. If someone refuted another’s ideas, evidence was required to back up what they said. In other words, modern science was taking off.

This leads us up to Charles Darwin and to where we were in the first of this series. The only question left is how did the Roman Catholic Church come to dominate Europe for 1,000 years? To the point wars had to be fought just for the right to go to the church of your choice. Today, most of the world considers that wrong. So, was the RCC right about their theology? So right that they should demand everyone follow them, lest we all burn in hell? If not, then what is right? Were the Lutherans or Calvinists right to start a war over their ideas? These questions seem almost silly today, but they dominated European history.

In the last of the series, I’ll look at how this idea of dogma, of one true God, took over all other philosophies. 

First in the series

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Pope and the Big Bang

Something caught me ear, so I briefly interrupt the series on fundamentalists:

I heard a Hitchens clip this weekend about the history of the term “Big Bang”. He said, when the theory was first proposed, the Pope liked it and offered to make it dogma, so everyone would have to believe it. Fortunately, the cosmologist who proposed the theory said ‘no thank you’. As Hitchens said, ‘that would be missing the point’. This was told as a joke, but looking into the history, it’s pretty accurate.

Edwin Hubble laid the groundwork for the theory. Georges Lemaitre proposed a more complete theory in 1927. He was a cosmologist and had once been a Roman Catholic priest. This minor factoid is often mentioned as proof that science and religion are compatible. In 1949, Fred Hoyle used the term “Big Bang” as a pejorative, he preferred the steady state theory. In 1951 in a speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Pope Pius XII endorsed the theory, and connected it to the correctness of the Genesis account,

"…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies."  

And, to make sure no one missed the point,

“Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.  Hence, creation took place.  We say: therefore, there is a Creator.  Therefore, God exists!”

After hearing the Pope’s speech, a friend of Hoyle’s commented to him, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for proof of the existence of God.”  

Lemaitre and the Vatican’s science advisor saw the problem here. If the Pope were to go beyond a mere mention of this theory, and make any more official statements about its relation to the proof of God or accuracy of the Bible, it could lead to problems in the future if the theory had to be amended. Theories of course are amended all the time. Changing Pontifical proclamations is not so easy. We only know that the two scientists spoke to him in private and he did not make any more comments on the matter.

Publicly, Lemaitre was as delicate and conciliatory as can be,

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

As we have seen since, despite silence from the Popes, and explanatory notes from the scientists, this idea of “creation took place, therefore God exists”, lives on. It’s as if any science since 1951 never happened. It’s the easy explanation that gets transmitted, not the hard work of collecting real evidence and holding on to what might have happened while experiments try to confirm what did happen.

In “A Brief History of Time”, Stephen Hawking tells of his audience with the Pope. He humorously notes his trepidation with such an audience, given past encounters with scientists and Popes. Although disputed, he claims the Pope told him to stay away from commentary on the moment of creation. Since then Hawking has made statements about the lack of need for a creator.

For me, I’d rather live in the world where scientists can be scientists, and not take orders from Popes or any other religious leader. Pope Pius XII tried to take the latest evidence and make it part of his religion. Popes have been doing that forever and getting away with it because most people are unaware of the evidence of their time and even less aware of earlier evidence and why the one trumped the other. Lemaitre knew all this and knew the difference between science and dogma. That he wanted to be respectful of the Pope doesn’t say anything about the debate between science and religion.