Saturday, November 17, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 3

To understand this search for who we are and how what we think of ethics and morals has evolved, it helps to look back to the time when religion still dominated. If you go back too far it gets impossible to know just what people were thinking, not that it’s possible to know what anyone is thinking at any given moment even in the present, but at least we start to find more articulate writing sometime around the 12th century. To get to those early Humanists, I’ll first tell what I think is the fascinating story of how Western ideas traveled east then returned over the course of a millennium.

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The 4th to the 14th centuries

As Rome fell, Plato and Aristotle fell out of favor. And when you fall out of favor in a warring ancient empire, it’s a lot worse than having your facebook account revoked. Anything written that contradicted an emperor could be burned, sometimes along with its author. Much of their works were taken east to Istanbul, which became Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire. This was a Christian empire so they weren’t too interested in what the writings said, but they kept them. Language was also changing so even if someone wanted to read them they would need special training.

When the walls of Constantinople were finally breached by the Muslims, the writings were passed on to that Empire. They didn’t do much with them either, other than create copies and translate them into Arabic. Four hundred years later Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes), schooled in law, theology, medicine, physics and more was commissioned to figure out just what those men were trying to say. He had to do this while maintaining his position in a theocracy. That is, he tried to balance the godless world of reason with his employers who were working to spread the word of Allah throughout that same world.

By this time, the Muslim Empire had reached its peak and was beginning to fall apart because it’s just plain difficult to maintain an empire that size and they continued to choose emperors based on the inheritance of kings instead of any merits of those kings. Also, the theologian Al-Ghazali had become popular with his Revival of the Religious Sciences, saying they needed to get back to their spiritual roots. He sparred with Averroes, writing Incoherence of the Philosophers and Averroes responding with Incoherence of the Incoherence. Averroes spent much of his last years in prison, so you can see how that went. In the next century, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and the Muslim Empire has never recovered. Fortunately, they survived long enough to ally with European Christian armies and prevent the spread of the Mongols further west. Not only did we never send them a thank you note, we took the works of Averroes and other translations and philosophy and made it our own.

With the works of the Greeks now reunited, it fell on the likes of the Christian Thomas Aquinas and the Jewish scholar Maimonides to take another stab at unifying the ancient with the modern. The 13th century version of "modern" anyway. Teaching of Aristotle’s works was already under the watchful eye of the religious leaders. They were fine with logic and biology but wary of the metaphysics, psychology and anything touching on values. Professors had to stop teaching these subjects at the University of Paris or move to Oxford or Toulouse. These debates continued on to 1277 when a somewhat hastily thrown together list of Condemnations was published.

The idea of churches controlling what universities teach seems ridiculous today, so this is often seen as a horrible period of suppression of knowledge. It is also seen as the beginning of science since the result of the Condemnations was to divide the areas of the study of religious matters, like who or what ultimately controls the universe or what is or isn’t a miracle from areas allowed to be studied methodically like the motion of objects in space or the workings of living creatures. There was also dogmatic adherence to Aristotle and these bans forced the professors to develop proofs of his ideas. There is no one point of the beginning of science. Applications of scientific principles can be found in pre-Christian Rome and throughout the Muslim Empire as well as India, China and the Americas; however 1277 was a turning point in human history. At least Aquinas got sainthood not long after he died, which meant the Condemnations pertaining to him had to be adjusted. The world was changing quickly from then on.

Early Humanism

Not much was going on in the development of philosophy for that thousand years, but then voices like Erasmus began to emerge. His training was in the priesthood because that’s pretty much what you did if you wanted an education, you studied the Bible, in Latin. Hardly anyone spoke it, but it was the language of the Vulgate Bible, the one that was assembled in 382.  It remained The Bible until scholars tried to reconcile it to the original Greek and began to question the meaning of words, verses and whole books. This scholarly work grew out of the Renaissance and it has direct parallels to the work being done today to rescue Christianity from the hands of the Fundamentalists. With his reinterpreted version of the New Testament, Desiderius Erasmus hoped to restore and rebuild the Christian religion. He did not care for the 4th century theology of St. Augustine preferring that of the earlier Origen of Alexandria who only garnered the title of Church Father, not sainthood.

Augustine wrote extensively on what horrible creatures we are and how we can be nothing but sinners due to our fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Wikipedia summarizes his text titled On the wretchedness of the human condition thus; The text is divided into three parts; in the first part the wretchedness of the human body and the various hardships one has to bear throughout life are described; the second lists man's futile ambitions, i.e. affluence, pleasure and esteem, and the third deals with the decay of the human corpse, the anguish of the damned in hell and the Day of Judgment. Origen and then Erasmus did not see it that way. Reading critiques of Christianity today, you would never know this debate ever occurred. You would most likely be familiar with Pope Innocent III who launched one of the crusades. Innocent was a fan of Augustine. But most likely you have not heard of the response to it On the Dignity and Excellence of Man by the early humanist and Christian writer Giannozzo Manetti.

Manetti and others developed the principles of Christian humanism; every person is sacred and autonomous, we are participants in our salvation, not passive actors waiting for the end times, and religious pluralism. Pluralism was also being expressed by Sufi writers at the time like Ibn al-Arabi who said god is not limited by any one creed. With all of these men, a connection to their traditions was still maintained. Al-Arabi famously said, “So for wherever you turn, there is Allah.” He may have seen the divine in every face, but the divine was the god he grew up with. He did not relinquish his faith. Since their ability to get published was highly dependent on maintaining a faith statement, they may have hid their private thoughts.

An art historian who believes he has uncovered some evidence of this dynamic between artist and patron is Antonio Forcellino. While cleaning a sculpture made by Michelangelo he found a flaw and theorized that in the middle of making the piece, it had been changed. His theories about Michelangelo might be wrong, but they are interesting to consider. In 1505 Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel. In 1513 Julius dies. Michelangelo has been paid to sculpt statues for his tomb but this is a time of contention among Catholic leaders and they pull him into other work. His work continues to be pulled in two directions by Popes and Cardinals.

They are also vying with each other to either split off the newly forming Protestants or work on reform within. Some of them, including Cardinal Reginald Pole, start a society called the Spirituali. Michelangelo is known to have attended some of their meetings. They eventually had to start meeting in secret when Pope John Paul III established an official Congregation of the Inquisition. When Michelangelo finally completes the tomb of Julius II it appears he may have included symbolism indicating his leanings toward that group, rather than the Church that was actually paying him. He included a torch, which could be a symbol of the power to enlighten and the Protestant belief that works alone can’t bring you to Christ, and Moses is looking to the left, not at the altar where the church leader is but instead searching for the light and contact with God. When Michelangelo died, his body was whisked away by his Spirituali friends and many of his papers went with it, so we may never really know

I used the book God’s Philosophers as a source. This link is to a negative review, but it links to rebuttals right at the top. I wanted to provide more than one perspective on this book. 
Randall Poole Alsworth lecture on humanism 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 2

If this [the Mysterium cosmographicum] is published, others will perhaps make discoveries I might have reserved for myself. But we are all ephemeral creatures (and none more so than I). I have, therefore, for the Glory of God, who wants to be recognized from the book of Nature, that these things may be published as quickly as possible. The more others build on my work the happier I shall be.
— Johannes Kepler (1595)

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I am goingto get into the problems of 4th century Christianity and other dark periods, but first I want to talk about the problems of the Enlightenment. These are less often discussed. I don’t mean that the Enlightenment was a problem or that it is at the root of “our” problems today, but there were aspects of it left incomplete and some of its reasoning was misused. We have not corrected for these errors and we can’t if we remain unaware of them.

To be clear, I think this was one of the most significant phases of human development. From the time of the Buddha and Socrates until into the 15th century if a person who had absorbed all the knowledge of their day could time travel throughout those centuries and sit down for a discussion about the universe and how it works, they would be able to understand each other. Barriers of language aside. By the end of the 16th century so much had changed that parents would have trouble conversing with their children. Anyone who didn’t have a cell phone when they were a child knows this feeling.

Douglas Adams calls these the first two ages of sand. We took sand and molded it into lenses and looked out at the stars and realized they weren’t what we thought they were. We looked closer at everything with microscopes and began to deconstruct how things were made. We applied first principles and built on what we could demonstrate to be true. These concepts had been incubating since the dawn of human tribes but now they were seen not just as tools but as a philosophy. This new philosophy said we could experiment with everything around us and learn from it. We could read the book of nature. The concepts and discoveries from people like Newton led to the third age of sand, the silicon chip. Formulas developed at that time were used to put us on the moon and theorize how the universe began.

But I’m getting lost in the arc of progress and wonders of science and that is perhaps one of the mistakes I said I was going to talk about. There was an overwhelming faith in the ideas coming out of the Enlightenment. I’ll leave the philosophical discussions of what is good or bad about scientific progress for now and look at the problems created by this shift to rational thinking.

Rationality was not invented 500 years ago. Even if you are trying to figure out if your neighbor is a witch, you will use a certain degree of investigative thinking. Once you accept that there are witches, and come up with some basic ideas about what they are, the process of working out the logic is very much like that used in a laboratory. If the experiment you devise involves dunking in water, because witches float, this could work out bad for the person being tested, so when we talk about rationality today, we mean a much larger context, one that involves not just a single test, but proven techniques, repeated trials, and the ethics of the test as well. But still, the idea of performing an experiment was always there.

This era that led us away from burning witches and produced so much of what we now considered the modern world, also has an end. The effect of it never ended, but the movements and the people who can be said to be part of it, ended. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of history bends toward justice”, but it is an arc, not a straight line. What began as a reaction to a bloody 30 years of war (1618 to 1648) ended with more war and more conquering by people like Napoleon. One of the last, perhaps the last, philosopher of this age was MarieJean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet.

Condorcet was a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His philosophies, like the “general will” were the inspiration for revolutions against despotic rulers with slogans like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. A century before the abolition of slavery in the United States, Condorcet founded the Society of the Friends of the Blacks. But these ideas, no matter how noble, still had detractors and they required enforcement. Other men, like Robespierre did not have the patience for them to permeate into the world peacefully. The king was replaced by the assembly and anyone who deviated from what the assembly determined was the general will would be subject to its force.

This new idea of laws coming from nature was an early Enlightenment idea put forth by the likes of Francis Bacon. He felt that our destiny was in our hands and if we deny that dream we will return to barbarism. But perhaps we didn’t spend enough time understanding our nature before some decided to start enforcing its laws. In his final work Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, Condorcet applied to ethics and morality the idea that there are laws of physics that are consistent throughout time and space and that principle can extend to how we operate in the world. But even as he wrote this, the dream seemed to be dying.

Robspierre and the Jacobins were in the process of arresting some 300,000 and killing nearly 17,000, eventually this included Condorcet. These numbers sound terrible and they are in fact called The Reign of Terror, but as with all such state sponsored terrorism, they were justified by the political climate. France was surrounded by monarchies and they were prepared to join forces and restore Louis XVI. To preserve the newly formed country, they needed to ensure the loyalty of all of its citizens. A prime focus of this was religious authority and its ties to the aristocracy. While America was forming around states founded by religious groups seeking a place to practice their faith freely, France was stripping power from the Church and killing priests. Religious ideas that many Americans say their country was founded upon were considered barriers to the new government of France.

People who have faith in gods or spirits or anything non-material will criticize proponents of scientific methods by saying they put their faith in reason. The above brief look at the history of the movement toward science and reason demonstrates there is some validity to that sentiment. Much more could be said about the advancements in our ability to feed and heal the ills of human race, and that again could be countered by the ills that have been wrought by our own hands. This is the conversation in which we are currently stuck. The work of science is not likely to stop any time soon. The answers it provides lead to more questions and they provide the impetus to keep looking for answers. Faith is not likely to disappear any time soon. The answers it provides often resonate with us in a way we can’t necessarily articulate and scientific explanations for those feelings are not coming quickly.

Religion spends a lot of time addressing the big questions of meaning. Books like The Purpose Driven Life have been wildly successful while books by 17th century philosophers continue to collect dust. This could be more a matter of public relations rather than actual content. People say they get something from going to church, people who read philosophy might also say so but not in a way that is terribly inspirational. Philosophers of course have something to offer in that market, but they also have detractors and they argue amongst themselves. Comparing and contrasting philosophers is part of how you do philosophy. Some people shop for a church, but most go on the advice of someone close to them, and once they find one they are comfortable with, they don’t keep comparing.

Enlightenment philosophy and the movements that came with it took power away from the church. This had the appearance of taking away a moral anchor for society. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “God is dead”. He on went to say that it was we who killed him and to note that there was a great danger to this. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he portrays a man who seeks only his own comfort, unaware of what he has been given by previous generations. Men like that are subject to those who understand and use their will-to-power. Interpretations of these characters are endless, but there is definitely a shift to seeking human will rather than the will of any gods. Eventually, these philosophies came to be blamed for everything from slavery to Nazis.

Without going off into a long history lesson, slavery was not invented by Columbus or plantation owners in the Southern United States. It may have been one of the longest running and most brutal forms of institutionalized human trafficking, but the idea of people owning people was around before written language. The oldest decipherable writing of significant length is the Hammurabi code, a code of laws that includes slavery. Empires conquered smaller tribes and brutal dictators reigned back in Biblical Times. Separating this warring nature of ours from our higher aspirations is one of the promises of the Enlightenment that has been left unfulfilled.

The modern world can be blamed in part for these ills. Certainly it has provided new and improved tools for warfare. Strong militaries have always included protecting trade as part of their mission. The Golden Triangle of tobacco and sugar to Europe, manufactured goods to Africa, and slaves to America is no exception. But there are no simpler idyllic times to return to. The Romans had the Pax Romana. Pax means peace, but what it meant was criminals who interfered with trade along their roads were strung up to set an example for others who might consider anything similar. Many examples can be found in between. Any culture carries with it the baggage of our baser instincts, making it difficult to sell its ideology as more progressive than any other.

This list of problems with the Enlightenment is not exhaustive, but I’ll end with the bogeyman; postmodernism. Whatever you think about religion and its ability to deliver on a meaning for life, it’s hard to argue its ability to claim that it is doing just that. The early Enlightenment thinkers made similar claims, but then didn’t deliver. Philosophers today might be coming together around something called Moral Realism but of course it has its detractors and it mostly suffers from a century of more esoteric moral arguments that led to ideas about nothing having any meaning. And morality isn’t necessarily a reason for being anyway. As the world has shrunk, cultures have come into constant contact and although you could say it is progress that we are living next to each other without killing each other, we are also having trouble figuring what strange behaviors we should accept in our neighbors and what we should consider just plain wrong.

It didn’t help that around this time Einstein came up with his theory of the physical world and the phrase, “it’s all relative” became popular. His theory involves travel at very high speeds and calculations that only come into play if you are trying to land a probe on Mars, but no matter. In the past, the realization that Muslims were enslaving Christians was used as an argument for why Christians should not be enslaving Africans. Either owning another person is wrong or it is not. Now, a justification based on a tradition can be dismissed because it is a tradition in a certain part of the world. It might be wrong to discriminate against women and not educate them according to people who live in the Midwestern United States but it is okay in Afghanistan because it has always been that way. This is not a way of determining what is ethical that can be traced to any particular Enlightenment thinker or writing, but many consider it an effect of that movement.

I can’t summarize the centuries that it took to develop this strange way of thinking, but it probably has something to do with the sudden unmooring of that anchor of morality, the Catholic Church. Once that curtain was pulled back, and the arbiter of all that is good in the world was accused of perpetrating evil, it could not be covered up again. Once the constant fighting stopped, when we realized one religion was not going to win out over the others without killing us all in the process, we had to figure out how we could live together. We’re still working on that.