Rituals human and divine

As I sat in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on Christmas eve, listening to my daughters and the rest of the children’s choir singing about the nativity of the Lord, I couldn’t help thinking about an article I’d read in the New Mexican a few days before about secular humanist parents:

They are not religious, so they don’t go to church. But they are searching for values and rituals with which to raise their children, as well as a community of like-minded people to offer support.

Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths.

I realize that my secular humanist readers will roll their eyes at the bovine stupidity of what this practicing Catholic is about to say, but I’ll say it anyway: these humanists are trying to reinvent the wheel when there’s a perfectly good wheel already in existence, and their imitation wheels are only going to be tacky Wal-Mart quality reproductions of the real deal.

As I sat beneath the soaring vaulted ceilings of the Cathedral with the gold-leaf painted designs presently undergoing restoration to their original breath-taking beauty, I wondered where the humanists would hold their new and improved rituals. As I listened to the children singing timeless liturgical classics accompanied by trained musicians under the direction of the Cathedral’s talented and dedicated director of music, I wondered what kind of songs the secular children might sing at their deity-free rituals.

Fine, the secular humanists will say, maybe your Cathedral is prettier than our community center, and maybe your “Adeste Fideles” is more pleasing to the ear than our “Frosty the Snowman,” but you’re raising your children with a lie, and we won’t do that.

For a committed atheist, who is dead certain there is no God, it would seem a lie. For an agnostic, however, who is uncertain whether God exists or not, the issue is more complex, and Pascal’s bet may be a good way of thinking about it. 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that even if you’re not certain whether God exists, the smarter wager is to bet that He does rather than that he doesn’t, for obvious reasons. If you bet He exists and you’re right, your reward is eternal salvation, whereas if you’re wrong, you haven’t really lost anything. If you bet that he doesn’t exist, however, your reward for being right isn’t much, but if you’re wrong, you pay the ultimate price.

An atheist might counter that if you bet God exists, but it turns out he doesn’t, you do lose something: all those long, dreary hours you spent in church, all that money you donated, all those earthly pleasures you passed up because you thought God was going to get you if you gave in to temptation. To this I would respond: 1) If all those hours in church were so awful, why are secular humanists trying to come up with God-free rituals to take the place of church rituals? Why not just be happy they don’t have to waste time on stupid rituals? Because apparently the human psyche craves ritual, and when it doesn’t have church ritual, it looks for something else. 2) A lot of that money you donated to the church was used for charitable purposes, and helped make people’s lives better, which secular humanists say they want to do, too. And yes, some of it was spent on church administration and whatnot, but if you hadn’t donated it, you might well have just spent it on DVDs and i-tunes downloads and clothes you decided you didn’t like after you bought them. 3) As to passing up sinful pleasures, if I expire at 80, surrounded by my children and grandchildren, and discover as my eyes flutter closed for the last time that I bet wrong, and that death is the end of everything, I really don’t think that I’ll spend my final moments of consciousness wishing that I’d slept with more guys who didn’t care about me, that I’d partied and drank myself blind more, that I’d gotten farther ahead in life by cheating and lying and stealing. I think that even if nothing but darkness awaits me after death, that I’ll still be glad that I raised my children right, set a good example for them, and helped far more often than I hurt my fellow man.

I know personally a few agnostics who are raising their children in a religious tradition, not because they’re afraid of going to hell, but because they want their children to have a religious tradition (which is far easier to abandon as a young adult than it is to adopt), want to give their children a firm foundation for the moral code they want to teach them, and think that the other children their children will meet at church or synagogue will be better influences than children they might meet elsewhere. The article on secular humanists confirms this:

I’m often told that when people have kids, they go back to religion,” said John Figdor, a humanist master’s of divinity student who helped organize the seminar. “Are we really not tending our own people?”

Across the country, religious observance hits a low for people in their mid-20s and steadily increases after that, “in conjunction with marriage and children,” said Tom Smith, of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, which has polled people about religious affiliation and practice for decades.

Mr. Figdor appears to see this phenomenon as a problem, whereas I see it as perfectly natural. Charles Darwin himself, a secular saint if ever there was one, thought that the abolition of religion was a dangerous proposition. Like other agnostic intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Darwin believed that religion helped keep the common folk in check, helped reign in their disruptive and immoral inclinations. Not for nothing did Karl Marx call religion the opiate of the people, and while he and Sigmund Freud thought the world would be better off without it, many of their contemporaries believed that it was far better for the world if non-intellectuals went right on believing that God would get them if they stepped too far out of line. Many of these upper-class agnostics kept their doubts to themselves, or shared them only with their intellectual peers, all the while taking their children dutifully to services every Sunday and going through the motions — and the rituals — of being a good Christian.

G. K. Chesterton, that apostle of aphoristic apology, wrote,

The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.

The secular parents seeking rituals for their children are trying to escape that degrading slavery. Apparently, the human psyche needs the irrational, and when we don’t get it at church, we look for it in trashy vampire novels and the cult of global warming. We seek perfection, and where the believer can seek it in the divine, the secularist has no choice but to seek it in earthly things. Fellow Catholic bloggger Patrick O’Hannigan (whom you can read in the American Spectator as well as at his blog) recently quoted a post of mine in which I wrote,

The thing secular leftists don’t seem to get is that perfection just isn’t possible in this sadly imperfect world of ours. Accept it. Get over it. Live in the real world, not some utopian fantasy land where nothing ever goes wrong and nobody ever misses an arbitary deadline due to legitimate bad luck or the intervention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

We all want things to be perfect. If we believe in divine justice, we can have that sense of perfection, the sense that even if things aren’t perfect in this world, God will even up the scales in his own good time. Without divine reward and retribution, we either have to shrug and accept that vermin like Hugh Hefner live to a ripe and prosperous old age while little girls like Caylee Anthony get killed before their third birthdays, or drive ourselves crazy trying to make an imperfect world perfect. Just as without the ancient and beautiful rituals of the Church we have to manufacture new rituals to satisfy our craving for them. Atheists may mock my Church, but there is plenty in their secular theology and secular ritual-seeking at which Catholics might laugh as well. Though a good Catholic would not laugh, would instead pray that those lost souls might discover rituals of ancient beauty instead of manufacturing new ones, and seek perfection in the divine rather than in political institutions.

Comments 18

  1. Ultraguy wrote:

    Thanks for the link! Great post, M.

    One item worth expanding on… you wrote: “Apparently, the human psyche needs the irrational”

    ‘Mystery’ might be a better jumping off place, IMHO. If there is nothing the human mind cannot eventually wrap itself around, then there is nothing worth worshiping — no source for awe or morality or even an expectation of a rational, ordered universe(!) other than what each of us happens to think up in the moment.

    Then there is the point that Jesus’ incursion into our world on God’s amazing mission is not merely irrational (which would put in the same slop bucket with all other religions) but also unique (he alone claimed to be God — repeatedly, clearly), thoroughly historical (better and more reliably documented than anything else in antiquity by about 10X) and amply prophesied beforehand (e.g., the entire OT if one really bothers to study it closely).

    So, secularists have an even bigger problem than the one you lay out here. They are the irrational ones, with a hubris that makes them incapable of admitting mystery (yet pining for it), deeply desiring to see themselves as rational when in fact they are being incredibly selective with the logic and the evidence.

    I absolutely love the Wal-Mart analogy, btw. :)

    Merry Christmas!

    Posted 30 Dec 2008 at 2:58 pm
  2. Dan wrote:

    Like it or not, religiousity has largely dominated social society throughout history. As time has gone on the more selfish and intolerant religions (the monotheistic ones) have stamped out the more tolerant ones (polytheistic ones). As those monotheistic religions, intolerant of anyone unwilling to worship their particular god, have taken the reigns of societies, they’ve stamped out most non-religious community culture. As a result, modern humanists are forced to either use the religious frameworks (which admittedly have become more tolerant as they’ve liberalized and/or decentralized over the centuries) or come up with their own.

    You do realize we’re only five hundred or so years past the point when Popes were demanding that Catholics march off to the Middle East to loot some more gold to fill the Vatican’s coffers aren’t you?

    To use the most obvious and timely example, the Catholic Church stamped out societal celebrations of the Winter Solstice by declaring Christ’s birthday to coincide with it – despite the fact that most biblical scholars agree he was actually born some time in June. Similarly, they pretended his crucifixion happened to coincide with the Vernal Equinox.

    It never ceases to amaze me that conservatives, who are for the most part anti-tax, are so trusting of a document that the Catholic Church was solely responsible for editing for eighteen centuries when it contains instructions that all adherents are responsible to pay 1/10 of their income to the church. Consequently, the Catholic Church has built a gigantic golden shrine to itself (er, I mean God, because he surely wouldn’t prefer that money be spent helping the needy instead) in Vatican City.

    Hopefully without offending anyone, I could see why many parents would be reluctant to raise their children Catholic if only to avoid the widespread pedophilia endemic to the priesthood which (in my opinion) is caused by the church’s bizarre refusal to allow its clergy to engage in romantic relationships of any kind, as if God hadn’t created humans with an instinctual need to procreate.

    Honestly, I have no problem with religion. Its when a religion organizes and becomes a de facto government that things get nasty and corrupt. I’d think that a conservative would see the parallels between big government and highly centralized and structured religion.

    Tangentially, can you explain to me why the new Pope decided Mass had to be held in Latin? If you’re going to limit it to a dead language shouldn’t it be Aramaic?

    Finally, I love the little shout-out to the idiotic belief that global warming isn’t happening because it still gets cold in the winter. It displays not only a lack of understanding of what global warming actually is but a complete lack of intellectual curiosity on the subject. Equally funny is calling the vast, vast majority scientific community a “cult” while getting your own opinions from people whose understanding of climate science extends all the way to “if global warming is happening why did it snow on Sunday?” The blog post you linked finds it amazing that more people died in the UK of cold than of heat – because surely we should expect people to be dying of the heat in a country at the same latitude as Minnesota.

    Posted 30 Dec 2008 at 4:25 pm
  3. Bowden Russell wrote:

    Dan said,

    “..are so trusting of a document that the Catholic Church was solely responsible for editing for eighteen centuries when it contains instructions that all adherents are responsible to pay 1/10 of their income to the church. ”

    Typical of the lies of a Catholic hater. Nowhere does the Church say one must donate 10% of their earnings to the Catholic Church. The bible states one should tithe 10% to charity, it doesn’t specifically state the money should be given to the Church.

    Secondly, tithing, unlike taxes, is voluntary.

    Posted 30 Dec 2008 at 10:07 pm
  4. Dan wrote:

    You’re awfully inconsistent about whether I’m allowed to converse with you Bowden.

    That internal inconsistency certainly makes you biblical though, since the bible is internally inconsistent.

    When was the last time you ate shellfish?

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 3:58 am
  5. Ultraguy wrote:

    Dan wrote: “the more selfish and intolerant religions (the monotheistic ones)”

    Your comment begs several questions. Among them:

    – Do you hold tolerance to be the highest/best yardstick by which to measure the goodness of a particular creed? If so, how did you come to that conclusion? Where did you discover that creed if not through some form of revelation? — in effect, your own (un-grounded) religious assertion.

    – Do you believe in singular, eternal truth? (If not, then you also shouldn’t believe in science or have any expectations grounded on rationality.) And if you do, then isn’t intolerance of falsehood a good thing?

    – Finally, how do you come to the conclusion that monotheistic religions are selfish? You can’t be serious… More specifically, what source leads you to conclude that Jesus Christ urged his disciples (and, thus, the true Christian church) to be selfish??

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 12:57 pm
  6. Ultraguy wrote:

    Dan also wrote: “…can you explain to me why the new Pope decided Mass had to be held in Latin”

    Yes: He didn’t. He provided it as an option.

    Dan, it sounds like you’re wrestling with a lot of things around faith. This is good. I pray that you keep an open mind as you continue to explore the truth God wants us to know.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 1:05 pm
  7. Dan wrote:

    Ultraguy, you seem incapable of seperating the dogma of Christianity from the reality. Christianity holds many admirable creeds and has produced many admirable people, but that’s not the point.

    The reality of Christianity (and Islam) is that, as a monotheistic religion, it is intolerant of any other religion – because its own tenets preclude the validity of any other religion. As a result we have things like Crusades, Jihads, Inquisitions and the more modern evangelical nonsense about the supposed “War on Christmas” and the outright lie that the Founding Fathers wanted the US to be a Christian All these things are aimed at forcing all other people to convert to your own particular belief. Therein lies the selfishness.

    If the Catholic churches (along with many of the other highly centralized religious sects) weren’t profiting so highly on its teaching I’d find them a little less selfish.

    I always wonder which bible it is that the Catholic church reads that implies that some guy that a bunch of other guys appoint gets to parade around like the king of the church.

    I stand corrected on the Tridentine Mass. Are the portions praying to convert the Jews to Catholicism being omitted?

    As regards intolerance of falsehood, I”m in favor of people believing whatever it is that makes them feel happy. Whether that’s the flying spaghetti monster or a giant bearded guy on a cloud who is also his own son who turns crackers/bread into human flesh while its inside your mouth. As long as these superstitions don’t intrude on the lives of those who choose not to believe in them, anyway.

    The “goodness” of any particular religious creed is irrelevant. All of them rely purely on faith, not only in a God or Gods, but in all the people who wrote, edited, and interpreted the holy books of those Gods for the last several thousand years, in which these Gods have decided humanity doesn’t need their direct intercession anymore.

    Even now, we have the Pope deciding that the biblical prohibition on homosexuality (but of course not the same passage’s prohibition on eating shellfish) is more important to the human race than the destruction of the ecosphere.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 1:49 pm
  8. Patrick wrote:

    If Dan really were in favor of people believing “whatever makes them happy,” he’d have argued against the incarceration of Charles Manson and any other psychopath you care to name.

    And not to put to fine a point on it, but no Crusade was undertaken for the purpose of enriching Vatican coffers. There was a lot wrong with the Crusades, but as Thomas F. Madden and other honest historians have been writing for years, they were a belated Christian response to centuries of Muslim expansionism. Moreover, they were military and financial failures that we might nevertheless gives thanks for, in that they bought the West the time it needed to spur an age of exploration from which (together with medieval Christian emphasis on faith and reason) we eventually got the Enlightenment. Short version: the impetus for Italian, Portuguese, and British seafaring back in the day was strenuous European effort to avoid paying Islamic despots who wanted a cut of everything that passed overland along the fabled “Spice Route.”

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 3:27 pm
  9. Patrick wrote:

    Re homosexuality and the ecosphere, the BBC is not a trustworthy source for analysis of anything papal. See instead something like Catholic World Report:

    “The Pope’s speech ran for several pages, and the reference to sexuality occupied a couple of sentences. That didn’t matter. It is axiomatic, among critics of Catholicism, that the Church is obsessed with sex. So when a Catholic leader says something about sexuality, the media fixate on it. Never mind the other 3,500 words of the papal address; these 50 words are the important ones– the only important ones– because they’re about sex.”…The Pope spoke about protecting the environment, and saving humans from inhuman ideologies.
    (See? See?! He’s obsessed! He can’t let it go!)

    The newspaper headlines convey the sense of frenzy:

    Pope Benedict at Christmas: Preaching bigotry disguised as compassion (San Francisco Chronicle)

    Pope’s Anti-Gay Remarks Spur Controversy (Sofia)

    Gay groups angry at Pope remarks (BBC)

    and my favorite example of hysteria:

    Pope says gays could end human race (The First Post)”

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 3:35 pm
  10. Dan wrote:

    Am I to understand that any news source other than the official mouthpiece of the Catholic church is not to be trusted? Heavens to Betsy!

    The claim that the Crusades were undertaken solely to check Muslim expansionism is laughable. The Caliphate was already in decline by the Second Crusade.

    The Fourth Crusade’s only outcome was the sacking and rape of Constantinople, which was until then Eastern Orthodox Christian, not Muslim. The Albigensian Crusade was nothing more than the murder of European Christians that the Vatican had decided were heretical. The Fifth Crusade went so far as to conquer portions of Egypt, hardly a “pushback” of Muslim “expansionism”.

    The Prussian Crusade consisted of forcibly converting Pagans in Prussia and modern Poland. The Seventh Crusade established Christian kingdoms in a region entirely populated by Muslims. The Eighth consisted of trying to rescue those kingdoms from the inevitable uprising against them.

    After the failure of the Ninth Crusade, the Vatican engaged in several more crusades against Northern and Central Europeans and Russians for being Pagan, Orthodox, or just insufficiently Catholic (but none Islamic) and against several Catholic Monarchs for being insufficiently obedient to the Pope.

    During and prior to the Crusades, the Islamic countries were leading the world in science and art while the Catholic Church was overseeing the wallowing in medieval Feudal culture in Europe, repressing science wherever it reared its head. The Crusades did manage to destabilize the Middle East enough to stop their scientific progress and lead us to the ultraconservative theocratic state of the Middle East which has lead us to our current situation, so thanks for that I guess, Popes.

    Additionally, the age of enlightenment didn’t come about in Europe until the Vatican had so thoroughly discredited itself through corruption and infighting that the rest of Europe stopped listening to it. Kind of reminds me of the current state of the GOP.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 4:30 pm
  11. Patrick wrote:

    Dan,

    Good for you for reading up on the Crusades. But you’ve forgotten several things: First, I wasn’t defending the crimes of Crusaders or the sack of Constantinople; I merely put the Crusades in necessary context. Muslim expansionism is only tangentially related to the strength of the caliphate, as any glance at news headlines even today ought to tell you.

    “Catholic World Report” is not an official mouthpiece of the Catholic Church. If you don’t like reporting there, then go to the source: The Vatican routinely translates papal speeches and posts them on its own web site. You’ll then see that the BBC et. al. engaged in major league cherry-picking while reporting Pope Benedict’s address to the Roman Curia.

    Your presumption that the Vatican had to “throroughly discredit itself” before the Enligtenment could happen falls flat when checked against the historical record. Irish monks preserved the learning of antiquity while non-Christians overran Europe. And if you really think Catholicism is the handmaid of superstition, look again at Chartres Cathedral or its siblings. It’s impossible to explain domes or flying buttresses or any other element of the great Gothic cathedrals without recourse to the proposition that faith and reason can and do complement each other. The medieval popes were patrons of arts and science (don’t get me started on Galileo, who confirmed a hypothesis offered by Copernicus, who was a Polish Catholic priest in addition to being an astronomer).

    To put this another way, Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics paved the way for the Enlightenment, and it is invariably attempts to dispose of religion entirely that yield bitter fruits (cf. the French Revolution and the “scientific” basis for Communism).

    It’s not the Crusades that stopped Islamic scientific progress; it’s the tenets of Islam itself. Christianity, by contrast, posits a God who is not self-contradictory, who rules but also loves, and who became man to say, among other things, that “I came that you may have life, and have it to the full.”

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 5:04 pm
  12. Ultraguy wrote:

    Dan wrote: “its [Christianity’s] own tenets preclude the validity of any other religion”

    Yes. I wholeheartedly agree. (I cannot speak to what a mohammed-follower might say, nor can I reconcile the two together for you under the banner of ‘monotheistic religion’. If one is true the other MUST be false because they contradict one another. They are not meant to be reconciled.)

    Dan continued: “As a result we have things like… Therein lies the selfishness.”

    You seem to be suggesting that the church as manifested, is not perfect — a point which I readily concede. Does that mean that only a creed that is manifested perfectly by imperfect men is worthy of your attention/devotion? (an impossibility)

    I ask you again: On what basis do you elevate tolerance as the highest possible good? How do you address the problem of tolerating falsehood? (Which begs the other questions I asked you about the nature of truth itself.)

    The question I suggest you ask yourself is this: Is Jesus who he claimed to be? Is what he said true or not? You can argue and score points on blog threads all you want, but that one deserves your attention.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 5:05 pm
  13. Bowden Russell wrote:

    Notice how Dan refused to admit to his “mistatement” about the Church?

    The real question is Dan, did you knowingly lie about the Church and tithing or did you make your statement out of ignorance?

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 5:41 pm
  14. Dan wrote:

    Ultraguy, you are again missing the point of the argument. Christianity and Islam fall under the banner of intolerant monotheism because that’s what both of them are: their own tenets cannot tolerate the existence of competing religions, whether they be monotheistic, polytheistic, or animalistic. That is why Christianity and Islam won the religious evolutionary war: The other ones had no vested interest in wiping other religions out.

    I never claimed that tolerance was the highest possible good. The whole original point of my post, which was a response to Moralia’s post lambasting Humanists for seeking to create their own conditions when religious (specifically, Christian) traditions already exist. My argument is that the only reason Humanists are having to create their own traditions now is that the intolerant religions (particularly the Catholic Church) intentionally destroyed the social traditions the pre-dated Christianity itself and its conquering of various non-Christian regions.

    Regarding your final question: Whether Jesus was who he claimed to be and whether he was being truthful is entirely a matter of faith. No unbiased historical record exists of the historical Jesus and the degree to which the Bible is an accurate depiction of his life and teachings is limited entirely by how much you trust the authors, most of whom were born hundreds of years after his death.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 6:05 pm
  15. Dan wrote:

    Patrick, you’re conflating Catholic scholars with the Catholic Church itself. The very example you tried to wave away – that of Galileo’s scientific proof for Copernicus’s theory – shows that the Vatican actively suppressed science when it perceived that science to be a threat to the core beliefs of the Church itself. Additionally, while Copernicus arrived at his conclusions independently, Greek, Chinese, and Islamic scientists vastly predated him on discovering the Heliocentric solar system.

    While the Church may have been enthusiastic about some scientific advances, particularly when they benefited the Church itself (such as the aforementioned architecture advances, although their origins in many cases were probably borrowed from the Muslims during the Crusades), the Vatican itself certainly did not promote discovery for the sake of discovery and actively suppressed discoveries it considered heretical. I’ll allow that (some) Popes did promote art, although for the most part it was only religious art.

    Perhaps I’m coming off as too harsh on religion and medieval Catholicism in particular. I think that overall religion has been a civilizing force for humanity, but that doesn’t change the fact that it (organized religion) is also responsible for more violence and death than anything else in history, followed by Communism.

    I’d love for you to explain to me which tenets of Islam caused Muslim society to suddenly stop its development coincidentally with the repeated and unprovoked invasions by the Christian barbarians who necessitated the Irish Monks you mention to protect the knowledge amassed by the Greek and Romans from being destroyed.

    All of this is of course tangential to my original point as I explained in my last post.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 6:38 pm
  16. Patrick wrote:

    Dan, re “I’d love for you to explain to me which tenets of Islam caused Muslim society to suddenly stop its development coincidentally with the repeated and unprovoked invasions by the Christian barbarians,” the development of Muslim society drew heavily on Greek and Roman models. The so-called “golden age” is largely Islamic mythology. See, for example, Serge Trifkovic (http://www.sullivan-county.com/x/islam_myth.htm):

    “Moslems overran societies (Persian, Greek, Egyptian, Byzantine, Syrian, Jewish) that possessed intellectual sophistication in their own right and failed to completely destroy their cultures. To give it the credit for what the remnants of these cultures achieved is like crediting the Red Army for the survival of Chopin in Warsaw in 1970! Islam per se never encouraged science, in the sense of disinterested enquiry, because the only knowledge it accepts is religious knowledge.

    As Bernard Lewis explains in his book What Went Wrong? the Moslem Empire inherited “the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle east, of Greece and of Persia, it added to them new and important innovations from outside, such as the manufacture of paper from China and decimal positional numbering from India.” The decimal numbers were thus transmitted to the West, where they are still mistakenly known as “Arabic” numbers, honoring not their inventors but their transmitters.

    Furthermore, the intellectual achievements of Islam’s “golden age” were of limited value. There was a lot of speculation and very little application, be it in technology or politics.”

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 10:19 pm
  17. Dan wrote:

    I haven’t read Trifkovi’cs book but having just looked for reviews of it I’m finding uniformly positive reviews but only from the very far right wing sites such as freerepublic.com which would cast some doubt on their quality of scholarship in my eyes. To refute your one example from it though, the Europe of the Middle Ages also inherited the majority of its knowledge from previous civilizations that it had destroyed and superceded: the Greeks and Romans. The beginning of the Renaissance consisted mostly of Europeans re-discovering the knowledge the Greeks and Romans had left behind.

    Lewis’s article does not discuss any tenets of Islam nor does it discus Islam in general. It discusses the Middle East. Its major theme is that “what went wrong” with the ME was that it failed to establish individual freedoms and Democratic institutions. That is fine and easy to agree with but has nothing to do with any tenet of Islam. Individual freedom and Democracy are not outsprings of Christian philosophy, they predate it by thousands of years in Greece. In fact, the Vatican directly supported the opponents of (and frequently was an opponent itself of) individual freedoms and Democracy, instead giving its weight to Feudal Monarchies and supporting their claims of Divine Right to rule.

    Quoting the very Lewis article you’re citing:

    “A more sophisticated form of the blame game finds its targets inside, rather than outside, Islamic society. One such target is religion—for some, specifically Islam. But to blame Islam as such is usually hazardous and not often attempted. Nor is it very plausible. For most of the Middle Ages it was neither the older cultures of the Orient nor the newer cultures of the West that were the major centers of civilization and progress but the world of Islam. There old sciences were recovered and developed and new sciences were created; there new industries were born and manufactures and commerce were expanded to a level without precedent. There, too, governments and societies achieved a freedom of thought and expression that led persecuted Jews and even dissident Christians to flee Christendom for refuge in Islam.”

    In fact, the article does not discuss the relative merits of Islam vs those of Christianity. Its entire point is not that one religion gave rise to more progress than the other, but that the one which had more control over its adherents – Islam, as it morphed from a religion into a theocracy, strangled progress. In short, this article is arguing that religion, when allowed to control civil government, prevents cultural development. It concludes that the Middle East (but not the Muslim world, more than half of which is outside the Middle East) is being kept in a medieval state by the Theocratic governments most Middle Eastern states suffer. A similar argument holds true for Christendom during the Middle Ages, when the Catholic church by and large controlled governmental authority.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 11:14 pm
  18. Dan wrote:

    In case there’s two works by people named Bernard Lewis titled “What Went Wrong”, I’m referring to this article published in the January 2002 edition of the Atlantic Magazine.

    Posted 31 Dec 2008 at 11:22 pm

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