GUEST POST: Gimme That Old Time Religion!
A guest post here by James Valliant (right), who takes time out from writing his upcoming book on the historical Jesus to puncture another, not entirely unrelated myth: that civilisation is underpinned by Christianity.
Settle back for the full fifteen-minute argument.
[The essay, by the way, originally appeared here at SOLO.]
On a discussion thread at SOLO, Lindsay Perigo cited an important quotation from Ayn Rand:
"As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history. If one has glimpsed that kind of art--and wider: the possibility of that kind of culture--one is unable to be satisfied with anything less. I must emphasize that I am not speaking of concretes, nor of politics, nor of journalistic trivia, but of that period's 'sense of life.' Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities and, above all, of profound respect for man.
“The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends and political systems) still held a benevolence that would be incredible to the men of today, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, and of man to life. It is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man's higher potential and what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men--over the brief span of less than a century--before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) and the last memory of man's greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages."
One poster replied as follows:
"The interesting thing about this to me is that this period of time which she clearly sees as the epoch of civilised man, was the last period where Christianity was universally accepted by all except those few who (mis)understood evolution. (More to follow on this...soon!)
"It was also the last period before socialism came in to being. Although charity and altruism flourished.
"It was also the time when money could be inherited without being taxed so heavily that it all but disappeared. This meant that many people could pursue their interests without regard to the gas bill (in the words of that rake, Lineberry), patronise artists so that they too did not need to worry about the gas bill and look after the truly poor and the ill.
"This latter Dickensian aspect I note she ignores in her romanticism but, as far as people were concerned, there was a defined set of values that (almost) all European (Christian) people shared. This is what made this period so great. The history of the West is the history of Christianity. As Christianity declines, the greatness of the Western world follows."
For the moment, let's ignore the fact that the first rise of Christianity in Europe actually corresponded to the decline of Classical Civilization, and the fall of the Roman Empire, and consider her assertion about the 19th Century.
If Christians, in the name of their faith, did horrible things in the more remote past, had they simply misunderstood the Bible that they were poring over in such detail and with such devotion? Did they finally get clear on the meaning of their true doctrine only after the better part of two millennia?
In fact, the 19th Century was far, far less Christian than any of the previous 14 centuries had been in Europe, and the poster seems to have fallen for the recent attempts by contemporary Christians to deny their doctrine and their history.
The burning of thousands and thousands at the stake for no reason other than their heretical faith, the torturing of thousands and thousands more in order to get them to confess to any deviation from the Bible, the burning of books in the city square for being too "worldly," imprisoning scientists if they wrote something threatening to the Church's authority -- and all of it specifically, overtly and exclusively done in name of Christian "love" -- is all a matter of historical record. Can one seriously claim that the faith bears no responsibility whatever?
A religion that explicitly teaches enmity to worldly knowledge and worldly philosophy, with a Christ who suggested the existence of "mysteries" to be revealed only to the select inner few, is a religion at root hostile to reason and science.
The Bible itself has witches, e.g., Saul met the powerful witch of Endor, and ghosts, and angels and demons, and demonic possession, and revelatory visions of the "levels" of heaven, and most of that other stuff the poster later went on to deride as "pagan."
It's not just a crazy coincidence, of course, that Western science only got going again following the rediscovery of pre-Christian Greek ideas, starting with Aristotle's logic and climaxing in the restoration of the observational science of the ancient Ionians. Copernicus, for example, got his ideas about the earth and the sun from an ancient, pagan source, one that he suppressed upon publication.
Isn't it funny how those pagan Greeks seemed to have discovered science, but not those Divinely Chosen Jews, who, indeed, were fighting tooth and nail to keep the influence of Greek culture just as far away as possible. And, to this day, that is what Hanukkah actually celebrates.
But perhaps the most absurd example of this is the American conservative who is convinced that the U.S. Constitution and form of government are based directly on the ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We are asked to believe that it took a mere 1,776 years of reading that darned Bible before any of those great and learned Christian scholars figured out its true political implications!
But scour the text of the Bible and you will not find any recommendation of political freedom or republicanism whatever. No, we are told to just "obey" the governmental "authorities" placed over us, because God has appointed them, by St. Paul himself, who likely wrote during the reign of the monster Nero(!) "Slaves obey your masters," St. Paul commands us in repeated passages (which were cited by slave-owners for centuries). Jesus commanded men to pay their taxes to Imperial Rome, and a Roman centurion, it seems, had more faith than any of Jesus's contemporary Jews, as Jesus himself declared. And tyrants like Louis XIV used the Bible to show that God intended a hereditary monarchy, like the line of King David. Why else would Jesus have had to be David's royal heir if this was not the divinely intended system?
Pre-Christian models of democracy from ancient Athens, and pre-Christian models of republicanism from ancient Rome -- i.e., a purely pagan tradition -- were the true models for America's Founding Fathers, who designed a state complete with two executive consuls, one with "veto" power, a Senate, a popular assembly, etc., etc. Just look at Washington, D.C.: it looks like ancient Athens or Rome, not a Gothic Cathedral, of course.
What about property rights and creating wealth? Christ taught folks not to worry about what they wore, what they ate, etc., and to avoid "storing up treasures" here on earth. Rather, he said, attend to the "Kingdom of Heaven" instead. Christ taught his disciples to hold all of their property communally, that it was (at least) tricky for a rich person to get into heaven, that the "rich young man" should give up all of his property if wanted to be saved, and that poverty was even a "blessing." St. Paul held the love of money to be the root of no less than all evil. And I could go on. In short, it is socialists, not capitalists, who have the much better argument for doctrinal support in the words of the Bible.
What about basic freedoms: speech, religion, etc.? These are not to be found in the Bible, either. And, if they had been there, in any way, then why was this never noticed by the Councils, saints and theologians who piously taught what they thought was good Biblical policy, century after century after century?
No, it was the horrible institution of Christian persecution, century after century, which inspired sensitive minds to first consider the idea of freedom of conscience, and, again, only with a good deal of philosophical help from those ancient, pagan sources, from Aristotle to Cicero -- and from natural law to the experience of the Spartacus slave rebellion.
Indeed, America's Founding Fathers refused to "render unto Caesar" (even a modest tea tax) and that was the very basis for their refusal to obey the "authorities placed over them by God," in direct disobedience to St. Paul. Many of those Framers thought slavery was evil, too, and it was this belief that provided the basis (e.g., see the Gettysburg Address) for later abolishing it. These men were not "peace makers" but war makers. They battled, not praised, the Imperial "centurions" of their own time. And they were not "meek" about it, either.
The principal author of America's Declaration of Independence, Jefferson, cut the miracles out of his own translation of the New Testament, and the author of the most popular and persuasive political text of the age, Paine, was an even more severe critic of the Bible, and an atheist. Ben Franklin was an Enlightenment scientist. American Founders taught that the pursuit of personal happiness and material wealth were virtuous.
Sexual repression is one the great legacies of Christianity, of course, but contemporary Christians have rewritten the text and their history here, too. Jesus praises those who "become eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake," and St. Paul advised celibacy for any Christian who could handle it (like himself). For the birth of Jesus to be "sinless" his mother must have been a virgin. Monastic and priestly vows of celibacy are well grounded in Biblical text. (Just as vows of poverty are.) And, of course, simply "lusting in your heart" (along with other thought crimes) is itself a sin! Now, where is all the contemporary blather about sex being "holy" in the actual text? Answer: it ain't there.
Only the most incredible game of mental Twister has converted in people's minds the New Testament into saying anything positive about sex whatever.
Racism has its Biblical authority, as well. Jews were to keep themselves racially pure as any reader of Ezra becomes oppressively aware. The very idea that God had a Chosen People, if even only a temporary basis, is racist, and, thus, so is the Mosaic Law itself. And when those Chosen had killed their own Messiah, as the New Testament asks us to believe, Christians then took to abusing them on the same racial basis.
The 19th Century which Rand praised actually begat many of the greatest threats to established religious opinion, certainly many of the greatest since the advent of Christianity itself: Darwin and evolution, women's rights, Biblical "form criticism," the discovery of a prehistoric world that long predated the generational calculations of the Old Testament, etc., etc., not to mention material comfort of the sort despised by Christ.
The Christian faith is founded on the older Jewish faith, and it was a savage one. A religion that sought racial purity once upon a time, one that fought any injection of that scientific, Hellenistic culture just as hard as it could, one that hoped for a monarch from their ancient line of hereditary kings, and one that slaughtered animals in order to appease their God (when its temple stood), like most of the other ancient faiths. And, before that, again, like other faiths, it almost certainly practiced human sacrifice. (Why should God have had to tell Abraham not to kill little boys,if the killing of little boys was not happening?) The Old Testament God also favored genocide on occasion, telling King Saul to slaughter the Amalekites, all the men, women, children, slaves, and even animals(!) When Saul failed to slaughter every living Amalekite and Amalekite beast, this was a sin of such magnitude that God took the throne away from Saul, and gave it to David, Saul's rival, and to David's descendants, like Jesus himself.
Thus, Jesus's ancestors owe their royal status to the fact that David's predecessor was not as assiduous in his genocide as God would've wanted!
Christians will often suggest that it was God who, through Moses, invented laws against murder, theft and perjury (see DeMille's intro to The Ten Commandments), when most other ancients also had forbidden these things, of course. They make it sound as if Jesus actually invented the Golden Rule, when others had stated it well before his alleged birth. They make it seem as if Jesus even invented love and compassion, when, of course, the models for this also long pre-dated Christianity.
Well, Jesus did give us a concept of forgiveness which would permit eternal rewards for murderers and despots who simply accepted him in their "hearts," and one that condemned to eternal punishment good people who had simply failed to accept a certain belief. Yes, we have a gun to our heads, it seems, just as Jesus declared repeatedly, for we must believe or be condemned to "the lake of eternal fire," and, as St,. Paul told us, "good works" will never earn you place in heaven. It simply cannot be earned by sinners such as we.
And, why? Adam and Eve sinned. Thus, all of their descendants, all of us, apparently deserve to die -- no, we deserve eternal torture -- because of the sin of distant ancestors. Sound fair? Okay, we get blamed for the sins of our distant ancestors, but, just as bad, our only hope is in the sacrifice of someone else, too.
Adam sins, you get punished. Jesus dies, you (might) get saved. Ask yourself what YOU did to merit forgiveness, or what YOU did deserve eternal torture, and you're barking up the wrong tree -- YOU don't matter. God is angered. God is appeased. (And like the common ancient practice of human and animal sacrifice, apparently it requires blood-sacrifice to appease this angry God, the mere belief in which conditions our salvation.)
No, your only role is to deny your own judgment and to accept without evidence, proof or logic, the epistemological blackmail offered. Believe or be condemned to eternal torments. Nice set up for a religious faith, right? (And don't tell me that Catholics are any different from others here, for Purgatory itself is open only to believers in good standing, as well.)
Your own eyes, your own mind, your own reasons do not matter, and the only basis for belief that we are given is the threat of damnation, pure and simple. You will search the Bible in vain for any Thomistic arguments for the existence of God, for there are none. And with or without them, one is expected to believe or be damned for all time.
Doesn't all of that sound fair and compassionate?
Christianity codifies a virulent hatred of life on earth every bit as savage as any other faith in history. Fortunately, this faith significantly and substantially weakened in the Enlightenment long enough for political freedom to be born and for science and industry to gain a foothold. Both science and freedom came about among European Christians despite the best efforts of pious Christians to prevent their development, and only on a foundation of pagan, pre-Christian ideas, and with conservative Christians fighting each and every step of the way.