“So, How Come You Keep Bashing Religion?”
A FEW FRIENDS, and friends-of-friends, and friends-asking-me-on-behalf-of-other-blog-readers (“it’s not for me, it’s for a friend”) have kept asking me the same question over and over for the last ten years.
The question usually goes something like this:
To me, the answer’s bleeding obvious. But to these blokes (and blokesses), it’s obviously not, so here’s my effort to answer.
First answer is: because it’s absurd. And I despise absurdities.
My job as a blogger, as I see it, is to be somewhat of a provocateur; to challenge your thinking; to pull on your coat a little about the small absurdities, and to annoy the bejesus out of you on the big ones.
And as Richard Dawkins says (and as most us probably thought to ourselves last Friday and Sunday when a mad alliance of religionists and unionists stopped us buying beer and wine if we wanted to) why should religion’s many absurdities get a free pass?
Second point is (as Voltaire would say) because those who believe absurdities have tended to commit atrocities. And while I’m passionately opposed to absurdity, I’m violently opposed to atrocity.1
Third point, a more positive one, is this: because there are better bases on which to build knowledge and morality than the idea that an imaginary friend has somehow slipped you all the answers, without any effort of thought on your part. All you have to do now, in this fantasy built entirely upon articles of faith, is believe. As Ayn Rand observed, this “alleged shortcut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short circuit destroying the human mind.”
Faith, in its three major monotheistic forms, did that job for centuries: methodically destroying both the knowledge and virtually all the fruits of reason produced in the first birth of human reason, in Classical Greece. Andrew Bernstein summarises both history and results of that destruction – the battle between reason and the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- in a superb piece in the latest Objective Standard dramatising the 2300-year conflict between Aristotle, whose philosophy represented the first full embodiment and flowering of human reason, and the religions that presided over the various monotheistic dark ages – those dark benighted landscapes bedevilled2 by crosses, crescents, subservience and graves. He begins…
The rest of Bernstein’s piece is the essentialised survey of the two poles that he promises.
He starts with the crucial fact from history obscured by talk of “Judaeo-Christian roots”: that it was not Hebrew desert dwellers who most fundamentally gave birth to Western civilisation, but the Greeks.
IT SOUNDS LIKE A SCENE from Monty Python. What did the Greeks ever do for us? Well …
as the eminent historian Will Durant wrote, “there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece. Schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history … physics, biology … poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, philosophy … ethics, politics, idealism, philanthropy … democracy: these are all Greek words for cultural forms … in many cases first matured … by the abounding energy of the Greeks.”
Bernstein writes of the seminal intellectual achievements of Aristotle, the foremost philosophical advocate of the secular, rational vision.
Aristotle’s approach is almost entirely secular, making only the most attenuated references to divinity. His extensive and profound work in moral philosophy [for example] demonstrates that this field flourishes independent of religion. Morality is a branch of philosophy [not religion] and was born in Greece, four centuries before Christianity.
This is just one example from many of the thinker who single-handedly started at least three of our sciences, and had a hand in the beginnings of many more. But it wasn’t the Romans who killed Greek thought for centuries, murdered Greek thinkers and burned and buried their books. It was those three “great religions.”
THE FIRST GREAT RELIGION it encountered was Judaism. “The Jewish religion,” says Bernstein, “is one of the most irrational.”
According to Jewish legend, as Durant states: “Moses had ruled bloodlessly by inventing interviews with God.” The Jews also invented other, similar fables – of a bush that spoke, of a man who lived within a whale, of a woman turned to salt, and so on. Here lies a critical parting of the way in human cognition: The leading Greek thinkers rejected the myths of their culture – for example, that Pallas Athena sprang fully developed from her father’s head, without benefit of a mother; whereas the leading Jewish thinkers upheld theirs.
So while “many of the better-educated Jews found Greek culture profoundly attractive,” they were very much in the minority. “Aristotle’s method of logical, non-contradictory thinking about facts was hereby rejected by the first culture to exert a deeply religious influence on Western civilisation.”
WE NEXT ENCOUNTER CHRISTIANITY’S “war against the mind,” building upon Judaic irrationality and adding ingredients of their own. (At least Judaism never imagined a hell.) The Christian rejection was complete, best symbolised by the Christian mob, “including monks led by a member of the local bishop’s staff,” burning the Great Library of Alexandria to the ground in 415AD and murdering the brilliant Greek mathematician, Hypatia.
The burning of irreplaceable manuscripts continued for centuries (seen in the fate of writing and work by Sappho, Johns Scotus Erigena, Peter Abelard, and even Aristotle himself, and well portrayed in films like Agora and Name of the Rose.)
These were not isolated incidents. They were necessarily central to the new church’s method.
The Catholic Church required its adherents to accept a specific religious doctrine.Because this doctrine was based on faith, not facts, reason was out as a method of adjudicating theological disputes. For example, the Church decreed that Jesus was God; but Arius (250-336AD), presbyter of Alexandria, argued that Jesus was a creation of God – divine, but not identical to God the Father.
How could one side or the other prove itself right? Given that each side started from the non-observable claim that there exist spiritual beings independent of bodily means – ghosts – there were no facts to appeal to – merely competing arbitrary faith-based claims.
American philosopher Ayn Rand states: “When men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion [or] communication … are possible…. [M]ysticism reduces mankind [to] a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence.”
Inevitably, the Church condemned Arius and his supporters as heretics, and the dispute devolved into mass violence where “over three thousand Christians … died at the hands of fellow Christians.”
This was not a one-off, and the result was a virtual millennia-long suppression of knowledge and original thinking – best symbolised by the suppression and murdering of heretics.
A heretic is a member of a religion who challenges some tenet of its orthodoxy. After Christianity came to power in the 4th century AD, the number of heretics it supressed – in many cases, murdered – is incalculable, as are the intellectual advances not reached by relatively rational heretics due to such repression and murder.
Men of reason, as taught by their first teacher, Aristotle, demand observable facts in support of the ideas they accept. But religion is not based on facts; it is based on faith – and it cannot withstand rational inquiry. Therefore, when fervently religious men hold cultural and political authority, they conduct relentless war against the thinkers who challenge their dogma.
And so they did, and would still do.
As the classical scholar Charles Freeman points out, “The Greek intellectual tradition was suppressed rather than … faded away.” Fundamentally, Christians rejected Aristotle’s method of observation-based rationality. Consequently, they rejected rational philosophy, the arts, science, mathematics, and education.
The Dark Ages ensued.
IT’S SOMETIMES ARGUED THAT theology is a religious employment of reason. Based on Aristotelian logic, it’s at least true that it’s the best religion can offer – and that we still have Aristotle’s logic is only because Christians failed to suppress it completely.
Theology is formal, deductive thinking about God and other faith-based beliefs. Theologians start with a faith-based definition of God or angels or demons or demons or the like, then tease out or rigorously deduce from that definition the things such beings can or cannot do. And element of non-contradictory thinking is present, but facts are utterly absent. Theology is rigorous thinking about fantasy premises – and, as such is, at best, a tragic waste of human brainpower.
And is best reflected today in the postmodern use of logic, in which the truth of premises is irrelevant and logic is thereby bifurcated from facts. So it was too for medieval Christians: “it did not matter [for example] if one went wrong regarding the cure for leprosy – but knowledge of angels was important.”
Thus did a thousand years of leprous hell pass on earth in the Christian west, under the rule of a Christian Taleban.
ODDLY, WHILE THE WEST had plunged itself into intellectual darkness, and reaping its fruits , the Islamic world was – briefly --embracing Aristotle and his intellectual achievements – thus, on these intellectual fruits (and, tragically, only briefly), enjoying their one and genuine Golden Age.
The Arabs learned the method of observation-based rationality and, in a true golden age, made superb contributions to medicine, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and other fields. But it did not last. Due to the monumental influence of Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and other reason-rejecting theologians, as well as fundamentalism firmly entrenched in Islamic culture from its outset, faith ultimately crushed freedom of thought… For eight-hundred years since, the Islamic world has wallowed in a dark age.
The west itself only recovered by the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle and other Greek thinkers (largely as a result of “recovering” Spanish Toledo from the Muslims) – and, finally and after a long struggle, taking seriously the reality-based thinking method contained therein.
Durant refers to Aristotle as “this amazing Greek who … upset three religions.” … Aristotle continues to upset the religions … His philosophy provides a proper understanding of the method of reason – and from that comes all that is good in modern secular culture: rational philosophy, the arts, the sciences, medicine, technology, prosperity.
Western civilisation then is underpinned not by our Judeo-Christian heritage,” which is mostly only barbarous, but by our Greek – more especially our Aristotelian.
The greatest story of history is the 2300-year death-struggle of religion and Aristotelian reason. As Bernstein concludes his fantastic article:
The death struggle of reason versus anti-reason continues. Everyone must choose a side.
Read the story for yourself in THE OBJECTIVE STANDARD – Spring Issue. Download a copy here.
1. Yes, I’m sure you all saw what I did there.
2. And there.
- The greatest story (hardly) ever told
- The Dark Ages were Dark
- The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages.
- Q+A: “Why then and why there?”
- Another lesson from history
- A christian nation?
- An Open Letter to Glenn Beck
- Gimme That Old Time Religion!