On religion 5

One of our readers and commenters, bornagainpagan, sent us a link to this American Thinker article. We thank bornagainpagan. It is well worth reading. But on several points we take issue with the author. (Please read it all, as we are only quoting the parts we particularly want to comment on, and do not wish to give a distorted impression of the whole.)

We want to reply to, not quarrel with, a fellow atheist. We would be foolish to deny the historical importance of religion, especially of Christianity and Judaism to the West (and we greatly value the Bible as literature). But we do not think that religion as such, or any particular religion of any particular culture, has ever been, or ever could be, a force for good, even though good people might feel motivated by it.

Rational thought may provide better answers to many of life’s riddles than does faith alone. However, it is rational to conclude that religious faith has made possible the advancement of Western civilization. That is, the glue that has held Western civilization together over the centuries is the Judeo-Christian tradition. To the extent that the West loses its religious faith in favor of non-judgmental secularism, then to the same extent, it loses that which holds all else together.

We strongly disagree. First: By “the Judeo-Christian tradition” is always meant Christianity, and we think – as Edward Gibbon demonstrates in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – that Christianity brought a thousand years of darkness down on Europe. Next: Secularism does not have to be non-judgmental. It is actually  impossible to be non-judgmental. Even to choose to be what a person thinks is non-judgmental is to make a judgment. Third: We believe it was the Enlightenment (starting with the Renaissance) – ie the bursting out of the confining Christian world-view – that made possible the real progress of the Western world, towards ever more scientific knowledge and, with luck, a continual shrinking (though never of course to the total vanishing) of superstition.

Arguably the two most defining and influential Christian concepts are summarized in two verses of the New Testament. Those verses are Romans 14:10 and John 8:32.

Romans 14:10, says: “Remember, each of us must stand alone before the judgment seat of God.” That verse explicitly recognizes not only each man’s uniqueness, but, of necessity, implies that man has free will — that individual acts do result in consequences, and that those acts will be judged against objective standards. It is but a step from the habit of accepting individual accountability before God to thinking of individual accountability in secular things. It thus follows that personal and political freedom is premised upon the Christian concept of the unique individual exercising accountable free will.

Did not the Athenians of pre-Christian antiquity, the fathers of philosophy and science, recognize the importance of the individual? Was not Greek democracy based on the counting of individual choices? One does not have to be accountable “to God” to live in civil society, treat others respectfully, and obey objective law.

John 8:32 says: “And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Whatever the theological meanings that have been imputed to that verse, its implicit secular meaning is that the search for truth is in and of itself praiseworthy.

No, that is not the implicit meaning. The very particular meaning is that the truth is the Jesus cult. And it isn’t, of course.

Although I am a secularist (atheist, if you will), I accept that the great majority of people would be morally and spiritually lost without religion. Can anyone seriously argue that crime and debauchery are not held in check by religion? Is it not comforting to live in a community where the rule of law and fairness are respected? Would such be likely if Christianity were not there to provide a moral compass to the great majority? Do we secularists not benefit out of all proportion from a morally responsible society?

An orderly society is dependent on a generally accepted morality. There can be no such morality without religion.

We don’t know what is meant by “spiritually”. Morality need not depend on religion. In fact, no religion has a history or a literature that fits with the morality any of the so-called “moral religions” preach, certainly not those “moral religions” themselves. Enlightened self-interest and the practical requirements of civilized existence are strong regulators of human behavior.

Has there ever been a more perfect and concise moral code than the one Moses brought down from the mountain?

Some of the ten commandments are indeed concise. (Moses did not of course “bring them down from the mountain” except in a symbolic sense.) But the concise ones are the same as far more ancient laws. The crimes “Moses”  forbids were held to be crimes by the time Hammurabi had the punishments for them codified.

Those who doubt the effect of religion on morality should seriously ask the question: Just what are the immutable moral laws of secularism? Be prepared to answer, if you are honest, that such laws simply do not exist! …

The secular laws are the laws of the state. They are intended to be moral. They are not immutable. The values of a culture that underlie law may seem immutable, but in our time many “Western values” have been turned upside down or inside out. Liberty? Justice? Loyalty? Modesty? Chastity? Decency? Erudition? Profundity? Bravery? Self-reliance? – to name but a few – are they now, consciously or unconsciously, valued by most people in Western societies?  Most Americans may agree intellectually that they ought to be: Europeans are more likely to deride them.

For the majority of a culture’s population, religious tradition is inextricably woven into their self-awareness. It gives them their identity. It is why those of religious faith are more socially stable and experience less difficulty in forming and maintaining binding attachments than do we secularists.

Are they and do they? It may be the case, but we haven’t observed it.

To the extent that Western elites distance themselves from their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage in favor of secular constructs, and as they give deference to a multicultural acceptance that all beliefs are of equal validity, they lose their will to defend against a determined attack from another culture, such as from militant Islam. For having destroyed the ancient faith of their people, they will have found themselves with nothing to defend.

We cannot see how an irrationality like Islam can be fought by another irrationality like Christianity. Religion as such is and always has been a common cause of war, persecution, massacre, cruelty, oppression, and waste of human potential.

What we really need to defend, especially now under the onslaught of Islam, is our culture of reason. We need to teach it to our children. What any individual does with the gifts and burdens his culture bequeaths him is inescapably a choice that he must make.

  • C. Gee

    The idea of an abstract God began in Abrahamic times – 5000 or so years ago. That idea identified the Hebrew people. By the time Moses brought down the Law in God's name, the Jews had accepted the authority of a God that was everywhere and nowhere (although with some idol-worship recidivism) and we had the beginning of a polity centered on responsibility to fellow men – righteousness to one's people in God's name – and an emphasis on how to live this law-abiding life. The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God. Christianity kept the idea of an abstract God, although its immediate object of worship was an idol of God-made-flesh, Jesus. That abstract, absentee God became useful to Christendom during the Enlightenment – precisely because he was absent. Deism was an accommodation with institutional religion for the growing number of people whose frame of mind was secular and scientific. Scientific inquiry could only be undertaken by those who had accepted that there were explanations for phenomena other than animating magic spirits. An abstract, one-time, singular animating spirit called God was a kind of systemic noise – an absent presence that did not interfere with the discovery of the mathematics of universal physical laws. That the Judaic God was a creator and a law-giver, could permit the discovery of His natural laws, in His creation. The Enlightenment was a time of proto-atheism. Further discoveries pushed the originating God further into scientific irrelevance, and secular politics has pushed the law-giving God into social irrelevance. With even the nominality of God now attenuated to vanishing, we are entering into the age of atheism.

    Interestingly enough, a recent survey showed that 41% of Jews regard themselves as atheist.

    • Yes, but what do you think of the horrendous slaughters of native people by the Jews? I am of course referring to the Old Testament genocides and annihilations done in the name of God. The Jews in this regard don't seem much different from many other religions of that time.

      The Assyrians are regarded as “cruel,” but the Jews seem to escape this description, even though they tended to destroy EVERYTHING in their path (with the exception of virgin women, spared presumably for raping).

      “The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God.”

      Yes, but even a cursory examination of the Bible reveals Yahweh as a malicious, cruel, jealous, contradictory tyrant, much like many of the other gods of antiquity.

      • C. Gee

        The ancient way of war was fierce – no matter in whose name the war was conducted. Even an abstract God can take on human characteristics in the retelling of legendary conquests boasting of the might and mettle of his people in establishing their national territory. (Who knows whether the early conquest by the Jews of those numerous peoples really happened? The Bible is often the only record of it.) But Yahweh had no statue, no location, no maw to feed with living human flesh – even though he was malicious, cruel, jealous, and contradictory. His abstract nature allowed him to be the God of War, of Law, of Creation, of the Hearth, of Everything. No doubt some of these personae conflicted with others, but then a nation must regulate itself in peace and conduct wars. It must sustain itself through Ecclesiastical exigencies. An abstract God is authority for all national endeavors, an unwritten “living” constitution. That constitution kept the nation together even when the territory of its homeland was lost. The idea of nationhood was coterminous with that of God. Belief in one could stand in for belief in the other. I think that many, many Jews now believe in the idea of their nationhood (even those among the diaspora ) and not God.

        The Bible is not the constitution of the Jewish people. (It was not, in any case an original founding document, but written at various times ). It is a mythical and historical record and a statute book. Even if it is seen as the literal word of God, its interpreters do not take literally the passages where metaphorical or allegorical meanings must be sought to avoid nonsense. ( God was obviously a versatile speaker – could bark out directions, or hint enigmatically, as the occasion warranted.) Despite that, there is a whole sub-speciality of antisemitism claiming that the Bible is a “blueprint” for modern Israel's cruel colonialist enterprise – what Joshua did at Jericho, the Zionists are doing to the Palestinians.

        You seem to be implying, though, that atheists would not have conducted war, or conducted cruel wars. While no war has been fought in the name of atheism, there are rational justifications for war ( conquest was -and still is, despite Geneva conventions – definitely one of them). There is nothing in atheism – the absence of a belief in God – that requires pacifism. There is nothing in atheism that precludes blood-thirstiness.

  • C. Gee

    I regard Judaism as extremely important in the history of rationality. Judaism was the first step to atheism. By making an abstract God, and making him a law-giver (never mind that some of the particular laws were practiced in the region generally), and elevating the principle of obedience to law not man, it constituted a major victory for rationality over superstition, and paved the way for the national, secular, polity. As science progresses, God the law-giver and creator, can have his remit broadened to become God the giver of the laws of nature. He becomes Spinoza's God, identical with the universe, and thereafter may be ignored, leaving the universe to stand for Him, and then for itself. The two next Books of the Bible should be the Book of Spinoza and the Book of Einstein.

    • aeschines

      Just curious, but when do you think that Judaism started to influence thought towards atheism?