Friday, May 13, 2011

Who We Can Thank

            I return to the subject of religion and faith and their role in the world with some reluctance. The subject is a bit like beating a long dead horse, and if it weren't for the fact that an overwhelming majority of the world thinks this zombie equine still capable of pulling society's cart, I would certainly long ago have left well enough alone.

            But alas, we do not yet live in a world free from the chains of faith, and it is unlikely that we will in my lifetime, nor my daughter's, and although I do have hope for her children's world, even that is likely too optimistic. And thus I feel that this subject still needs some treatment, and this post intends to examine the reasons why religion and faith are not a valid explanation for any good we find in the world today.

            As I'm sure I have said countless times, much of the human folly can be attributed to an ignorance of history. By ignorance I refer not simply to those who can't tell you when the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean, or think of China's growing prominence as a historical first, when in fact, their diminished hegemony over the past two centuries is the anomaly. Understanding history is not just a knowledge of dates and places, facts and faces, but is instead the ability to think critically about where our society has come from, how it got here, what factors shaped its development, and so forth. If we do not use the past as a tool to instruct the present, then the study of history becomes yet another  pointless academic exercise.

            But let us begin in the present. We live in a world where slavery has been abolished (although sex-slavery is a lingering, even growing, concern around the world, including the US); where women have more autonomy and power than they have since the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago; where childhood is devoted to education and growth, not menial labor; where lifespans are positively Methuselean (except not made-up); where the idea that human beings have a right to determine the fibre of their lives is approaching universality. How did this come to pass?

            Before we address this question, let me yoke another to it, although we will first need some justification for this decision. Whenever I, or other anti-theists, bring up the the immeasurable amount of suffering religion and faith have caused across the centuries, and continue to cause today, we are invariably met with the same tired and insufficient argument. It goes something like this: Religion and faith can't be that bad, look at all the good and honest people who practice religion, who have faith, and  who support freedom and equality, who stand up for the rights of others, who oppose oppression, who are genuinely good people. Doesn't this prove that religion and faith are forces for good?

            No, it doesn't, and here's the problem with that- Yes, the existence of many, many good and decent people who practice religion is indisputable. However, it is false logic to say that it is because of religion that they are good people. That statement will immediately cause the faithful to jump to the defense of their beliefs, since one of the most powerfully self-reinforcing aspects of religion is that its practice makes you a better person, and given religion's embarrassingly poor track record of predicting and describing the natural world, its ability to make one a better person is really the only claim to legitimacy it has left.

            However, history fails to support this claim of the faithful, and it is people's dogged ignorance of history that makes the perpetuation of this faulty claim possible. So my goal here will be to elucidate some of those misconceptions, and try to give the reader a better sense of exactly where the humane “goodness” of most modern citizens actually comes from. And religion is not its source.

            The distinction between individuals and societies in this argument should be briefly noted. I do not think it necessary to point out the obvious fact that there have been many good people throughout the years who were not religious, and that there have also been many, many not-very-good people throughout the years who have been religious. So we cannot get caught up in the waste of time that is saying, “Well, yes, those societies did some evil things, but not everyone agreed with them.” There were numerous abolitionists in the United States since the colonial period, but until the evil of slavery was cast off, its existence remained a blemish on the character of the entire nation. A society is only as good as the greatest evil its citizens will tolerate.

            And so I intend to build a case that the influence of religion on society is almost entirely negative. There are many ways that this case can be made, and indeed, I have made some of them in previous posts. However, one of the most powerful, and I believe indisputable, is the argument from history. Taking a 21st century, modern, Western, capitalist, liberal-democratic, scientific society, where religion is prevalent, like the United States, and claiming that the “goodness” of its citizens stems from merely one of those several factors should immediately cause the discerning thinker to take pause. Yet how can we determine which factors are contributing, and which merely incidental?

            Fortunately, Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, two of the most important books ever written) has given us a methodology. The problem with the study of history, he noted, is that  the world does not bend to the will of the historian in the way scraps of nature are isolated and bent to the will of the scientist in the laboratory. So how can history be studied objectively? How can the absolutely unparalleled success of the scientific method be applied to the study of history, of cultures, ideas and peoples? Diamond's methodology involved considering history in isolated “experiments” where several factors had been controlled for by history itself, leaving only the desired factor under the historian's proverbial microscope.

            I intend to do something similar, in very abbreviated form, with religion. Starting with our modern, capitalist, liberal democratic, scientific, religious society, let us see how many of these factors can be peeled away, like the skin of an onion, until only religion remains. Fortunately, we do not have to retreat very far through the centuries before we are presented with a society, unimaginably different  from our own, yet constituted of our very own ancestors (for many readers anyway), which is not capitalist, not liberal-democratic, not scientific, but very much religious. I am speaking, of course, of the European Middle Ages.

            They say that when you really want to see someone's true character, put them in a position of power and watch what they do. I believe that the same could be said for an ideology. Communism sounded great, until some people, some naïve, some power-hungry, actually tried it, and imposed it on hundreds of millions of others. So if we really want to see the true character of religion, let us remind ourselves of what it looked like, how it comported itself, when it was the only show in town.

             It is hardly worth mentioning the role religion played in people's lives during the Middle Ages. I should think that even the reader with the sparsest knowledge of history would know that religion wasn't just a part of life during the Middle Ages, it pretty much was life. Nearly every day was devoted to one saint or another, and food, work, sex, leisure, marriage and even thought, as much as possible, was regulated by the church. So when we discuss life during this period, we really are discussing life as it was lived when Religion was King.

            Although what I am attempting to do here would not fall under the purview of history as it is conceived of and taught in public and secondary schools, the memorization of dates of battles, monarchs and discoveries, some dates will be highly relevant here, as they will help give us a sense of what changes in society's ideals actually brought about concrete changes in people's lives. Thus, we will use two dates as our yardstick. Both are slightly arbitrary, but since they both fall well within an acceptable margin of era for our purposes, and because they are separated by such a large expanse of time, they will suffice. The first date we will use is the 312 CE, the year the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christian worship in the empire, and put it on the quick path to its eventual ascendancy and domination as the official state religion of the empire. The second date we will use is 1690 CE, the year Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which had been preceded only three years prior by Newton's Principia Mathematica, the publication of these two seminal works marking the (loose) beginnings of the democratic and scientific revolutions, also known as the Enlightenment, respectively.

            What was it like to live in those one thousand, three hundred and seventy-eight years in between? What was it like to live under religion's thumb when there was no market, no liberal-democratic ideals, no scientific method, to keep it in check? Well, for the vast majority of people, particularly the traditionally disenfranchised, it was horribly unpleasant.

            Since a society's treatment of its women is always an excellent measure of its sense of equality and justice, let us begin there. In the Middle Ages, women were expected to be obedient to men, and if they were not, could expect to be beaten for it. Women could own property, but upon marriage, all property was turned over to her husband, who could dispose of it how he saw fit. Women who were of suspicious character or were suspected of sexual licentiousness would often find themselves marked as witches, the punishment for which was being burned alive or crushed beneath stones, among other lovely things conceived in the minds of the church fathers. All told, around 35,000 women were executed for a fictitious crime over the course of just 300 years, an astonishing number considering the population of the entire continent numbered only 70 million, or less than one-quarter the current population of the US. Of course, the church forbid women access to the channels of power within itself, forbidding female priests, a practice which continues to this day in certain sects, not the least of which is Roman Catholicism, which can still boast the largest number of faithful in the world.

           When did things begin to change for women? Women fought long and hard for their concessions, originally opposed by the establishments of religion, and then, increasingly, with the support of some of them. Religious apologists love to pull out old sermons and church paraphernalia demonstrating the support of some sects and leaders for women's rights. But this begs the original question. Where did this, very new-found, support for women's rights originate? In Christianity? As we've seen, the church had a horrible record on women's rights, stretched across sixteen centuries. What had changed in the West in the years before women were granted, say, suffrage? The Enlightenment had happened, marked by the ideas of thinkers such as Locke and Newton. The first “western” country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893; 203 years after Locke and Newton, 1,581 years after the ascendancy of Christianity. If the major contributing factor here was the inherent “goodness” of religion, it seemed awfully slow in manifesting itself.

            It should be fairly obvious to all but the most determinedly close-minded that religion was not in the least way a contributing factor in women winning just and equal treatment. While many who were religious, including representatives of the churches themselves, valiantly supported women in their struggle, it is apparent that the mindset of individuals and society was changing not because of religion, but in spite of it. The ideals of the Enlightenment, liberty, equality, justice, were gaining greater and greater traction within the population and were increasingly displacing the ideals of authoritarianism, elitism, patriarchy, obedience and guilt which had long been the cornerstones of the Christian church. Many individuals held on to their faith while adopting Enlightenment thinking. But what gave women the courage to take to the streets for the right to be represented? Not the idea that they were daughters of the Original Sinner, the cause of all Man's woes, inferior in body, intellect and morality, not worthy of holding positions of church or state, or any of the other shameful garbage the church had been spouting for a millennium and a half. They had come to realize that they deserved equal rights because of the incredibly simple idea, put forth by a human being without recourse to magic, guilt or superstition, that all people should be treated equally.

            My argument is made in the example above. I would not burden the reader with a pointless repetition of the same. However, it is important to demonstrate the universality of the argument through further example, which should suffice without belaboring the same points.
  • Slavery- In the Middle Ages, between 10-20% of the population was kept as slaves, although this practice slowly gave way to serfdom, which was hardly better, and which continued through the 19th century in some Eastern European countries, most notably Russia. Of course slavery was originally a legacy of Rome, as well as the Germanic tribes, but the practices of keeping slaves of one's own nationality or tribe gave way to the marginally more stomachable practice of only keeping slaves who didn't look quite so much like your kin. The church did take an early stand against the enslavement of Christians, but was never terribly concerned with the enslavement of those who hadn't found Jesus. The African slave trade began in 1441, the economic value of which caused the church to reverse it position and again condone slavery, and the practice continued in the United States till the end of the civil war in 1865.

          Years Christianity had a chance to do something about slavery: 1,553
          Years it took Enlightenment ideals to actually put an end to this horrid practice:175
  • Child Abuse- Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Puritan period of US history, children had no rights under the law and were considered the property of their parents. A child could be killed by his or her father for disobedience without the parent receiving any punishment under the law. Children were married to whoever their parents chose for them, and again, disobedience could mean death. Children in the Middle Ages, except for those of the elite, received no education, and were expected to begin contributing to the household duties at the age of 5 or 6. By their teens, children were expected to be full-fledged income earners, either assisting their parents in their own occupation or by renting themselves out as servants to a wealthier household. One of the greatest stains on our history is, of course, the use of children as indentured workers on the factory floors of the Industrial Revolution. If we mark the end of this horrific practice in the US with Roosevelt's passage in 1938 of the Fair Labor Standards Act, we can see:
          Number of years Christianity had to stop conceiving of children as “property”: 1,626
          Years it took to get Enlightenment ideals through the thick skulls of a religious society: 248
  • Capital Punishment and Torture- When religion ruled the West, capital punishment and torture were arguably the most popular forms of entertainment, something which was enjoyed as a spectator sport by young and old, rich and poor and men, women and children. Many crimes were then punishable by death, including; murder, treason, highway robbery, theft of more than a shilling, rioting, forgery and arson. All of these crimes were considered felonies, and being accused (yes, just accused) of a felony denied you the right to legal representation. Courts were heavily tilted in favor of the prosecution, because, of course, the people, the good Christian people, wanted to see blood. Means of execution were horrific, including being hung, drawn and quartered- i.e. hung almost to death, emasculated, disemboweled, beheaded and chopped into four pieces- being ripped apart on the Rack, being burnt alive, etc., etc. always in front of a cheering throng of believers. The most horrific punishments were those handed out by the church against those who disagreed with their guesses as to the will of the creator of the universe.

         Years Christianity had to realize the very simple fact that, um, Jesus Christ was never all that       big into killing people, you know, turn the other cheek and all that, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, revenge not yourselves, leave it to God, to Me belongs vengeance and requital, all that fun stuff: Well, 1,699 and counting, since many religious sects still support capital punishment and in the US, Christians are its biggest proponents (they are the biggest proponents of “enhanced interrogation,” too). Maybe someday they'll get around to reading that little book they are always going on about.
          Years it took Enlightenment ideals to begin to put an end to the dominion of the State over the    lives of its citizens with the 1972 moratorium: 282

            I could continue, but I believe the point has been made. (I've left out all sorts of great stuff, not the least of which would be the Crusades and the Inquisition.) I have focused here entirely on the history of the West, because there is a certain sense of superiority Westerners have when they survey those “backwards” societies where girls are still executed for being raped, or have their clitoris and labia removed as young women, where adultery is punishable (for women, chiefly) by being stuffed in a sack and bludgeoned to death with stones by your neighbors, or any of the other vile things that continue to occur in parts of the world where Religion still reigns supreme. The point is this: Our society was no different, or better, not so long ago. The consciences we use to judge those societies are not the product of any superior religious heritage. Oh no. They are the result of the West's early discovery of liberal-democratic values and the scientific method, one to argue for human liberty, justice and equality, the other to keep in check those who would wield magic and superstition as instruments of oppression.

           If you believe that women are not the property of their fathers and then husbands, and children not the property of their parents, if you believe a human life worth more than a shilling, and that it should not be bought and sold, even if the purchaser has a different skin tone, then you have the Enlightenment to thank. You may very well be a person of faith, but I have yet to see an argument that would explain how any of us today, had we been born in the midst of Christianity's long dominion over the West, would not be there before the scaffold, elbow to elbow with hundreds of other faithful, clamoring for vengeance and bloody retribution, cheering the suffering and agony of our fellow human beings.

            The finely tuned consciences we can be so grateful for today are not the result of anyone's faith, for Religion had its run, for fifteen long, dark centuries. Religion had the opportunity to bring humanity to the West for a millennium and a half, and it utterly failed to do so. If we can be grateful that the horrific practices of Religion's heyday are no more, we owe our gratitude not to the institutions, both political and intellectual, that perpetuated these tyrannies. Instead, we owe our gratitude to those Enlightenment thinkers who were brave enough to challenge these abhorrent practices and bring some measure of liberty, equality and justice to our short, mortal lives.

            Society's cart is currently hitched to two horses; the Horse of Reason, strong and vital, carrying us away from the darkness, violence and oppression of our past towards a society whose ideals are increasingly those of knowledge and justice; and the Horse of Faith, a long-dead corpse, whose weight does nothing but burden the cart, and threaten to keep us in the dark.

            It is long past time to cut one of these loose.


  1. if only people studied history or were able to divorce themselves from the slog of beliefs holding them hostage long enough to see the truth...oh how much faster could progress in true decent human kindness and knowledge come about. it took me half my lifetime to get out from under the dark oppressive religion i was in. and still shudder to think about it's archaic rules and what those rules did to the followers. if only more people could think for themselves instead of letting "faith" "think" for them.

  2. I like your thinking. Here is another guy I like

  3. Thanks for reading, kneejerk, as always. Glad to have some time and energy to be back at it.