• Wayfarer
    6.2k
    The principle of individual rights is attributable to the Christian West, where 'freedom of conscience', 'freedom of association', and so on, were originally established. Of course it is true that many such reforms were fought tooth and nail by religious conservatives, but the reformers themselves were also Christian.
    — Wayfarer

    Many were also deists, freethinkers, and various other sorts of non-Christian.
    — Arkady
    Bitter Crank

    I always thought that the pre-revolutionary American colonies were characterized by the very active Christianity that would dominate later on. Apparently this was not the case. There is no denying that New England was dominated by the descendants of English Puritans, but the intellectual core of the colonies was, as Arkady noted, free-thinking.

    It was especially the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century that brought about the dominance of Evangelical Protestantism--Methodists and Baptists, particularly. Catholicism would become very important through immigration.

    The free-thinkers were apparently not much exercised about abortion, sodomy, birth control (such as it was), and obscenity that became critical issues under a movement sponsored by Anthony Comstock beginning in the late 19th into the 20th century. Anthony Comstock, for instance, objected to the profanity used by his fellow Union soldiers in the Civil War. Had his compatriots said things like "Oh dear, my arm's just been shot off" or "Shucks, I missed" our history might have been very different.

    So, some of our worst features were brought to us through our much honored religious American traditions, and some of our best features were delivered through the good offices of the Enlightenment.
    Bitter Crank

    220px-NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfVice.jpg

    Originated here
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    I don't think that the violence of the Inquisiton or the evils of religious wars and pogroms can be plausibly denied. But the point I make is a very general one: that the tradition of the sanctity of every individual is a distinguishing feature of Christianity. The fact that some who have defined themselves as Christians have themselves abrogated that principle is all the more tragic, not to mention ironic.

    But I think the historical evidence for the role of Christianity in the formation of the modern liberal state, and the principles I mentioned in the quotation at the top of this thread, are unarguable. The book I mentioned previously in this context was David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which I received as a gift some years back. I confess to not having read all of it, but the general thrust of the book is quite sound.

    Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the “Age of Reason” was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.
  • apokrisis
    4k
    But I think the historical evidence for the role of Christianity in the formation of the modern liberal state, and the principles I mentioned in the quotation at the top of this thread, are unarguableWayfarer

    Of course it plays a role. But don't we find the origins of the notion of individuality in ancient Greece - overtly in Athenian democracy/Socratic philosophy, and then pragmatically in the earlier Milesian trading cities where being a cross-roads for travellers was already broadening the mind?

    So I take the cynical view that a new kind of religious meme was born that involved telling folk they had a soul and a personal relation with God. This disconnected them from their attachment to a traditional communal setting - the local sacred places, customs and spirit figures - and tied them instead to the abstracted institutional notion of a holy church. Even kings were just other humans. Only you and God mattered in the end. Pass the hat around the congregation and funnel the proceeds to Rome.

    So sure, Christianity was a good way of organising humans as it was all part of the detaching people from their very local social institutions and creating the kind of organisational scale that an abstracted religious institution can sustain. Just as the Romans also turned Greek city states into organised empires by institutionalising abstract laws of behaviour and governance.

    The structural commonality is thus the creation of the abstracted individual to match the abstracted social institution. We teach people they are "unique selves", and that is powerful because that means people start acting in accordance to culturally-evolving abstractions - philosophical or rational ideas like moral codes and rules of law.

    The active philosophical question then is, if we understand that to be the game, how should it be played now that we realise it? Christian behaviour does sound like a good way to run a society. It has pragmatic merit. So what would it be in tension with exactly when viewed perhaps from an atheist/enlightenment libertarian camp? Why would we give it special credit except in terms of its practical results (which could be a sense of wellbeing and purpose, as opposed to the nihilism that appears to be grounded on some versions of enlightenment scientism - the line I'm guessing you would take)?
  • Bitter Crank
    5.9k
    It's a difficult job to sort out all of the influences -- philosophical social, political, theological, economic et al -- that shaped Western Civilization. I will readily grant that Christianity has been a critical--and positive--contributor most of the time, and no other contributor has always been positive, either.

    Anthony Comstock, and his numerous co-agitators, performed a greater mischief than they perhaps did or could realize. Comstock was offended by discussions and depictions of sexuality. He worked as a postal inspector in the post-Civil War era, and came across sexual material that was frankly intended to sexually stimulate the reader. He thought it was wrong to stimulate sexual interest through print--or maybe at all, I don't know. Later on, he and his followers proved unable to distinguish between erotic literature and discussions of sexual health--and banned both.

    The American Government's ON-then-OFF-then-ON-then OFF-now-back-ON policy (going back to Reagan) of not distributing birth control materials as part of foreign aid is a direct descendent of Anthony Comstock.

    It is easy to get waylaid.

    There is nothing particularly Christian in Comstock. There is nothing Christian about Capitalism, either. Much of the Christian religion has been governed by quite authoritarian systems, even though many of its values are very useful in democracy. A lot of Christians can not think calmly or positively about the Jewish atheist Karl Marx, even though much of what he said is boring economic theory and some of it is eminently humane.
  • Bitter Crank
    5.9k
    Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark by David Bentley Hart is a perhaps accessible sample of Hart's writing.

    I was entirely unprepared for how bad an argument [Dennett's] latest book advances—so bad, in fact, that the truly fascinating question it raises is how so many otherwise intelligent persons could have mistaken it for a coherent or serious philosophical proposition. David Bentley Hart

    The entire passage is a splendid specimen of Carroll’s nonpareil gift for capturing the voice of authority—or, rather, the authoritative tone of voice, which is, as often as not, entirely unrelated to any actual authority on the speaker’s part—in all its special cadences, inflections, and modulations. And what makes these particular verses so delightful is the way in which they mimic a certain style of exhaustive empirical exactitude while producing a conceptual result of utter vacuity. ...

    Perhaps that is what makes them seem so exquisitely germane to Daniel Dennett’s most recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. This, I hasten to add, is neither a frivolous nor a malicious remark. The Bellman—like almost all of Carroll’s characters—is a rigorously, even remorselessly rational person and is moreover a figure cast in a decidedly heroic mould.

    But, if one sets out in pursuit of beasts as fantastic, elusive, and protean as either Snarks or religion, one can proceed from only the vaguest idea of what one is looking for. So it is no great wonder that, in the special precision with which they define their respective quarries, in the quantity of farraginous [hodgepodge] detail they amass, in their insensibility to the incoherence of the portraits they have produced—in fact, in all things but felicity of expression—the Bellman and Dennett sound much alike. David Bentley Hart
  • ssu
    467
    But I think the historical evidence for the role of Christianity in the formation of the modern liberal state, and the principles I mentioned in the quotation at the top of this thread, are unarguable. The book I mentioned previously in this context was David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which I received as a gift some years back. I confess to not having read all of it, but the general thrust of the book is quite sound.Wayfarer
    Christianity naturally played an important role in West, yet of course those Christian values have naturally a lot to do with the values already existing in Antiquity. A thing like the end of slavery (in a way, at least) is indeed notable... even if, uh, Islam was about equality too.

    Had there been a Jewish state for longer than now, we could have seen if there is any exceptionality to Christianity or not, because the Israel is quite secular today and similar to Western countries.

    Yet I would put the weight more on other political developments. Let's not forget the importance of the Renaissance and all the other events that made the West different from the East.
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    So I take the cynical view that a new kind of religious meme was born that involved telling folk they had a soul and a personal relation with God. This disconnected them from their attachment to a traditional communal setting - the local sacred places, customs and spirit figures - and tied them instead to the abstracted institutional notion of a holy church. Even kings were just other humans. Only you and God mattered in the end. Pass the hat around the congregation and funnel the proceeds to Rome.apokrisis

    Hart spells out in much more detail than I can reproduce here, however, the ennui which took hold of the ancient world after the Fall of Rome, and the combination of fatalism, superstition and apathy which resulted from it. The point of the Christian faith, which as we might recall, grew from maligned minority cult to world religion, was the fact that it was utterly open to all comers, regardless of their social connections and position. That was what was one of the radical things about it. Social equality, itself, was a scandalous idea in many ancient cultures, as was the idea of 'the son of God' being born a helpless infant crucified as a criminal. In those days, Gods were invariably authoritarian, you paid them their due or woe betide unto you.

    But I do recognize the fact that the Roman church exploited Christianity's popularity for political ends. There is a quotation I read somewhere, where one of the Popes explicitly says how greatly profitable the religion has been. So ironically, the Christian churches began to display at least some of the behaviours of the religions they had ostensibly replaced. Indeed when I was an undergrad I was resolutely anti-religious. My view was, and probably still is, that there is a genuine spiritual treasure with Christian teachings, but much else besides.

    But debating the issue all these years on forums has changed my mind again - I'm beginning to think of the baby that has been thrown out with the bathwater.

    Christian behaviour does sound like a good way to run a society. It has pragmatic merit. So what would it be in tension with exactly when viewed perhaps from an atheist/enlightenment libertarian camp?apokrisis

    If you look at 20th century and more recent atheism or 'secularist' philosophy - there is some effort to find the basis of a moral creed sans any idea of God ('Good without God', is one, and 'The Good Book' - A Secular Bible' is another.) But all of them seem to me to have a pretty poor understanding of what it is they're rejecting. It reminds me of that exclamation by Chomsky - 'Tell me what it is I'm supposed not to believe in, and I'll tell you if I'm an atheist'.

    The classical atheism of Sartre, Camus, Nietszche, and others of that ilk, does at least acknowledge the existential terror and the absurdity of life in a universe that has been made devoid of meaning. Camus and Sartre both grapple with the implications and try and frame a meaningful response to it.

    But what the supposedly secularist philosophies offer, seems often (as Nietszche foresaw) to culminate in the kind of meaninglessness that Camus and others wrote about. I think now that's just become, sadly, kind of business-as-usual for a lot of people. That's why, again, Nietszche was correct in foreseeing the predominance of nihilism in the world he saw emerging - I think many people are nihilistic without even knowing what it means. (It can be as simple as a shrug and a 'whatever', in the face of difficult ethical choices.)

    But I think what Christianity offers first and foremost is a sense of relatedness, and a sense of community, which is a very hard thing for, say, evolutionary materialism to replace.

    @BitterCrank - I have read several of D B Hart's essays - he's a regular in First Things - and also his most recent book, 'Experience of God'. He is in some places annoyingly polemical, but he's also a lucid writer and sound philosophical thinker in my view. Here's his essay on the 'New Atheism'.

    Let's not forget the importance of the Renaissancessu

    Agree - the Renaissance Humanists - Pico Della Mirandolla, Erasmus and Ficino - were very influential, and their revival of Plato was also formative for the Scientific Revolution. They often skirted heresy and were often not orthodox in their views. But none of them were atheist, either.
  • Evol Sonic Goo
    31
    Is this one of those threads regarding a historical question, where nothing resembling historical evidence is presented? I love these threads!
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    Good to see you living up to your name!
  • Evol Sonic Goo
    31
    Let's see others living up to their claims, as well!
  • Ignignot
    59
    If you look at 20th century and more recent atheism or 'secularist' philosophy - there is some effort to find the basis of a moral creed sans any idea of God ('Good without God', is one, and 'The Good Book' - A Secular Bible' is another.) But all of them seem to me to have a pretty poor understanding of what it is they're rejecting. It reminds me of that exclamation by Chomsky - 'Tell me what it is I'm supposed not to believe in, and I'll tell you if I'm an atheist'.Wayfarer

    That's a great Chomsky quote. As I see it, a merely philosophical God is itself just more "Good without God." We might call it God, but it doesn't show up in a helicopter when we need it. Either the moral creed insisted upon by a living God is already in accord with the better angels or our nature or it is an "alien" imposition against our nature. Of course we tend to think of God (pre-philosophically) as the enforcer of the one true morality that is indeed in accord with our best selves. Perhaps you have in mind that the tradition will wake us up to these better angels, but maybe it's already doing so, without much of the supernatural enforcement tinge.
    I've seen lots of my former peer group become religiously political. Some of them were always like that, but others put down the rock-n-roll cigarette and now earnestly bemoan the state of things. (I don't endorse the state of things, but who cares that doesn't already agree with me?) Intersectionality was the buzzword last time I checked, but these shiny new keywords have brief life spans in the information age. They are good, secularly and tolerantly good. It's basically Christianity without the miracles and the creepy stuff. It's Target opposed to Walmart. Do you have Targets on your planet? Maybe no one goes to a building on Sunday, but they practice their religion on Facebook and maybe at the demonstration. I remember religious arguments as a child about whether to baptize in the name of Jesus or in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is serious business. A baby's soul could end up frying on the flames of eternal justice. These days is an earnest conversation about what to call person from X or with condition X. This is serious business. A person might sound like a racist or sexist and burn in the flames of mutating already obsolete social justice. (I may sound mean, but they really are pretty good people, and it's more reasonable than babies in the fire because of some glitch in a magic spell.) It's my understanding that community service helps get you in to a good school. In short there is religion to spare, at least among the hopefully upwardly mobile. But science has been worked in to this new religion, since it's more or less a religion of progress. Perhaps that's why freedom is crucial. We can't keep waking up the obsolescent present if we don't allow the individuals a little room to experiment. Even if freedom is mostly "wasted," progress (invention) seems to require it.
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    ...without much of the supernatural enforcement tinge.Ignignot

    In Eriugena 'Punishment is simply the absence of beatitude, and sinful souls remains trapped after death in the region of fire, the fourth element of the material world. The good soul also dwells in this realm, but it does not feel the fire as painful, because to the healthy eye the sun is cheerful whereas to the unhealthy eye it is dazzling and painful'. (Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages, p32. )

    This is in line with the Augustinian 'doctrine of privation', i.e. evil as privation of the good, with no actual existence. Those who pursue what is evil, in effect punish themselves by becoming attached to unreal things which are inherently painful. So they're not being 'punished by God' in the sense often implied by Christian doctrine, they have instead chosen to pursue what is inherently painful or unsatisfactory. (Hence the aphorism, 'the doors of hell are locked on the inside'.)

    (Curiously, there is a parallel in Buddhist eschatology. Those in the hell realms perceive water as boiling pus, whilst the bodhisattvas see the same water as nectar. In both cases, it's simply water (from the human perspective) but appears vastly different depending on the perception of the observer.)

    But in terms of the general question, the problem is, in my view, that the tropes and metaphors of traditional religion are completely disconnected from the realities of life in a post-industrial, technological society. It belongs to a different age. The idea of 'sacrifice' makes sense against the background of sacrificial religion, which Judaism was at the time; the imagery of the 'Lamb of God' is intuitively understandable in that culture. But the social context has completely and utterly changed.
  • Noble Dust
    3k
    Maybe no one goes to a building on Sunday, but they practice their religion on Facebook and maybe at the demonstration.Ignignot

    Yup, same argument I've tried to make on this forum. The problem with this fundamentalist humanist religion is there's no inner spiritual life; their views are marked by a poverty of the spirit. Their morals are the empty shell of the seed of Christian morals. And of course Christianity itself is as much responsible for handing them this empty shell as secularism.
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    And of course Christianity itself is as much responsible for handing them this empty shell as secularism.Noble Dust

    When I was at uni, I thought that many of the secularist philosophies were framed around 'anything but God'; that where the best and brightest would, 500 years previously, all have been part of the church, now the effort was to ground a comprehensive ethic in naturalism and science.

    This leads to another point I want to make, which is that the universal redemption offered by Christ was predicated on faith in the Christian ethos. However the way individualism has developed in the West, post-enlightenment philosophy has increasingly rejected the Christian ethos. So even though it might remain true that in the Kantian sense 'persons are ends in themselves', the net effect of the abandonment of the Christian ethical foundation is that the individual ego becomes the sole locus of value. In the original Christian tradition, the ego was redeemed by the self-sacrifice which emulated that of the founder of the faith; redemption was predicated on self-abnegation. In effect one sought fulfilment by overcoming the self, whereas in the absence of that part of the Christian ethos, all that remains is the individual ego as end in itself.
  • ernestm
    347
    I always felt the idea of an individual is somewhat overrated. I am not so solipsistic to think all my beliefs are my own. I picked up a lot of them from other people, so they aren't really mine, and I never had a reason to think through them in detail until I turned 50 and lost interest in sex. Since then I had more time to think and study. I was somewhat astounded how much of what I thought was me was actually other people in my unconscious.
  • Bitter Crank
    5.9k
    In effect one sought fulfilment by overcoming the self, whereas in the absence of that part of the Christian ethos, all that remains is the individual ego as end in itself.Wayfarer

    It's all 'cheap grace' described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship.
  • mcdoodle
    985
    Let's see others living up to their claims, as well!Evol Sonic Goo

    Well, I shall doodle. My lifetime is the age in which individualism has become enshrined in various 'universal human rights', so I can't say I feel fin-de-siecle about that sort of individualism. It looks to me like it's thriving.

    Of course Communism collapsed and there's a McDonalds in every country, plus an American military base handy for most countries. That betokens a different strand of individualism, the Puritan vein that began (in my genealogy anyway, for as Evol says we aren't doing history here) out of a notion that the individual accepts and surrenders to secular power as an amoral or immoral force, beyond 'our' control. Our corporations live by greed, our armies invade and assassinate, and the ethics we debate are not theirs but our 'individual' ethics. We are helpless before Google, Goodman Sachs and militarism. But we use the right word for transsexuals.

    There's a doodle for you :)
  • ernestm
    347
    maybe it is useful to consider individuation, rather than individualism.
  • Noble Dust
    3k
    However the way individualism has developed in the West, post-enlightenment philosophy has increasingly rejected the Christian ethos.Wayfarer

    Right, but some of the basic moral foundations of that ethos remain, especially (and ironically) on the progressive left. And humanism's narrative of self-salvation is the offspring of this ethos as well. My problem currently is trying to understand what, if any, significance this "genealogy of morals" (if you will) has. I guess for me it's a metaphysical conundrum. Do the ideas themselves of the Christian ethos (equality, unconditional love, future salvation) have being or content in themselves, within the evolution of history? Can these ideas breed from religion to religion, worldview to worldview, and if so, will they ultimately breed their own culmination? Do these ideas still have life and are laying dormant in humanism? If so, is it through humanity, through a divine force, through nature (evolution), etc, that they'll come to fruition? In other words, can these concepts survive on their own without their original, mystical-religious context, or are they dependent on that context? The lack of inner spiritual life in secular humanism seems to indicate that Christian moral concepts can't survive without their proper context. But the history of the Church is no more optimistic a view through which to see the concepts, either. The church has failed, yet the humanistic carrying of the torch seems fated to failure as well. This goes back to a neutral evolution of consciousness. Consciousness evolves alongside the physical world, but it's not an evolution from lower to higher morality. Human reason breeds technological innovation, which creates the facade of moral evolution as physical survival becomes less pressing, thanks to those technological developments that insulate us from the harshness of the natural world. It's easier to love my brother when I don't have to fight him for bread or a roof over my head. A real evolution of morals is a much more radical notion, and seems to require either a change in the nature of humanity itself on an inmost level, or divine intervention. The only other alternative seems to be pure, unadulterated nihilism.
  • Noble Dust
    3k


    So to tie my ramblings back to what you're saying, it seems like the individualism of the ego that you describe is the outcome, the empty shell, of the divorce of Christian concepts from Christianity itself.
  • Ignignot
    59

    My dissatisfaction with this politics-as-religion is (1) that it's not transcendent enough and (2) that it's inherently unstable as a religion of a progress. I personally want spirituality to be bigger than politics. Of course we remain political animals, but there are states of consciousness that perceive the here and now as perfect and complete, where 'evil' is a necessary dissonance in the music.
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