Monday, 4 April 2011

The "Special Status" of Christianity

I've been reading the blog of Jack Hudson for a while now. He's without doubt one of the most interesting and thought-provoking advocates of Christianity with whom I've had the pleasure to exchange views. While he doesn't always have time to answer my questions, the discussions are interesting and extensive enough that I don't have to feel like it's filler if they get too long and post them on my blog (as opposed to his comments section).

Jack has recently engaged Mike Doolittle in the comments section to one of his latest blog-posts. I'd like you to extend on a couple of the points you made, Jack. I'm copying and pasting them here, with my own questions below them. Mind you, I'm not posting them here in an attempt to disprove or contest what you're saying. To the contrary, I'd like to see you elucidate your views. Unfortunately while I appreciate your civility and intelligence, I often find your arguments to be too broad and sweeping to give me a clear sense of what you're saying. So I still haven't made my mind up whether they denote a genuine, valid system of thought which deserves further investigation, or whether they turn out to be full of hot air under further scrutiny. If you can find the time to address my responses/meditations/objections (call them what you like), I would be very grateful. If you can't, no hard feelings (though I probably will have to stop engaging with you other than just reading your blog - my time, like yours, is too precious to use it on formulating questions to remain unanswered).

To the point(s), then. I've tried to sketch a central objection to your arguments, an issue which seems recurring in your writing, so you can give a condensed single reply rather than having to pick my whole text line by line.

Jack says: I wasn’t referencing Harris, but if this is his point, then he is plainly wrong – science as a methodology is largely the result of Christian thinkers (like Newton, Pascal, and Bacon) who readily intertwined their scientific thought, philosophy and theology. But science and Christianity are different in their effects on the acquisition of knowledge in this respect – Christianity forms the basis of societies, cultures, and institutions in which human thought can operate in such a way as to allow human flourishing. Science has no creative power in this regard. While science is the product of such societies and can be used as a tool within such societies for much good it is not itself useful as a foundation for human culture; and the outcomes of trying to use it that way can be horrendous.

A few things to say here. Firstly, I find the statement on the origins of science a bit too convenient, as it wittingly forgets to mention fathers of the scientific method who were famously at odds with Christian institutions or their predominant doctrines (Copernico, Galileo, even Leonardo, all of whom precede your thinkers, incidentally). Far more importantly, though, you try to sketch a difference between Christianity and science without bothering to substantiate your points. Yes, if scientific discourse is selectively adopted as the spine of an ethical system, the results can be disastrous (but bear in mind that Nazism wasn't exclusively the product of eugenetics, perhaps not even primarily - its roots were cultural and historical as well, harkening back to Germanic mythology, romanticised knight-hood militarism, Nietzschean philosophy, among others. The swastika, an ancient mythological symbol, should be an illuminating example, and remember that Hitler was an artist).

What you fail to mention is that Christianity too has led to some horrendous results in societies were it was adopted as the basis. The Inquisition produced a holocaust comparable for scope and atrocities to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. And you know as well as I do that there are many more examples. Yes, you can argue that these societies were based on distortions or misinterpretations of Christianity. But your own sentence on Darwinism applies just as well to Christianity: And it’s not a matter of whether evolution leads to eugenics – evolution did lead to eugenics – this is undisputable history, not conjecture. Whether it should have is another question. If you don’t know this, then you are either ignorant of history or intentionally being deceptive.

Try swapping the words evolution/eugenics with Christianity/Inquisition, and tell me that the paragraph doesn't hold up just as well.

I like your interpretation of the social role of Christianity (though it has, ironically, a faintly Marxist backtaste). But it seems to me that you need to address your bias. Christianity too, like science, is liable to misinterpretations and to our "natural tendency to live immorally." It too can (and has been) readily exploited in the context of power-struggles. In this sense, my question to you is this: why is Christianity exempt from the corrupting influence of power and immorality which plagues all other systems and cultures? Why does Christianity have this 'special status,' when it led to just as much suffering and injustice as, say, Marxism or the French Revolution?

I also have a few other questions. Forgive me if I seem to be demanding, but you've got to keep in mind that your own statements are as provoking as they are vague - in other words, you're calling it, bro!
1. What does it mean for something to be the 'basis' of a culture/society? How does it inform that society in practice? If we're talking about cultural, aesthetic, artistic influence, why is Christianity privileged over something like, say, the Greco-Roman world, which is just as preponderantly present everywhere in our culture?
2. Do you reckon that Hinduism, Buddhism and the like form the 'basis' of the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. societies? If that is so, then do you think it is possible for the basis of a society to be something other than religious? If so, can you provide an example? If not, then isn't your point tautological - aren't you just using the word 'basis' as just a synonim for 'religion'?
3. Are bases of societies necessarily monological - that is to say, is it possible to conceive of a society split in two or more different, competing cultural forces for its basis? Is it possible that the political division of right and left reflects the fact that society doesn't have a single 'base', but more than one force acting in competition with each other, and that these forces put together form the real 'basis' of the society within which they work?

Jack says: What Christianity replaced first and foremost was the magical and superstitious thinking of pagans and animists. Instead of a pantheon of fickle gods who acted according to their own whims and were often indifferent to human life, there was one transcendent God who was the unchangeable source and sustainer of the universe and had ordered and organized the universe in such way that that humans could live in it. God had ordered life to operate according to certain laws, and likewise the universe operated according to certain laws which could be comprehended by human minds since the universe was created for us. Science was merely understood by early developers of science to be the tool for doing this, not the means by which we were to live our lives.

As it were, Christianity led to an equally complex set of superstitions and mythologies on the architecture of heaven, the number of angels and archangels, not to mention saints, as well as demons, witches, exorcisms, vampires and spirits, the structure of heaven and hell (which is completely fictitious, as the details barely appear in Scripture), and cloudy theological mysteries like the Trinity. I'm assuming you've read the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost? They're every bit as colourful as the Odyssey or the Metamorphoses. Again, I have the impression that you're assigning to Christianity a 'special status' of some kind. Much like you burden science with things which Christianity is no less vulnerable to, so you accuse pagan religions of issues which are also present in Christianity.

Also, the cosmology that you advocate is a bit of a free interpretation. The Gospel certainly doesn't encourage scientific enquiry to understand God's laws. I wouldn't say that Acts 19:19 encourages open research, for example: Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men. The Old Testament does include more cosmological statements, though I'd like to see the specific passages by which you sustain an interpretation which seems to me rooted outside of Scripture (where do you get this idea that since the universe is made for us, it follows that we're equipped to understand it?). Also, the God in the OT is not too different from Zeus/Jupiter. A quick comparison of Yhwh in the Bible with Zeus/Jupiter in Homer and Virgil reveals the same fundamental function - an anthropomorphised fulcrum of physical, legal, moral, cosmic authority. The details are different, of course, and Zeus is anthropomorphised more explicitly, but their literary role is the same. In this sense the pagan minor gods have an almost subsidiary role, like the angels (consider the scene in the Iliad where Zeus tells Hera, 'even if every other god in the world pulled a rope in one direction and I in another, it would still go where I'm pulling it.').

Jack says: I disagree that we can’t disprove religious ideas. I would say it is as disproved as humanly possible that the sun isn’t on a chariot being ridden across the sky by Apollo, or that a wolf isn’t eating the moon over the course of the month. But such ideas were gone before science was developed because the worldview of Judeo-Christianity usurped them, clearing the way for scientific thinking (and ironically the comfortable existence of atheism in the Western world).

If Christianity 'cleared the way' for scientific thinking, why is it that the period immediately following its consolidation in Europe was the most stagnant in scientific progress (or any progress) in European history - namely, the Dark Ages? Why didn't science just immediately follow, instead of having to wait almost one thousand years to flourish again? Doesn't this suggest that the direct connection you propound is in fact a fiction?

Furthermore, it is also 'disproved as humanly possible' that the earth and man weren't created in seven days, that a man cannot be resurrected from death or water be turned into wine just by sheer will, nor can blindness be cured by touching a forehead, and that man evolved from the apes. You could claim that some or all of these things are metaphorical, but then, why isn't Apollo's chariot metaphorical as well?

Jack says: Even in the OT you have Jewish laws which advocated practices like sterilization, quarantine, ritual cleansing, avoiding potential disease bearing vectors, not to mention the fact that certain living practices like those that forbade sexual promiscuity which would have avoided a host of diseases (like AIDs, which now plagues Africa).

I understand what you're saying, but do bear in mind that a correct application of guided scientific methods - like contraception - would have been as effective as a correct application of religious ones in preventing the spread of Aids. Once again, you're giving the lip to Christianity - there's many more systems which would have been great for humanity if everybody had agreed to apply them, the problem is that people don't. A doctrine that fails to account for human fallibility is responsible for the evil that is perpetrated as a result of this failure. Marxism, for example.

Jack says: Of course, health isn’t merely the product of scientific knowledge, but of habits and choices. Christopher Hitchens had all the knowledge necessary to avoid the disease that is killing him, but that knowledge alone can’t change human nature and our tendency to live immorally. This is why scientific knowledge alone isn’t sufficient for human flourishing.

I fully agree with the last sentence, but yet again, what's with the special status of Christianity? It never succeeded in changing human nature and our tendency to live immorally. We've had two-thousand years of it and it doesn't seem to me like human nature has changed or wars have stopped. Yeah, of course if everybody followed the tenets Christianity, it would all work well, but that point is moot. Even fascism would ensure stability and peace if everybody were to follow the principles of Obey, Believe, Work. Or Communism, for that matter.

That's it. I do hope that you will address at least some of my points, Jack. It doesn't matter if it takes you a long time, as I've got plenty of that, and my own reply took quite the while anyway. As I said, if there's no satisfying response, I will just have to assume that you either have no answer or can't communicate with me to a satisfactory level - in both which cases I must close my correspondence with you. I'll still read your blog though, no worries about that.


Tristan D. Vick said...

Richard Carrier has written extensively on the origins of modern science. Seeing as he is an expert in ancient science, I think his comments that it has nothing to do with Christianity carry some weight.

But you don't have to take my word for it (Reading rainbow!)

jackhudson said...

Hey Judge,

Thanks for your comments. I responded to one of your previous comments (I haven't had to reply to them all) at the link to the comments section above.

I also responded to kinetics there, which I think is partially responsive to this post.

I have been thinking and writing a bit about some of your thoughts here, which I plan on posting as a separate post in the near future. As usual you have covered a lot of ground, and given much food for thought.

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The Judge said...

Tristan - thanks for the link! It looks really interesting and I'll be fleshing it out in the coming few days.

Jack - just finished reading the responses you mention. Very interesting stuff, and very extensive (it's probably the reason I had to defer the reading of Tristan's link, so T, you know who to blame). Looking forward to any other response. Do take your time, I'm not pressed.