Thursday, May 14, 2009

Contra diZerega (on Atheism, Paganism, Christianity, and Human Equality)

"The most important Christian contribution to our society...."
[See also this follow up post, and this one, too.]

Gus diZerega is a BNP, so I was excited to see that he had written in his blog about his thoughts on coming up with a Pagan response to the full-throttle idiocy that is the New Atheism.

But how does Gus commence his Pagan response to what he calls "the recent plethora of books by militant atheists"? Well, by singing the praises of Christianity, of course. Oh. Wait. By what??

Here's Gus: "I will begin with what I believe to be the most important Christian contribution to our society.... the ideal of human equality." diZerega claims that the Christian tradition "contributed more than any other" to this ideal. And he also specifically singles out ancient Paganism for it's failures and deficiencies on this issue, thank you very much.

diZerega admits that "the writings and practices of some of the [Pagan] elite certainly opposed slavery". One expects, then, that since Christians are so praiseworthy when it comes to equality that whereas only "some" of the Pagan elite opposed slavery, far more of the Christian "elite" must have opposed it? Or perhaps, even better, the Christian elites were pushed roughly aside by the unwashed Christian masses who rose up, singing hymns and breaking bread, and ended the foul Pagan institution of slavery through righteously indignant peaceful civil disobedience? Uh, and when did that happen?

He also admits that unnamed "Stoics" "acknowledged that there was no deep difference between freemen and slaves" (the two most famous Stoic philosophers were, after all, the slave Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius - the Emperor being the admirer of the slave, in fact), which diZerega apparently finds commendable as far as it goes, but also finds that it does not go at all far enough - that is, not as far as the wonderful egalitarian Christians went, right? In fact diZerega tells us, tisk-tisking, that these same Stoics "accepted the institution [of slavery] as a necessity". How positively reprehensible!! Those lousy good-for-nothing Stoics had no more respect for human equality .... than, well, than those latter-day Pagans Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln!!

diZerega even tells us that those old Pagans, in their very un-Christian lack of egalitarianism, could do no better than to "at most" "humanize" slavery "over time". Surely, the Christians did more than this? Right? Right? Wrong.

There's more. Gus manages to put in several disclaimers such as "the idea did not originate with them" and even "I see nothing intrinsic in Christianity as a whole that led to expanding equality"! But these are brushed aside, along with the staggering admission that (strangely like those anti-egalitarian Pagans) very few of the Christian "elite" openly opposed slavery, and when they did their "opposition led nowhere". Nevertheless it is asserted over and over again that Christianity has been, gloriously, the single most important force in human history on the side of equality, whereas the role of Paganism is at best neutral, at worst shamefully regressive.

One hardly knows where to begin when presented with such an Augean pile of disinformation. Fortunately, diZerega is not the first to wander blindly down this particular rabbit hole. And even more fortunately some highly respected modern historians have put themselves on the record countering just this kind of distortion of reality.

Most importantly of all, there is Ramsay MacMullen, whose Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries is worth quoting at length concerning the "commonly supposed" affinity between Christianity and the downtrodden and oppressed masses, especially women and slaves, concerning which common supposition, MacMullen tells us dryly, "there are difficulties":
Christian leaders once they emerged anywhere at or near the top of the social pyramid looked down on those beneath them with just the same hauteur as their non-Christian equivalents. As to slaves, the disadvantages which they had suffered under for centuries, even those favored in the great houses, are well known; but nothing indicates that they were made easier by Christian masters or their congregations. Caesarius could be applauded by his biographer for limiting punishments to no more than thirty-nine lashes on a given day, and Leo from the papal throne corrected church doctrine in the matter of slave-priests: they were to be forbidden not out of fear of complications with a runaway, but because of such candidates' sheer vileness, by which ecclesiastical office would be 'polluted'. In contrast, slaves in paganism had free access to almost all cults and temples, they mixed promiscuously among most cult groups, and commonly formed their own cult groups with their own priests and officials.

As to women, the churches made special provision for widows, presided over not by male officers but, to avoid scandal, by deaconesses; and there is a very occasional priestess attested, too. Otherwise women were valued for the renunciation of their sex or of their wealth, while barred from worshipping in groups at a saint's martyrium or entering to offer their prayers (they must use male intermediaries); likewise, they were forbidden to approach the altar or to teach or preach. In the huge homiletic corpus their concerns hardly appear; the preacher addresses himself to the 'brethren'. In paganism, by contrast, if we judge by their presence in inscriptions (the best test) but also in works of fiction, female deities like the ubiquitous Tyche/Fortuna, Isis, Diana, the Matres, Cybele, Caelestis-Tanit, and so forth were quite as often appealed to as the male. Priestesses as wives or as themselves alone presided over their entire provinces in the imperial cult; they led hardly lesser city cults or larger or smaller cult groups, some wholly of women; presented votive performances in oratory, singing, dance or athletic contests; lectured in public on religion; underwent the full range of initiations if they wished to; and enjoyed sole entrance to one or two cults as men did to one or two others, likewise. In sum, while very much less often found in positions of prominence than men, during the period of relevance post-200, let us say, and while differing in the choices availalbe to them from one city to another, women enjoyed access to a great range of activities, experiences and authority among traditional cults. These were lacking within the church.

And a word more on this question: Within which religious tradition might women feel more secure of a welcome? In the 380s in a town of the Thebaid in Egypt, a man was brought before the governor, a pagan, on the charge of killing a prostitute. The governor delivered himself of his verdict in these words: 'You have basely killed a woman who reproached her fate among men because she had lived her life in dishonor, and to the end bartered away ... [and here as later, a lacuna]. And I have taken pity on the unfortunate woman, because while alive she was offered to all those who wished her, like a dead body. For the poverty of her fate pressed down on her excessively, selling her body to a dishonoring rank and encountering the reputation of a prostitute.... I direct that he be struck with the sword as a murderer. Theodora, the poor and elderly mother of the dead woman, who because of her poverty deprived her own daughter of modesty and through which also she killed her, will inherit a tenth part of the property of [the murderer], the laws suggesting this to me and maganimity, philanthropia.' Contrast this ethical tradition with that which Jerome presents to us in just the same period and which, with other church officers, he quite accepts: by the lights of which, women were beheaded for extramarital fornication. Exaggerated as the comparison is, and a thing only of isolated incidents (though, notice, all in the open and explicitly acted out to a wide public), it casts further doubt on the question of concern here, whether women of the empire were likely to see Christians as a more receptive community than that to which had been used.

Now let's fast forward several centuries. Perhaps it is unfair, after all, to focus on the beginnings of Christendom. Let's give them some time to get their egalitarianism on. What kind of utopia had Christendom wrought by, say, the tenth century AD? That is the time when western Europe was beginning the process that R.I. Moore has called The Formation of a Persecuting Society as described in detail in his book of that title. Moore is at pains to insist that his analysis and his conclusions are not directed at the religion of Christianity per se. Nevertheless, the society that he analyzes is precisely the society that had been dominated by Christian theocracy since 381 AD, when by decree of the Emperor Theodosius, all religions other than Christianity (and that only in its state approve form) were outlawed, with the punishment of death for any sheep who strayed from that narrow path.

The facts that Moore addresses are mostly uncontroversial. The historical record from the 10th century AD onward clearly shows a dramatic increase in the level of violence directed at a variety of targets, including religious heretics, Jews, gay people, and lepers. Moore's contribution is to argue that these strands of intolerance were woven together into a fabric of persecution that became a systemic, persistent, and characteristic trait of western Europe, or, in Moore's own words:
Persecution became habitual. That is to say not simply that individuals were subject to violence, but that deliberate and socially sanctioned violence began to be directed, through established governmental, judicial and social institutions, against groups of people defined by general characteristics such as race, religion, or way of life; and that membership in of such groups in itself came to be regarded as justifying these attacks.
[p. 4]
Moore explicitly tells us that his intention is to undermine the fondly held belief (especially dear to people of European descent) that "liberty and progress go hand in hand" and that since societies naturally "progress away from persecution" that persecution is just a "feature of barbarous societies which civilization leaves behind." [p. 5] Moore equally rejects what he calls the "pessimistic conviction that persecution is a normal component of the human condition." Moore limits himself to the 10th through 13th centuries, but subsequent European history offers a great deal of evidence that the Persecuting Society whose "formation" he documents persisted for many centuries to come. The history of the 20th century, in particular, should give pause to those who wish to assert that the whole unpleasant business of the Persecuting Society is well behind us.

One could go on with a great many similar sources, all quite objective and scholarly. I am not citing the works of ideologically driven fanatical anti-Christian Nietzschean propagandists here (but see below). There are Charles Freeman's books AD 381, and the more thorough The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason. There is Perez Zagorin's masterful study of religious tolerance, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, which opens with the declaration:
Of all the great world religions, past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant.
That book focuses on the first faint glimmerings of the idea of religious tolerance that were only beginning to be articulated in Europe, in a very limited form, in the 16th century, but it also has an eye-opening chapter devoted to the intolerance of the early Church in the 4th century. There is also Zagorin's book-length study of the great lengths to which religious heretics in western Europe were forced to go to, in order to hide their true beliefs (on pain of death) during the 16th and 17th centuries: Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution, and Conformity in Early Modern Europe. Or there is Michael Gaddis' chillingly titled There is no crime for those who have Christ, which recounts the religious violence that attended to the "triumph" of Christianity in the Roman Empire, with its primary emphasis on Christian-on-Christian violence.

Please note the span of time covered by the works I have cited. MacMullen, Gaddis, Freeman (and to some extent Zagorin) cover the 4th-8th centuries. Moore's work focuses on the 10th-13th centuries (and many more works could be cited, and are cited by Moore, on this period). Zagorin's work mostly focuses on "Early Modern" Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries (and as with Moore, he cites a great wealth of other sources throughout his books). I haven't cited any specific works here, but the scholarly literature on the violence of European colonialism (in the name of spreading Christianity) in the 17th through 19th centuries is as extensive as it is damning, not to mention the literature about the role of Christianity in the African Slave Trade and the genocide of Native Americans.

The Big Picture
One especially disquieting aspect of all this is that diZerega's claim that Christianity's great gift to the world is "human equality" is not really a claim about Christianity, so much as it is about the supposedly "progressive" role in the world of Europeans, that is, white people. Sure, Europeans enslaved Africans and went on a genocidal rampage across the entire western hemisphere and savagely "colonized" most of Asia. And then in the twentieth century when the European "Great Powers" had (nearly) carved up the entire planet amongst themselves, they plunged the world into the modern horrors of intercontinental mechanized warfare. Sure, there's that. But in the end what really matters is that in the process of doing all that "we" gave the world freedom, equality, and democracy, right? I mean Africans, Native Americans, and Asians know nothing about those ideas, other than what they learned from their European Christian masters, right? Doesn't everyone know that? Isn't everyone overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude, and if not, shouldn't they be?

None of this is to deny the role of individual Christians in working for the cause of social justice. Men and women such as Sojourner Truth, Old John Brown, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste, Martin Luther King, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Cornel West, and many others have indeed made contributions. But to see this as some kind of contest with a prize going to the religious tradition that contributes "the most" is just mind-boggling. How is such a thing measured? Who might comprise the panel of judges? Who, for that matter, came in second (you know, just in a case, Gods forbid, anything embarrassing about the winner's past should ever surface)?

What is the point of such an exercise, after all? Recall that diZerega's concern is coming up with a Pagan response to those "militant" New Atheists. What in blazes does that have to do with comparing the "human rights records", so to speak, of Paganism and Christianity? Well, as the remainder of his blog entry makes clear, Gus wants to hold up Christianity's supposed role in bringing equality to the human race as the model and exemplar for Pagans to aspire to. We should try to justify and defend ourselves against the bellicose yammerings of Hitchens & Co by joining forces with, that is, lining up behind, our dear friends the Christians, with whom we shall make common cause to defend all the wonderful things that "religion" has done for the world (first and foremost being that great equality that we all now enjoy thanks to Jesus).

This turns out to be an excellent example of what is sometimes called "framing", the discovery of which is often attributed to linguist George Lakoff but he was really only putting a name to a phenomenon that was already well known to Republican political strategists at least going back to the 1960's. More broadly it is referred to as "defining the terms of the debate", which, once accomplished, guarantees that your position is promoted by both sides of the debate, because your position is included in the agreed upon "terms" of the debate itself - so you win the argument before the "argument" even starts!

This is why it's so important for diZerega, in spite of all the disclaimers he realized must be tacked on, to lead with his presentation of the life-time achievement award in the area of promoting human equality to the followers of the Christian Religion. (I wonder who accepts the award and gives the speech thanking all the little Christians who helped make this possible? The Pope? That would be the obvious choice.) If Gus can get you to swallow that, he's home free.

So what would make a good Pagan response to the New Atheists? Well, to start with, we can concur that they are mostly right so long as they stick to Christianity. In fact, on the subject of Christianity itself, the New Atheists are in the proud tradition of strident critics of Christianity, among whom are numbered many of the greatest intellectuals of the last several centuries of western history: Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, T.H. Huxley, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Edward Gibbon, Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldmann, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on.

We Pagans should be in complete agreement with atheists (old and new) when it comes to such statements as:
The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women's emancipation.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in the magazine Free Thought, Sept. 1896
Men of simple understanding, little inquisitive and little instructed, make good Christians.
Michel de Montaigne Of Vain Subtleties, 1580
As well as this more extended quote from the entry for Religion in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1764):
I was plunged in these ideas when one of those genii who fill the intermundane spaces came down to me. I recognized this same aerial creature who had appeared to me on another occasion to teach me how different God's judgments were from our own, and how a good action is preferable to a controversy.

He transported me into a desert all covered with piled up bones; and between these heaps of dead men there were walks of ever-green trees, and at the end of each walk a tall man of august mien, who regarded these sad remains with pity.

"Alas! my archangel," said I, "where have you brought me?"

"To desolation," he answered.

"And who are these fine patriarchs whom I see sad and motionless at the end of these green walks? they seem to be weeping over this countless crowd of dead."

"You shall know, poor human creature, "answered the genius from the intermundane spaces; "but first of all you must weep."

He began with the first pile. "These," he said, "are the twenty-three thousand Jews who danced before a calf, with the twenty-four thousand who were killed while lying with Midianitish women. The number of those massacred for such errors and offences amounts to nearly three hundred thousand.

"In the other walks are the bones of the Christians slaughtered by each other for metaphysical disputes. They are divided into several heaps of four centuries each. One heap would have mounted right to the sky; they had to be divided."

"What!" I cried, "brothers have treated their brothers like this, and I have the misfortune to be of this brotherhood!"

"Here," said the spirit, "are the twelve million Americans killed in their fatherland because they had not been baptized."

"My God! why did you not leave these frightful bones to dry in the hemisphere where their bodies were born, and where they were consigned to so many different deaths? Why assemble here all these abominable monuments to barbarism and fanaticism? "

"To instruct you."

"Since you wish to instruct me, "I said to the genius, "tell me if there have been peoples other than the Christians and the Jews in whom zeal and religion wretchedly transformed into fanaticism, have inspired so many horrible cruelties."

"Yes," he said. "The Mohammedans were sullied with the same inhumanities, but rarely; and when one asked amman, pity, of them, and offered them tribute, they pardoned. As for the other nations there has not been one right from the existence of the world which has ever made a purely religious war."
Which side are we on?
Voltaire saw no difficulty in coldly asking and answering the question: are all religions equally guilty of the violent intolerance that has characterized the history of Christianity? To some extent the other monotheistic religions are similar to Christianity in this respect, but other than that "there has not been one", or so Voltaire has his "intramundane genii" pronounce. As previously mentioned, Perez Zagorin reached a very similar conclusion in his study of the subject of religious tolerance and intolerance.

The New Atheists, as far as being critics of Christianity, are part of a tradition that is not only long and proud, but one that previously took its job very seriously. Women and men like those quoted above were born and raised in a society steeped in Christianity, and they committed themselves to acquiring the kind of intimate knowledge afforded by living within the belly of the beast. They were also classically educated as a general rule, and often made a point of contrasting the intellectual and moral accomplishments of the ancient Pagan world with what they saw as the base superstitious depravity of Christendom.

Even as late as the late 20th century we still had erudite critics of Christianity, like Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, compared to whom the New Atheists are inept thuggish hacks. We do still have Gore Vidal, whose novel Julian was the kind of articulately passionate labor of love that distinguishes the Old Atheism from the New. And in truth as often as not, the Old Atheists turn out to be more Pagan than Atheist.

What distinguishes the "New" Atheist from the Pagan turns out to have a great deal to do with what distinguishes the New Atheist from the Old, the Pagan from the Christian, etc. Genuine Pagans (after all, diZerega feels compelled to refer to "genuine" Christians, out fear that some of the not-so-genuine Christians might not turn out to be such brave and true defenders of human equality) actually defend ancient Paganism against the hackneyed common suppositions of the Christian propagandists (as opposed to uncritically repeating said propaganda, as diZerega does), and in this, genuine Pagans are largely in agreement with the more traditional critics of Christianity (the "Old Atheists"). Meanwhile, the New Atheists, along with the type of Pagan who works hard to justify the prefix "neo", join eagerly with the Christians in the chorus that sings the praises of "Progress", whose invisible and infinitely merciful hands first delivered Europe to the Christians and then delivered the world to Europe. Hallelujah.

Of course there are those who think that today we live in a wonderful world graced with the blessings of equality. One imagines that such people are for the most part comfortably middle (preferably upper middle) class, and primarily of european descent, if for no other reason than that other people might have a tendency to look at things rather differently.

The fact is that we live in a world of staggering and increasing inequality, and that was true even before the current global economic crisis. But even if we limit ourselves to the "advanced" countries, there is much less to pat ourselves on the back about than Gus diZerega would like to believe. diZerega's breathtakingly naive and eurocentric world-view ignores 1700 years of reality. And as a direct consequence of that world-view he sees Christians and Pagans as common allies against atheists, just as he believes that the best Pagans can do is to ask our Christian brethren for their forgiveness for our past sins as proponents of inequality, and, if found worthy, to be allowed to humbly follow their righteous example.

Why does Gus diZerega insist on giving credit to Christians (1) for something they deserve, at most, no more credit for than anyone else, and (2) for something that really has not yet been accomplished at all (human equality - remember?) - by anyone anywhere? The apparent answer is that this was the only way that diZerega could think of to justify his proposed alliance of Christians and Pagans in the name of "the social value of religion". But what of the social value of all the religions that have been extirpated, or nearly so, over the course of the last two millennia by Christianity? Who will speak to that, if not we Pagans?

[coming soon to a blogosphere near you: Contra diZerega, Part Deux!]


mamiel said...

Gus sounds like a victim of Stockholm syndrome.

I am very glad you posted this topic. I have seen and read pagan defenders of Christianity before, mostly on discussion boards. They are often from the south and I feel they are also victims of Stockholm syndrome.

As for the lasting inequality caused by Christian zeal, one only has to go to Guatemala to witness it. The Spanish Christians set up a feudal system there and it is still very much alive. Tens of thousands of Mayans hoping to change that system were massacred in the 1980's. Rigoberta Menchu's autobiography gives a good idea of what the Indians there endure.

I like to watch Hitchens on you tube and honestly, I feel he's got my back more than anyone famous for being a Christian. If I were raped and had to go to a rape crises center for treatment, who do you think I would prefer to deal with there- an atheist or a Christian? You bet I'd put myself in the hands of an atheist rather than deal with a Christian and the possibility of being the victim of their "pelvic obsessions" and possible denial of a day-after birth control treatment to appease their Galilean lord.

When I bring these things up I am accused of trying to tie paganism to the mast of the leftist ship. Maybe they are right- I am left-leaning so maybe my admiration of atheists is more cultural than anything- I admire their pleas for sanity in the area of public health and education, for example.It's not my conscious intention to try to force a leftist agenda by joining with atheism so sorry if my rape scenario came off that way.

At any rate, it's a discussion I really like to have and I think it's important for us to question how we perceive atheism. thanks for the post.

Gus said...

I suggest readers of this diatribe read my post, because you won't recognize it here. I sure don't.

Nor am I a Pagan defender of Christianity - try reading my books on the subject.

This diatribe was also apparently written without attending to the discussion that followed, which includ just that part of MacMullen's work cited here. As a mmatter of fact I like MacMullen, have for over 20 years, and he in no way detracts from the carefully qualified argument I made.

One quick comment though. I did not grudgingly grant anything to Classical Pagan philosophers such as the Stoics, I praised them (I prefer many of them, especially Plotinus and Iamblichus, to and Christian writer of note) and said that classical society was so dependent on slavery their words had little impact. Not none, little.

When economic development reached a point where slavery could be abolished, as a matter of historical fact it was done for religiously inspired reasons, using Christian terminology, even as others used Christian terminology to defend slavery.

That was my great praise. I personally considered it a take down on arguments by Christians taking credit for the idea of equality. But I guess for that to be perceived one had to read with at least a partially open mind.

If you want to rebut me more, I suggest also doing so on my blog, where I will address your arguments if you try and actually deal with what I wrote.

mamiel said...

Couldn't the anti-slavery movement be more attributable to Romanticism and romantic ideals? The idea that we are all born perfect (rather than wicked and evil) is an idea from the romantics. I think the popularity of romantic ideals is what turned the tide against slavery--people just used the Christian language to better sell the idea.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

"Stockholm syndrome" is a little harsh. Oh, but wait, some of the stuff I said is pretty harsh, too!

1700 years is a long time to toil under "mental slavery", as Bob Marley calls it in Redemption Song. And as he also points out "none but ourselves can free our minds".

There will always be those who internalize their oppression and end up identifying with their own oppressors.