Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Liberte, Egalite, Apoplexie

I admit it. I got a little bent out of shape when I read what Gus DiZerega had to say about Atheists, Christians, and Pagans. Here's why:

(1) In any context I would consider it a grotesque distortion of the last 1700 years of human history to proclaim that Christianity should be credited for the promotion of the ideal of human equality.*

(2) This distortion is especially egregious when it comes from a Pagan, that is, a follower of a religious tradition that every major sect of Christianity has done everything in its power to wipe off the face of the earth. While it would be very difficult to find any religion anywhere that Christianity has not sought to "extirpate", as the Christians themselves have historically put it, Pagans can claim pride of place as the first religious tradition to be so honored.

(3) But to say this and then add to it an indictment of Paganism itself (coming from a Pagan!) for our supposed failures and deficiencies with respect to human equality, well, that, as the saying goes, takes the freaking cake. As a matter of fact, our modern conceptions of democracy, freedom of speech, justice, equality, and compassion, as well as our notions of the republican form of government and "the rule of law" in a constitutional system, all derive from Pagan Greco-Roman antecedents.

The reason I am bringing this up now is because of a wonderful post over at Impotent Rage on the proposal by some Christian fundamentalists to make 2010 the "Year of the Bible". In that post is an extended quote from Michael Lind's April 14th piece titled America is not a Christian Nation, in which Lind puts the lie to the claim that the ideas behind phrases such as "we hold these truths to be self evident" and "all men are created equal" are somehow inspired by or based on Christian theology.

As Lind rightly points out, and as Guz diZerega as a scholar of politics and history should certainly be aware, "the actual intellectual roots of the Declaration of Independence" are to be found "in Greek philosophy and Roman law", not in the Old and New Testaments.

Some closing thoughts from old Tom Paine:
Some Christians pretend that Christianity was not established by the sword; but of what period of time do they speak? It was impossible that twelve men could begin with the sword: they had not the power; but no sooner were the professors of Christianity sufficiently powerful to employ the sword than they did so, and the stake and faggot too; and Mahomet could not do it sooner. By the same spirit that Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant (if the story be true) he would cut off his head, and the head of his master, had he been able....

Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.
The Age of Reason,
Thomas Paine, 1796
[* This is not to deny the contributions to social justice made by individual Christians, but diZerega specifically said that Christianity itself as a religious tradition is to be singled out (from among all the religions of the world) and credited with the "ideal of human equality". In any event my negative assessment of Christianity's net "contributions" to humanity is no more extreme than that of Thomas Paine or Bertrand Russell.]


James Robert French said...

Oy! That article is nearly as bad as the "where are your soup kitchens" argument one often hears from fundies. Gus has been associating with these people far too long...

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Yeah - in fact the "Christians invented democracy and equality" routine is just one of many similar lies that one hears. There's the "Christians invented charity", the "Christians invented morality", the "Christians invented reason", even that "Christians invented religion (with maybe a little help from the Jews)"!

Hylomorphic said...

About the only such statement that I could get behind might be "Christians invented the separation of church and state."

Which is to some extent true. The distinction between "secular" and religious power came out of the uneasy balance of power worked out between the post-Imperial kings of Europe and the Church. The presence of verses like "Render unto Caesar" made it easier, I suspect, for the Church to accede to the arrangement.

One might also make the case that Christianity was inadvertently responsible for the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Had the Church not oppressed freedom of thought so harshly, the backlash may not have had such tremendous energy and vitality.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Christians did not really invent the separation of the church and state - but they did create the need for it.

Separation of church and state was strongly opposed by the Catholic Church the Orthodox Church and the main Protestant sects. The supporters of the separation were mostly non-Christian: deists, atheists, whatever. Most European countries never really adopted the idea of separation and state.

And the scientific advances of the 16th-17th centuries (the so-called "scientific revolution") were pioneered by people, like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who were strongly influenced and guided by Hermeticism and Pythagoreanism.

Hylomorphic said...

Let me be a bit more clear about what I mean when I speak of "separation of church and state." I do not mean religious freedom. I simply mean that the State is to be treated as a different sphere of authority than the Church.

This is in distinction to pre-Christian religion, in which the State is in fact a religious entity. The upholding of the Pax Deorum by the Roman Empire is an example of what I mean. The Emperor of pre-Christian Rome was Pontifex Maximus. After the rise to dominance of Christianity, the Pope was Pontifex Maximus, while the "Emperor" was a separate figure entirely. (Beginning with Charlemagne, at least.)

This distinction was first explicitly articulated by Pope Boniface VIII, who set down the "two swords" doctrine--Christ carries two swords, one being the Church, and the other being the State, with the Church having a somewhat superior position hierarchically (that is, having having the right to intervene in the State's business at least sometimes). Ironically enough, though Boniface intended this articulation to give dominance to the Church, through the fact of this distinction the Church was reduced to a shadow of its former political power.

"And the scientific advances of the 16th-17th centuries (the so-called "scientific revolution") were pioneered by people, like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who were strongly influenced and guided by Hermeticism and Pythagoreanism."

Certainly. And had the Church not opposed such ideas by attempting to cram Scholasticism down everyone's throats, perhaps the counter-reaction would not have been so strong.

Though one has to give staunchly anti-Pythagorean thinkers like Descartes and Boyle their due, as well.