Subject: Re: Whither Religion Summary: Why I would feel sorry for our descendants. Date: 1

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Path: ncsuvm!ncsuvx!mephisto!emory!swrinde!cs.utexas.edu!turpin From: turpin@cs.utexas.edu (Russell Turpin) Newsgroups: talk.religion.misc Subject: Re: Whither Religion Summary: Why I would feel sorry for our descendants. Message-ID: <7557@cs.utexas.edu> Date: 11 Jan 90 21:22:33 GMT References: <5322.25a99d53@jane.uh.edu> Organization: U. Texas CS Dept., Austin, Texas Lines: 228 In article <5322.25a99d53@jane.uh.edu>, chee1a1@jane.uh.edu writes: > Religion is good as far as it brings happiness and solutions to the > millions of problems mankind is facing and religion should be a personal > matter rather than a world or international movement. ... At one point, I commented that if there were a resurgence of religion in the centuries to come, then I would feel sorry for our descendants. Mr Wingate wanted to know why, and in the context of the above post, I will give a quick answer. (1) Looking Back As the lapel button reads: There was a time when religion ruled the earth: it was known as the dark ages. Now admittedly the dark ages were not as dark as many people think, and "medieval Europe" is a broad net that covers many very different times and places. The Merovingian court was very different from Essex under Viking rule. On the other hand, in my opinion, these ages were dark in several regards, often having to do with religion. War: It would be facile to blame religion for all the medieval wars and Crusades that ostensibly had religious causes. Most likely, many of these wars would have been fought anyway. But religion is a great motivator. Before the spread of transcendent religions, one had to motivate the ordinary man to fight through promise of rewards (the loot of conquest or regular pay), the threat of disaster ("the Persians are coming" or the lack of land to farm), or from group pride. The spread of Christianity and then Islam moved the weighing of risk and benefits from those that are present in the here and now, to the promise of heavenly reward or hellish punishment. You ask: > Why some people trying to convert others into their own religion > by any means(whether it involves killing or destruction or bribes) > while they themseleves have not found peace and happiness within? This perverts how the traditional western religions have been viewed through most of their history. The idea that religion's purpose is "peace and happiness" within is perhaps appropriate to certain Eastern religions, and has become a major theme in the west in the last century or two. But this is recent history. Millions of Moslem soldiers have died knowing that heavenly reward awaits the valiant soldier on a Jihhad. Hundred of thousands of crusaders thought they were fighting for Jesus (as well as conquest). The issue was not "peace and happiness" in mortal life, but heaven or hell in the afterlife. As I said, it would be a mistake to blame religion for war. On the other hand, it is not hard to argue that a broad and popular focus on the afterlife rather than life on earth, which is expected to be full of turmoil and suffering, encourages people to make decisions which result in more of that turmoil and suffering ... when viewed from the earthly rather than heavenly perspective. Poverty: The Old Testament forbids one to lend money at interest. This is known as usury, and the Church enforced this restriction during the dark ages. Given that most history classes do not dwell much on economics, it may not be widely known that the ability to borrow capital is essential to building any kind of complex economy. Given the importance of investing saved funds, medieval society developed two ways around the ban on usury. (1) The Schoolmen analyzed the components of interest, and decided that things such as risk and opportunity costs did not "really" count as usury. (Now that was a fancy bit of exegesis!) (2) The ban only applied to Christians loaning money to Christians. Jews could loan money to Christians without running into trouble with the Church. This loophole allowed much economic activity that otherwise would have been forgone, but it (and other religious strictures on doing business) pushed Jews into a special economic role, and this drew them apart as a group which became an easy target in times of trouble. Both of these exceptions were made much easier for a prince who wanted to borrow funds to raise an army than for a mundane activity that might actually improve people's lives, such as a tradesman borrowing to expand his shop. It was not until the Italian states decided to just ignore the ban on usury and permit widespread money lending that serious economic growth made possible the renaissance. Obviously, religious strictures were not the only reasons for poverty (often to the point of famine!) in medieval Europe, but the ban on usury, the idea of a "just" price, and the social attitude toward merchants and businessmen -- all of which stemmed from medieval Christianity -- were important ingredients in the economic porridge. By the way, the special role assigned to Jews in the medieval economy formed a flavor of anti-semitism that was influential well into this century. In the early part of this century, Jewish "bankers and merchants" were frequently blamed and scapegoated for economic troubles. This theme is strong in the Nazi writings. These attitudes toward Jews would have been very different if the medieval Church had not religiously guided economic practice. I will let you decide to what extend that answers your other question: > What role did religion play in shaping up the events that led to > the destructive World War II? Science and the Arts: Well, this is why the historians, who were after all academics, originally saw it as the dark ages. We are all taught in elementary school that the monks preserved the writings of the ancients. Well, bunk. They preserved the ones that they thought were worthwhile, and the Church said what was worthwhile. It is sad but true that the vast majority of ancient writings are lost forever. The Bible, hundreds of hymns, and thousands of religious homilies were copied and transcribed tens of thousands of times while the last remnants of Greek plays, philosophy, and history turned to dust. Nor was it just a matter of neglect. After Constantine, the Church actively rooted out and burned "heretical" and dangerous works. (This tradition goes way back.) We are supposed to thank the Christian clerics for preserving some ancient writings, but this begs the question of who might have preserved them if the whole world had not turned Christian? And would we now have more that has been lost? (Actually, we have a partial answer to that question. Moslem culture, which was flourishing precisely at the time that Europe was in the doldrums, saved a lot of ancient writings that would have otherwise disappeared forever. Unfortunately, the Abbasids and others were late comers on the scenes, and by their time much had already been lost, and they did not have access to most of what probably remained.) Obviously, there are no sure answers to these questions, but when one realizes that the Domesday book and the Book of Bede were the west European historical highlights within a span of centuries, it is no secret why historians started calling this the dark ages. The light had gone out. (2) The Supposed Good of Religion Supposedly, Christianity mellowed the coarse attitudes of the pagans. It would be hard to tell this by looking at history. Serfdom was different as an economic practice than the slaves that the Romans used, but it is not clear that this was a great advance for most serfs until political advances occured in the latter half of the middle ages. Christians did not abstain from torture; indeed, the Christian church tortured people to save their souls. The masses did not watch lions eat prisoners for entertainment, but there was a witch-burning craze for a couple of centuries, and personally, if I had to choose between death by munching or death by fire, I'd take munching. The middle ages were not known for the humane attitude with which people generally treated each other. Humanistic values did not start their broad rise toward acceptance in the west until the last couple of centuries. Undoubtedly, Christianity had some role to play in this, but it is not the clear causal role most Christians think. For example, many American fire-eaters were motivated by their religion, but on the other hand, more than a proportionate number of them were unorthodox or even atheistic in their beliefs, such as Garrison and Spooner. Often, religion was fought as much as it was behind such progress, though it always tried to claim credit in hindsight. I have no doubt that fifty years from now there will be Christians who claim credit for religion in the change in sexual attitudes that has occured over the past fifty years. (3) Looking Forward If looking back tempts one to play the game of "what would have been", looking forward tempts one to play the game of "what if". It is always easy to imagine counter-intuitive results. (*If* the cold war had resulted in nuclear holocaust, and *if* this would have been avoided had Hitler won, then Allied success in WW II was unfortunate.) This is a bad way to play the game. One must acknowledge that we go into the future with insufficient knowledge, and can never know what all the results of our decisions and actions will be. Within these constraints, the best one can do is to try and analyze causes through the past and present, and use one's understanding to guide decisions about the future. Perhaps the major objection to religion is that to the extent it guides our analysis of the past and present, it almost always distorts it. Until the enlightenment, loaning money at interest was viewed right down there with sacrilege. It was not until the beginning of economic thought that people discovered the ties between savings, borrowing, and investment, and that loaning money at interest was *essential* to economic growth. (There is always a tendency to belittle economic growth until one realizes that this abstraction refers to concrete things like enough food to eat, available medical care, etc. It is economic growth that has driven the pale riders of famine and plague from the west, and this was in spite of religion.) A second objection is that to the extent that religion affects our dreams of the future, they become warped. Even if one carried modern economic knowledge back to the schoolmen, then would spurn it, because "some things are more important than how things go here on earth". The idea that nations could thrive without periodic famine, and such wealth was possible that the common man would worry about what to do with his free time, was completely beyond the medieval mindset. Even if they could have imagined these things, would they have found them good? One does not have to go back to the middle ages to see this religious influence. Modern issues such as control over procreation, the evolving structure of the family, the ability to choose a humane death in the face of terminal disease, the potential to extend life, etc, are all frequently discussed in the context of religious biases. In many people, I see very little advance over the Schoolmen. Their concerns are not real misery and real felicity in our lives, but a supposed transcendent god who imposes an absolute ethic related not to mortal well-being, but to a supposed afterlife or communion with god or "internal peace". (4) In Closing This has not been a well-formed posting, and I have rambled more than is my custom. Let me turn the question around. Given the past history of religions, why should anyone think that they provide a solution to real problems of earthly life? Russell

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