From: email@example.com (Russell Turpin)
Subject: Re: Whither Religion
Summary: Why I would feel sorry for our descendants.
Date: 11 Jan 90 21:22:33 GMT
Organization: U. Texas CS Dept., Austin, Texas
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com 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
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
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
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
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?