Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for September 2017

Sep/17

20

Palmyra’s Earlier Attackers

From The Spectator, a review of a new book, The Darkening Age, on Christianity’s early centuries.  I haven’t read the book itself (it’s not out in this country until next year), but judging by the review  it looks interesting, no least for the light it throws on the Christian cult of suffering, something still all too evident today in the widespread opposition—across denominations—to assisted suicide.

In the late years of [the Roman] Empire, and early days of Christianity, there were monks who didn’t wash for fear of being overcome by lust at the sight of their own bodies. Some concealed their nakedness in outfits woven from palm fronds. One designed a leather suit that also covered his head. There were holes for his mouth and nose, but not, apparently, his eyes.

There was a monk who spent three years with a stone in his mouth to remind him not to speak. Another wept so hard, his tears dug a hollow in his chest. There were those who went about on all fours. St Anthony, one of the founders of monasticism, chose to make his home in a pigsty. St Simeon Stylites stood on a pillar for 37 years until his feet burst open.

In the reviewer’s  opinion  this shows that “Christianity is a fundamentally masochistic religion”. Despite the cult of suffering (which is real enough) and the behavior of more recent grotesques such as Jean Vianney, that’s too simplistic, but this caught my eye:

[Christianity’s] self-punishing characteristics are a particular product of time and place: not only a reaction against Roman decadence but also, as Catherine Nixey points out in her clever, compelling book The Darkening Age, a response to the end of imperial persecution. The theory goes that, after the Empire adopted Christianity, some felt nostalgic for the enlivening fear of martyrdom, and compensated by metaphorically martyring themselves. This, then, is the essence of asceticism. It was a syndrome that St Jerome dubbed ‘white martyrdom’, to distinguish it from the red kind, which got you killed in front of a baying, paying crowd.

And then there was this (my emphasis added):

Nixey’s book presents the progress of Christianity as a triumph only in the military sense of a victory parade. Culturally, it was genocide: a kind of anti-Enlightenment, a darkening, during which, while annihilating the old religions, the rampaging evangelists carried out ‘the largest destruction of art that human history had ever seen’. This certainly isn’t the history we were taught in Sunday school. Readers raised in the milky Anglican tradition will be surprised to learn of the savagery of the early saints and their sledgehammer-swinging followers.

Here are some darkening dates: 312, the Emperor Constantine converts, after Christianity helps him defeat his enemies; 330, Christians begin desecrating pagan temples; 385, Christians sack the temple of Athena at Palmyra, decapitating the goddess’s statue; 392, Bishop Theophilus destroys the temple of Serapis in Alexandria; 415, the Greek mathematician Hypatia is murdered by Christians; 529, the Emperor Justinian bans non-Christians from teaching; 529, the Academy in Athens closes its doors, concluding a 900-year philosophical tradition…

It’s important not to be tempted into facile point-scoring comparisons between the Christians of the 4th Century and ISIS in the 21st. Nevertheless else, that ancient Christian attack on the temple of Athena is (yet) another reminder that the God of the Middle Eastern monotheisms is a jealous god, and thus someone who could not be added with any ease into the (fairly) relaxed polytheism of the Classical era.

Gibbon  (From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

The refusal to play according to the rules  of that system goes, I imagine, a long way to explaining the persecution of the  early Church.

It’s also something of a mild corrective to the praise for the (not undeserved) praise for those monks who “saved civilization”. Their coreligionists destroyed quite a  bit of it too.

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Sep/17

11

A Note on the Religious Test Clause

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution provides that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The confirmation wars and culture wars of the past couple of decades have led to a lot of misunderstanding of this passage. This 2006 piece by law professor Paul Horwitz is a good place to start in clearing things up.

Contrary to some imaginings, the No Religious Test clause does not require a President to take no notice of the religious views of a person seeking appointment to public office. Nor does it require a Senator to set aside any notice of whether a nominee is of any particular sect (or a religious non-believer or follower of Scientology) in voting for or against confirmation. Nor — to take an even more extreme claim — does it mean that members of the electorate somehow violate the constitution when as voters they take account of candidates’ religious views.

Instead, the clause prohibits laws that would bar persons from serving in federal office unless they pledge fealty to a religious tenet. It is linked in its placement in Article VI to the preceding Oaths Clause. (It is also the only mention of religion in the originally enacted Constitution.)

It is true, as Horwitz argues, that constitutional etiquette and a due regard for pluralism may have evolved into a strong and valuable public norm here even if they do not provide a right enforceable by courts. And overstepping this norm may provide a good reason to criticize a public figure who seems to hold a certain nominee’s religion against him or her. In a more recent post, Horwitz applies those standards to the recent controversy over Sens. Dianne Feinstein’s and Dick Durbin’s comments and finds that Feinstein’s and especially Durbin’s remarks do not come off well.

Each of us should remember that however we choose to interpret the clause, that interpretation will inevitably protect appointees of exactly that strain of religious belief or unbelief we like least.

For a somewhat contrasting view, see this Harvard Law Review student note from 2007, which argues that while the President is generally in the clear when taking an interest in nominees’ religion, Senators may not be during hearings because the nominee has been placed under oath and that (the author argues) is too close to the historic abuse, at which the clause was aimed, of requiring sworn religious oaths.

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Sep/17

7

The Transhumanist ‘Threat’

The Jesuits’ America magazine is a somewhat overwrought publication, and a recent article (“Who’s afraid of Transhumanism? (We all should be)”) it ran on the ‘threat’ posed by ‘Transhumanism’ was no exception. If I had to guess, Transhumanism, a fancy word for an over-excited philosophy and technologies that have yet to exist, will turn into something largely prosaic: Continuous, often undramatic improvement.

This is a concept  that, back in the day, management consultants used to call ‘Kaizen’ for the reason that it was thought to be one of the many secret sauces in Japan’s postwar economic boom. It also sounded more sophisticated with a Japanese name, however inaccurately used  (in reality ‘Kaizen’ means any sort of improvement, continuous or otherwise).

Applied to our species, Kaizen could involve pharmaceuticals, elective surgery, some (who knows?) six million man dollar style upgrades and, yes, a spot of genetic engineering.   Nothing much to worry about, in other words.

It is when we turn away from the objections that the author of the article, John Conley, a priest and an academic, has to some of the loopier aspects of Transhumanism (a sort of Ayn Rand plus plus philosophy) to the core of his argument, that a  familiar picture emerges, that of the glorification of suffering as a positive good. This is a morbid outgrowth of the Christian tradition that can, as I noted here, be detected in other areas, such as in some of the opposition to assisted suicide.

Conley asks:

Why would we want to abolish aging and dying, essential constituents of the human drama, the fountainhead of our art and literature?

Why would we not (although I doubt that we  will get there any time soon – if ever)?

A  few years back I posted an extract from an article by New Yorker writer Aleksander Hemon, whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 9 months old. The terribly bereaved father had this to say:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.

Quite

And the idea that by killing off death or ‘abolishing’ aging, we would kill off art and literature, is a curious one. Art would doubtless change as the ‘human drama’ changed, but the idea that artistic expression would wither away when we did not is ludicrous. Mankind is a creative species. The spirit of Lascaux is not so easily extinguished.

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