Sunday, January 04, 2009

It's a Wonderful Life

Christopher Hitchens and Ross Douthat ponder a Yuletide scenario about how the world would be different had a certain man never been born, but in place of the fictional George Bailey they put the historical Jesus. How different would the world be had Christianity never taken root? Hitchens answered that the great philosophical trends of history would still be in play:
If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth.

Ross offers a contrary claim, that Christianity brought into the world a way of thinking that could not have been obtainable otherwise:
The Christian story is not, for instance, a theological or philosophical treatise. It's not a set of commands or insights about our moral duties. Nor is it a road map to the good life. It has implications for all of those questions, obviously; certainly, Jesus of Nazareth wasn't exactly silent on "the concept of justice" during his lifetime, and Christians have been deriving theologies, philosophies and codes of conduct from his example ever since. But fundamentally, the Christian story is evidence for a particular idea about the universe: It recounts a series of events that, if real, tells us something profound about the nature of God, and His relationship to His creatures, that we couldn't have been expected to understand or accept in precisely the same way without the Gospel narratives.

Of course a philosopher could have come up with the formulation that God is Love without the assistance of the Gospel According to Saint John, just as Aristarchus of Samos could draw up the heliocentric hypothesis without the assistance of a telescope. But the telescope made a pretty big difference in our understanding of the heavens - and the Gospels, with their claim to bring the nature of God into clearer focus, likewise had a revolutionary impact on how human beings thought about the divine, by making the idea that the Author of the universe actually cares about individual human lives seem much more plausible to first hundreds, then thousands and then millions of people than it had before the evangelists put pen to paper. And just as we would be in a rather different position vis-a-vis our understanding of the universe if all our astronomical evidence were suddenly discredited, the conclusive discrediting of the Gospels would almost certainly provoke a slow-moving revolution in how the world approaches the idea of God.

I'm really not sure what Ross is getting at. He's saying that the idea of God as promulgated by Christianity is a unique event in world philosophy, but I'm left feeling it is a distinction without a lot of difference. No doubt the world would have followed a different path without Christianity, but I'm wondering if it would have been qualitatively different.

I'm even questioning the uniqueness of the Christian idea of God. Contra Douthat, many earlier religious traditions (Mithras/Zoroastrianism) have portrayed a suffering god. Egyptian mythology tells the story of Osiris, a god who died and was resurrected:
A god of the earth and vegetation, Osiris symbolized in his death the yearly drought and in his miraculous rebirth the periodic flooding of the Nile and the growth of grain. He was a god-king who was believed to have given Egypt civilization.

The Christian idea of a suffering god is not unique, it is an archetype.

In the end it is impossible to determine how an alternate history would have panned out. I go on the contention that human social potentiality is constrained by, and generated from, basic human psychology. There are only so many forms that society can take, and given time human history will uncover them all. I fail to see anything attained by "Christian"* civilization that could not have been obtainable without Christian theology.

* I've quoted Christian because what we call Christian civilization is the result of many influences predating or originating outside of purely Christian thought or tradition for which Christianity unfairly takes credit. As with a patrilineal geneaology, only a tiny percentage of an individual's genetic makeup comes from the line of descent of the men with whom one shares a surname.


Blogger Susan's Husband said...

I think things would have turned out very differently and far less to the liking of people like Dawkins.

One of the key points of Judaism is the concept of the universe as a place of law, not a place driven by the whims of various deities. That's central to the eventual emergence of science. What Christianity did was to invent prosleytization and apply that to Judaism. Absent Christianity I suspect that you would have seen things much more like Islam, which have a basic orientation (everything that happens is a direct result of Allah's will) that conditions against scientific thinking, or Buddhism where the existing order of material things is to be accepted, not over turned.

January 04, 2009 12:59 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The important changes happened right around 1600. There seems no reason to think that they could not have happened elsewhere and othertime, but they didn't.

So maybe they couldn't have.

I suspect the key difference is that Jews argued with god. I don't think any other religion allowed for that.

Eventually -- it took a looong time -- God, being nonexistent, had to lose that argument.

January 04, 2009 1:19 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

One of the key points of Judaism is the concept of the universe as a place of law, not a place driven by the whims of various deities.

I don't buy that at all. How does the OT reflect the universe as a place of laws? Was Sodom & Goomorrah destroyed by universal laws, or by God's wrath? Were the seven plagues on Egypt the result of laws or whims?

January 04, 2009 4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fail to see anything attained by "Christian"* civilization that could not have been obtainable without Christian theology.

OK, let's see:

"I fail to see anything attained by America (freedom, prosperity, democracy, strength, resilience) that could not have been attainable without the Founding Fathers, the Declaration and the Consitution."

"I fail to see anything attained by Jews (survival, separateness, scholarship, family, modesty, success, equality) that could not have been attained without the Patriarchs."

"I fail to see anything attained by ancient Greece (philosophy, sculpture, sports, civic democracy and government, literature, drama) that could not have been attained without the Pantheon."

"I fail to see anything attained by Rome (law, stoicism, government, engineering, domestic life, imperium) that could not have been attained without their Greek paganism."

Doesn't really work, does it? Either that or it doesn't mean anything.

January 04, 2009 6:29 PM  
Blogger Barry Meislin said...

Jews (by the way) argue with everybody.... And while it is indeed possible that God "lost the argument" because He doesn't exist, I would prefer to believe He lost it because He's a lousy debater (as are most All-Powerful beings).

If the Bible you bought only came with seven plagues, I'd return it forthwith and demand a refund (unless of course you stole it, and your guilty subconscious---subconscience?---was channeling the seven deadlies....)

As for Christopher Hitchens, he appears to be debating how many non-angels can't dance on the head of a pin.

(And I've always wondered what would have happened had I been born an octpus instead of a hairless biped on the cusp between Gemini and Cancer---though leaning towards Cancer---as for which house, it's none of your business!)

Sigh.... It all seems so juvenile.

You're right, Peter, it is essentially meaningless, absurd speculation only valuable to the extent that it might shed light on religion's achievements and failings (and perhaps useful, too, as an exercise in speculating on what might or mightn't have been---to sharpen one's powers of fantasizing. A game. Entertainment.).

January 05, 2009 5:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barry, the Duckians are nothing if not thoroughly modern. Old style secular materialists used to argue that the pros of Christianity/religion were outweighed by the cons and then trembled at the fearsome implications of trying to live without it. The modern sort seems hellbent on proving that there were no pros at all and that Christianity was some kind of tragic Gothic detour on the straight road from the ancient to the modern. Not for them the horrors of standing alone and naked before the existential abyss. Like Dawkins, they hold fiercely to the creed that all the good things in life came our way in spite of religion (especially monotheism--the nostalgic yearning for paganism has to be the best proof than modern man slowly going crazy) or in opposition to it and that if they could only rid the world of its pernicious influence, we could all keep on enjoying the good life in peace and harmony, but without terrorists and irksome televangelists and with a lot more great sex.

It seems clear to me that without Christianity there would have been no individual/civil rights, freedoms of speech, religion, conscience, separation of church and state, anti-slavery, liberal democracy, feminism, human rights, socialism, aboriginal rights, scientific inquiry and possibly not even monogamy, never mind all the art, poetry, literature and music. Oh, and no America either. But you won't get anywhere arguing that around here. Indeed, before I leave this vale of tears, I fully expect to see Harry argue that the Catherdral at Chartres expresses the revolt of individual secularism against religious tyranny and is a monument to free inquiry grounded in disinterested, testable observations unfettered by superstition and priestly dogma.

January 05, 2009 7:01 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Oh, no, you won't see me making that argument. My architectural history prof. Larry Wodehouse, pointed out that the cathedral at Chartres was built by a community with about the same population as Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.

On the other hand, my prof of English constitutional history pointed out that he'd never been colder in his life than during services in the cathedral at Edinburgh.

As a materialist, I'd rather see effort put into central heating. I can live without statues.

But I'm puzzled by your remark about monogamy. The Japanese, for example, are monogamous without Chritianity; and they managed the trick without forcing large fractions of their women into celibacy.

January 05, 2009 9:02 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 05, 2009 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's interesting, Harry. Here is a shot of Chartres and here is one of its counterparts in Fuquay-Varina. Guess which one has statues and which one has central heating? As Mom always says, you can't stop progress.

January 05, 2009 9:54 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Hitchens has lost sight of his own argument, part of which is, very roughly, this: our desire to explain is so great, and, until very recently, our ability to do so has been so limited that supernatural religion of one sort or another was inevitable.

I think it is essentially a done deal that the official (which is to say, the original textual) stories of monotheism are, now, utterly discredited. However, just as with evolution, there is no getting from there to here without all the steps in between.

I am with AOG on this: ... things would have turned out very differently and far less to the liking of people like Dawkins if some other religion than Christianity had taken hold in Europe.

Hinduism, say. Or Islam, whose main defect is not its monotheism, but rather to Mohammed being a general, king, and prophet. As a consequence, Islam has tended towards totalitarian and fatalistic rigidity.

In other words, overweening religion was inevitable. Given that, one can only choose from what is on offer. From that menu, Christianity, while far from friendly, was least hostile to the kinds of thinking and ideas that made the Reformation and Enlightenment possible.

Which means I also agree with Peter. It is very easy to point out the pure theological bloody mindedness, and wholesale slaughter, that came along with the Reformation. It should also be just as easy to point out, though, that much, if not all, of Jesus's preaching did embody a fundamentally different way of looking at the human condition.

All of this is somewhat paradoxical. I pretty much agree that without Christianity there would have been no individual/civil rights, freedoms of speech, religion, conscience, separation of church and state, anti-slavery, liberal democracy, feminism, human rights, socialism, aboriginal rights, scientific inquiry and possibly not even monogamy .... Yet that cannot be said without also recognizing Christianity was, at one time, inimically hostile to everything on that list (monogamy excepted).

At the risk of speaking for others, what has gotten the "Duckians", and Hitchens / Harris / Dawkins et al going is fundamentalist Islam. We presume that Islam's metaphysical claims, and nearly everything that flows from them, are simply wrong. However, it is impossible to reach that conclusion from a sectarian viewpoint. Disputing Islamic metaphysics is impossible without disputing all religious metaphysics.

So, I agree with Peter here: any religion other than Christianity would have greatly delayed, if not completely prevented, all the Enlightenment values we now take for granted.

What's more, modern Christianity in no meaningful way subverts, and might even support, those values.

The problem, though, for those who believe religious belief is essential to a healthy society, is how to maintain that belief while contesting the Islamic assertions that are so deeply antithetical to a healthy society.

Hitchens has lost sight of that.

(BTW -- I deleted Harry's post because it was a duplicate.)

January 05, 2009 10:07 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The people who carved the statues also enjoyed roasting cats alive, so while I will cheerfully admit their spirituality, it's gonna be a harder sell on their humanity.

I'd rather have central heating.

(That's a recent picture of religion in Fuquay-Varina, which is now a comparatively wealthy suburb of Raleigh. In 1967, religion in the town was represented by a much humbler structure and by a corrugated metal sign on the outskirts of the village that had originally read, on each side, 'Get right with God.'

Somebody, presumably Stu and Phil, had changed it to read 'Get right with Stu' and 'Get right with Phil.'

The sign was never repaired during the 10 years I passed it. Compared with medieval Chartres, Fuquay-Varina in the 1960s was a civilized place.

January 05, 2009 5:02 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


What makes you think that the only alternatives would be one of the other current world religions? Western thought got its start under paganism. I've yet to be convinced that western thought could have not made it to where it is today under paganism, or told me what it is/was about paganism that would make freedom of speech or antislavery out of the question. I'm not even convinced that we aren't experiencing the early moments of a widespread pagan revival.

Christianity has shown itself to be flexible enough to be compatible with slavery and antislavery, free speech and rigid censorship, representative democracy and tyrannical theocracy, womens rights and the subjugation of women. Why wouldn't paganism be just as flexible?

January 05, 2009 7:46 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The Greek thinkers who laid the groundwork for modernism don't seem to have been pagans, they apparently were radically irreligious.

Their society, though, pretty much ignored them and went on without them until suppressed militarily. Robin Lane Fox thoroughly debunks (in 'Pagans and Christians') the notion that pagans willingly converted. They were happy as pagans.

It seems that Roman militarism ruined whatever opportunities there were for a seamless and quick transition from Greek skepticism to modernity, and did it twice.

Basically, until you free your thinking from authority, you aren't going to become modern. Not even (as Islam today demonstrates) if modernity is lying on the table waiting to be picked up. You sure aren't going to invent it.

It's the difference between Kepler, who was a mysic, and Galileo, who was a materialist.

Kepler was correct, but he didn't know why. Galileo was the first man to know something definite about the world and know how he knew and know why he knew how.

Everything else is Billy Graham.

January 06, 2009 12:03 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


What makes you think that the only alternatives would be one of the other current world religions?

Because I think evolution explains all recursive (in the sense that the outputs of one pass through the system are, with variation, the inputs of the next pass) systems.

Consequently, it is impossible -- pointless, even -- to speculate how western civilization would have turned out had paganism rather than Christianity ruled the pulpit. Similarly, while the octopus eye is built right way around, there is hardly anything to be gained from pondering how human society would be different if our eyes were similarly constructed.

Additionally, it is worth noting that, SFAIK, there is no pagan society that has developed anything like Western civilization has. Consequently, at the level of a very simplistic first order analysis, history would appear to have passed its verdict: paganism isn't very fertile ground for what we now consider Enlightenment ideals.

Interestingly, though, this focus on religion probably accords it more weight than it perhaps deserves. China invented many things long before Europe did, but capitalized on none of them. Focussing on religion risks ignoring other important differences: absence of suffocating central authority in Europe, an alphabetic rather than pictographic written language (consider how game changing printing was in Europe, but not in China), a lingua franca imposed over regional languages, or even the English Channel.

As opposed to OJ, for whom religion is a hammer and the sole inhabitant of his tool box, I think all these things indispensable, because without any one of them, the evolution of Western civilization would have been fundamentally different.

So, I'm not saying paganism couldn't; rather, it didn't. Anywhere. Nor does it follow that Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, et al cannot. However, it is safe to say they did not.

That is why I agree with Peter on this. There are clearly elements about Christianity that make it significantly different than any other religion. Just as clearly, no other religion has ever been part of a society that led anywhere near the path of Western Civ.

So, contra Hitchens, I think Christianity just as indispensable as the English Channel in getting us where we are. Whether Christianity, or any other religion, is similarly indispensable in the future is a more open question.

Given the nature of the beast, I think, for most, some magical belief comes with the territory; given that we can only pick from the options on offer, I pick modern Christianity.

January 06, 2009 5:13 PM  
Blogger Barry Meislin said...

Well, it's impossible to know for sure....

As for me, I think the key reason for Christianity's ascendance is its officially declared separation of state and religious power---you know, the "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and Render unto God what is God's" thing.

Not that that always worked out the way it may have been supposed to....

But that's revolutionary stuff---ultimately enabling people to imagine a religion, even a state religion, as separate from the governing power---and I'm not sure any other religious culture was able to even articulate such a leap.

(Of course, one wonders if anything along these lines would have happened if there hadn't been a Reformation---i.e., would Catholicism have been able to effectively separate Church and State?)

FYI, Spengler has some interesting, as usual, things to say, even if he crams quite a bit too much into his column.

January 06, 2009 10:03 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'd say Buddhism did a better job of separating state from religion than Christianity ever did.

January 06, 2009 10:36 PM  
Blogger Barry Meislin said...

Er yes, but there's a word for that, two actually:

Extreme fatalism.

(As in, "instant extreme fatalism's gonna get you"?...)

And I'm not sure how India's increasing wealth (all things being relative) is going to be able to handle that. (But let's wait fifty years and see....Or a hundred.)

January 07, 2009 1:54 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

So, I'm not saying paganism couldn't; rather, it didn't. Anywhere.
Of course it did. The Greco-Roman Empire was the pinnacle of pagan civilization. Everything that the Christians built was an add-on to that foundation. Our Western Civilization is unthinkable without that foundation.

January 07, 2009 5:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our Western Civilization is unthinkable without that foundation.

Hmmm, so our civilization is unthinkable without Athens but thinkable without Jerusalem? Go figure.

January 07, 2009 7:49 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


No, it didn't.

A longer version of that particular quote is this:

Additionally, it is worth noting that, SFAIK, there is no pagan society that has developed anything like Western civilization has.

Anywhere. Ever.

Now, it may well be that except for Constantine, Roman paganism would have ruled the pulpit, and the Enlightenment would have happened 1400 years sooner.

But it didn't. And no other religion anywhere, ever, has had anything like the Enlightenment, and everything that has flowed from it.

So, yes, the Christians undoubtedly built on Athens. However, Islam had its own chance to do so, and failed utterly. The reasons Barry cited concisely explain why.

This is precisely like evolution. That Western Civilization came through Athens and Jerusalem is dead certain: for better or worse, our civilization is, in absolute fact, is unthinkable without either. Whether it could have come about without one or the other, or the English Channel, is really empty conjecture. Given the evidence elsewhere, though, as AOG said at the top, without Christianity things would have [certainly] turned out very differently and [probably] far less to the liking of people like Dawkins.

The open question is still whether Western Civilization can continue without Jerusalem.

Or with Mecca.

January 07, 2009 9:12 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

You're looking at religion as the sole variable in the equation, whereas in reality there are many other major variables that can be used to explain differences in cultural achievement. You're ignoring ethnic variables. Christianity happened in Europe, Islam in Africa and Asia. These regions had different cultural sensibilities before Christianity was born. More later.

January 07, 2009 11:52 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'd say Christianity happened in Africa and Asia, too.

It had a long run -- 400 years -- right where Mohammed started, and then another 1,000 years in Asia before being nearly extinguished.

Perhaps you meant that the modernist development of Christianity happened in Europe (although notably not in eastern Europe) rather than in Asia.

It is impossible to imagine Galileo without Greek rationalism. The Muslims had just as good access to Greek rationalism as Christians did (although it is myth that Islam preserved Greek philosophy; the truth is that Islam tried to destroy Greek philosophy and was successful in its own realm).

It looks as if late developments of Christianity allowed for modernist intellectual developments, or more likely, political rivalries in Europe prevented Christianity from exercising religion's always baleful influence on free thought.

Certainly we can exclude Roman Catholicism from any positive influence.

January 07, 2009 12:52 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Skipper, You're looking at religion as the sole variable in the equation ...

Re-read my Jan 6 post, fourth and fifth paras, then get back to me on that.


Certainly we can exclude Roman Catholicism from any positive influence.

Can we? IIRC, the Catholic Church, via some saint or another (Aquinas?, Augustine? Heck, I can't remember) to investigate nature because it must verify the Bible.

Granted, that amounts to an own goal. However, it was still positive.

January 07, 2009 1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly acknowledge my ancient Greek heritage and its formative influence on me and my culture, but I can never decide whether it was the slavery, pederasty, subjugation of women or genocide that inspires me most.

January 07, 2009 1:42 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Except possibly for the pederasty, the scraps of Greek classical thought that were picked up by secularists did not include any of those things.

It was the Christian religious tradition that carried those forward.

Skipper, when I was in school we still had to sign on to the Index of Prohibited Books.

The injunction to revel in the glory of God's creation was not the same thing as investigating it, and when men did try to investigate it, the Church suppressed and sometimes murdered them.

January 08, 2009 11:24 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Yet, somehow, Christianity was co-located with the Enlightenment, and no other religion got even close.

Obviously, no single factor explanation is going to work. However, while I don't pretend to be a Biblical scholar, the contents of the New Testament (as opposed to the behavior of the religious bureaucracy) is far different than, say, Hinduism or Islam.

That has to have left a mark.

Perhaps not as big a mark as an alphabet uniquely suited to printing, but a mark nonetheless.

January 08, 2009 11:18 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Obviously, Christianity was not as completely inimical to materialist inquiry as Islam or Hinduism, but it was inimical enough.

A thousand years of opposition must mean something.

Maladministration by the Habsburgs of the Spanish Netherlands probably had as much to do with it as anything, as it allowed for fragmentation of political spaces in a wealthy society, which then allowed freethinkers to play off one administration against another.

The maladministration was not mere incompetence. It was largely a result of Christian dogma.

January 09, 2009 12:20 PM  

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