March 31, 2004

The Secular Conceit

I was pinged on last night's post about varying reactions to a speech critical of Muslim but particularly Arab governments and societies given by Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, by a blog I hadn't seen before, Stephen Newton's diary of sorts. He argues that Carey's words -- particularly a passage in which Carey argues that Muslims have contributed "no great invention" for hundreds of years -- would doubtlessly offend. He goes on to argue something which I find odd, to wit, that Christianity has a history of suppressing discovery, and, further, that

No religion has enabled a culture of innovation; we owe that to secularism and tolerance.

I find this sentiment to be silly in the extreme, and a fairly serious misreading of history.

Let's forget for a moment that the categories "secular" and "sacred" are religious categories to begin with (the former being devised by various Christian philosophers, beginning memorably with Christ, who said "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's" -- despite the fact that he wasn't particularly thrilled with how Caesar was managing his part of the bargain), that the notion of tolerance comes from religion itself ("There is no compulsion in religion", "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone,"), let's forget the fact that the great avowedly secular expriment of the 20th Century -- Communism -- proved to be far more monstrous and bloody than any religious upheaval (by some estimates, something like 100 million murdered); let's leave all that aside, and focus on the narrower question of whether any religion has enabled a culture of innovation.

Medieval historian Lynn White spent a lot of time looking at manuscript illustrations; he noted, if I remember correctly, that around the 14th century -- about the time that the mechanical clock came into wide usage in Europe (this was an innovation necessitated by the colder climates of northern Europe, where water clocks would freeze and monks wouldn't know when they were supposed to pray) -- that the almighty began to be depicted as a clockmaker, or as an engineer with plumb line and T-square and calipers, the maker of a mechanical universe. Long before deists or Newton, the idea of a mechanical universe with God as its engineer was imagined by religious illustrators -- and they were not burnt at the stake for their efforts.

Copernicus, a good Catholic prelate (though for most of his life he had the luxury of study rather than ecclesiastical duties -- the Church recognized that the man had talent, and there were better occupations for him than saying Mass), was invited by the Pope in 1514 to take part in the Fifth Lateran Council to use his astronomical expertise to improve the calendar, which had gotten out of sync with the seasons.

In the 12th century, Cistercian monasteries were hotbeds of industrial activity; water power (one of the great labor saving devices of the Middle Ages) was used to do everything from run saw mills to brew beer.

These are but a few examples, which I think tend to contradict his thesis.

I wish I had the book to dig out the reference, but in the Middle Ages, there was something of a reverence for the past, and an understanding that the present would not be possible without it. "If we can see so far," one sermon goes, "it is because we stand on the shoulder of giants." Why is it that secularists so often fail to share this humility?

Posted by Ideofact at March 31, 2004 11:35 PM

I’m delighted to have provoked a thoughtful and genuinely interesting response.

At the risk of playing semantic games I should warn the meaning words is rather slippery. For example, ‘bigot’ is nowadays more commonly used to describe one who is intolerant of the views of others. Yet it is a simple contraction of the phrase ‘by god’ used by those who claim their views coincide with those of the almighty. By this meaning, a non-believer could never be a bigot, but that’s plainly nonsense. However, if a non-believer can be bigot, it must be legitimate to use ‘secular’ in a secular sense, that is, to talk of that which exists without reference to religion. Other words can be equally illuminating. For example, ‘Lucifer’ translates as bringer of light (or knowledge).

Posted by: Stephen Newton at April 1, 2004 10:30 AM

It is those broad statements like "No religion has enabled a culture of innovation..." that irk me.

In my thoughts, I find myself repeating a lot of what was said already in the main article.

My thoughts resolve to this: charges like that require a slight redefinition of terms, and a substantial re-structuring of the history of ideas. I don't mind the definition, as long as everyone in the discussion knows which definition is being used.

If tolerance (the Western model of tolerance, in the cultures informed by Christianity) did not spring from Christian thoughts, where did it come from?

From pre-Christian Rome?
(The same Roman culture that tolerated almost any religious system that would allow a person to worship Ceaser as Divine. Only the Jews were exempt from that, and for special reasons.)
This Roman culture had shown little tolerance for Christianity, and after a few Emporers had adopted Christianity, they began to use Roman methods of "persuasion" in support of their new faith. This pattern caused objections to be raised by Christian leaders, although the objections were not always listened-to.

Did tolerance come from the Islamic world? In that part of the world, tolerance of a kind was practiced towards fellow monotheists (Jews and Christians), but in a way that kept Jews and Christians as distinctly second-class citizens, and put cultural pressure in place to encourage conversion to Islam.
If the Muslims were the source of Western tolerance, where did modern Muslim attitudes come from? It is inherently illegal in many Muslim-dominated countries to preach any faith that denigrates the status of Muhammed. These countries are currently among the most active in the world in persecution of other faiths.

There might have been tolerance of a different kind growing in India, but the historical pattern shown there carries few signs that look anything like the development of ideas about tolerance in Christian Europe. Also, the journey of other ideas from India to Europe (through Arab/Muslim hands, usually) convinces me that little direct transmission took place between the two.

The same reason causes me to think that the ideas of tolerance didn't come from China, either.

Come to think of it, 1000 years ago, the Muslim world was ahead of the Christian world in technology and science. Similarly with the Chinese world and the Christian world.

Somehow, in the millennium between then and now, the parts of the world once dominated by Christianity managed to support a huge increase in technology and scientific knowledge. Not only that, but the strongest voices in the development of science were the voices of devout believers, thoroughly convinced that "God is a God of order", and that they were "thinking God's thoughts after Him."

The times in history when a secular, human-centered ideology were used to support and encourage science appear to belong mostly to the last century and a half. This is not to say that every scientist before then was a fundamentalist believer--but to say that the appearance of science wedded inextricably to a secular worldview is a recent innovation of thought.

Posted by: steve h at April 1, 2004 03:50 PM

Some of the most famous names in science (Pascal, Newton, Faraday) were devout believers. Not forgetting the scientist monks from Roger Bacon to Gregor Mendel.

Posted by: J.Cassian at April 2, 2004 02:53 AM

I concede that history does include many men of science who were devout believers. All were, of course, products of times when disbelief was inconceivable and blasphemy a crime.

But today, no religion enables a culture of innovation; we owe that to secularism and tolerance.

Posted by: Stephen at April 2, 2004 12:31 PM


That's quite a bit of back-pedaling from your original statement. But again, what your are saying is that today, no religion enables a culture of innovation; we owe that to the religious concepts of secularism and tolerance.

Also, Mendel did not live in a time of the inquisition; Newton's England had gotten past the burning of heretics (ditto Faraday's).

Posted by: Bill at April 2, 2004 02:44 PM

Sure, I've back-pedalled; I don't dispute that.

With Newton, Bill goes back to the 1640s (not quite as historical as other examples of Christian innovation used here. He says England had gotten past burning heretics. Okay, but Bruno, the last heretic burned by the Roman Inquisition, had died as recently as 1600, for insisting the Earth circled the sun and that Earth wasn’t the only planet. Doh!

Galileo was persecuted by the church for the same crime from 1616 to 1642. At that time, nobody – not even these victims – seriously considered the idea of there not being a god. The first use of the word ‘atheism’ is traced back to late 1600s; it was an idea yet to come.

Let’s bring the debate up to date. Across the USA Christians campaign for creationism to be treated – despite a lack of empirical evidence – as if it were science. The search for proof is a defining characteristic of a science. That’s not to say scientific truth is the only truth – there is much we don’t understand. Rather that creationism is not a science but an alternative to it and that it should always be presented as such. Yet medical researchers see viruses evolve before their eyes and so many medical advances prove evolution. Then there’s palaeontology and geology’s evidence that the world has not always been as we find it today.

Major flashpoints have emerged especially as medical advances have gone as far beyond anything the bible’s authors could have conceived. Take this latest outburst from the pope as an example:

Posted by: Stephen Newton at April 3, 2004 08:48 AM

Heavy sigh.

Have you actually read anything Bruno wrote? He wasn't burnt at the stake because he was a Copernican (else, surely Copernicus himself would have been burnt at the stake), but becaue he was a Hermeticist, a believer the prisci theologium or whatever it was called that was believed to be the work of a gentile prophet contemporaneous with (or even earlier than) Moses himself. In fact, the work was a second or third century A.D. tract -- Isaac Casaubon, who more or less invented textual analysis, definitively dated and debunked it in the cause of Protestantism. But make no mistake -- anyone with even a passing familiarity with Bruno's writings would agree that, by the lights of the Catholic Church in the 16th Century, he was a heretic. Don't take this to mean I agree with the Church's policy of burning heretics -- quite the contrary -- but heretics certainly existed, and Bruno certainly was one, and again, because he regarded one obscure ancient text (but not quite so ancient as he thought) as being more authoritative than another. (Newton, incidentally, was fascinated by Hermeticism -- note that by the time he lived, such a fascination didn't necessarily imply a death penalty.)

Regarding Galileo, who was it who wanted his works suppressed? Galileo and heliocentrism doesn't contradict anything in the Bible, it contradicts Aristotle, and at the time there were a lot of Aristotelians with lucrative teaching jobs contingent upon Aristotle's continuing authority. It was the intellectuals -- the university professors -- who asked the Church to suppress him.

I don't have a great deal of sympathy for contemporary Christians who try to get creationism taught in schools, but I think we're talking about a minority of Christians. Special interests when they organize can wield significant power far beyond their actual numbers in the population, and I suspect that that's the case here.

Finally, I don't think I understand why you're citing the USAToday story (a href="">here). Religious leaders concern themselves not with how one should do something, but whether one would should do something. One can agree or disagree with the Pope's statements, but to suggest that because feeding tubes aren't covered by the Bible, the Pope has no business discussing them is a little bizarre.

Finally, I think it's especially easy to pose as the enemy of all religion, just as it is easy to pose as the enemy of science. I could devote my entire blog to the sins of science -- I can just imagine my sneering entries about the Gatling gun, the atomic bomb, the vast pollution entailed by widespread production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, etc. etc. I don't think I'd want to read such entries, because I'd recognize that they were the products of an a priori conclusion that science is uniformally bad, and that only something else (whatever that may be) is virtuous.

I've never been particularly fond of Manicheans, in other words, whether they're of the religious or secular variety.

Posted by: Bill at April 3, 2004 10:20 PM

Bill seems determined to debate seventeenth century Christianity, despite my conceding that there are historical examples of religion enabling a culture of innovation – does he not know when he’s won a battle?

To win the war – that is to say I promise concede the debate – Bill (or anyone else) need only provide half a dozen examples of twentieth or twenty-first century innovations enabled by Christianity (it’s not enough for the innovators to be Christian: innovation must have been clearly aided by Christian faith or philosophy).

By the way, I don’t object to creationism being taught in schools as such. But I do object to it being taught as if it were proven. Students should be introduced to a variety of philosophies in their proper contexts.

Posted by: Stephen Newton at April 4, 2004 09:07 AM

I don't think I understand what you're getting at here at all (and, for the record, I'd be happy not to talk about Giordano Bruno or Galileo -- you brought them up and I merely responded), but I can suggest a few things to which Christian thought has contributed. The Civil Rights movement comes to mind immediately, as does just war theory.

Is that enough, or would you like me to keep going?

Posted by: Bill at April 5, 2004 06:33 PM

I'm not sure I understand Stephen's challenge either. To take one of the examples I gave above, Gregor Mendel was a monk so it would be fair to presume that his research into genetics was almost entirely funded by the Catholic Church. Mendel had more problems with the scientific community of his day who almost totally ignored his findings during his lifetime. As far as tolerance is concerned, the biggest threat to scientific independence during the last century came from political rather than religious bigotry. If I remember correctly Einstein's theories were dismissed by the Nazis as "Jewish" and the Soviets as "bourgeois". The worst example of this is probably the Soviet fraud Trofim Lysenko who managed to have his theories of "proletarian biology" made official in the USSR. If you believe Jasper Becker's book Hungry Ghosts, Lysenko's theories played a major role in the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao's disastrous man-made famine, which cost the lives of at least 30 million people. This occurred in a country with an avowedly anti-religious regime.

Posted by: J.Cassian at April 6, 2004 08:56 AM