Saturday, September 17, 2016

Religion, State and Paths to Power. The Confidence Game Persists.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians believed that their kings were appointed by their gods to lead them. “Many of the texts composed for royal rituals lay great emphasis on the state-like organization of the pantheon which had a clearly defined hierarchy and areas of responsibility like those of ministers.” Ellil (and later Marduk) “presided over the divine assembly and conferred kingship.” (Leick, p. 102). Beliefs such as this come as no surprise to evidence-based thinkers. In the context of the western culture from which the majority of readers descend, we are familiar with a history where Cardinals of the Church were “Princes of Rome” who possessed great tracts of land and fought wars to maintain their wealth. Where the Church sold indulgences to increase its’ profits. Where kings, backed by clergy, claimed their authority came from God. The point of commonality, between an earlier agricultural society of the Fertile Crescent and this later one of Medieval Europe, is the treatment of religion as a path to power. These agreements between king and clergy have always been a con game. Kings understood that having a religion propagandize their divine right to rule, made the job of exploitation easier. Religious leaders understood that if they attached themselves to a powerful leader and became the state religion, wealth and influence would follow.

Conditions have changed markedly since those times. The beliefs of the Babylonian state religion exists only in clay cuneiform tablets. Europe long ago exchanged its kings and state religions for secular republics. But Christianity is still the dominant religion in the west, and dominant religions are still a path to power. Among the Catholic branch of Christianity, the sexual domination of children and the breadth of cultural influence are examples of the currency of power. Not to forget that actual currency remains immeasurably important: the Catholic Church is still one of the wealthiest organizations in the world. Among the Protestant branch of Christianity, there is also the clamor to expand influence in the public sphere. The United States in particular is infested with holy policy wonks attempting to replace Evolution with Creation, push prayer into the schools and interfere in a woman’s private decision concerning whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Despite numerous media exposés of greed and sex scandals among the Protestant clergy, their flock is still just that: a group of sheep being fleeced of all their cash and all of their independence of thought. Of course the sophistication among some of the worshippers has changed. Who among evidence-based Atheists and free-thinkers has not conversed with a Christian of some stripe who understands scientific method? How many internet conversations have you had where a believer felt that their Christianity was a private affair that made them a more compassionate person, but they didn’t hate you for thinking differently? Unfortunately the existence of reasonable, dare I say humanistic, Christians does not mean that the institution to which they give money is anything more than a mercenary flim-flam. The anecdote of one rational individual, or one church that is not seeking to force itself on the public sphere, does not vindicate the systemic intentions of a vast institutional convention.

From Babylon, to Medieval Europe, to the present, the con endures. The institution continues to seek power and influence. It is unlikely to fail anytime soon. Their propaganda is more appealing: Eternal life with your cosmic daddy after you die. In heaven you can eat all the candy you want and not get diabetes. Whatever you fantasize is yours; and you get to share it with all of the people and pets you now mourn. So what do we offer: when you die, your brain ceases to function. All you ever thought you were just switches-off forever and you rot in the dirt. In a tough world where most people are willing to accept pretty silly, unverifiable myths, that help them deny some hard facts, who do you think is going to attract the larger numbers? The best we can do is offer an alternative based on evidence. Those who are intrepid and educated enough to accept reality over superstition, will affect and expand our community. As long as we don’t become attached to evangelizing our views, as long as we do not require others to think as we do, we will not become frustrated or disheartened. We’ll leave that discouragement to the opposition. The very existence of a vocal, informed community, devoted to evidence-based ideas, stands as a bulwark against the domination of power-hungry swindlers peddling myths. We’ve gained a lot of ground in the past couple of millennia, evolving from governments based upon divine kingships and clerical power to secular republics. Let’s defend it.

Leick, Gwendolyn. The Babylonians. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Monday, September 5, 2016

From Absolutism to Revolution: 1648 - 1848. By Herbert H. Rowen.

In Europe, between 1648 and 1848, crucial progress was made via a difficult path of learning and action. From Absolutism to Revolution eponymously defines that progress. But there is a lot that the book contains which the title cannot. This is not simply a political story about our fitful western transition from monarchy to democracy. It is also a retelling of how our thinking changed.

Rowen does not begin his account with a political treatise; he begins with Sir Isaac Newton. Therein is an important distinction between this and other histories on the topic of socio-political development towards greater freedom. What Newton represents is the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century. This seemingly non-political revolution challenged established notions and static thinking. The “absolute truths” of Judeo-Christian Europe were beginning to be challenged by a non-belief-based, empirical, experimental way of looking at the world. Once the answers to how the world worked were no longer satisfied by the phrase “God made it this way and any questioning is blasphemy,” then any number of ideas could be called into question. All kinds of traditional plans for humanity, based on argument from authority alone, were open to reinterpretation. Even the Divine Right of Kings, with their alleged authority from God, was up for debate. Well…at least according to some people these notions were up for debate. It is not as if the floodgates of free thought were now open and flowing unhindered. The entrenched interests of Church, King and Aristocrat, who benefitted greatly from maintaining argument from authority over argument from experience and experiment, initially resisted even the suggestion that a debate was allowable. Therein lay a tension that unfolds throughout the book in terms of both concept and action.

Since this book is as much about changing ideas as it is about changing society, Rowen offers a structure that addresses this premise. The book is divided into four sections: 1) “The Age of Louis XIV,”(1648-1715), when absolutism was at its height and the foundational challenging ideas were being formulated and  expressed. 2) The “Age of Enlightenment” (1715-1789), when a public sphere in opposition to the royal sphere had been firmly established and was gaining traction. 3) “The Age of Revolution” (1789-1815), covering the French Revolution, through Napoleon’s era of conquest to his final defeat and examining the response in the rest of Europe. 4) “The Age of Restoration” (1815-1848), examining the reactionary period of monarchical power, along with the democratic or forward-thinking ideas which survived in that period and developed into guiding principles that resulted in the revolutions of 1848.

Most of the writing is not Rowen’s. He allows the proponents of conservativism and progress to speak for themselves. At the beginning of each section, the author presents a short synopsis of activities, and debated ideas, in the time period discussed. He then presents short chapters, each introducing a key individual, whose ideas and influence were central to the period and issues of the chapter. A one or two paragraph biography is followed by a selection of that writer’s best work. In this way, the reader is able to acquaint herself with both the important individuals and the opposing ideas of a given time period. There are 78 prominent figures, each with an associated writing, or collaborative document (like French Revolution’s “The Declaration of Rights).

Significantly, none of the writers are of non-white descent and only one (Catherine the Great) is a woman. While it is true that women and minorities did not fill the halls of power in a predominantly white Europe, there were considerable contributions made by those groups which are overlooked. It is surprising that Rowen fails to include African European voices in his section on ending slavery. Notable women, like Mary Wollestonecraft and Mme de Stael, who contributed importantly to the ideas of their times, are similarly ignored. From Absolutism to Revolution was written in 1963, in the United States. Even though there was an active movement for African American equality, and discussion of “the woman question” among universities, these notions apparently did not filter into Professor Rowen’s mind in a way that affected his work.

It is impressive that the historian permits important personages to speak for themselves, rather than coloring the picture with his own narrative. Rowen thusly offers his audience an opportunity to read, at length, pivotal primary sources by crucial, historic people. In this way, the words and people come alive in their contexts, revealing the impact of resolute individuals and the transformational importance of ideas.

Rowen, Herbert H. (ed.). From Absolutism to Revolution: 1648 – 1848. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.