Christmas, Christianity, and the Fall of Empire: A Year-End Reflection

There’s no time like Christmas in this “Christian” nation. The connection between reason and daily life grows ever more tenuous as the empire crumbles. And Christianity’s most holy days particularly encourage disassociation from reality.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with believers lately. Their ability to suspend disbelief, to rely on faith instead of evidence, is damned impressive. And it extends well beyond the supernatural. Once you take Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” it’s a small step to believe in the Empire. Surely gawd won’t stop taking care of the chosen people of the United States.
Or will she?
Reason arose in Greece about 25 centuries ago, and is perhaps best known from Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Plato (ca. 428-348 BC) uses the conversations of Socrates to pose and explore questions in considerable detail. Although many of the issues and associated conversations seem unsophisticated to contemporary readers, these initial attempts to employ logic to study the natural world and the role of humans in the world are remarkable precisely because they were the unprecedented. The contributions of ancient Greece to the material world view that characterizes modernity cannot be overstated; that so many of the contributions came from Athens, a city that never exceeded 250,000 residents, is simply astonishing.
Although the ancient Greeks laid the foundation for modernity, few bricks were added to the structure for nearly two millennia. During the early seventeenth century, the empiricist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the deconstructionist René Descartes (1596-1650) ushered in the Enlightenment, thereby triggering a flurry of construction to the edifice of knowledge. Almost overnight it became clear that the world was a material one that could be observed and quantified by all who dared think and observe. Nature obeyed rules and humans were big-brained animals capable of discovering and describing those rules.
Thus, the Enlightenment eroded the role of authority as a source of knowledge. In the wake of Giordano Bruno’s heinous execution by the Catholic Church, Bacon recanted earlier statements in which he denied the Ptolemaic view that Earth was the center of the universe. But the erosion of authority that began as a trickle quickly became a flood, and the Church was increasingly marginalized as a source of knowledge.
David Hume (1711-1776), in his initial written piece of philosophy, presented a compelling case against miracles, hence against religion: “Of Miracles” was published in 1748 as an essay in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understandings. (Hume became particularly well known for the idea that what “is” does not indicate what “ought” to be.) Shortly before Charles Darwin formalized the theory of evolution by natural selection in the Origin of Species (1859), Schopenhauer (1788-1860) used Plato-like dialogue to question the basis of religion (“Religion: A Dialogue”) and Max Stirner declared the death of God in his 1845 book, The Ego and Its Own. Notably influenced by Schopenhauer and writing shortly after publication of Darwin’s dangerous idea, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) vociferously spread the word about God’s death (probably without awareness of Stirner’s work) while predicting that Reason would overwhelm world views based on mysticism (while proclaiming science to be a lie; like all other humans, Hume and Nietzsche contained many contradictions). Nietzsche expressed his views on Christianity early and often in his writings, most popularly with Thus Spoke Zarathustra; I prefer The Antichrist because it represents Nietzsche’s views on God particularly clearly and vehemently. This work was intended to be shockingly blasphemous, and it has significant errors. Nonetheless, The Antichrist cogently makes many important points and articulates them vividly.
With respect to the rise of Reason, Nietzsche was an optimist. As S. Jonathan Singer concludes in his 2001 book, The Splendid Feast of Reason, it appears unlikely that more than ten percent of people are capable of employing reason as a basis for how they live. Singer likely did not know he was echoing Schopenhauer, although Schopenhauer’s use of dialog to in his essay clearly indicates he knew he was echoing Plato in reaching the same conclusion.
Reason is the basis for understanding the material world. Mysticism has proven an insufficient foundation for dealing with peak oil and runaway greenhouse. As such, I suspect it will prove inadequate for saving humanity. Whether or not we’re worth saving is a separate issue.
The pursuit of truth is not always fun, of course. Popular culture and its cousin, organized religion, constantly impede the quest of knowledge and search for wisdom. I am reminded of the Catholic Church’s treatment of my long-time hero, Giordano Bruno, which gave Galileo reason to recant in the face of astronomical truth. Trapped and captured by the Inquisition, Bruno was periodically interrogated during eight years of torture-laden imprisonment. Refusing to abandon the Copernican view that Earth orbits the sun instead of the converse Aristotelean (and, more importantly at the time, Catholic) view, Bruno was tongue-tied (literally) and burned alive in February of 1600. Legend, which is seldom true but which nicely embellishes a good story, has him spending his last words assailing the Church because its fear of the truth exceeded his fear of death. Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo were right, of course, as the Church admitted a scant 392 years after murdering Bruno. In a remarkable demonstration of how quickly the Church is capable of admitting its errors and catching up to scientific facts, it concluded Charles Darwin was right about evolution only a couple years later. Perhaps in another few years they will admit the Jesus-as-prophet craze was just a joke that got out of hand, or, more outrageously, they will begin asking their practitioners to follow Jesus’ teachings.
Unfortunately, the Church does not reward those who speak the truth today nearly as publicly as it once persecuted them, and it does not preach scientific truth nearly as vociferously as it preaches mindless mysticism. Periodic condemnation of Darwin by priests and bishops suggests that the Church is slow to educate its own leaders and that it tolerates some facts more willingly than others. But enough, for now, about the Catholic Church, which is too easy a target for those who purposely invoke reason. Furthermore, the Church’s fundamentalist Protestant descendants are making even the Catholic Church seem sensible of late.
I don’t mind the precepts of religion, even though religions are founded on an idea for which there is no evidence. What I mind is religious adherents living contrary to their prophets. If Christians lived as Jesus did, or as he instructed them to live, I would be a big fan of Christianity. As Nietzsche pointed out in The Antichrist, there was one Christian. And he died on the cross.
Our challenge may be far greater than I once imagined. I would not be the first to suggest that, just as a minority of people is incapable of distinguishing colors that are obvious to the majority, a majority is unable to differentiate between reasonable arguments and specious ones. Jonathan Singer makes perhaps the strongest argument for this case in The Splendid Feast of Reason. The evidence he reviews shows rational people have not comprised a majority of any society, suggesting that rational thought lies beyond the realm of most humans. He further concludes that such “rationalists,” as he calls them, comprise fewer than ten percent of American society. Mind you, this is not about intelligence: Plenty of people who are very intelligent (by any measure) are unable to allow logic and reason to overcome irrationality. Thus, contrary to the belief and expectation of Bacon and Descartes, it would appear that efforts to unlock nature’s secrets and then pass along this knowledge have become a lost cause. Indeed, “lost” may be the wrong term for it: Perhaps most people simply cannot receive and interpret the language of reason. If this is the case, as increasing evidence purports, it should be no surprise that history has treated badly the few rational people bold enough to take a firm stand in the face of an irrational majority.
The rational minority often is treated as irrational, making me wonder if assuming a rational stance is, in fact, as irrational as it is abnormal. This appears to be classic case of the inmates running the asylum, and proclaiming one’s sanity is a one-way ticket to solitary confinement (from which, to begin with, rationalists are only one step removed). The impressive swiftness with which the majority has persecuted vocal proponents of reason provides plenty of cause for reflection and even retraction, which was the path taken by Galileo when faced with Bruno’s fate. The title of Singer’s book is well chosen, for it glorifies reason while acknowledging the rarity of its application.
A fundamental question thus becomes: Is the inability of most people to employ reason sufficient justification to cast aside the quest for truth? What about to deny the truth? Why should we try to teach the irrational majority? Why not continue the quest for truth, enjoy the company of the rational ten percent, and leave the masses to their apparently inherent ignorance? Contrast the choices of Galileo and Bruno. Some causes are worth dying for, even though the number of Martin Luthers pales in comparison to the virtual unknowns such as Giordano Bruno.
Singer proposes science as the solution. I’d like to believe science would succeed where reason has failed, but it is difficult to maintain optimism. After all, science gave us evolution by natural selection, and overwhelming evidence has subsequently reinforced Charles Darwin’s dangerous idea. Yet the American public cannot grasp the notion, with denial of the rudimentary science-based facts consistently running at seventy-five percent (among industrialized nations on this topic, none come close to American ignorance and denial of the facts).
But it appears we have no viable choice. If reason is not the answer, then Renaissance and Enlightenment were temporary diversions along the path of absurdity and Giordano Bruno died in vain. I cannot accept mysticism as a legitimate alternative to rational thought any more than a philosopher can accept superficial thinking or a musician can tolerate improper pitch. I cannot surrender to the dual forces of ignorance and denial, though I recognize their great power.
Some of these ideas first appeared in my 2006 book, Letters to a Young Academic: Seeking Teachable Moments

Comments 5

  • Guy,
    Appreciate your comments (first time reader)in this blog and your speach to the public health students.
    Question: how do you deal with the question of where the materials, the “stuff” came from that were contained in the “Big Bang” if it were the beginning of all things?

  • First of all, nice use of colon in your title :)
    Notice how I used mine?
    I must say I am fascinated, and I will be checking the blog often!

  • Mostly I want to interject the notion that the word/concept God is a noun, which is what western languages do to the world; they subdivide it and label it (as though it were an ‘it’). The complex overlayers of each religion seem to be accretions from later folks eager to make each one more remarkable and fantastic relative to its competitors (memetic competition …?). Ultimately, the various written texts related to the religions (with the possible exception of Buddhism) either look like tribal/regional history/taboos/rites, or interpolations from later ‘thinkers’ eager to promote their brand of theism. Mysticism as such is a poorly understood phenomenon. The word, as a rubric, is not adequate. It includes everything from shamanism to Plotinus and Eckhart to Dogen and Rinzai. This clearly cannot explain disciplines that produce individuals like Dogen who were both (I don’t like this word) mystics and ‘philosphers’ of the first order. I refer the reader to the Shobogenzo as an example of this. Nagarjuna is another (India indian) thinker/mystic. The notion of mysticism as a raspberry jello sort of hippie state is a common misconception. The Sufi mystics lived and dealt with the real world just as vigorously and effectively as anyone else. Same with Zen adepts. Not all writings etc from this tradition are useful viz a viz immediate solutions, but they just might be part of the solution of ‘re-tooling’ human behavior to survive and prosper (in a healthy relationship to their planet) in our future. I sound a bit wind-baggy here, but this is a topic usually dismissed out of hand and is, I think, part of the solution instead, working hand in hand with rationality and good science, which are absolutely necessary for practical analysis and problem solving. The question is, how do we determine exactly what the root problem(s) is(are)?