Friday, January 7, 2011

About monotheism

This is derived from a comment I made in an email discussion group.

That there is a considerable amount of tendentious Catholic scholarship around is not news to anyone moderately well-read in history. Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce held that religions were incomplete philosophies because they could not tell the truth about the past: leaving aside entirely the issue of revelations and miracles, the problem of maintaining some moral and epistemic authority down the twisted path of events seems to be enough to cause problems. My favourite spectacle of such is various Catholic writers who end up attempting to argue (or, at least, strongly imply) that Western civilisation has been in decline since the Reformation: even on the simple metric of the proportion of the human population raised within the Catholic faith that is a nonsense, let alone if one applies wider criteria. It is one of those positions that, if you are left arguing for it, the time has come to examine one’s premises and, if you cannot bring yourself to do that, well, then, clearly Croce had a point.

It does not work to tell the story of the Reformation as either the noble Catholic defence of Christian tradition or the noble triumph of Protestantism. It was a time of appalling hatred and brutality. Those ignorant and naïve souls who claim that “Islam needs a Reformation” understand neither Islam (which is the belief in the authority of scripture On Steroids, With Boosters) nor the Reformation (historians still argue what percentage of the population of central Europe was killed or starved during the wars of religion, estimates ranging from about 15% to about a third with some regions losing up to 75% of their population). Europeans decided to generally eschew killing each other over religion in revulsion against having done so much of it and the realisation that neither side could overwhelm the other.

Wholesale slaughter of civilians only became the pattern of European history again when new sources of Absolute Moral Authority were imported into politics. But most of the techniques of totalitarianism were pioneered by the Catholic Church because totalitarianism is all about Absolute Moral Authority: in totalitarian states, commissars or gauleiters replace Papal legates, agitprop function as did friars and other Christian preachers, show trials replace auto de fe. We see propaganda, heresy hunts, inquisition, censorship, informers, even population culls: both the Albigensian crusade (1209-1229) and St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) foreshadowed the repression of the Vendee and the September massacres of the French Revolution. The problem with modern totalitarianism is not that it is Godless, but that it has substitute Gods, substitute Absolute Moral Authorities.

In the end, monotheism only comes in two versions: that which uses the authority of God to protect and succour one’s fellow humans and that which uses the authority of God to strip people of their moral protections. Most believers play both games, they just vary in how intensively and to whom they do it.

Priests, alas, get authority from using God to strip people of moral protections. It is notable that Jesus spends very little time in the Gospels preaching about the actions of temporal government and a great deal preaching against priestly power and the use of priestly rules and interpretations to strip people of moral protections. It makes priests inherently somewhat dubious vehicles for preaching the Gospel message: indeed, that tension – the doctrine of love thy neighbour being propagated by priests who get power and authority from subverting love thy neighbour so as to become the “gatekeepers of righteousness” – is, in many ways, the central dynamic of Christian history.


  1. Lorenzo, at the risk of causing you to have a pink fit, have you considered reviewing any of Rodney Stark's books here? :)

  2. And as for Islam's Reformation. Too late. It started 200 years ago. It is called 'Wahabism'. The suicide bomber is the current incarnation of the Islamic Reformation. Folks should be careful what they wish for.

  3. Peter, on Rodney Stark, life may be too short, but I suppose I should pick one and examine its claims.

    On Wahhabism, more or less, except Islam regularly produces "Reformations". It is when it stops that the world will have changed.

  4. Lorenzo's brother says:

    Religion is an entirely human construct designed so that a small group of people can have power over a larger group of people. The "message" regardless of the original content and intent is always perverted over time to have this outcome. Once the large group of people recognise that, the small group of people lose that power.

  5. Lorenzo's brother: you're such an optimist :)

  6. I haven't actually sat down and read any of Stark's books cover to cover; my knowledge comes from having read isolated chapters, reviews, debates, and so on. From what I have read, his use of sociological concepts in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History - in trying to trace the transmission routes and points of growth in early Xianity is exciting and laudable.

    While the scholarly reviews from ancient historians and classicists have highlighted a number of errors and over-interpretation the framework itself is surely a great advance. But then, I would say that, as my main interest in ancient history is cultural transmission. Despite Stark's tendentiousness, I found his approach a great advance of the analytically-immature literalism of Robin Lane Fox's Pagan's and Christianity published a decade earlier. Though while I thought Lane Fox's very old-fashioned approach would be the last of its kind a few very old codgers have slipped a few more passe takes on the subject, not to mention the amateurishness of Charles Freeman.

    OTOH, Stark's recent book - The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success - is even more tendentious. Sure, we now know that the 'Conflict Thesis' is rubbish, and was an unfortunate concoction of 19th century Protestant bigotry against Roman Catholicism, but Stark's book is even more erroneous than the Dixon's and White's of the 19th century and their followers in the early and mid 20th century.

    Stark makes the same mistakes as the Conflict Thesis bigots; they both reify ideology.

    So, why don't you review The Victory of Reason in the context of your own passion; medievalism?