Donald Andrew Henson II

Medieval Mind, Modern Mayhem

In American Enlightenment Tradition, American Society, Current events, Religion and Society on September 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm

An Egyptian Coptic Christian makes a movie that pokes fun at the Prophet Mohammed, so Libyans attack the American consul in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a man who helped save their collective asses from annihilation only last year. This is how the Medieval Mind solves modern problems.

As the craziness continues in the Muslim world this week with unrest in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Australia, and God knows where else, it will be difficult for many to keep from joining in on the criticism of Islam and the role that it plays in so much of the trouble in today’s world. Mostly Christian commentators in this country will point out, once again, that Islam, as opposed to Christianity, is inherently violent. And of course, President Obama will be faulted for apologizing to Muslims.

To be fair, adherents of Islam – some of them at least – appear to be more willing to inflict pain and suffering on others than followers of other religions are. I know there are child abuse issues in Catholic churches, and that Christianity played a role in the violence that occurred in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Lebanon and Northern Ireland as well. And perhaps it is cultural bias for someone from a Western nation to view Islam as dangerous, in much the same way that some white guys might feel some apprehension at seeing a black guy walking around the neighborhood. But you have to admit that there is a certain kind of Muslim that refuses to accept the world as it is, and is willing to use violence to change it, and that this particular group far outnumbers similar groups that might exist in other religions.

When was the last time you heard of a Sikh suicide bomber or a Tibetan Buddhist terrorist?

But the truth is that this is just another example of medieval thinking in a modern world. The reason Christians don’t become suicide bombers has less to do with the inherent goodness of Christianity or the pacifism of the scriptures, and a lot more to do with the influence the Enlightenment has had on our societies. In other words, the Islamic world is simply operating according to its medieval principles in a way that Christianity is not – and when Christians say that America should operate by Biblical precepts, they are talking about a return to the Dark Ages.

Christianity is not the moral framework on which our society precariously hangs – Enlightenment thought is. If you follow the teachings of Christianity to their logical conclusions – as Sam Harris does in this fantastic video – you find that there’s no firm basis there for what I think of as morality. Take an unbiased view of what Christianity preaches – you can be a mass murderer or serial killer and still go to heaven, but if you are a devout Hindu, perhaps even covering your mouth so that you don’t inadvertently inhale and kill an insect, you will certainly spend eternity burning in hell.

Think about that for a minute, and the weight of medieval thinking will nearly crush you. Mohandas Gandhi, a man of peace, a proponent of non-violence, has been burning in hell for decades, with nothing to look forward to but thousands upon thousands of year more of the same. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, on the other hand, whose crimes included murder, rape, necrophilia, dismemberment, and cannibalism, is, at least in the view of some Christians, in heaven with Jesus.


Photo credit: rogiro

One point Brian Flemming made in his documentary is that a moderate approach to religion is nonsensical. If our everlasting souls are in danger of perishing, what is there to be moderate about? In the West, like it or not, (I tend to like it) our religious beliefs have been softened by modern thought – most of us don’t think that diseases are caused by demons or that angels are in charge of keeping us safe from traffic accidents (although, unfortunately, some still do). We understand the difference between allowing for Freedom of Speech and being in agreement with said speech. We understand that some will denigrate our deity, and we are upset about it, but we don’t throw a rocket launcher over our shoulder and head over to the nearest consulate.

But those who really believe, who have truly embraced the medieval mindset, are ready and willing to act upon their beliefs. We’ve become complacent through comfort and capitalism; they have not. Enlightenment thinkers have shown us that human life is precious and valuable; people of the Book have learned no such thing. What separates you and I from those who flew planes into the World Trade Towers a decade ago is not so much the gospel of Luke as the essays of Locke, not Jesus so much as Jefferson.

What’s happening in the Middle East today is an example of the ineptitude of medieval thinking in today’s world. The answer to our problems will not be found in believing in one kind of medieval myth as opposed to another. Believing in the Easter Bunny more fervently because a belief in Santa Claus isn’t working would be madness. No, instead, we need to abandon ancient ways of thought in order to secure any kind of livable future.

When a modern mind like Michelangelo or Mozart or Joseph Campbell contemplates ancient human beliefs, some of our best art and understanding result. If, on the other hand, the medieval mind tries to understand the modern – we are left to witness the carnage on the evening news. Anyone who tells you that a return to pre-Enlightenment thought will make for a better society – that person is a danger to us all.

A return to faith will only make things worse, not better.

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