Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘American Enlightenment Tradition’ Category

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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Secularism, Depression, and Honey Boo Boo

In American Enlightenment Tradition, American Society, Religion and Society on September 5, 2012 at 1:49 am

Depressed In Paris....

When I saw an article about how Honey Boo Boo – a reality TV show about a family of rednecks – topped the Republican National Convention in viewership this past week, I wanted to call up those Abilify folks that advertise incessantly on most of the major news channels and ask them if they’d send me a few samples. How depressing – nine weeks before the election, and more Americans plan to vote for the next American Idol than for the next POTUS.

I have to admit that I’ve not paid much attention to this blog for a couple of months. I’ve certainly been busy – I am currently working 50+ hours a week and spending around 15-20 hours a week on college courses. Add in trying to spend some time with my wife, and you’ll see that I haven’t got much time to spare.

However, I think that one of the main reasons I’ve been less active is that I’ve been a little discouraged by writing about secularism. No, it’s not because I haven’t attracted hundreds of readers in my first couple of months – I never expected a topic such as secularism to pull in the kind of numbers as mommies talking about new babies, or blogs that comment on reality TV shows. This is still America after all.

No, I’ve been discouraged because I seem to have only two kinds of readers – Christians who have already made up their minds that what I’m writing about is from the Devil, and non-Christians – mostly atheists – who don’t understand why I’d even bother to write a blog about the New Testament.  I guess I was hoping that there would be a few Christians who, like me, also felt their churches had become too political, and a few non-Christians who might understand that believers are not necessarily irrational morons. So far, I haven’t found too many people who seem interested in the tolerance that secularism offers. In fact, I haven’t run across too many blogs that seem interested in any kind of rational discourse. Am I simply wasting my too precious time?

However, I’ve recently come across a collection of essays, The American Intellectual Traditionthat has inspired me to keep forging ahead. I’ll admit that I know very little of the history of secularist thought, nor have I spent much time combing other secularist websites. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and my knowledge of the Bible far surpasses my knowledge of other strains of thought which make up the American psyche. For me, writing about secularism was a way to sort through the philosophical evolution that had occurred in my own mind over the past two decades, from devout believer to adamant skeptic.

Taking a fresh look at the scriptures I grew up with, really thinking through the ramifications of what they say – or what the church says they say – seemed to be the best way to do this. I’m happy to say, however, that other thinkers have paved another way for me that I intend to follow as well.

One can imagine the stir that must have been created in theological circles upon the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. I have always imagined that the Fundamentalist movement started that very day, with preachers demanding we believe in the inerrant Word of God, and scientists telling us to throw our Bibles away. In fact, that’s not what happened at all. Darwin’s work did create a stir to be sure, but much of the response was much more measured than you might think.

I didn’t know that the belief in a literal translation of the Bible – the belief that every word has to be taken as it is written – is an idea that did not exist at that time. In fact, that idea – one that pervades many Christian churches today – originated only about one hundred years ago. In fact, many Christians were enthralled by science and technology in the early 19th century, and were eager to read of new scientific discoveries. Some scientists at the time were seeking a secularization of science from religion, but many others thought that science might help shed light on Biblical truths, especially some of the historical books. So, there wasn’t the wholesale acceptance or rejection of Darwin’s work that might occur were it introduced today.

One response to Darwin’s work that I particularly admire is Asa Gray‘s Review of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, published in 1860 (this is the first essay in Volume II of the book mentioned above; or you can read a similar article by the same author in The Atlantic Monthly – amazing that an 1860 article appears online). Mr. Gray is a Christian, a Protestant, and believes that man was created by God. However, he is also a preeminent scientist, pretty much responsible for the creation of Harvard University’s botany department. While he disagrees with some of Darwin’s conclusions, he states that

“(t)he work is a scientific one, rigidly restricted to its direct object; and by its science it must stand or fall.  Its aim is, probably, not to deny creative intervention in Nature….but to maintain that Natural Selection, in explaining the facts, explains also many classes of facts which thousand-fold repeated independent acts of creation do not explain….  How far the author has succeeded, the scientific world will in due time be able to pronounce” (emphasis mine).

In other words, he felt that scientific research should be accepted or rejected on the basis of the validity of its science alone, not because it abrogated some deeply held religious belief. He felt this way, even though he was a devout Christian.

In fact, even though he disagreed with Darwin’s theory, especially as it pertained to natural selection, he still promoted the publishing of it in the US, and even negotiated Darwin’s royalties. While Gray was convinced that the complexity of nature necessitated creative design (the same logic used by proponents of today’s ‘intelligent design’), he nevertheless accepted some of Darwin’s discoveries – and, in fact, the two men became great friends.

This is the sort of secularism I’m hoping to promote. Scientific discoveries are judged according to their scientific merit, not against two thousand-year old religious documents. Religious adherents are not written off as illiterate crackpots by the scientific community – at least until they are proven to be unabashed, unapologetic crackpots. Christians are willing to accept the fact that science does not support their belief systems, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it stands in opposition to them.

Most importantly, I want to see our laws, our civil society built upon observable facts instead of our beliefs, no matter how dear they are to us. I know my reflections will never receive anywhere near the same number of hits as Honey Boo Boo, but if I can influence a few dozen, I’ll be happy.