What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Impediments 6: Bad Religion 2

Last week I argued that Christianity is bad religion. This is because it began as a niche marketing exercise on the part of Paul of Tarsus in the mid C1 CE and tried to produce a viable religion out of a illicit mixture of Judaism and Greek paganism (the oil and water of C1 CE politics). Unlike other religions Christianity didn’t emerge and develop spontaneously and have the benefit of people working at it and refining it over several centuries.

After this bad beginning Christianity took a long time to become widespread, so long in fact that by the time it came to the notice of pagan thinkers that the original context for its emergence had been completely lost sight of and anti-Christian polemicists were left struggling to account for it. Eventually Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, but only because it happened to have been the personal faith of the Emperor Constantine, not because of any particular features of the religion. Once patronised by the imperial family, of course, it’s future was golden. (We have to remember that all accounts of early Christian origins and history were either written by Christians or edited by them afterwards, and so claims about the popularity and prominence of Christianity in the early centuries contained in those works have to be taken with a grain of salt).

Whatever its historical success, however, Christianity is left with a number of problems. The first is the basic metaphor that Paul uses to describe the believer’s investment in his faith. As Paul was a businessman (a tent-maker we are told) he spent his life borrowing money to invest in trading and manufacturing projects and then recouped it when these ventures succeeded. This was, however, in the days before insurance and business regulation, and so the process was inherently risky and the venturer stood to either gain great wealth, or be left with nothing (as in The Merchant of Venice). Paul takes this metaphor and applies it to faith: the believer must have absolute faith that his spiritual investment will succeed, even when everyone around doubts him. So pressing is this need to succeed that the believer would actually be happier if he died at the moment of his success, so that he could never lose the gamble of faith again.

And this is the basic metaphor of Christianity: believe, die, and go to heaven. This is a doctrine that doesn’t really leave the believer with much interest in the here and now, and has resulted in the notorious Christian indifference to the world. Of course it can be argued that other religions, or all religions, serve as a salvific against the fact of death, but other religions don’t hate the world as much as Christianity does. Although one must acknowledge progressive Christian groups’ activity in various social causes in the last few centuries, they are not very evident in environmental causes, and it is only recently that notions of human stewardship of world, as opposed to the traditional outright domination, have begun to be formulated within Christianity.

(Indeed I have never understand why fundamentalist Christians are not the most zealous conservationists. If I was a fundamentalist Christian and believed that God created every species uniquely, then I would be up in arms against anything that endangered any of God’s unique creations—the answer is, of course, for these type of people that the world is about to end at any moment and creation will be destroyed, so it doesn’t matter if we anticipate Yahweh (or is it Shiva?) a little).

A second problem for Christianity is the number of strange and illogical doctrines it has to defend which arose as the result of the poor thinking of Paul of Tarsus and other early Christian luminaries. (By contrast to Christianity, a belief in an omnipotent deity who does not interfere supernaturally in the course of history would be much easier to defend).

Leaving aside such oddities as the virgin birth, the strangest of these strange doctrines is that of the Trinity. This, needless to say, is nowhere to be found in scripture, and I have never heard a good explanation of where it comes from. It is a concept of quite unique complexity (giving rise to jibes from other religions about Christians worshipping three gods), and no obvious appeal. I would have thought that a divine father/human son, or divine father/divine son diarchy, would have far more emotional appeal. However, some compelling reason now lost to history caused the early Christians to insist on it and persist with it, despite the number of heresies and schisms and persecutions it caused.

I wouldn’t deny that at each period in Christianity it has produced noble lives, but we can rely on human nature to produce a few people of true nobility in each generation, Christian or not. The real question is what Christianity does to society as a whole in each generation. Indeed, at almost every stage in Christianity (the present one included) the detached observer would be right in thinking that things could have been so much better. There a number of especially notable missed opportunities in Christian history where you can almost feel the wrong path being taken.

  • In the early C5 the western church was wracked with a conflict between Augustine of Hippo and his followers and Pelagius and his supporters. Pelagius was a British monk who had a much more reasonable view of original sin than Augustine (though he was no humanist). If doctrines like those of Pelagius had become official doctrine in place of the savage and Manichaean doctrines of Augustine, then, you feel that the church could have become more likeable and less hardline about the world and open to more reasonable influences from late classical neo-Platonism.
  • The late Middle Ages, especially in England, was a time when the church almost reverted to paganism. Popular religion at this time emphasised two things: in church and in processions the adoration of the consecrated host, and in popular festivals and private devotions the figure of Virgin Mary. Again, this was a point at which the church could have turned down a more worldly path. Granted that the figure of the Virgin was officially still subordinate, ‘the fount of creation’ was one title, creation of course being inferior to…. something or other, but in popular eyes she was Queen of Heaven, Mother of God &c &c. You only have to listen to the inspired Marian antiphons of composers such as John Brown (from The Eton Choir Book) or William Cornysh to gauge the extent to which Marianism was approaching shaktism at this time.
  • This period was shattered by the Reformation, which could have had a wonderful effect, destroying the authority of the church and vesting authority in local churches whilst preserving the popular paganism of late Middle Ages. Of course it did neither, in northern Europe is destroyed the power of the church, but it replaced it with sour reformation zeal that hated the world more than the Catholics did*, and the Catholic church, learning from the reformers, in the Counter-Reformation turned itself into the dislikeable authoritarian anachronism that it has been ever since.

Of course the worst aspects of the Reformation was how, on both sides the popular paganism of mariolatry was suppressed, and the lands of the church were taken by the protestant (and catholic) sovereigns and redistributed to the grasping middle classes. Hitherto the church had preserved up to third of land away from the ‘great wheel of circulation’ (Adam Smith). The introduction of this new wealth to the growing pre-capitalist economy was a powerful impetus to it.**

And this is, of course, my main problem with Christianity, that capitalism is simply a heretical form of it (see Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, though I believe that the impulse that Weber describes is not limited to protestant capitalism). In Christianity, I have argued, the basic impulse is to believe, die and go to heaven, in capitalism the impulse is to invest, invest and invest, only because there isn’t even the prospect of heaven (only the hell of poverty), capitalism is even more fevered and unprincipled than Christianity, because it has even less of a believable goal at the centre of it (what, exactly does capitalism has as its ideal state?). And from Christianity capitalism derived its hatred of the world and its refusal ever to pay the ecological costs of its activities. The general lack of action on global warming currently is symptomatic of this.


* And, incidentally, persecuted those who took the Reformation’s insistence on radical enquiry further than the reformers were prepared to go (which was not very far). Theologians such as Michael Servetus, who questioned the Trinity, received very short shrift.
** For those interested in the comparative history of cultures it is interesting that a very similar thing happened in mediaeval Korea when the Buddhist Goryeo dynasty was replaced by the Confucian Joseon dynasty in 1392. The proceeds from the lands of the Buddhist monasteries, however, did not produce an outbreak of early capitalism in Korea.

Next Week: Impediments 7: Conservatism  

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