Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A fair and balanced perspective on the moral influence of Christianity

Human nature is capable of goodness and great evil. Religion can help, or hinder. C. S. Lewis wrote: “I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse... Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil.” -- C. S. Lewis in a letter to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec. 20, 1961. I think that’s about as “fair and balanced” as we’re going to get.


WAR_ON_ERROR said...

I don't often make much of Christian behavior in rant or debate because subjectively there are lots of bizarre pros and cons that are very difficult to quantify against a non-existent ideal humanist population. If somehow we could magically make all Christians give up belief in God, that could well plunge the nation into some nihilistic dark age for a long time. Who knows? But it does seem like Clive might be correct here.


Mike Darus said...

There should be some distinction between what is done in the name of Christianity and what is influenced by Christianity. The difficulty in the quote by Lewis is the reference to "conversion." If he is using this as a synonym of profession, then my suggestion is on point. This seems to be implied when he prefaces with "when Christianity does not make a man very much better." There is a definate problem when someone professes faith in Christ and this is followed by no change of character.

Edward T. Babinski said...

I do not blame religion for all the world's evils, but neither do I blame secularism and the rise of the scientific method. I suspect there is more than one way for humans to live relatively peacefully and constructively.

Attempts to disconnect religion from all the shortcomings of earthly rulers, also seem to miss the point because nations have had rulers and people who shared the same major religious beliefs, like a belief in the Trinity, belief in Jesus' divinity, belief in the inspiration of the same holy book, even a belief in creationism, yet such nations still went to war with one another, including during ages of great faith.

So a shared faith, prayers, cathedrals and churches do not necessarily "bless" a nation, nor necessarily bless a continent of peoples sharing the same basic beliefs, nor prevent massacres, persecutions and executions.

Even during the American Civil War, the major Protestant denominations (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian) seceded from each other, southern from northern, about 10-15 years before the states of the south seceded from the states of the north, and it was the ministers in the South who were among the loudest proponents calling for political secession. Some historians indeed call the Civil War a "religious war," one that demonstrated the Bible did not interpret itself easily nor clearly, especially on the topic of slavery.

Even during the First World War, the nations of Europe remained religious enough, indeed Christian enough to cease fighting on Christmas Eve, for a night, but went back to tossing the most advanced weaponry at each other the next day.

During the second World War, the aggressors as it turns out where not atheistic nations but Shinto Japan with its belief in the deity of the Emperor, and Catholic Italy, and Protestant/Catholic Germany (Hitler's success in being elected was due to the votes he rec'd from the countryside, not the cities where his percentage of votes equaled those of rival candidates-- and the countryside generally contains a higher percentage of devout religious believers than do the cities.)

One might even note that the Russian Czars were practically worshiped due to the interlocking government of church and state prior to the rise of communism. They were leaders chosen by god, inspired by god, and shown the utmost respect by the church, so state and church co-supported each other in keeping the Czar in power and rival religions at bay.

The Orthodox religion indeed seems to have held the enormity of the Russian nation together for centuries, a nation that it's fellow Christian nations in Europe grew concerned about because of Russia's massiveness and ability to raise an equally massive army.

Indeed, when in the later 1800s the Czar invaded Turkey, the Christian nations of Europe feared the further expansion of Russia into Palestine and Egypt and other colonial European holdings in the Middle East, so the Christian nations of Europe banded with Muslim Turks to push back the Russian invaders.

Russia has therefore been led in the past by two highly centralized governments, one being the Czar&Orthodox Church (Czars as I said have had expansionist dreams, a large army, and later Czars initiated the secret police and gulags), after the last Czar fell to the communist revolution, Russia remained a centralized government built round another dictatorial ideology, communism.

Edward T. Babinski said...

History and science also feature winding devious paths, not purely "angelic" or "demonic" ones:

The Russian communistic revolution succeeded during the last year of World War I, a time when the Christian nations of Europe were employing high tech weaponry to dispose of each other.

The Chinese communistic revolution succeeded at the end of the Second World War--after Japan's devastating invasion of China, and also during a time when many Chinese were fed up with centuries of European colonialism (one such instance included Britain's Opium War with China during the late 1800s, a war the British undertook in order to force Chinese rulers to produce opium for sale in India and elsewhere, and also to sell it to their own people, a product and trade that the Manchu rulers wanted to ban, but which reaped a huge profit for British merchants who called for the war in the first place).

Lastly, what about science and religion? Human curiosity seems to know no religious bounds, nor irreligious ones. Humans have been curious about the cosmos from pre-Judeo-Christian antiquity till today, and investigated the world around them, discovering new uses for different discrete parts of the world, and discovered new ways to learn more about it. Today, humans of all religious beliefs or none conduct scientific experiments.

To end on a further disconcerting note, I suspect there is no way to ensure the survival of the human species indefinitely in such a precarious cosmos as ours.

Nor do I see a way to prevent heated dissent between humans, nor a way to prevent disasters caused by humans (some of which come about ironically as the result of some humans pursuing the best of intentions toward other humans).
One must also keep in mind the ignorance and self-centeredness that large groups of human beings display after they have fully absorbed and learned to identify themselves with a particular religion, world view, or ideological label.

Edward T. Babinski said...

The quotation from Lewis'
could be added to by citing admissions made by other Christians. Take these:

"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
-- Blaise Pascal, Pensees, (1670)

"Christianity has committed crimes so monstrous that the sun might sicken at them in heaven."
--G. K. Chesterton in the Daily News, as quoted by Robert Blatchford, God and My Neighbor http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6172

[Lewis began his quotation with these words...] "Even more disturbing as you say, is the ghastly record of Christian
persecution. It had begun in Our Lord's time--'Ye know not what spirit ye are of' (John of all people!). I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse... Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil."
--C. S. Lewis to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec. 20, 1961, not long before Lewis' death, The Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed., W. H. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), p. 301.

"For centuries Christianity treasured the great commandment of love and mercy as traditional truth without recognizing it as a reason for opposing slavery, witch burning and all the other ancient and medieval forms of inhumanity. It was only when Christianity experienced the influence of the thinking of the Age of Enlightenment that it was stirred into entering the struggle for humanity. The remembrance of this ought to preserve it forever
from assuming any air of superiority in comparison with thought."
--Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography (New York: The New American Library, 1963).

In The Case for Religion, Keith Ward writes:

"[E]ven the great monastic communities of western Europe, such as Cluny Abbey, founded on renunciation of the world and denial of the flesh, quickly
became owners of vast estates and wielders of enormous political power. They no longer protested against the world. They were the world, in all its pageantry and power, and they validated the dream of empire, which they
consecrated as Crusades to destroy the infidel. That is why people should not look to religion for salvation or for a solution to the ills of the world. Failure to see the possibilities for corruption and destruction in religion is a failure of spiritual perception of the first order. Few people
fail to see the destructive possibilities of other people’s religions, but they can be remarkably blind to their own."

It is interesting that the above passage was written as part of an attempt to argue that religion continues to be good and relevant in today’s society. Keith Ward is a defender of religion, not an opponent, but even he can see these things and recognize just how dangerous religion can

Of course, what he describes here is quite unremarkable. Sure religion can become corrupt and destructive — but so can any other philosophy. Ward makes a point of noting this as well, so why focus on religion? The difference between religion and other philosophies is the fact that other
philosophies don’t pretend to be holy or creations of a perfect God. Religions make total and absolute demands on adherents; other philosophies generally do not. Religion is not inherently evil, but it is not immune to all of the problems which afflict people generally and human organizations
in particular.