Sunday, June 24, 2012

800 Words: Why Religion Always Wins - Part 4

And so we moved out of the Middle Ages. And thus ended the age when man seemed to know its place in the cosmos best of any age hence,;and with it left the certainty of mind which divided man from man in religious belief and castes. Was there room for doubt in the minds of this Gothic Age? It seems unlikely to our democratic minds that people could once be so unquestioning, yet there is scant evidence of doubt. The art of that age, the philosophy, the historical record, all point to the fact that there was only belief. The true conflict of the age, perhaps the only non-negotiable conflict, was over what belief was true: Christian vs. Islamic, Catholic vs. Orthodox, Caliph vs. Caliph, Greek Orthodox vs. Syrian Orthodox, Pope vs. Antipope. In an age of feudal chaos, belief meant order. Submission to an absolute ruler, heinous as it seems to the 21st century mind, was likely an improvement for their time on the alternative.

But once order is established in place of unremitting chaos and fear and action, then must come an age of contemplation; and from contemplation comes doubt, and from doubt comes despair.  The most considerate of people can use this forced rumination, and skepticism, and melancholy to achieve a greater self-understanding. But it’s a misnomer to believe that freedom will automatically make most people happier, there is no guarantee of happiness gained from greater knowledge. But it does endow us with the ability to pursue a bit more of our personal vision of happiness, and from this we can gain greater understanding of our world and a greater sense of responsibility for it, and even if we don't achieve happiness, we can achieve self-respect. Freedom may not make us any happier to be alive than we'd be without it, and in time may still prove itself a pyrrhic victory. But freedom certainly made us more interesting.

Nevertheless, regardless of the benefits which freedom bequeaths; many people, perhaps most, find this sense of freedom a curse beyond curses. Even when given all the freedom they could possibly have, they still retreat to the constriction of belief. Whether their dogmas are religious, or political, or cultural, many people find much greater comfort in being told what creeds to believe than to arrive at their own personal creed. They see the world as irredeemably broken, and long to return to their personal version of the Gothic Age, when certainty reigned and we all knew who we were. They look at a planet beset by doubts and see a world almost irreparably broken (though never quite all…) and look to Christianity, or Communism, or the Free Market as our savior. And even when these people are given power, the promised land never seems to arrive, no matter how many lives they ruin in the pursuit of it.

The reason? According to them, it’s because the world didn’t believe hard enough or act with sufficient purity. The irony of what they say is that in every case, they are absolutely correct. If we had a world perfectly run under the kingdom of Christ, or Mao, or the Koch Brothers, the world would then be a perfect place. The only problem with each of these beliefs is that the world is incapable of being run in any such way. People are imperfect, and every attempt to run them by the dictates of a perfect state is doomed to failure.

And once the dynastic feuds of the Early Middle Ages were resolved, and once Western Man became held under the province of a few Kings, it immediately began to see the results of this contemplation. What God would allow the Black Death to kill a third to half of Europe? If men existed under the rule of God’s anointed King and chosen Vicar in Rome, why then was He still angry enough to kill so many?

Beginning in the fourteenth century, Man was neither Medieval nor Renaissance. He lived in a world of unending violence, unbridled superstition, unmitigated greed, and still more virulent hatreds. The world, but a century before so close to achieving the Perfect Kingdom, was a mere Paradise Lost. The infections, both physical and spiritual, festered everywhere and educated people drained them by any means they knew how. Everywhere on the continent, Inquisitions tortured and burned suspected heretics. The grandchildren of absolute monarchs lost their grip on their feudal lords – who in many cases now elected their monarchs and initiated wars between themselves that lasted a century at a time. In their efforts to retain the certainty of the Late Middle Ages, rulers only succeeded in bringing back the chaos of the Early Middle Ages, perhaps with a greater vengeance than ever.

And while the character of our age remains to be seen, the spirit of the transition between Medieval and Renaissance is one which those who lived the twentieth century would find all too familiar. Even now, we can only hope that out of Auschwitz and Hiroshima has risen a new class of persons just as did out of the terrible wars of the 14th and 15th centuries. Out of the those ancient wars rose the Middle Class as we still know it, people whose support the noble class deemed essential though they were not lords themselves; a class of tradesmen, burghers, merchants, and seamen - people whose services proved too indispensable to be kept in peasant squalor and whose talents demanded remuneration.  From such people we gained modern business methods, a much greater desire for education, wider patronage of the humanities, and a discovery of a globe much larger than previously thought. The world was again full of unexplored possibilities, and suddenly a bigger, more interesting place.

What equivalent is there to these developments in our day? We have our equivalent to the printing press in the Internet, but sites like Google and Wikipedia (or their successors) may yet prove unreliable fonts of knowledge – with governments policing the dispersion of inconvenient facts as easily as they did with any previous information system. Certainly the Middle Class is larger than ever, but so is the number of people living in poverty and wage slavery. After an amazingly promising beginning, we have virtually abandoned space exploration. So many democratic revolutions end with dictatorships still more despotic than those which came before, and still we live under constant threats of meta-viruses breaking out in the general population, rising temperatures and sea levels simultaneous to dwindling icecaps and food sources. In recent years the financial system comes eerily close to a superdepression every few months, and the birthrate of the hyper-religious exceeds the birthrate of secular people by a factor of much more than 5. The world as we know it today stands on the precipice of a four-fold collapse: financial, environmental, religious skepticism, and resource. Perhaps the world has always been under such dire threats, but statistics rarely lie (no, I’m not going to quote them), and the world’s dangers have to be faced if there is any chance of overcoming them.

I don’t doubt that skeptics of their time viewed the development of the Middle Class in the years before the Renaissance with all the same apprehension in the days of the Middle Ages as we might in our own. But that does not change the fact that history does not happen until it happens, and if the world becomes a more dangerous place, we may stand on the brink of another age in which people turn to certainties as the only bulwark against utter chaos. Is our age more like the Early Middle Ages or the Late Middle Ages?

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