Saturday, December 20, 2008

Spiritual capital

Consider this:

"Philosophically speaking, an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms. Now don't misunderstand me. This age has thrown up a new type of man - we call him 'secular'; he does not believe in God; not because he is a wicked man but because he is dialectically honest (? LT) . He would rather walk with the unbelievers than sit hypocritically with people of the faith. These men, and many I have known, are fine in character; and in their obligations as citizens and good neigbours, quite excellent.

But they really are 'spiritual parasites'. And I mean no term of abuse in this. I'm simply classifying them. A parasite is an organism that lives upon the life force of another organism without contributing to the life of the other. These excellent ethical seculars are living upon the accumulated spiritual capital of Judeao-Christian civilisation, and at the same time (they) deny the God who revealed the divine principles upon which the ethics of this country grow."

That's exactly right. And we in Britain are, in the main, parasites living upon the accumulated spiritual capital of nearly 1700 years of Christianity, just as the Britons of the fourth century were warmed by the declining glow of Rome's glory - until the barbarian war-bands came.
No mention at all is made of the likelihood that God exists. What if, as I think is obvious, there are no Gods? What is the above an argument for? Or is it merely a lament?

I don't know. It feels like a defence of Christianity against secularism (secularism is not, incidentally, necessarily in conflict with any form of religion other than theocracy, but that's another argument). I think it probably is meant to be a defence of Christianity. Because it isn't an explicit argument, and because it relies on a phrase that is gibberish ("spiritual capital"), it is necessary to untangle it.

There's an obvious and very basic logical error in this sentence:
These excellent ethical seculars are living upon the accumulated spiritual capital of Judeao-Christian civilisation, and at the same time (they) deny the God who revealed the divine principles upon which the ethics of this country grow
It is that of begging the question. The sentence simply assumes that God exists when in fact that's the subject of the debate. If we can know there are no Gods, then continued belief in one or more of them would be untenable, whatever the consequences and whatever legacy had been bequeathed to society by religion.

Logical incoherence aside, I think this is what is meant by "accumulated spiritual capital": legacy. I think the writer is trying to say that there are good, even vital, things in society that are only there because of the influence of Christianity. To which we would be entitled to ask: what? Which things are the consequence of Christianity and would not otherwise be there?

Next week it's Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Christ. Except that it isn't in any sense the anniversary of that event, even if there had been such a birth. The historically impossible tale, set at a time of events that did not happen (Herod, etc), is itself set in the springtime or early summer. How many lambs do you see in the fields right now? We are celebrating in December because humans have always done something to mark the winter solstice. We'd be preparing for a feast at this time of year regardless of whether there had been Christianity in Europe.

The Ten Commandments say you should not steal or kill. Does this make these ethics specifically Christian? Have these prohibitions stopped Christians stealing or killing, at least more than other, non-Abrahamic cultures? Did the pre-Christian Britons strike their foreheads when missionaries read these commandments to them, exclaiming "Oh! I see it now! We shouldn't kill or steal!"?

Far from us needing religion from which to draw our ethics, it is only through religious injunction that burning or stoning someone to death, or throwing them from a high building, could be given the mantle of ethical behaviour. Genuine ethics exist independently of religious belief, which is why they appear in some form, albeit sometimes horribly distorted, within every religion.

We have a system of common law in England, in France they have codified law. Both countries are nominally Christian. Which form of law is the legacy of Christianity?

The English legal system developed in the teeth of opposition from the Church. Previously, clerics were both excluded from the scope of civil law, and often responsible for its administration. Trial by ordeal was normally supervised by clerics who could and did pervert it when they wanted to. We have our legal system despite, not because of, the church.

The list goes on. Only one aspect of our culture derives from Christianity, or rather from something that happened to Christianity. The Reformation broke the power of the church, splintered it, even within countries, in a way that did not happen elsewhere. While people continued to believe, they developed a tradition of freedom of intellect and of conscience that led to the enlightenment and scientific revolution. It is this freedom that has caused the decline of religion. Once people became free to doubt, free to think, free to learn it became inevitable that they would begin to shed religious belief.

So in fact, far from having a debt to religion, we have a debt to the things that are killing religion.

Why then is there a sense that the Barbarians are at the gates? There is a genuine problem being skirted by this sort of argument. Ethics exist independently of religion, but the enforcement of ethics does not. At least, so far it has not. What we really need now is the assertion that ethics are important, that they transcend systems of religious belief and are universal. They include the freedoms of conscience and expression that have so undermined religious belief but they are not restricted to those freedoms. They also include things like honesty and self-reliance. Socialism, it follows, is unethical.

Religion gave people both the confidence to assert the need for individual responsibility, but also an excuse that made it easier to make this assertion: "It's not me, personally I'd be understanding of your weaknesses and problems. But the big guy with the beard? He's not so understanding. He knows what you think, let alone what you do, and it's all written down in a book."

What's needed now is the same confidence without the excuse.


Anonymous said...

Actually I think that most thinking Christians would accept that ethics are logically prior to God. It is a fundamental reason why Christianity as a belief system is vastly superior to Islam.

In Islam "Allah's hand is not fettered" and 2+2 = "Whatever Allah wants". Big difference. The decline in Christian belief is an intrinsic feature of Christianity. It goes back to it's Hellenic roots - let's face it - Christianity is a syncretic religion.

Christianity is the reason we did it and they didn't because quite simply it's the least worst religion out there. Buddhism is just weird, Confucionism and Taoism are too conservative and Islam is backward as buggeration because of the old inshallah fatalism.

We don't owe Christianity our Civilization but we do owe it for being more benign than the alternatives.

Anonymous said...

You can unpack the assumptions (and you seem to hint at this so apologies if you were already there).

First there is the question of whether there is a God.

Second the question of whether an organised religion (whether or not it is based upon non existent God) can provide a social good.

There are several articles on the web discussing an idea often called evolutionary religion. [Unfortunately these search terms lead mostly to things about Darwin Dawkins et al]. This amounts to the idea that in accepting a religion, a society accepts a body of ideas and lives by them differently than it did previously. Now, by evolution those changes will either give that society advantages, which will increase its success or create disadvantages, which will cause its earlier demise (extinction). Thus the better religions will grow and the lesser religions die. The ones that survive will be better not because they tell us anything about the existence of God but because they have proven to be closer to what we might call Natural Law. [Note that the idea of Natural Law can easily coexist with rationalism.]

Notice that this idea is devoid of content about the existence of God. It's as if we can see that certain moral strictures that have associations with tea pots in space prove to be better in practice than either the same strictures without the force of the tea pot or different strictures. You are starting from "society X is successful" and asking why, rather than starting from set moral positions and saying that a society is bad because it doesn't meet those criteria.

Now in this view Christianity might be seen as a positive force in that during its tenure Europeans grew out of the dark ages and created the modern world. Now that package of ideas seems to have been abandoned by the ruling elite and so either their new one will continue the success or it will lead to failure. The evidence so far is not good. Laban's pessimism may be justified.

In the same way we might say that Islam was a positive benefit in the early days but in latter years that package became a positive hindrance due to changes outside of Islam.

Now given that background, which religion was most likely to create an individualistic society that comes closest to Libertarian ideals?

Now you are starting from today and demanding proof that success was down to Christianity; and sure, I concede that it may be just coincidence, but Laban is equally right to demand that you prove that success was independent of Christianity.

Laban said...

"No mention at all is made of the likelihood that God exists."

Be fair. The writer was a minister of religion. For him (and me) it's a probability of 1. Richard Dawkins doesn't open every book with a couple of chapters on whether natural selectio is real or not.

(It was only a quick post, so painted with a broad brush. Our fast-disappearing culture is the product of the last 200-300 years, not all 1700. But Christianity is at the heart of it. Mind, it was at the heart of some of our less pleasant historical cultures, too).

"What's needed now is the same confidence without the excuse."

Absolutely. But the self confidence baby went out with the religious bathwater. Has there ever been a successful secular society ?

Peter Risdon said...

The USA is the most secular country of all time, I think, with secularism (and the other Liberal, Enlightenment values I advocate) embedded at a constitutional level. It's been moderately successful.