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Habits of Illusion

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This is going to be an interesting day.  The pollen count must be up in the stratosphere somewhere–did I just spell that wrong?–and I keep sneezing like I’m a character in an early Disney movie.  I managed to get the writing done for today, but I think I know another reason why I don’t usually write books in the summer.

Let me go back, for a while, to where I was yesterday.

I think part of the problem we have with understanding all this stuff comes from the unstated assumption that to admit that A led to B and nothing else led to B must mean:

a) that A led to B deliberately

b) that A is true.

The modern concept of equality–applying (in some way) to everybody without respect to race, creed, sex, and possibly other things) arose only in those countries which were predominantly Christian, and it arose there because of a specific idea delivered by St. Paul at the very beginning of the Christian era.

Does that mean that that is what Christianity set out to do?

That’s a harder question than you’d think.  St. Paul’s statement seems to say that it did.  The subsequent behavior of the Christian community is a good illustration of how it didn’t on any level we are likely to call significant.

We may all be one in Christ Jesus, but for at least eighteen hundred years or so after that, the Christian Church (and even most of the Protestant) ran on the assumption that that was going to be all very well when we got to heaven, but in the meantime there were going to be hierarchies, and you’d better submit to them.

Still, most of us would say that equality is a good thing.  And it’s obvious that the idea of equality is not a universal characteristic of human societies–in fact, it has only arisen once, and we just don’t know if it could have arisen any other way, because it didn’t.

So…is this an indication that Christianity is true?

No.  At the most, it’s the indication that Christianity had at least one very good idea that we value.  Beyond that, it doesn’t tell us anything.  It doesn’t even tell us whether Christianity has been, on the balance, a force for good or ill in world history.  

The essential point here–and with the science thing–is habits of mind.

Let’s look at the science thing for a minute, and the democracy thing as well.

The Catholic Church was and is a hierarchy, a very well-defined and largely rigid hierarchy.  To put it the way Bill said it was put to him by his father:  the Pope is the boss of the Bishop, the Bishop is the boss of the Priest, the Priest is the boss of the nun, and the nun is the boss of You.

If you read the Bible and think it means one thing and the Pope reads the Bible and thinks it means something else–the Pope is right, and you should just accept it.

If you look at the progression of “natual philosophy” into “modern science” from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Reformation, what you find is not the Catholic Church persecuting scientists for doing science–that didn’t start until the Reformation, and it isn’t what the Galileo thing was actually about.

What you find is the assumption that Aristotle had gifted us with wisdom, and therefore the truth about the material world.  Aristotle was the authority, and if you thought you’d found out something contrary to what he taught–well, you must be wrong.

If you look at the actual intellectual history here, you find that people got into a lot more trouble for challenging the authority of Aristotle than they did for challenging the authority of the Church. 

Deference to authority was a habit of mind–you looked to the Church to interpret scripture for you and to Aristotle to interpret the material world.

What Protestantism did was to bring in the idea that each individual human being was competent to understand and interpret scripture on his own.  Each man and woman was his (or her) own authority, and if he read scripture differently than the pastor, and prayed and studied on it, and still thought he was right and the paster was wrong–well, then, you stuck to it.

By now, there are probably twenty million of you ready to tell me that that wasn’t the way the Protestant Churches actually operated, no matter what they might have said in theory.

But it doesn’t matter.  Someone brought up with the idea that he must bow to authority in both the spiritual and material realm is different in fact–his brain functions differently in fact–from someone who is brought up to think that he’s perfectly capable of understanding the world for himself if he puts his mind to it, and just as likely to be right as any “expert.”

It was societies full of people with that habit of mind that modern science needed to get started, not anything specific to Protestant theology per se. 

And again, that’s not an idea that is universal to human societies.  It has arisen in one place in one specific sequence of intllectual history, and no place else, ever.  They eye is supposed to have evolved several dozen ways over the millions of years of evolution.  This stuff was apparently harder.

Did Protestantism mean to throw up this particular thing, and to launch modern science?

I think we can positively say–no.  In fact, any reading of Luther gives the impression that the first forays in the direction of modern science by Renaissance Popes eager to be patrons of the new Christian Humanism were a good part of why Luther wanted to “reform” the Church. 

“Reason,” Martin Luther said, “is the Devil’s greatest whore…She is and ought to be drowned in baptism.”

 But habits of mind are habits of mind.  Given enough time, they will work themselves out to their logical conclusions.  And those conclusions are often things the initiators of the ideas not only did not intend, but wouldn’t have approved of for a second.

As for democracy–well the core idea of democracy is obviously Greek.  But I’ll stick to my original assertion that successful democracy (and successful representative Republics) require a Protestant habit of mind.

French democracy is a good case in point.  I think most Americans, used to the what we mean by “democratic government” here, would have a hard time accepting that France is democratic at all.  What it is is a meritocratic oligarchy, a country of rule by experts, all of them meticulously credentialed in government-run schools the entry to which is tightly controlled.  Then entry into the ruling bureaucracies is based on whether or not you have the credentials from the schools.

If you don’t like the curriculum–better be ready to go out of the country.  Private schools must follow the state curriculum, and there is no legal homeschooling.  If you want to work more than the state-approved maximum hours per week–nope, going to get into trouble there.  Health care, job policies, education, even entertainment, everything is centrally controlled and administered by school-certified ‘experts,” and  your disagreement is not encouraged or even legitimate.

France runs its country by priesthood, only it calls its priests bureaucrats.   It’s not democracy as democracy is understood in the Anglophone sphere.  It’s really not democracy as democracy is understood in the US. 

It is, however, very Catholic.

I was going to get around to Hart’s Atheist Delusions, because he has an interesting point, and one I don’t have an answer to.

But it’s time to be a grown-up.

More or less.

Written by janeh

June 23rd, 2010 at 8:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Habits of Illusion'

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  1. Some random comments:

    Aren’t you leaning a bit overboard when you say that people think differently when brought up with one idea as against another? Certainly, nurture is highly influential, but so is nature – otherwise the new ideas would never have existed.

    The failures of Christianity (and probably all religions) to both live up to their teachings and to agree among themselves as to what those teachings are go without saying. They still bring and spread ideas into and through their cultures.

    I have a vague idea that Popper and especially Kuhn are now considered a bit old hat, but the idea that established scientific wisdom doesn’t go down without a fight isn’t limited to Aristotle or even the Middle Ages. Even today, a young scientist who challenges conventional thinking – and is right – will be lucky if his ideas get enough acceptance to be tested out before he’s ready to retire. Maybe human nature doesn’t tend to encourage seniors in a group to take kindly to challenges from below.

    Which, I suppose, brings me back to nature and nurture and how much each of them contributes to the creation or acceptance of rigid hierarchies.

    And willingness to choose to ignore the experts and go by one’s own opinions and instincts don’t guarantee correctness, either. We’ve discussed many times people who have opinions or beliefs that could be contradicted by the most basic examination of facts, and who don’t do it. Or who don’t see the need to know some facts at all. And then there’s that link that’s been posted recently about how incompetent test subjects tend to over-estimate their ability.


    23 Jun 10 at 9:28 am

  2. I agree by and large with the original post.

    While I am NOT going to get into a discussion on how democracy is understood in the United States, France is certainly a democracy as I understand it. What it is not is a free society as many Americans understand freedom. There is sufficient freedom of speech and the press to make elections meaningful, a variety of parties and the right to form more, and the votes are honestly counted. If the primary object of the French voters was to reform the credential system, they could probably get it done–and getting something done against the wishes of the Powers that Be isn’t easy here, either. Democracy require some freedoms. To get or keep the rest, you have to put limits on that democracy.

    However, looking at Poland, Spain, Ireland and southern Germany, I am less inclined to blame Catholicism for France’s freedom deficit, and more inclined to blame Louis XIV.


    23 Jun 10 at 4:51 pm

  3. Well, Cheryl, I think there is a continuum of people. There are folks that, no matter how you raised them, would question authority. There are folks that, no matter how you raised them, would be obedient to authority. But there is a vast middle group where the habits of mind of the society will determine what predominates.

    Cathy, one of those naturally questioning types


    23 Jun 10 at 8:33 pm

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