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January 14, 2003

Does the free man bend his knee to man or god?

I've been having a discussion with John Ray over Christianity and western civilization, especially liberty. Below is a response I e-mailed John (with minor editorial corrections):

Good post-I might jump into this at some point, I've had debates about this
before, back on the newsgroups. My general position about the generalizations about Christianity (and its special characteristics that fostered liberalism) is "perhaps" to a lot of the assertions-but it seems that (as you would probably point out) not all Christian cultures become liberal-the Orthodox, Monophysite and to some extent Catholic cultures never developed liberalism (one could argue that the modern day liberalism of Catholic western Europe is a function of the imposition and domination by Anglospheric values because of American conquest of Europe after WW II).

Goes to your ideas about Germanic paganism-though I would qualify that I
think it was a coincidence of particular cultures at different stages that happened to come into contact on equal footing-a powerful and articulate Greco-Roman tradition that melded with a basically pre-literate tribal system which managed to somehow not be overwhelmed by the centralist tendencies that civilization seems to find so natural. In other words, many groups, in India, East Asia, even the Middle East, had ancient traditions of liberty (Greeks, Romans, Sakyas, Hebrews, Hittites, etc.) that eventually became subsumed by their absorption into a larger cultural matrix (culminating in the Pax Romana in Europe, the Middle Kingdom in China, and the social claustrophobia of caste in India). In contrast, northern Europe managed to preserve its tribal liberties in the face of the late Greco-Roman tradition of government autocracy exemplified by Diocletian.

Posted by razib at 01:44 AM




Ray makes an interesting comment:

"The preaching of man?s value is NOT unique to Christianity. Buddhism is FAR heavier is stressing the sanctity of ALL life than Christianity is. "

I think he misses something here. If all life is equally sanctified, than there is nothing special about humanity - a human being has no more or less relevance than a caterpillar. Christianity preaches that man is at the top of the heirarchy of creation and that man is individually accountable to God. This seems to me to be hugely differerent - and more conducive to liberalism - from Buddism.

Posted by: jimbo at January 14, 2003 06:39 AM


It's challenging trying to untangle cause and effect here. Specifically, does the reason protestant Europe has taken to liberalism more readily than Catholic Europe have much to do with the theological mumbo jumbo of Protestantism vs. Catholicism. Or is it that the reformation itself reflected more political independence already within protestant nations. Or that the process provided protestant nations with the opportunity to develop freer societies.

It could also be argued that the protestantism is somehow more "rational" than Catholicism. But there were/are some pretty nutty protestant sects and Catholicism today is far less anti-scientific than Southern Baptists and some other sects.

As for the broader question that Jimbo raises of Christianity's concept of the soul accountable to a God being more conducive to liberalism than Buddhism, I don't know enough about Buddhism to really answer that. I know that part of Buddhism is the belief that the self is an illusion (Western translation), but that's no different than one of Pinker's assertion in the blank slate, that the "ghost in the machine" or the soul is an illusion or many evolpsych's belief that free will is an "illusion."

It may that Eastern religions reflecting the collective effort of higher IQ individuals anticipates conclusions of Western science. Or it could be that since liberalism contains the notion of a soul axiomatically in its development ("endowed by their creator," evolution, "with certain inalienable rights"), that there really is such a thing as a soul. (Think of liberalism as a pragmatic, real world experiment of the hypothesis of the existence of the soul. It's worked, therefore there must be a soul.)

The next question is, if there's a soul, what the hell is it?

Posted by: Steve at January 14, 2003 10:05 AM


complicated questions require long answers, which i don't have time for right now.

but, the first commentor is on to something, and this point has been made. but note that islam also puts man at the apex of creation, no liberalism. similarly, though the brahmins are on top via karma, in hinduism man is the highest creature you can be reincarnated as, no liberalism.

as for steve's questions-i'm going to have a few posts on that topic-your question about protestantism, and whether it is more "rational" is a very interesting one, especially in light of the fact that Protestants tend to reject The Way of Aquinas, finding god through reason rather than faith alone.

Posted by: razib at January 14, 2003 12:51 PM


Christianity tees up the ball for liberalism from its morality and its assertion that all men are equal in the sight of God, not from its theology or any religious dogmas about the soul (which in traditional thought is basically the mind, i.e. mind==spirit==soul==consciousness.), or man's place in the order of things.

Hobbes, in Leviathan, who lived through the collapse of English political society known as the English Civil War gets the ball rolling on liberal political theory by trying to imagine a political order that won't collapse on its own accord like his did. (Rather amusing having read Marx's 'capitalism will collapse of it's own contradictions' when the starting design spec for liberal political order is a society without contradictions that will cause it to collapse.) Through lots of good reasoning, at least in my opinion good reasoning, entirely from material premises, (i.e. human nature, and yes that means biology too) that does not refer to anything religious but observing his fellow man in the here and the now, he comes up with the foundational law of a liberal society that the state exists to enforce, or the Social Contract, which reads 'Don't do to other people what you wouldn't want done to yourself'. Of course, this is a weak form of the Golden Rule, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', which is the basis of Christian morality, details to be decided case by case. If one strives to follow the Golden Rule, one should manage to not be in breach of the Social Contract.

Later philosophers like Locke reject Hobbes' thought on the nature of the state to enforce the Social Contract wholesale, but all of them keep his Social Contract, with relatively minor adjustments not in the contract itself, but in the reasoning as to how one gets to it.

As per other religions and the like, I don't think that even if they sort of follow something like the Golden Rule, none of them are as spare about it, i.e unlike Christianity where the GR is all that there is, there are lots of other religious commandments that come along with it that aren't deducible from the GR alone, and they get in the way as far as adopting the Social Contract. Razib I'm sure knows Islam better than I ever will, but I get the distinct impression, that there are a lot of moral commandments in Islam that wouldn't be deducible from the GR.

As far as equality is concerned, Hobbes doesn't say that anything about God, but merely points out out that all men are geniuses to chimps, slow to cheetahs, small and weak to elephants, fast to tortoises, stupid to God, ..., i.e. roughly equal and without differences in weaponry and training roughly equal in their capacity to commit violence on each other. This observation is one of the facts he uses to arrive at the SC. 'All men are created equal' really means biologically equal, though 'roughly equal' would be more accurate. From a liberal point of view, HBD would be something only a connossieur of humanity would be interested in, which we all of course are, and not something the political order should take into account. Of course the Christian dictum that all men are equal in the sight of God or equal in dignity reinforces this notion and makes it easy to swallow.

This is already pretty long, I do think that it's no accident that liberalism started in a Protestant country, and that Protestant country was England, though once developed was easily portable to Catholic ones, and some non-Christian ones. Maybe I'll expound on that later, if properly motivated.

J McT

Posted by: j mct at January 14, 2003 02:30 PM


Razib -

I suppose one difference is that Jesus (or at least what was transmitted of his teachings through the Gospels) had nothing to say about the ideal state, whereas most of Mohammed's teachings were about the laws of the here and now. I think the combination of individual responsibility for salvation and no specific role for the state ("Render unto Caesar...", etc.) made liberalism possible.

Here's the interesting thing for me: can liberalism survive without the social capital generated by an underlying Christian structure? It's something that has long interested me. I myself am not a believer, but I was brought up in a solidly religious (mainline protestant) household. Although I intellectually reject the teachings of Christianity, I realize that my basic ideas about morality are based on that foundation. Maybe it's because I've seen the self-destructive behavior of friends without that kind of upbringing, but I wonder if you need an essectially irrational social foundation to sustain a rational society...

Posted by: jimbo at January 14, 2003 02:53 PM


Lots of good stuff here, as always; I would mention only the possibility that a liberal political order arose where it did because of the "optimal fragmentation" of Europe and the character of both societies, Christian and pagan, that were in contact there -- a case of a "verge" producing something which neither could have produced alone.
(See http://accounting-net.actg.uic.edu/Articles/Management%20Accounting/The%20Ideal%20Form%20of%20Organization%20-%20Dec%2012%2000%20-%20WSJ.htm for Jared Diamond on optimal fragmentation.)

Posted by: Jay Manifold at January 14, 2003 04:57 PM


Hmmm, they seem to teach about the same thing. In Buddhism, on one level, the individual is accountable to karma for his or her behavior; but, ultimately the soul is illusory, so there's no accountability to worry about. Similarly, in Christianity, one on level, good and bad acts are the responsibility of the individual; but, ultimately the grace of God is thorough, so good and bad are irrelevant.

Posted by: Otto Kerner at January 14, 2003 06:09 PM


You can point to a lot of different influences throughout history that contributed to the development of liberalism. There are certainly elements of Christianity that contributed to liberal thought that are unique to Christianity. In relation to the other one bigguy religions, Christianity actually seems the most patently absurd. But it is may also be most appealing because Christianity is really about the GR, so you can take to it any which way you want.

The pagan influence on Christianity is obvious too, which makes it more easily adaptable to different cultures and different times and allows for equalizing mythologies to develop. An example is the emergence of the Virgin as major theme in Western art and consciousness around the 12th century, which may have played a moralizing force on Christianity[1]. Christian artists also captured and explored the human condition in all its pathos and tragedy, while Islam hypnotized itself with geometric abstractions. As a memetic organism, Christianity is a more clever adaptation to humans than what appears a more rigid Islam.

To take up a couple specific points:

To J Mc T. I’m in basic agreement, but would like to add a couple observations: “stupid to God” is a great way to abandon metaphysical navel gazing for practical, real world concerns. And the fact that Jesus didn’t deal at all the matters of state, or even of the physical world, investigation into these realms didn’t really contradict anything essential about Christianity. But what is it about Protestantism that mad it “no accident that liberalism started in a Protestant country, and that Protestant country was England?” I don’t think it had anything to do with Protestantism itself – the Church of England was more a political calculation than a theological schism.

To Jimbo: : “can liberalism survive without the social capital generated by an underlying Christian structure?” I agree this is a very interesting question and since parts of the West have already crossed into post-Christendom and non-Christian countries have developed broadly liberal societies, I would bet on yes.

To look at the question in more detail, we can use Razib broad definition of liberalism and ask what part of the “underlying Christian structure” is necessary to support it. Is it necessary that the core belief – the divinity of Jesus – be maintained? I certainly don’t see why that peculiar belief has any bearing on liberalism, but I do recognize the value of religion and the reality and legitimacy of spiritual concerns. I think that the religious impulse is so deeply ingrained in human nature, that the trick becomes not hope it somehow evolves out (or godless can engineer it out;-)) of humanity, but to develop more rational religious beliefs that satisfy human needs for community, ritual, mythology and a sense of awe, mystery and higher purpose. In E.O. Wilson optimistic view of humanity's future, the old atheist, sees a respected position for religion.

“I wonder if you need an essentially irrational social foundation to sustain a rational society...” If the foundation of Christianity is it’s moral teaching, then there’s no need for the irrational aspect of Christianity, i.e. the belief in the divinity of Jesus. It would be an interesting thought experiment to contemplate how Christianity would have developed had one of the early Christian heresies had won the argument.

[1] Civilization: Kenneth Clark

Posted by: Steve at January 14, 2003 08:15 PM


I guess the point I was making was that, though the moral teachings of Christianity can be arrived at rationally, they by now means will, even for the most rational-minded (the human ability for rationalization being essestially unlimited) - and they may be beyond the capabilities of those furthur down the IQ scale. And since many of the "moral" behaviors that make a society possible (don't steal, don't cheat, etc.) require people to give up private gain for social good, many of them are only "rational" to the larger society - not the individual. So maybe you need essentially irrational, religous commandants as "placeholders", simplisitic substitutes for nuanced "rational" morality, in order to have any kind of social order...

Posted by: jimbo at January 15, 2003 09:05 AM


Jimbo, the idea that a good many people do need the foundational doctrine of Christianity to adhere to its moral code runs parallel (though I think to the right, i.e. religion is a delusion conservatives purposely try to maintain) to the issue of human equality, the left's pet delusion. In each sense, there is an elite that, in the cynical words of Mencken, "preach doctrines they know to be untrue to men they know to be idiots."

I wonder how seriously most mainline Christians take the idea of Jesus' divinity. My guess is that a good many pay it lip service, but that the belief itself is really quite inconsequential to their general views on life.

It does raise the moral conundrum for those of us who think of ourselves as "rational secularists" of just how far we can and should push back veils of ignorance. I personally think truth is always better than delusion, but shattered delusions can lead to violent reactions. As Jung said, extremism is compensated doubt.

Posted by: Steve at January 15, 2003 10:38 AM


Steve, there is absolutely nothing irrational about anything in Christianity at all. An irrational thing is logically impossible, i.e. a square circle or a married bachelor. Christianity violates many tenets of materialist dogma but there isn't anything logically necessary about materialist dogma. A Richard Dawkins can say Christianity is irrational all he wants, but that just isn't so, maybe someone should buy him a dictionary.

Also, the pagan influence on Christianity amounts to stealing feast days along with there customs and renaming them and that's about it. Some Christian feast days and feast day customs might be borrowed but Christian doctrine isn't (except from Judaism of course).

Also, I agree with you that Protestant theology had nothing to do with the rise of liberalism, but Calvinist church governance, i.e. the minister serves at the pleasure of the congregation, did. Kings and bishops go together, and in England the Calvinists were the most democratic since this was 'normal' for them, that's how they ran their churches. If the preacher serves at the pleasure of the congregation, why not Caesar also ? Also I left out another liberal hotbed, Holland, which was every bit as liberal as England and predates England in this, though it produced no political philosophers. But England did add the last piece of the liberal puzzle, religious toleration (anything other than Calvinism was illegal in Holland while it became liberal in everything else).

England from 1530 to 1700 was ruled by Catholics, Anglicans, back to Catholics, then Anglican, then Calvinist, then Anglican, then Catholic, and finally ending up Anglican in 1688. No other country in Europe flip flopped around like that. A 50 year old man in 1688 had seen each of the three in the driver's seat harrassing or oppressing or threatening the other two in his lifetime. They got sick of it, I guess and decided to stop, the eye for an eye means everyone's blind thing, though Locke wrote a pamphlet, A Letter Concerning Toleration, arguing that toleration was demanded by Christian dogma, rightly in my view.

I don't know whether liberalism needs Christianity to survive. I'm pretty sure that one cannot rely on long calculations concerning enlightened self interest to keep people from stealing if they can though (in this case we are all low IQ individuals), and if one cannot rely on Christianity for this, something else might have to be found if liberalism is to last. The stuff discussed in this thread was exactly what John Adams meant when he said that the US Constitution was written for a religious (i.e. Christian) people.

Posted by: j mct at January 15, 2003 08:52 PM


England had one other thing going for it, long before Reformation. In most of Europe, military force depended only on professionals (knights and mercenaries). The great majority of the population was peasants, who were generally serfs with neither the weapons nor the training to be effective in combat. In England, there were far fewer serfs, and since at least Edward III the yeomen (free farmers) were officially encouraged to obtain and practice with bows and pikes. Furthermore, within a few generations the English professional armies in France had well proven the effectiveness of these peasant weapons by beating larger forces of knights at Crecy and Agincourt.

Why the English kings encouraged this seems clear. One of their ancestors (Richard the Lionhearted) was killed by a rebellious baron, and his successor was forced to kowtow to the massed forces of his own nobles at Runnymede. Royal prerogatives were more theoretical than real elsewhere. In France, some Dukes could rival or exceed the king in power, and the king could not even bring Gilles de Retz (a count?) to justice for raping and murdering a hundred boys. In Poland, the nobles elected the king - and then ignored him unless they really, really needed a leader against invasion. So the pike and the bow gave the English kings a potentially overwhelming counterweight to the private armies of the nobles, and rebellions could succeed only against those kings that had lost their credibility with the people. (E.g., Richard III.)

This wasn't the only possible solution, of course. Too many English invasions finally imparted patriotism and respect for their king to the French (with help from Jeanne d'Arc), and then over a few generations the kings built professional armies and rendered their nobles militarily irrelevant. But this could only be supported by heavy taxation, while Edward III's solution posed no costs to the Royal treasury.

However, arming the commoners has another effect. No one is going to succeed in enslaving them, and it took until about 1900 for the Socialists to invent a way of persuading them to enslave themselves. Henry VIII inherited a Catholic England that was probably already the freest country in Europe.

The Reformation also contributed to freedom, of course. Like the Lutheran princes, Henry VIII kept the church heirarchy but simply lopped off the top and substituted himself for the Pope. But this still weakened the church heirarchy, which had served as the ideal model for secular heirarchy since Charlemagne. And it encouraged further sectarianism, including non-approved churches. Churches not approved by the king had to avoid creating a central command that the king could seize...

Posted by: markm at January 16, 2003 05:40 PM


As the rest of the blog races on up ahead...

j McT, when you say that “there is absolutely nothing irrational about anything in Christianity at all. An irrational thing is logically impossible, i.e. a square circle or a married bachelor,” I think you have a very limiting definition of “irrational.” Would we say that Saddam Hussein is being rational if he says Iraq will crush the United States in battle? There’s certainly no logical contradiction, but it sure isn’t my idea of a rational belief. An irrational belief is a belief that contradicts empirical evidence, rests upon faulty reasoning or is non-verifiable yet held with powerful emotional commitment. The dichotomy between the rational and irrational isn’t as clear cut as that between the logical and the illogical.

The core belief of Christianity, the unique divinity of the historical figure Jesus, strikes me as irrational because it is a rather extraordinary claim with no evidence to support it, other than some second hand accounts written well after his death. I know plenty of rational people who believe it, but as a matter of politeness I don’t press the issue. Incidentally, I don’t find strict materialism particularly rational either for the simple reason that by a materialist’s own admission, his ideas aren’t real and therefore not worth considering.

I think you underestimate the pagan influence on Christianity as well as the pagan compatible doctrine of the trinity. Christianity evolved over time a pantheon with Christ at its center, but plenty of other lesser gods and goddesses in the form of saints and icons, and especially in the form of the Virgin Mary. Even today, you can walk in the woods and country sides of many Catholic nations and see shrines to various saints. Protestantism was to some extent an explicit rejection of what many reformers came to think as Catholic paganism. This may have had a rationalizing effect on Protestantism by making God even more abstract than in Judaism, but at the cost of a rich and humane mythology.

Whether or not liberalism needs Christianity to survive depends on what you mean by Christianity – the doctrine of the moral equality of all men or the doctrine of the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m still of the mind that liberalism is a rational social structure and therefore compatible with a variety of cultures, including non-Western and non-Christian or post-Christian ones. But my concern is, if these doctrines aren’t seen as independent, many people will come to reject Christian morality based upon the rational rejection of Jesus’ divinity. So as a matter of salvaging what’s necessary, Christianity needs to abandon what will only become a more divisive and untenable position. The problem is that different people and different parts of the world are at wildly different stages of moral development, so people like me will need to learn talk in riddles and perhaps even profess to be Christians.

Posted by: Steve at January 17, 2003 09:58 AM