Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Like a Hot Potato!

The following numbers, although approximate, enlighten nonetheless: around 30 A.D., Europe was 100% pagan. The only possible exceptions were tiny Jewish communities that might have existed in Rome and in some of the Greek city-states. Numerically, these would have been insignificant, if they existed at all; we know that, a few decades later, they did exist.

This means that all of continental Europe, from Spain to Finland, from Italy to Greece, was dominated by a belief system which featured polytheism, human sacrifices, and - in its primitive stages - ritual orgies. This pre-religious quasi-spirituality (for it was neither fully, but perhaps both partially) consisted of myth and magic. Myth is the attempt to explain; magic is the attempt to control. Mythological explanations were offered for the weather, for childlessness, and for military victories or losses. Magic tried to manipulate harvests, human fertility, and the outcomes of battles. Lacking was any sense of personal relationship between the human and the deity.

This, then, was mindset which dominated the area.

By 400 A.D., the majority of the European landmass will be inhabited by populations which contain a significant minority of Christians; some areas will even have a majority of Christians. By 800 A.D., the composition of all of Europe will be approximately 45% Christian and 10% Jewish; the remaining 45% will claim to be Christian. Paganism will be essentially gone; possibly, tiny groups of Druids or others remained for a few more decades in hiding.

Given that paganism had dominated the continent (as well as most of the world) for around five thousand years, it vanished with shocking speed. Although a few centuries may seem like a long time to you and me, it's a mere instant in the grand scheme of world history.

Two questions remain to be asked: Why did people so easily relinquish their old belief system and embrace a new one? And what was the net effect of this change?

To the first question, we may note that ancient paganism had little with which to endear itself to practitioner, and so it would be easy for those people to let go of it. It lacked any sense of personal bond to the gods worshipped, and lacked concepts of forgiveness, comfort, and charity. It encouraged a sense of manipulation along multiple vectors - humans manipulating deities, deities manipulating humans, humans manipulating each other, and even deities manipulating each other. It nudged cultures toward desperation and fear; it spoke of gods who behave erratically, unreliably, and even hostilely toward humans.

By contrast, the Judeo-Christian influence spoke of hope, friendship, and mutual aid. It encouraged humans to accept the unalterable facts of existence, rather than hope for a magical change. It recognized the limits of human knowledge and reason, rather than inventing mythological explanations for those things which lie beyond human power; it revealed a Deity who liked humans and desired friendship with them.

The net effect of polytheism's decline was manifold: most obviously, human sacrifice was ended. Beyond that, there was a change in the very idea of what it meant to be human: every human life became seen as valuable and worthy of respect. The buying and selling of people, whether in slavery or in marriage, ended; women were given a voice in their own lives and decisions. Torture was considered inappropriate, and a conflict of ideas was viewed as an opportunity for a healthy debate, not a physical conflict.

Did European culture live up to these noble ideas which were introduced by the Judeo-Christian tradition? Not always. There are glaring examples in which the Europeans failed, at certain times, to respect human rights. But there were also times at which they did the right thing: times at which they respected the dignity of the individual. And this set them apart from what they had been a few hundred years earlier - significant progress - and it also set them apart from the other cultures of the world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Moses vs. Hammurabi

The outlook of Moses is one which leads, ultimately, after centuries, to the advances of modern physics, because it leads to a view that the universe is systematic, and uniform regarding time and space and gravity; Moses ultimately points the way to the conclusion that the universe is susceptible to rational analysis, because it is organized according to the rational laws of mathematics. The philosophical view that the world is ultimately based on reason and algebra and geometry is the foundation for modern science.

The culture which descends from the civilization of Hammurabi is one that, after several generations, will ultimately de-emphasize the natural sciences, and chemistry and physics in particular, because it sees the universe as random and meaningless.

If we look at the last several centuries of scientific, mathematical, and engineering innovation, it does not come from the philosophical children of Hammurabi, but rather such technological advancement springs from the philosophical offspring of Moses. A statistical analysis of the number of patents filed in these areas suffices to show this; one can also look at where high-tech firms do business, and who they hire. Westerners are often brought in to do high-tech work in parts of the world; if locals living there are interested in pursuing technological research, they generally leave the country.

The ethic of Moses will lead ultimately to the view that certain legal punishments are “cruel and unusual” – the ethic that crimes may not be punished with fury, wrath, and vengeance, but rather that every human – even a criminal or a slave – still deserves a modicum of decency in treatment, because every human is still worthy of respect and dignity.

The ethic of Hammurabi will ultimately lead to routine applications of punishments such as the amputation of hands, drowning, strangling, public floggings, burnings, skinning, etc.: those very same punishments which the society of Moses ultimately has rejected. In these parts of the world today, no punishment or torture is considered "too cruel". The understanding of human rights, on the one hand, and civil rights, on the other hand, is lacking in these places. This is the legacy of Hammurabi.

We Were Really Good, Weren't We?

When a group can write its own history, and when there is little competing data, it can twist the way in which later generations will view it.

The Classical Greeks of the “Golden Age” are often seen as an ideal, as a virtuous and noble group of people. Yet this is not true: leaders like Themistocles were comfortable with bribery, extortion, and human sacrifice; Thucydides tells us how Pericles gives a speech praising Athens for its morality and then tells us how the Athenians relied primarily upon dishonesty, intimidation, betrayal, murder, and cruelty for political power. Why do they have such a good image in history books, if they were so ruthless and corrupt? Some of the Greeks had a chance to write their own histories, and make themselves look good in the process; other Greeks wrote about how people should act, not about how they actually do act. The Greeks living during the Classical age would laugh themselves sick if they saw modern essays about the “noble Greeks”.

Remember, this is a society which embraced slavery, and notions of human inequality, to an extent which would shock an twenty-first century American; exclusion was one of the foundational concepts on which they based their society. Few societies have been more corrupt, sick, or depraved than Greece during the Classical age, and Athens in particular. Yet we remember then as the noble, democratic, virtuous Greeks!

Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Exodus Experience is paradigmatic for the North American experience of 19th through 21st centuries: Emancipating millions of slaves at once creates the danger of social chaos, unless or until these former slaves, who never made meaningful decisions for themselves, and who never developed leadership skills, are given a social vision and a way to organize themselves. The task of Moses was not merely to bring the Hebrews out of slavery and give them a few laws, but rather to help them create a society. Did the former slaves, and the children and grandchildren of former slaves, find a stable and beneficial social structure after being freed in the American Civil War?

It is no accident that Moses and the Exodus formed a focal point in the preaching of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in American in the twentieth century; they understood that after gaining their freedom, they also needed a "Moses experience" or a "Sinai experience" to give them a sense of direction, a social structure, a moral compass. To exactly what extent this ever happened is debatable.

Tribal, But Not Simplistic

Tribal Europe became strong during the last centuries of the Roman empire. The Goths had a literary culture by 350 A.D., and subdivided into Visigoths and Ostrogoths. The Franks would ultimately be the most influential tribe, forming the basis of modern Europe; they emerged from their homeland (“Franconia” or “Frankenland”), in the area which is now on the German/Czech border.

The tribes began in the area north of the Danube and east of the Rhein, the cradle of Europe, and expanded as Roman influence imploded. These ancient tribes originally engaged in pagan polytheism; consider the close parallels between Norse mythology, Greco-Roman mythology, and Hinduism.

The major European tribal groupings (Germanic, Latin, Greek, Slavic) are siblings to the Persian/Iranian and Sanskrit groupings. Thus “western” culture has some surprising ties to the East.

But Arabic, Hebrew, Egyptian, and other Semitic cultural and genetic groups are not siblings of the Europeans. The eventual spread of monotheism and respect for human life represent the impact of Semitic thought on the Indo-European stock.

Europeans were all originally polytheistic. As the tribes switched from semi-nomadic to domestic lifestyles, the empire of the Franks emerged into dominance; the Merovingian and Carolinian dynasties would lead.

Europeans thus represent a mixed heritage; while the European languages are rather similar to Sanskrit, the moral and spiritual world view is Hebrew. Perhaps this is the source of the fact that “western” cultures are non-xenophobic, while “non western” cultures are xenophobic.

But the problem with this generalization is, as we have seen, it is difficult to define precisely which cultures are to be considered “western” and which are “non western”. The huge distance, in miles, between England and India shows us how far these tribes, originally living together, migrated.

The bottom line: European cultures have demonstrated a consistent openness to other civilizations, while the xenophobia of non-European traditions has led them to lock out foreign influences. Only in the twentieth century did significant numbers of non-European cultures begin to open themselves to other civilizations.