FreedomFest 2010 debate on religion on C-Span 2


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The Freedomfest 2010 debate, “Religion on Trial: Is God the Problem?” with Dinesh D’Souza, Steven Landsberg, Charles Murray and Michael Shermer, will be televised on C-Span 2 at 7 PM EST today. It is fascinating and well worth watching, especially for atheists who want insight on the pro-religious point-of-view and how to answer pro-religious arguments. I made reference to this debate in the conference summary I previously posted in The Objectivist Living Room section.

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The debate was even better than I had remembered it. It will most likely be rebroadcast by C-Span 2 at some point in the weeks ahead. If you missed it, it would be worthwhile to check the BookTV online schedule for future telecasts of this event.

The debate took the format of a mock trial, and I had forgotten that Doug Casey chose to take his oath on a copy of Atlas Shrugged. Another witness used Darwin's Origin of Species.

I found the testimony of Charles Murray particularly fascinating. Objectivists would do well to appreciate his insights. I have summarized his comments below. It seems clear to me that the Enlightenment was less of a radical departure from Christianity than I had previously believed. The connection between individualism and the scientific method is definitely worth some thought.

FREEDOMFEST 2010 "The Importance of Christianity to Western Civilization"

Christianity was the primary reason this one small section of the Eurasian land mass exploded into an unprecedented five centuries of creativity called the Renaissance. The basic Christian premise that all human individuals are invited into a personal relationship with God and that all individuals are equal in God’s sight was a revolutionary idea. No other religion and no other society had ever said that. Thomas Aquinas was chiefly responsible for transforming Christianity into the kind of individualist belief system that had such a major impact on the West. It was Aquinas who said that it is pleasing to God for us to explore the mysteries of this universe and understand them and to create great works of beauty.

Along with that, two additional ideas gave the West a huge advantage over the rest of the world. One was autonomy—the notion that one can act efficaciously as an individual was also a Christian contribution unique to the West. The second is the Christian idea that each individual had been put on this earth for a purpose, which was a terrific motivator for creative elites. This was distinctive to Christianity. The origins of the scientific method also grew as an accumulation of all this.

The stonemasons created artistic works which were placed where they would never be seen by anyone. When they created those works, the stonemasons claimed that they were carving “for the eye of God.” A great deal of the inspiration of creative elites—people who devote themselves to creating great works, whether in science or the arts—reflects the kind of passion eloquently expressed as “carving for the eye of God.”

Without the influence of Christianity, ideas such as individualism, rights and autonomy would not have developed in the West. In fact, these were ideas which never developed anywhere else except in the West. Individualist ideas are distinctively a Western creation, and all of them evolved as the direct causal influence of Christianity.

The Greeks laid the foundation, but they did not have the concept of individualism. The Greeks and Aristotle predated the concept of individualism as it developed in the West.

As to science and mathematics, non-Western societies such as China did come up with scientific insights, but their scientific knowledge was hampered because they never developed the scientific method, which was an outgrowth of these individualist ideas. The reason we developed the scientific method in the West is complicated, but much of it has to do with the Western idea of individualism. In Asia, there is much less willingness to stand up and say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’—and to argue it out—which is the essence of how the scientific method got started.

Human achievement, especially in the sciences, is fostered by the kind of individuality which motivates people to fight things out, to stand up and say, “I am right and you are wrong, and we will fight this out to the end.’ In Asia, that is a very alien way of looking at things. Christianity had advantages which other religions such as Confucianism and Taosim did not in terms of developing the scientific method.

Religion’s role in fostering the development of Western civilization has been huge and constructive. Specifically with respect to the scientific method, there was a critical turning point in the accumulation of human knowledge in which Christianity was the direct causal agent.

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Most of what Charles Murray says (very eloquently and in essentialized form) is true historically. But it is because the Christian civilization of Europe became a hybrid, deeply infused by and transformed by the rediscovery of the lost learning of the Greeks.

So that's not an argument for our debt to religion, it's an argument for our debt to reason. To Aristotle -- plus Galen, Archimedes, Euclid, et al -- causing a religion and a surrounding culture to surely and progressively over several centuries move dramatically away from its Augustinian/Platonic/Biblical/otherworldly roots.

Aristotle was -the- Philosopher in the late Middle Ages, all his major works studied in every intellectual circle. As Dante put it, he was respected as "the master of them that know." And held somewhat in awe for the staggering breadth of his knowledge and the subjects he tackled.

If we directly studied Aristotle one-tenth as assiduously and respectfully as even medieval monks did in that time, we would be a much better and different civilization.

Edited by Philip Coates
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The best books I've read which heavily focus on all this and on what happened during this important time (and a time which has important lessons for Oism) are: "History of Christianity" by Paul Johnson, "A World Lit only by Fire" by William Manchester, "Aristotle's Children" by Richard Rubinstein, and "The Medieval Mind" by Friedrich Heer. (Actually, I'm just finishing the Rubinstein book.)

Also worth mentioning: J.M. Roberts' superb "History of the World". It devotes less space of course to this period, but is very good on how ideas diffuse through a culture. Heer is more dense than Manchester and I wouldn't read it if I were not a history buff with a lot of preexisting knowledge, while Rubinstein is really good on the sequence of ideas - how one doctrine or viewpoint leads to another or to a reaction by religious authorities against it, then another idea, etc. I recall another impressive book, "The Making of the Middle Ages", but I read it a long time ago and can't say more. I think it was more on the early period, on the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. (Come to think of it, I recall Manchester as leaning much more toward the early period as well. But it is important to study the first half of the medieval period in at least a bit of detail if you want to understand how the second half gradually emerges from it.)

Edited by Philip Coates
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Most of what Charles Murray says (very eloquently and in essentialized form) is true historically. But it is because the Christian civilization of Europe became a hybrid, deeply infused by and transformed by the rediscovery of the lost learning of the Greeks.

So that's not an argument for our debt to religion, it's an argument for our debt to reason. To Aristotle -- plus Galen, Archimedes, Euclid, et al -- causing a religion and a surrounding culture to surely and progressively over several centuries move dramatically away from its Augustinian/Platonic/Biblical/otherworldly roots.

Aristotle was -the- Philosopher in the late Middle Ages, all his major works studied in every intellectual circle. As Dante put it, he was respected as "the master of them that know." And held somewhat in awe for the staggering breadth of his knowledge and the subjects he tackled.

If we directly studied Aristotle one-tenth as assiduously and respectfully as even medieval monks did in that time, we would be a much better and different civilization.

If we took Aristotle seriously we would have no working physical theories. Aristotle got matter and motion mostly wrong.

Aristotle missed out on inertia. Some of the medieval scholars made up part of the deficiency with the idea of impetus.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Most of what Charles Murray says (very eloquently and in essentialized form) is true historically. But it is because the Christian civilization of Europe became a hybrid, deeply infused by and transformed by the rediscovery of the lost learning of the Greeks.

So that's not an argument for our debt to religion, it's an argument for our debt to reason. To Aristotle -- plus Galen, Archimedes, Euclid, et al -- causing a religion and a surrounding culture to surely and progressively over several centuries move dramatically away from its Augustinian/Platonic/Biblical/otherworldly roots.

Aristotle was -the- Philosopher in the late Middle Ages, all his major works studied in every intellectual circle. As Dante put it, he was respected as "the master of them that know." And held somewhat in awe for the staggering breadth of his knowledge and the subjects he tackled.

If we directly studied Aristotle one-tenth as assiduously and respectfully as even medieval monks did in that time, we would be a much better and different civilization.

Phil,

Thanks for your comments. BTW, in the interest of full disclosure, I should have mentioned that I “airbrushed” Murray’s extemporaneous comments to some extent. I feel confident that I did not alter the content in any substantial way, however. (I thought I should say this before Robert takes me to task.)

I think Murray’s point is that some Christian thinkers—Aquinas, in particular—made significant improvements on Aristotle in some areas. I don’t think we can just write this off as the inevitable evolution of some rational zeitgeist. We need to give credit where it is due, and Aquinas—as a Christian theologian—did in fact reformulate some of Aristotle’s teachings in a way that promoted individualism, autonomy and individual rights. One of the books you cite, Aristotle’s Children, clearly supports Murray in this regard. In chapter six, Rubenstein explains the importance of Aquinas’ paper entitled “On There Being Only One Intellect.” Aquinas’ thesis was to defend individualism (i.e., that body and soul together make one individual person) against other interpretations of Aristotle’s De Anima (such as the monopsychism of Averroes).

The significance of the idea of individual immortality (vs some collectivist alternative) was the recognition of the individual as a moral agent with free will, thereby implying some “right” to exercise that intellectual function. Aquinas viewed “right action” as emerging from the concept of “good” through natural law. Right action “proceeds to its natural end in accord with the order of reason and eternal law.”[Summa Theologiae]

Since Aquinas was writing as a Christian theologian, I think Objectivists should acknowledge the West’s debt to that religious tradition, while noting that these ideas amounted to a rational element that would eventually overthrow religion’s authority.

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Murray's thoughts have validitya nd I consider Aquinas a giant of Western thought, but Christianity's record during its first 1000 years on freedom and human progress is not a good one. In fact, I would say that the Islamic world was more progressive for centuries, so Christianity's respect for individualism was by no means a given. The Catholic Encycopedia lays out clearly why Christianity (or least Catholicism, the original form of Christianity) is not a fully individualistic religion.

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07761a.htm

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Murray's thoughts have validity and I consider Aquinas a giant of Western thought, but Christianity's record during its first 1000 years on freedom and human progress is not a good one. In fact, I would say that the Islamic world was more progressive for centuries, so Christianity's respect for individualism was by no means a given. The Catholic Encycopedia lays out clearly why Christianity (or least Catholicism, the original form of Christianity) is not a fully individualistic religion.

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07761a.htm

John,

I like the reference you gave, particularly the following excerpt:

…In ancient Greece and Rome, political theory and practice were anti-individualistic; for they considered and made the State the supreme good, an end in itself, to which the individual was a mere means.

Directly opposed to this conception was the Christian teaching that the individual soul had an independent and indestructible value, and that the State was only a means, albeit a necessary means, to individual welfare. Throughout the Middle Ages, therefore, the ancient theory was everywhere rejected. Nevertheless the prevailing theory and practice were far removed from anything that could be called individualism. Owing largely to the religious individualism resulting from the Reformation, political individualism at length appeared: at first, partial in the writings of Hobbes and Locke; later, complete in the speculations of the French philosophers of the eighteenth century…

There is no question about the fact that the Christian religion has a great deal of blood on its hands. Or that its’ perspective on individualism fell far short of a fully rational view. I have no doubt that Murray would acknowledge that the blood spilled in the name of Christ was unspeakably evil. His point is simply that human progress inevitably takes place in stages, and the West might not have evolved to where it is now philosophically and politically in the absence of Christianity’s influence. To my knowledge, Islam has never recognized individualism as a value in any form.

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In the link above you can also find Nathaniel and Barbara Branden's 'debate' or discussion about Rand and 'Atlas Shrugged' by doing a search (just put N. Branden and Freedom fest in the search window). It lasts about 50 minutes and on the other side is a science fiction writer and the head of Whole Foods.

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The FreedomFest 2010 Debate on Religion will be broadcast twice this week-end on BookTV at noon (EST) Saturday and again on Monday at 5 AM (EST). You can see the schedule here.

In addition, there is another program which might be of interest to Objectivists featuring Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer discussing their new book, The Post-American Presidency. Geller is the founder of the website, Atlasshrugs.com. I have not read her book as yet, but I know that it contains numerous favorable references to Ayn Rand. I do not know if she is an Objectivist, but she has clearly been strongly influenced by Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand.

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