Friday, July 11, 2008

The Whig Narrative of History: Secular Creationism (Part I)

One of the continuing influences on how the general public understands Western History is the Whig narrative. This view of History was supported by such figures as the eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and twentieth century historians such as Will and Ariel Durant, in their eleven volume Story of Civilization. Since the mid 20th century, though, this view has been rejected by the historical community. Nevertheless this narrative continues to be put forward, in various forms, in our popular culture, in textbooks and in classrooms. I would argue that the reason for the continued tolerance the Whig narrative is that it benefits secularism. In a sense, the Whig narrative is secularism’s own creation myth; it explains the creation of modern secularism in such a way as to ensconce the secularist as the hero of the narrative and those opposed to secularism as the villains.

In essence the Whig narrative is as follows: there was the golden ages of Greece and Rome, during which philosophy, art and literature flourished. But, with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, western civilization fell into a thousand year dark age, the Middle Ages. The chief cause of the downfall of the Roman Empire was the rise of Christianity, which undermined the Roman Empire from within as the barbarian invaders attacked from without.

The Middle Ages was a time when men lived under the physical tyranny of Feudalism and the spiritual tyranny of the Church. The Church and the aristocracy both supported each other. The Church told the populace that it was God’s will that they live under the rule of kings and noblemen and that any rebellion against the established order was a rebellion against the authority of God. In turn the feudal aristocracy supported the Church; bishops lived like noblemen, popes like kings. The feudal aristocracy made Christianity the official religion throughout Europe and persecuted all those who did not comply.

The Church kept the populace in its grip by playing on popular superstition and popular bigotry. Instead of looking toward science and reason to explain things, people resorted to supernatural explanations. The medieval world was populated by saints, angels and demons, who were viewed as the cause of things. In order to protect themselves, people, instead of turning to science, prayed to saints or resorted to the use of holy relics, which they believed possessed magical powers. If a plague struck it was due to the malevolence of witches or the Devil. This resulted in witch hunts and thousands of innocent people, mostly women, were executed as witches.

Like all tyrannical regimes, the Church used scapegoats in order to divert the attention of the populace and keep them compliant. The Church’s favorite scapegoat was the Jews. The Jews were accused of having committed the crime of deicide, the crucifixion of Jesus. Not only did Jews commit this act in the first century, but, according to the Church, Jews reenacted this crime every year on the holiday of Passover by murdering a Christian child and using the blood for their matzos. This accusation, known as the blood libel, caused the murder of hundreds of Jews. In addition Jews were often accused of desecrating the Eucharist, of worshipping the Devil and of poisoning the wells. Jews were forbidden from most trades and were forced to become moneylenders and were villainized for that as well.

While the Church preached that the Bible was the infallible word of God, it also turned to Greek philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Aristotle to support itself. While it might seem ironic that Christians would turn to a pagan such as Aristotle, the Church incorporated Aristotle into its tradition and just as it was forbidden to question the teachings of the Bible so to it became forbidden to question Aristotle. This held true even when the teachings of the Bible or of Aristotle contradicted the observation of nature. Medieval thought, Scholasticism, closed its eyes to the natural world around it. Scholastics believed that one could learn all one needed to know simply by looking in books, which contained the traditions of the ancients, which Scholastics took to be infallible truths.

Ultimately the medieval world was one dominated by religion. All the many horrible things that went on, during this dark and violent age, was the direct result of the Christian beliefs of the time. It was the Church that kept people oppressed under the chains of Feudalism; it was the Church that taught people to hate; it was the Church that opposed scientific inquiry.

(To be continued …)

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