Sunday, May 8, 2011

Religious Narrative: Medieval Catholicism, Communism and Islam

One of the surprises of the modern world has been the continued persistence of organized religion. Despite several centuries of Enlightenment criticism, religion remains a powerful force within society. Certainly within the United States the vast majority of the population subscribes at least formally to some religion. I would argue that much of this is the result of the inability of secularism to present overarching narratives. Make whatever criticism you want about religions, they tend to be quite good at formulating narratives that allow people to make sense of their lives and all the various parts of their universe. This is important not just for regular people living their social lives, but for intellectuals and in a sense especially for them; it is the people who live in the realm of ideas who need things to click together in a larger whole.

I will start by giving an example from what may be the most intellectually successful religious narrative in history, medieval Catholicism. Take the view of a Catholic living in say 1491; he benefited from living in a world that made sense in ways that we can hardly relate to. In this medieval world we have Aristotle to explain the natural world. This Aristotelian universe, with its prime mover and essences and accidents, fits neatly with Church teaching, solving the conflict between faith and reason. This system also has political implications. We are in a hierarchical universe were everything from plants, animals and people up to the planets, angels and God have their place in a natural order. Therefore it is only reasonable that human affairs should mirror this reality with a king, nobles, the Church, peasants, men and women each having their place. How does one explain and give meaning to suffering, whether the threat of Islam, schisms in the Church, war, political chaos or simply having to bury a wife and child? Mankind fell to Original Sin, giving Satan power over the Earth. That being said there is reason to hope; Christ died for our sins so we can go to heaven. If the world looks like it is falling apart we can still look forward to the imminent coming of the apocalypse and the final judgement.

Say what you want about this medieval Catholicism; call it unscientific, anti-democracy, sexist and anti-Semitic. Yes, over the next few centuries, this worldview was rocked by numerous intellectual, and political shifts so that, even if there are still Catholics today, that particular creature the medieval Catholic is now extinct. All this may be true, but medieval Catholicism was an internally consistent system and fit well into the known facts of the world at that time. I would add that this system also proved quite attractive to Jews, particularly those in Spain. (Here is a dirty little secret about pre-modern Judaism. The majority of people who left did so freely out of a desire to assimilate and not due to force or persecution.)    

In the history of modern secularism there has been only one movement to produce a narrative that could compete with organized religion and that was Communism. Try to look at the world, this time from the perspective of a Russian Jew in 1891. Traditional Judaism does not have much to offer, but to be poor, get killed in a pogrom and wait for the Messiah. Now here is Communism. It may not offer a personal God and an afterlife, but instead it offers the forces of history to guide us and promise us a better world. Faith versus reason? Science has refuted religion, but Communism is the logical extension of evolution applied to human affairs. How should we order our political and social systems? Communism replaces superstition and religious dogma with scientific rationalism, allowing us to create a just system where everyone is equal. How do you explain and offer meaning to human suffering? The problems of this world are the products by the class oppression by the aristocracy and bourgeois. This, though, simply serves to highlight the iniquities of the present systems and hasten imminent coming of the people's revolution which will create a paradise on Earth in which everyone will work together for the common good and there will be no prejudice nor anti-Semitism.

Again one can make all sorts of intellectual arguments against this Communist worldview. Ultimately it was undone by the Soviet Union itself, whose blood soaked history is a better refutation of Communism than anything else. This should not obscure the power of the Communist narrative in its time. Say what you want about Karl Marx, but he has to be viewed as one of the greatest thinkers of all time simply in terms of his ability to craft a system of thought that allows you to discuss not just politics, but history, art and science as one coherent whole. We in the United States fail to appreciate the Communist appeal largely because it failed to ever gain much traction here, but the Communists nearly did win. Forget about the Cold War, after World War I and in the wake the Russian Revolution Communists, without question, had both the intellectual and moral high ground. With that they nearly took the entire European continent without a single shot being fired. As for Jews, they walked away from traditional Judaism in mass to follow this Communist dream. (See Clarissa for a further discussion about the religious dimensions of Communism.)

Where does this leave our modern world? Try seeing things from the view of an Arab in 1991. Communism, which was a tremendous secularizing force in the Arab, has come crashing down with the fall of the Soviet Union so now what? Well there is Islam, not the watered down variety, but a "purified" form from its original source in Saudi Arabia. What is wrong with the world and how do we fix it? The West has dominated us politically, first through direct imperialism and later through the dictators they support and corrupted us culturally through secularism. Only Islam can unite the Arab peoples so they can take back what is rightfully theirs. As for science, we Arabs invented science before it was stolen from us by the West.

This narrative may lack the comprehensive elegance of either medieval Catholicism or nineteenth century Communism, but for those with no better narrative options this will likely do. I cannot say that fundamentalist Islam will likely prove a spiritual threat to Judaism, but as a physical threat it certainly is a match to either of the other narratives.         


no one said...

Kant found a ground of validity for religion though he did not know it. It is the category of a priori immediate knowledge in which one has perception of a fact that comes not through reason and not through the senses. immediate means here not thought.This gives a ground for liberal secular society i.e objective values that are perceived by reason and religion which is values not perceived by reason or the senses.
Hegel also came up with a powerful system of constitutional monarchy. Kant was going with liberal democracy.
The reason these thinkers had to do this was that as you noticed the enlightenment philosophers and the societies built on them did not address the basic spiritual questions of people. Thus came the attack on the enlightenment by Roseau.
Kant and Hegel were an attempt to answer this dilemma. From my point of view I think the question of a just political system has been solved once and for all--liberal democracy. period. But in terms of the religious issues which face me I find meaning in life by the path of Maimonides.

Baruch Pelta said...

Secularism maintains we have a long road ahead and there's no supernatural guy who is on our side in the long run (Like communism, secularism says we only have ourselves to rely on; unlike communism, it does not necessarily offer a revolution which results in the utopian culmination of Hegelian dialectical history). I don't think it's too much of a hiddush that such an ideology is harder for many people to accept than the hope religion promises.

That being said, the religious have their problems. The problem of seemingly random evil in the universe has been sidestepped by monotheists at least since Job, but the events of the past century and our better understanding of how the world works has accentuated the challenge to the point that Haym Soloveitchik maintains that Jews have lost touch with God and instead seek solace from his Will; will that Will prove a sufficient source of comfort?

Izgad said...


The purpose of this post is not to defend religion, which certainly has its problems. My point here is that as long as secularism cannot deliever its own narrative, any argument it offers against religion is going to ring hollow.

Even for someone like you who claims to be an atheist, why do you still identify yourself as Jewish unless there is something about the narrative it offers that you are loathe to give up.

Baruch Pelta said...

The purpose of this post is not to defend religion, which certainly has its problems.
I didn't say it was.

My point here is that as long as secularism cannot deliever its own narrative, any argument it offers against religion is going to ring hollow.
Humanists clearly have a narrative (al regal achas: we're all we've got to make this world a better place) and critiques of religion clearly aren't ringing hollow. 16% of America is Unaffiliated, to say nothing of Europe.

I agree the humanist lifestance has traditionally been more difficult to accept for some than the idea of a metaphysical Hope which somehow makes everything okay. But religion's overarching narrative isn't so overarching anymore and I think that undermines your point. As we've discovered more, people have become more uncomfortable with how Mother Nature is consistently caught in the act of throwing her clay; we find randomness and evil everywhere. That's a dent in the narrative which not only isn't going away, but has pushed God out of his place in the center of the frame, allowing for his Will to become what people who care about the narrative focus on. My point was that I don't think that Will's power is so strong a force as to make secularism's critiques of religion hollow.

Even for someone like you who claims to be an atheist
Why "claims" ?

why do you still identify yourself as Jewish unless there is something about the narrative it offers that you are loathe to give up.
I've been indoctrinated into a certain culture and I deal in the cultural terms with which I'm familiar. That's correct. It's also evidence that one can leave the religion and keep certain aspects of the culture. That doesn't incorporate me into the overarching religious halachic narrative because I'm not a religious Jew. I see it as much more of "where I'm from" and "where I am" than "where I'm necessarily going."