Archive for June, 2008

Christianity, Secularism and European Peace

June 24, 2008

In one of his comments to my original blog post on the Soviet Persecution of the churches, Robert claimed that European peace was strongly linked to the growth of secularism and the decline of Christianity, stating ‘European peace is positively correlated with the spread of secularism and the decline of Christianity.’ This is an extremely debatable claim, as it seems to assume that the peace Western Europe, at least, has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War is the product of the growth of secularism, if not atheism, and that religion, and particularly Christianity, is somehow responsible for war and violence. This claim can be criticised on a number of points.

Firstly, it’s an important philosophical point that correlation is not causation. One can suggest a number of factors that may have created greater social and political stability in Europe that could lead to a decline in religious belief and international peace in Europe as a whole, without atheism or secularism being the direct cause of either of peace or the political and social stability both nationally and internationally that created it.

Economic Deprivation and Underdevelopment as the Cause of Military Aggression and War

Western Europe, along with North America and Japan, is economically the most prosperous part of the world, despite economic stagnation and challenges from the rapidly expanding and developing economies of India and China. One of the classic causes of social and political instability is economic decline and hardship. A lack of jobs, and thus the means for people to support themselves and stave off starvation, can lead to political instability and violence as nations turn to radical ideologies to provide solutions to their economic and social problems. The Nazi party in Germany appealed to the electorate by promising work and bread on their election posters, and achieved their greatest successes at the ballot box after the catastrophic Wall Street Crash threw the global economy into chaos and millions throughout the world out of work. In such a political climate of economic deprivation and threat, radical parties like the National Socialists were able to make great electoral gains by promising radical solutions to the country’s economic and political problems, including the use of force, violence and brutality against those they claimed, both within Germany and internationally, were responsible for her problems. The result was the emergence of the Third Reich in 1932/3 , characterised by the imprisonment and murder of the regime’s political and religious opponents, as well as those who were considered a danger to it or its racist objectives because of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability. The Nazis attempted to create a new, stronger, more powerful Germany through the conquest of central and eastern Europe and the exploitation of its resources, which were considered to form the key to global power generally, while those nations and states at the periphery of this area, such as Britain, were considered to be in a process of eventual decline through lack of access to this area and its natural resources.

The Russian Revolution and Italian Fascist imperialism were similarly strongly influenced by the lack of economic development and progress in these nations compared to the more economically developed and prosperous nations elsewhere in Europe. Lenin, for example, believed that Russia had been deliberately held back and exploited by the capitalists of the more developed nations. He therefore appealed to the Russian working class to support Communism and the Bolsheviks’ programme of economic and social development by destroying international capitalism’s hold over the nation with the slogan ‘Smash capitalism at the weakest link’.

Although usually considered to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Communism, Italian Fascism also had its basis in revolutionary Socialism, though this was anarcho-syndicalism, rather than Marxism, and Mussolini’s regime similarly used arguments based in the ideology of the radical left to support its campaign of military expansion and annexation. The Fascists declared that Italy was a ‘proletarian nation’ lacking the economic development and prosperity of other countries like Britain and France, and so deserved the resources of an empire, such as both of those powers possessed, in order to take its place as leading modern nation. Thus the Fascist regime justified its invasion of North Africa, Abyssinia and Eritrea, as well as its annexation of Albania and parts of Greece in Europe as part of Mussolini’s campaign to create a new, Roman empire.

Economic Success and Improving Conditions Supporting Democratic Peace in Italy and Greater Openness towards West in Russia

The collapse of the former Soviet Union created massive economic and political dislocation in the former Soviet bloc, including widespread poverty in the former Soviet Union itself as the change to capitalism saw inefficient factories and concerns closed, throwing millions out of work, and pensions destroyed over night as the rouble became valueless. Observers of the contemporary Russian political scene, such as the British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby in the recent BBC TV series, Russia, have expressed grave concern about the increasingly authoritarian, anti-democratic nature of the regime and general political climate. Nevertheless, Russia remains a capitalist state open to outside investment, and a far more peaceful attitude to Western Europe at least than under the former Soviet Regime.

Italian politics has been notoriously unstable, which has resulted in a process of political fragmentation in which a large number of small parties have emerged to compete for power, compared with the two and three party systems of North America and Western Europe. Governments have frequently fallen due to corruption, while the country has also been subject to terrorist atrocities by both the extreme Left and Right. Despite this, the Italian economy has developed considerably, so that while explicitly nationalist parties have emerged to play a major role in Italian politics, such as the Allianza Nazionale, which became a partner in Enrico Berlusconi’s coalition regime, Italian politics is still democratic and there is little popular demand for the rejection of democracy and the use of military force to increase Italy’s stature in the international community or develop her economy and society.

Nationalism as Cause of War and Stable Borders as Strong Factor for Peace

Of course, nationalism has also always been one of the major causes of violence and war. Many of the wars in the 19th century were nationalist conflicts, such as the campaigns of Greece and the other Balkan nations to gain their freedom from the Ottoman Empire, and Poland and the other nations in central Europe to gain their independence from Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The independence of many of these central European nations, like Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, was finally achieved after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the redrawing of European national boundaries after the First World War. The borders of many of the central and eastern European nations were similarly revised at the end of the Second World War, as Germany ceded large parts of its territory, such as Pomerania and Silesia, to Poland. Despite this, the national boundaries have, with the serious exception of the former Yugoslavia, been stable, though there are still continuing national tensions in the Balkans and the possibility of further warfare there. Nevertheless, in western Europe at least the question of national territories appears to have been settled. Where there is an increasing demand for independence amongst some nations, such as Scotland and Wales in the United Kingdom, there’s the expectation that this can be gained through the democratic process at the ballot box, rather than through armed insurrection and conflict.

European Peace Produced through Economic Prosperity, Lack of Nationalist Tensions and Desire to Avoid Another War after World War II

Thus part of the reason for the fifty years of peace experienced by Europe after World War II is the lack of economic and nationalist motives for war amongst the various European nations. Indeed, the horrors of the War itself and the devastation it caused economically, socially and politically left Europe exhausted and acted to turn public opinion against war and the use of military force. Of course this does not mean that these nations became pacifists, or that they ceased to wage wars against their enemies. The British fought a series of wars against nationalist rebels, such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, and the French in their turn fought militant indepence movements such as those in Algeria. Nevertheless, after the carnage of two World Wars, the military did not have the same glamour it possessed during the heyday of High Victorian imperialism. Within Europe there was a strong emphasis on international co-operation and rapprochement as a deliberate attempt to prevent the horrors of the Second World War occurring over again.

Post-War Peace in the West Product of Necessity of Creating Alliances against Threat of Soviet Expansionism

The division of Europe between the western and Soviet blocs also helped create peace in Europe. In the West, Britain and other European nations, with the exception of France, banded together with America and Canada to form NATO in order to protect themselves against the threat of invasion from the Soviet Bloc. In eastern Europe, the Communist nations formed a similar military alliance, the Warsaw pact, while the massive political control of these nations and their subordination to the Soviet Union effectively presented an economically and politically united bloc confronting the liberal, capitalist societies of the West, rather than each other. If there is an explicitly atheist cause for peace in this situation, it’s probably through the atheist nature of Communism and the Communist bloc’s suppression of freedom and independence in the member states, rather than through atheism necessarily making western Europeans less militaristic.

European Secularism Produced by Greater Prosperity and Social Stability Creating an Emphasis on This-Worldly Concerns in European Attitudes

There are numerous sociological and ideological reasons for the secularisation of Europe over the past century, many of which are outside the scope of this article. However, it’s possible that the increased prosperity and social stability in post-war Europe was partly responsible for the decline of organised religion in the continent. Material prosperity and social stablility undoubtedly helped to create an emphasis in European culture on the concerns of this world, rather than the other worldly focus of traditional religion. For many Europeans it could appear that it would be possible to find satisfaction and fulfillment on Earth through human rational social and technological developments and planning, without the assistance of the Almighty. Religion could be seen as irrelevant to more pressing earthly concerns, such as the pursuit of one’s own pleasure and interests.

Secularism Produced through European Spiritual Crisis, Prosperity and Loss of Confidence in Traditional Western Culture after World War II

Furthermore, the carnage of the two World Wars also created a spiritual crisis in many Europeans. The fact that European civilisation had created the mechanised slaughter of millions, including the planned, industrial-scale genocide of the Holocaust and similar campaigns to eradicate other peoples and minority groups, such as Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals and the disabled, during the Third Reich discredited traditional European culture in the eyes of many European intellectuals. The appearance of the Affluent Society in the 1960s produced a feeling of dissatisfaction with traditional European politics and society amongst young people, and particularly with the traditional ruling classes who were viewed as out of touch and obsolete. For many Europeans this rejection of traditional authority necessarily included the church, which was criticised because of the support parts of it had given Fascist regimes and because of its central place within traditional European culture and as the guardian and promoter of traditional European morality. This morality had been severely compromised and discredited by the horrors committed by Europeans in the Fascist regimes, and the moral authority of the European powers to govern their colonies in Africa and Asia was successfully challenged as these nations gained their independence. Away from the political sphere, the Churches’ traditional moral stance, particularly on sexuality, was criticised as repressive, if not actually oppressive. Prosperity and security helped encourage Europeans to seek to gratify their desires immediately on Earth, rather than adopt the moral restraint advocated by the Church, which was attacked as oppressive and hypocritical.

European Peace and Secularism both Products of European Prosperity and Stability

Thus the material prosperity and social stability Europe achieved after the War helped to produce both the long period of peace and the increased secularisation experienced by its nations. While undoubtedly some of those who became atheists after the War did become active in various peace movements and initiatives, the main causes of European peace lay in these social and economic developments, rather than being directly produced by the growth of either atheism or secularism in Europe.

Religion as Cause of War

Robert’s implied claim that European peace was produced by the growth of secularism further suffers from its assumption that religion, and specifically Christianity, is a major cause of war. Now clearly religious differences have resulted in tension between different faiths, tensions that have resulted in violence and armed conflict. In British politics the most obvious example of this was the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, though this could also be viewed as the result of centuries of conflict over Irish independence and its government by Britain, in which religion is one aspect of a larger question of national identity and political allegiance. Similarly, some religions do have an extremely martial character that has promoted warfare and armed conflict. In the ancient Norse religion, for example, men could only get into Valhalla, to feast and fight with the gods in preparation for the final combat with the forces of evil at the day of Ragnarok if they died in battle. Those who had the misfortune to die of natural causes instead went to the far less pleasant realm of Helheim, a cold and miserable place, though not a place of punishment and torment like the Christian Hell. One ancient Viking king was, however, so terrified of the prospect of going to Helheim through dying in bed that, as an old man, he and his elderly retainers deliberately fought a battle with the specific intention of being killed so that they could enter Valhalla. Thus ancient Norse paganism reflected and promoted the martial, warrior ethos of Viking society and its consequent positive promotion of violence and warfare.

Promotion of Peace and Attempts to Limit Warfare in Christianity

However, attitudes to violence and the morality and conduct of warfare may differ strongly between religions and different sects and denominations of the same faith. While Christianity as a whole did not reject warfare, and at times could have an extremely militaristic character, such as during the Crusades in the Middle Ages, nevertheless it also sought to promote peace and restrain violence. In this Christians have been guided and sought to put into practice Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount that ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. Although Christians and the Church have engaged in warfare, this was subject to moral and legal constraints. Theologians and philosophers such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas formulated theories of the Just War, based partly on existing Roman law and the moral demands of Scripture, with the intention of limiting its violence and brutality. Warfare was adopted and promoted by Christianity purely as a means for combating evil, and violence for its own sake was explicitly condemned by the Church. St. Augustine himself condemned ‘the passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power’ and other moral failings in warfare. 1 Canon law during much of the Middle Ages required that soldiers do penance after battles because of the danger that they had fought from these immoral motives, rather than the higher morality demanded by the Church. Even those soldiers who were unsure whether or not they had actually killed anyone were thus required to do penance for 40 days after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. 2 Furthermore the chaos and bloodshed of the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion resulted in Christians rejecting holy war because of the way Christians had attacked and persecuted fellow Christians during them. The result was that although religious freedom was very restricted in many Christian states, internationally nations rejected religious warfare. Indeed, the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion, which included the French Wars of Religion, the revolt of the Netherlands, the Thirty Years War in Germany and central Europe, and the War of the Three Kingdoms/ British Civil War were the last time western European nations fought purely religious wars. Indeed, the British sociologist David Martin, in his book, Does Christianity Cause War?, noted that after these wars religion became merely an aspect of national identity, an aspect whose importance depended on the enemy being fought, but that wars were not fought in the name of Christianity itself or for the purposes of imposing a particular religious doctrine on the opposing side. 3

Proposal for International European Parliament by William Penn to Prevent War

Indeed, some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Quakers actively reject violence. William Penn, the great Quaker writer and founder of Pennsylvania, in his pamphlet arguing for religious toleration, A Perswasive to Moderation to Church Dissenters, in Prudence and Conscience, noted the constitutional arrangements granting freedom of conscience and worship in various European states to demand that Nonconformists receive similar toleration in England. 4 Rather than use warfare to settle their disputes, Penn instead urged that European states should instead solely use diplomacy. He thus proposed a plan for establishing European peace through the creation of an international parliament of European states that would meet annually to discuss and resolve disputes between the member states without resorting to military force. 5 In many ways Penn’s idea is a remarkable precursor of the contemporary European Union, and similar international bodies such as the United Nations.

Despite their aims of promoting peace and international harmony, the EU and UN have been the subjects of suspicion and criticism because of the threat they represent to national sovereignty and the national traditions of civil liberty in various member states. Critics of the EU, for example, have attacked its lack of democratic accountability and the financial corruption in some of its institutions, as well as its bureaucracy, inefficiency and bizarre official policies that can place some states at a disadvantage and leave them resentful of the benefits granted other, sometimes more powerful states.

19th Century Largely Peaceful Period in European History

Even if a single, international organisation governing the affairs of its member states is not as popular or as powerful a guarantee of freedom and prosperity as early advocates of the idea like William Penn may have hoped, nevertheless European international politics during the 19th century, when religious faith was far stronger than today, was remarkably peaceful. It has been stated that

‘Perhaps no century since the fall of the Roman Empire has been so peaceful as that between 1815 and 1914. The widespread wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had culminated in the massive campaigns of Napoleon and his enemies. Nothing like this took place in nineteenth-century Europe.’ 6 Despite brief military expeditions by various European powers into Italy Spain and Greece, and a short war between Russia and Turkey in 1828, there were no major wars in Europe between Napoleon’s defeat and 1830. The period from 1830 to 1854 was similarly peaceful, until it was broken by the outbreak of the Crimean War. This was, however, confined to the Crimean peninsula and the nations involved maintained contact with each other through neutral Austria until peace was achieved in 1856. The wars of 1859 consisted of two months of fighting in northern Italy. Bismarck’s campaigns of 1864, 1866 and 1870 were very localised and only ever involved two great powers. The 1866 war was only seven weeks long, and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 did not last for a year. 7

Peace in 19th Century Europe Produced by Deliberate Policy of Diplomacy in preference to War by European Statesmen

This long period of European peace was the product of the ‘Concert of Europe’, the system of diplomacy and alliances that had been created to oppose Napoleon, and its successors. It consisted of regular meetings of the great powers of Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia and, after 1815, France, with the intention of preserving European peace. The 1815 peace treaties that formed the basis of the Congress system, as it came to be known, had been designed not only to reorganise and make secure the boundaries of the various European states, punish France and reward the victorious allies, but also to preserve from revolution Europe’s traditional, established order and religion. 8 The main concern of many of the statesmen involved in the Congress system was to promote their countries’ concrete political interests. Louix XVIII’s minister Talleyrand wished to return the various European states to their original borders before 1815 and advance France’s particular national interests in Europe. Metternich of Austria and Hardenburg of Prussia were both concerned to preserve their countries from revolution, while Britain’s Castlereagh hoped to create a balance of power in Europe so that Britain could consolidate her considerable imperial gains overseas. Despite the focus of the European powers on promoting their own national concerns, Alexander I of Russia sincerely hoped to create a lasting European peace, through creating a union with his fellow European rulers ‘as members of a single Christian nation.’ 9 This ideal of a union of Christian European powers did not survive Alexander’s death. 10

Attempts to Abolish War by British Liberal Politicians

Nevertheless the European powers, and particularly the British, hoped that diplomacy could preserve peace in Europe. The Liberals in Britain in particular were deeply concerned to avoid the suffering and economic damage caused by war. In 1856 at the Congress of Paris Lord Clarendon, the chief British plenipotentiary, presented a proposal for the complete abolition of war. Declaring that ‘the calamities of war are still too present to every mind not to make it desirable to seek out every expedient calculated to prevent their return’, he recommended that Article VIII of the peace treaty between Russia and Turkey, should be generally applied to settle all international disputes. 11 This clause stipulated that any country in dispute with Turkey should first attempt mediation through a friendly state before resorting to arms, and Clarendon hoped that the adoption of this as a general principle of international diplomacy would lead to European states settling their disputes through mediation rather than armed conflict. Clarendon’s proposal was made too late to become a formal part of the 1856 peace treaty, but it did become part of the treaty’s protocol and was signed by all the plenipotentiaries of the great powers present at the Congress. Despite continued British requests to the other European powers in the years immediately following the signing of the treaty that they should respect it and attempt a mediated settlement for their conflicts, it was never used to solve any of the major international crises of the time. The attempt to create a complete diplomatic solution to international disputes and abolish war was a complete failure. 12 Nevertheless the fact that it was attempted shows the genuine commitment to peace of the European powers involved, as well as their confidence in the ability of the diplomatic machinery established by the 1815 peace treaty to solve international disputes. 13

19th Century European Peace Maintained when Europe Far More Religious than Today

The 19th century system of international diplomacy catastrophically failed to preserve European peace in 1914, and the following decades saw the rise of aggressively militaristic, Fascist regimes that utterly rejected the 19th century goal of preserving and promoting peace. Nevertheless, despite its failure the attempts of contemporary European nations to maintain peace through diplomatic negotiation and alliances is clearly partly derived and developed from these 19th century attempts to provide a diplomatic solution for international disputes, rather than the use of military force. These attempts to create the diplomatic methods to prevent international conflict were made when Europe was far more religious than it is at present and by politicians who mostly, though not exclusively, shared the concerns of general European society to preserve and maintain religion. It could therefore be considered that the peace currently enjoyed by contemporary, secular European society was founded by 19th century people of faith.

Attempts to Create Peace often Led by People of Faith Inspired by Religious Convictions

It was not just in the 19th century that people of faith attempted to achieve internationl peace. In contemporary Europe as well many of the individuals who actively worked to promote peace were people of faith who were directly inspired by their strong religious principles. The 19th century Liberal Party in Britain was strongly informed by the Protestant, Nonconformist conscience with its concern for moral and social improvement, and in the 20th century Christian clergy and lay people were also involved in various peace movements. The chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain from 1958 to 1964 was the controversial clergyman Lewis John Collins. 14 The scientist and Anglican priest, Charles Raven, was an ardent pacifist and one of the sponsors of the Peace Pledge Union. He based his arguments for pacifism very much on his Christian beliefs and theological views, presenting them in hsi work, The Religious Basis of Pacifism. 15

Peaceful Personal Conduct Commanded by the Bible, and World Peace Traditional Subject of Christian Prayers

Pacifism remains the frequently controversial view of a minority of Christians, as most Christians would probably argue that in all too many cases evil can only be combatted through warfare and deserves the use of military force against it. Nevertheless Christians, regardless of their particular views on war, have prayed for peace in the world since the period of the Early Church. The Apostolic Constitutions, for example, amongst the prayers for the Church and its people also requests Christians to pray for world peace with the words

‘Let us pray for the peace and happy settlement of the world, and of the holy churches; that the God of the whole world may afford us his everlasting peace, and such as may not be taken away from us’. 16

This concern for peace is based firmly in the Bible. St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews 13:20 describes the Lord as the God of peace, for example. 1 Peter 3:11 advises the Christian – ‘he that will love life’ – as they are described in verse 10 – to renounce evil and turn to peace with the words

‘let him eschew evil, and do good

let him seek peace and ensue it’ 17.

St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews 12:14 also urges Christians to live in peace with everyone with the command

‘Follow peace with all men, and

holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’ 18

Thus while the Bible does not necessarily reject warfare, it does command that Christians attempt to live in peace with their fellows and condemns violent behaviour. The Bible’s concern and encouragement of peace as a part of Christian morality directly contradicts Robert’s assumption that Christianity must somehow, by its very nature, promote violence and warfare, and that European society has therefore become more peaceful through its decline.

Conclusion: European Peace Product of Post-War Prosperity, Stable Borders, and Preference for Diplomatic Solutions by European Politicians rather than Secularism

Thus while the long period of European peace in the 20th century has also been a period of decline in the Christian faith, or its observance, neither secularism or atheism is the cause of this peace, as Robert’s comment implies. Rather the immediate causes of European peace have been stable borders, produced by the emergence of the nation-state in the 19th century, and the deliberate policy of European governments to settle international disputes by diplomacy rather than military force.

This policy became a necessity after the carnage and devastation of the Second World War, and the threat of war with the Soviet bloc after the establishment of the Iron Curtain. However, European governments and statesmen had preferred to solve their disputes through negotiation rather than force, though certainly not to exclude warfare, since the middle of the second decade of the 19th century. The system of international alliances and organisations that emerged after World War II with the deliberate intention of promoting international peace and curbing the military aggression or the territorial ambitions of the individual member states can be viewed as a development of 19th century great power diplomacy with its preference for negotiation. There is a major difference between the two diplomatic systems, however in that the architects of the ‘Concert of Europe’ believed strongly in national sovereignty and would have rejected the threat posed to it by supranational organisations like the EU. Nevertheless, even the EU has its predecessors in the proposal of Christian statesmen and theologians, such as William Penn, for a common European parliament of member states to maintain European peace and harmony. Europeans had ceased to wage war purely for religious reasons after the 17th century. The main cause of European warfare in the succeeding centuries was nationalism, of which religion was largely just one aspect. The system of great power diplomacy and alliances that constituted the Concert System, although far less radical than Penn’s plan for a common European parliament, was nevertheless established by statesmen and diplomats who generally viewed religion as essential to their nations’ wellbeing, and wished to preserve it as a vital part of their nations’ security. The preservation and maintenance of established religion from attack from political radicalism was therefore one of the major purposes in the attempts to establish and preserve European peace after the defeat of Napoleon.

European Peace Partly Caused by Christian Moral Doctrine

Furthermore, while Christians have committed horrific atrocities in terrible religious wars, such as during the Crusades and the Wars of Religion, Christianity has also viewed the Almighty as a God of peace. Christian morality required peaceful, non-violent personal conduct, particularly as stated by St. Paul and St. Peter. A number of Christian sects, denominations and individuals have been determined pacifists. While these have only been a minority, Christianity as a whole has attempted to place moral limits on warfare and its conduct through the development of theories of the Just War, and Christians have continued to pray for peace in the world since the Early Church. While undoubtedly the various peace movements and initiatives that appeared in the 20th century were by no means confined to people of faith, nevertheless they have also included Christian clergy and laypeople. The peace Europe has enjoyed for the last half-century is thus partly the product of the attempts of Christians over the centuries to limit war and promote peace.

Secularism Product of European Peace, Stable Borders and Economic Development

It may be considered that the success of European governments and diplomats in establishing a largely peaceful, stable Europe may be one of the causes of European secularisation. International stability within Europe, as well as increased material prosperity and rising standards of living have led Europeans to adopt a far more this-worldly attitude to life, often to the exclusion of traditional other worldly religion. Thus national prosperity and international peace, as well as ideological challenges from secular philosophies, may have contributed to secularisation and the attitude amongst some Europeans that religion, or religious observance, is unnecessary.

20th Century Totalitarianisms Example of Possible Dangers to Peace from Rejection of Christianity and Christian Moral Support for Peace

It’s a very flawed attitude. The great totalitarianisms of the Left and Right that emerged in the 20th century did so partly as a rejection of Christianity, and traditional Christian morality. Fascism in particular celebrated warfare for its own sake, in direct contradiction to Christian theology and morality. In their attempts to impose their own ideas of the perfect society on their subject peoples, these regimes murdered millions. Terrible atrocities have been committed by Christians in the name of their religion, yet European attempts to create a genuine, just peace owe much to Christianity. The horrors committed by the extreme Left and Right during the 20th century show how peace too can suffer once the traditional moral views supporting it, based on Christianity, have been rejected.

Notes

1. St. Augustine, cited in Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (Encounter Books, New York 2002), p. 90.

2. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 90-1.

3. David Martin, Does Christianity Cause War? (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1997), cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 95.

4. ‘A Perswasive to Moderation to Church-Dissenters, in Prudence and Conscience: Humbly Submitted to the KING and His Great Council’ in William Penn, ed. Edwin B. Bonner, The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and Other Writings (London, J.M. Dent 1993), pp. 187-223.

5. ‘An Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, by the Establishment of an European DYET, PARLIAMENT, or Estates’, in Penn, ed. Bonner, The Peace of Europe, pp. 5-22.

6. Harry Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century 1830-1880, Second Edition (London, Longman 1988), p. 154.

7. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 153.

8. Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: The Last Five Hundred Years (Middlesex, Hamlyn 1984), p. 406.

9. Wright, ed., History of the World, p. 386.

10. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 155.

11. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 155-6.

12. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 156.

13. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 156.

14. ‘Collins, Lewis John’, in The New Illustrated Everyman’s Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (London, J.M. Dent and Sons 1985), p. 370.

15. ‘Charles Raven’ in Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams, eds., Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2001), p. 612; Charles Raven, ‘The Religious Basis of Pacifism’, in Rowell, Stevenson and Williams, eds., Love’s Redeeming Work, p. 613.

16. F. Forrester Church and Terrence J. Mulry, The MacMillan Book of Earliest Christian Prayers (New York, Collier Books 1988), p. 61.

17. 1 Peter 3:11 and 1 Peter 3:10 in the Holy Bible, King James Version (London, Collins), p. 242.

18. Hebrews 12: 14, in the Holy Bible, King James Version, p. 235.

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Preaching Christ During the Festival of Science

June 15, 2008

Last Friday, the 6th of June, was the last day of the Cheltenham Festival of Science, held annually in Cheltenham, in Britain. It’s been going for a few years now, and is pretty much like the annual Festival of Literature held in the same town every October, with the obvious difference that it’s about science, while the other festival is about literature. Both feature leading figures in their respective areas talking about their subject, and particularly their latest work, or the latest issue to grab the national attention and be debated. In the case of the Festival of Literature, it’s obviously writers discussing their latest book, while in the Festival of Science it tends to be scientists talking about the latest issue in science.

Scientists and Writers at the Cheltenham Festival

As it’s an event aimed at getting the general public involved with science and more aware of contemporary research and issues, the scientists appearing at the Festival tend also to be the authors of books on popular science, or the hosts or producers of TV and radio programmes on science. For example, this year one of the guests at the Festival was Dr. Robert Winston, a fertility expert and the presenter of a number of science and factual programmes, such as Walking with Cavemen and The Story of God. Walking with Cavemen was a series the Beeb screened a few years ago now about human evolution, tracing the origins of the human species from its earliest ancestors up to the emergence of modern humans, Homo Sapiens, on the plains of Africa. The Story of God, on the other hand, was a straightforward history of the various religious faiths around the world. While he definitely isn’t a Creationist – the Story of God showed him debating Creationism in a radio studio in America – Winston is an observant Jew. There was a bit in the series where he appeared to leave the militant atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins momentarily speechless. Dawkins had just declared that he really couldn’t understand how any intelligent person could possibly believe in religion, to which Winston simply said quietly, ‘I believe it.’ Dawkins looked amazed, and said to him, ‘You do?’

‘Yes,’ said Winston, ‘I honestly do.’ Winston then went on a few months after the series and the publication of Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, to criticise Dawkins publicly at a festival of science in Edinburgh for trying to associate atheism with science, politely stating that while he respected Dawkins personally, he thought he was profoundly wrong to do so. The title of Winston’s speech even suggested that in his attempt to connect science to atheism, Dawkins was deluded.

Other speakers who have appeared at the Festival in the past have included the australian astronomer, Duncan Steele, and the Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, who were on a panel with a number of other scientists talking about the dangers of collision from asteroids; the physicist Jim al-Khalili, giving a brief introduction to Quantum physics to coincide with his book, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed, and the mathematician Simon Singh talking about codes and ciphers through history. It can be a really great, fascinating, fun event, depending on who’s speaking at the Festival and your particular interest in science. It’s run in association with a hands-on science centre in Cardiff, so there’s a series of scientific games and fun experiments in the main hall, and some of the events and speakers are definitely not solemn, dry lectures. They had one tent set up as an arena for Robot Wars one year when that was on British TV.

Problems of Presenting Atheism as Science

While it’s a great event generally, I have some real qualms about the very reductionist materialism preached by some of the speakers. While the vast majority of the speakers and events at the Festival don’t touch on religion, some of the scientists and writers who have appeared have very strong atheist views which they articulate as part of their general views on science. Richard Dawkins is one such guest at the Festival who talks about science in terms of a general atheist worldview. Other atheist scientists who also view science and atheism as strongly linked, and are very hostile to religion, who have appeared at the Festival of Science include Steven Pinker and the philosopher, A.C. Grayling.

The Christian Origins of Experimental Science

Now modern experimental science first emerged in Europe through the belief of medieval and Renaissance Christian natural philosophers that nature was available to rational study as, being created and established through God’s divine and transcendent Wisdom, it was therefore itself rational and ordered. These early scientists believed that nature and Scripture comprised two books, which together revealed God’s glory, although while nature demonstrated the existence of God, it could never give as full a revelation of God as Scripture. The pioneering scientists of the Renaissance – Copernicus, Galileo, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were all devoutly religious, even if, like Newton, they held unorthodox religious views. Boyle, for example, in his book The Christian Virtuoso, made it very clear that he believed, in contrast to Rene Descartes, that the universe clearly showed evidence for teleology, and pointed very much to the existence of God. He also endowed a series of lectures to be preached annually to prove the existence of the Almighty. All this is often forgotten in the contemporary view of the history of science, which tends to view it in very Positivist terms as an intellectual endeavour opposed to religious belief, and which emerged to challenge religion and the supernatural to replace it with rationality and materialism.

Presenting the Christian Origins of Science During the Festival, and Great Resources on Christianity and Science

I’d like to challenge that perception of science and its history. I’d like to hire a church hall or similar venue one day around the time of the Festival to present a lecture on the history of science, showing that it was based very much on the Christian conception of an ordered nature established by the divine reason. I’d also like to make the point that, contrary to the views expounded by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett and other atheist scientists and philosophers, science is not intrinsically atheistic, and there is much in science that points away from atheism and towards the existence of God. It’s just an idea, and really should be done by someone like the awesome Bede, who’s a historian of science and whose website, Bede’s Library and blog, Bede’s Journal, are superb resources for science and Christian faith. At the moment it’s just an idea, but I think, given the intense debate between science, religion and atheism at the moment, it needs to be done, and the case clearly presented for the Christian creation of and support for science. I also thoroughly recommend the ‘Scientists of Christian Faith’ project over at J.P. Holding’s awesome Tekton Apologetics site as another great resource giving brief biographies and descriptions of the lives and work of numerous scientists, including the above founders of this part of the human project to understand the world, who are also Christians, and whose work often reflects and strengthens their Christian beliefs.

Problem of Distinguishing Scientific Fact and Personal Views of Scientists

One other point needs to be made about some of the scientific views presented as the latest research, or as predictions of what will occur in the future, at science festivals and in the press generally. Scientific views in particular areas are changing all the time as new evidence emerges and old evidence re-examined. Moreover, scientists in their interpretation of particular facts aren’t immune from the influence of their own personal beliefs and general cultural attitudes. Some philosophers of science have stated that there are no ‘brute facts’ in science, that is, no facts whose meaning is immediately self-evident, independent of other facts. All scientific facts are interpreted through a network of related scientific facts and models by a human mind. This means that while most of the material and research presented as scientific fact at such festivals can be trusted as well-established science, some of it should also be treated with a certain scepticism as the researcher’s own personal opinions. Thus, Jim al-Khalili’s treatment of Quantum physics in his book will be a more or less trustworthy account of the main ideas and debates in that science, even if there is also considerable differences of opinion between scientists on the wider philosophical implications of the theory. However, the view presented by one scientist, the author of the book, The End of Time, that time does not exist and is illusory, while cogently argued and intellectually respectable, is an extreme view that is far less likely to be objectively true.

Commercial Pressure and Exaggerated Scientific Claims

Moreover, some of the descriptions of the progress made and what can be expected in particular areas of science in years to come have struck me as being more like a commercial advertisement than an impartial description of the current state of that science. Scientific research can be expensive, and the universities and companies engaged in it depend on government funding and private investment for their financial support. Thus it appears to me that there’s a financial incentive for some scientists to exaggerate publicly the results they expect of their research, while being much more cautious in private. Consciousness research is a good example. In a piece published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, just before the Millennium, various scientists in Britain and America were interviewed giving their views on what science would discover in the future. This included a couple of neurologists declaring that the solution to the problem of consciousness would be found, and that it would be much simpler than previously considered. Yet philosophers have also noted that despite the optimism of some materialist philosophers and neurologists, like Daniel C. Dennett, the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness has not been solved and many materialist philosophers themselves do not consider that a materialist solution will be easily found.

Differing Views on the Development of Intelligence in Robots

This tendency for scientists to exaggerate the results they expect of their particular branch of science can also be seen in some of the statements by AI researchers developing robots. The British cyberneticist, Kevin Warwick, of the University of Reading very strongly feels that AI will be a genuine reality, and that we are on the verge of creating truly intelligent, autonomous machines. He’s extremely pessimistic about this, however, arguing that such robots will be a very real threat to humanity. In the first chapter of his 1997 book, March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots will Rule the World, he paints a grim picture of the fate of humanity fifty years in the future. By 2050, according to the book, if current progress in robotics continues, the robots will have taken over and what remains of humanity will be reduced to complete servitude, farmed and controlled by the machines.

The robotics experts Mark Tilden and Dave Hrynkiw, who specialise in developing very simple robots that can be built by the amateur enthusiast at home, are far more sceptical about the development of AI and the potential for robots to become truly autonomous, intelligent machines. In his preface to their book Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels: Building Simple Robots with BEAM Technology, Tilden gives an hilarious account of his attempt to create a robot butler, an excessively complicated machine that gradually proved to be a complete failure until it was finally outwitted by his pet cat. He describes coming home one day to find it spinning uselessly in the middle of the carpet. When it came out to vacuum, the cat had learned to block it with play furniture, until the machine thought it was completely surrounded and so was reduced to spinning helplessly, leaving the cat to go back sleeping in peace. After seeing his five thousand dollar robot beaten by his cat, Tilden switched it off, and turned instead to developing far simpler, much less intelligent, but far more reliable machines. Regarding the problems in developing truly conscious machines, he states

‘Alas, unlike in the movies, and despite all wishes to the contrary, the ability to make a conscious robot creature doesn’t happen by just throwing electronic bits together. Even the best minds and budgets haven’t managed it outside the usual nonclassroom biology. True, sophisticated computer characters have been made that appear to have some aspects of life (they’re a prime seller of the video game market), but their responses are limited. Even real goldfish show more life than the best screensavers made in their image. However, the general mass-belief in “automatic consciousness” is a problem for robotics researchers because popular media keeps implying it’s not a problem.’ 1

Now Warwick, as an expert in his field, clearly knows what he’s talking about and it would be unwise not to pay attention to his warnings, particularly as arms companies have developed a battlefield robot, which some observers fear is a real threat to human life and the continued existence of the human species. On the other hand, from what Tilden and Hrynkiw say, it’s clear that the machine aren’t going to take over soon, and that the human race needn’t fear an army of robots all looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger rising up against it any time soon.

Pressures from Funding and Exaggerated Claims of Future Results

Beyond this particular debate in robotics, my point is that in certain areas of science scientific opinion may be very divided, and present a far different picture from the one an individual scientist may wish to promote. Undoubtedly the scientists working in particular areas genuinely believe that their research will yield important results, but in their public statements commercial and financial pressures may lead them to play down any difficulties or problems, which may be considerable, that they also face. After all, government funding bodies aware of the need to give the public value for the tax money they’re considering spending, banks, and entrepreneurs looking for a useful and commercially viable product that will give a good, reliable return on their investment, are going to be reluctant to put money into a project in which the leading researchers believe that it might yield some interesting results, eventually, but it’ll be several decades, if at all. Hence, in my view, the various confident predictions by materialist neurologists that the problem of consciousness is about to be explained and that very shortly mind will be found to equal brain. They undoubtedly believe it, but few people and organisations are going to fund their research if they present a much more sober, far less confident picture of future progress.

Confusion of Atheism and Science in Popular Science Writing

Tilden’s view that popular science has created false expectations is also shared by the Christian writers Paul Marston and Roger Forster, who have backgrounds in science and mathematics. They comment that much of the popular science in bookshops around Britain, especially that written by Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker and John Gribbin, ‘is metaphysics not ‘science’, popular or otherwise, and their books are full of extended analogy and parables’ to the point where they suggest that ‘we might call them ‘Penpops Fables’ since Penguin ‘popular science’, books are especially full of them’. 2 Dawkins in particular has been criticised for confusing his own ideas with generally accepted, good science, and presenting them as the view of science in general. Fraser Watts, a former President of the British Psychological Society and Starbridge Lecturer in Science and Religion at Cambridge, stated that Dawkins

‘purports to be speaking for the whole of science as though all scientists think what he thinks, but they don’t … I think there is undoubtedly truth in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it is not a complete explanation of everything as Dawkins makes out – and he muddles up what is validly established science and the ideas he had in the bath last night, and he presents this as though it is a seamless robe and it is actually quite misleading.’ 3

Conclusion: Some Scientific Statements Need To Be Viewed with Scepticism

Thus, there are very good reasons, such as the commercial pressures on professional science writers and their own, personal ideological and professional biases, why some of the statements about the nature of science and state of research in popular science should be taken with a degree of scepticism. The whole point of science is that its findings and statements can be subjected to critical testing and scrutiny, and that critique should also include atheist metaphysics when this is presented as an intrinsic part of science itself.

Notes

1. Tilden, M., and Hrynkiw, D., Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels: Building Simple Robots with BEAM Technology (New York, McGraw-Hill/Osborne 2002), pp. XIV-XV.

2. Forster, R., and Marsden, P., Reason, Science & Faith (Crowborough, Monarch 1999), pp. 42-3.

3. Fraser Watts, in the Christian Students in Science video Encounter, cited in Forster and Marsden, Reason, Science and Faith, p. 53.

Dawkins, ID and Forteanism

June 9, 2008

Looking through this month’s copy of the Fortean Times, a monthly dedicated to reporting the weird and bizarre, I was particularly struck by two letters to the magazine from readers defending Dawkins from criticisms made by two of the FT’s long-term columnists, Noel Rooney and The Hierophant’s Apprentice, and the columnists’ replies to the letters. What I found particularly remarkable about the comments of Dawkins supporters wasn’t their defence of Dawkins’ attacks on religion, but the fact that they found his views Fortean. The author of one of the letters stated that ‘I consider Dawkins to be most ably informed on the excesses of religion and the myth of belief and to be doing a particularly fortean job in exposing the fallacies of religions, the religious and the religious principle in all its forms’. 1Now there is some similarity between Dawkins’ views on the paranormal and the type of philosophical scepticism adopted and recommended by Charles Fort, the compiler and publisher of weird and scientifically inexplicable facts after whom the Fortean Times is named. Dawkins’ view that if the paranormal exists, then it is ‘perinormal’, that is, it is not totally outside science but will eventually become incorporated into a scientific paradigm when enough evidence is accumulated to allow this, is close to Fort’s own observations that previously damned data – facts ignored or denied by conventional science – may become accepted by science through a change in the scientific paradigm, or the Dominant as Fort himself termed it. Nevertheless, at the risk of slavishly defining Forteanism according to Fort’s own personal philosophy, something that Fort himself did not want and which Noel Rooney in his reply also criticises, there’s a big difference between Dawkins’ scepticism towards the supernatural and Forteanism.

Dawkins own scepticism is very much that of 19th century Positivism, which believed, following the theories of Auguste Comte, that religion and metaphysics had been superseded by science. Indeed the university chair Dawkins holds, that of Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, has a strongly Positivist tone, suggesting that there is a single, absolutely authoritative view of science about which the public must be informed, but must not question. This is not an ‘anti-science’ view. I recall one scientist, who certainly showed Dawkins’ concern for better communication of science, making the same arguments in an opinion article published in the ‘Forum’ column of New Scientist in the 1990s. Fort, on the other hand, while not religious, directed his scepticism very much at science and the claims of scientists who presented as objective fact a view of reality based not so much on evidence as on their own, personal beliefs, in defence of which they excluded and suppressed any scientific data that could not be fitted into it, or which actively appeared to contradict it. Fort’s Book of the Damned begins by stating this very clearly:

‘A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that science has excluded.’ 2

Fort’s scepticism, rather than being Positivist, appears to be closer to that of the ancient Greek Sceptics like Pyrrho and Heraclites. These ancient Greek Sceptics believed that reality was fundamentally unknowable, in that nothing definite could be said about it, and so argued for a complete detachment from belief. 3 The great Sceptical philosophers, Carneades, was notorious for being able to argue both for and against a given position with equal force. While he also considered that reality was fundamentally unknowable, he considered that some impressions were more persuasive than others, and more servicable through closer inspection and corroborating impressions. They were thus more credible, though not more certain. 4 Fort’s view that everything was in a state of intermediacy, and striving to become ‘more nearly real’ while gradually blurring into everything else, was also similar to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus that everything was in a state of flux, and that nature operated through the union of opposites, stating that ‘Combinations – wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things’. 5 Fort’s scepticism towards dogmatic science was also shared by the militantly atheist Nietzsche, who also considered reality to be a flux that was only imperfectly caught and described in the net of language, and declared that any view that claimed objective validity was a ‘shadow of God’ that oppressed humanity.

Alhtough they aren’t Sceptics, in many ways the adherents of Intelligent Design have a far more Fortean approach to science than Dawkins. As Intelligent Design, by suggesting that living creatures are the product of an intelligent designer rather than chance Natural Selection, is very much contrary to existing orthodox evolutionary science, its supporters are, like Fort, critical of the claims of scientists to proceed through the dispassionate evaluation of objective evidence. Philip Johnson, one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design, has supported his arguments in this regard using the views of the physicist and philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, like Thomas Kuhn, considered that scientific progress largely consisted of the change of one set of self-consistent scientific concepts with another, only marginally based on the empirical evidence and not really constituting anything like progress in knowledge. 6 Although a controversial view, the history of science does provide examples of the way scientists have acted to suppress facts that do not support their current paradigm, and supporters of Intelligent Design have documented and publicised these incidents. For example, a recent post for the 26th May, ‘Can Science be Unbaised’, at the Intelligent Design site, The Design of Life, by Jane Harris Zsovan noted the intense controversy surrounding the views of Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer in their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump. Examing the debate about the usefulness of experimental in constructing a true model of the world between Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, Shapin and Shaffer concluded that scientists were no more objective in their view of the world than other people. In November 2007, Shapin and Shaffer in an edition of the Canadian TV science programme, Ideas, that after their book came out they suffered personal abuse and even threats of sacking from their colleagues, because of their rejection of the claim that science proceeds through complete objectivity. Thus, Denyse O’Leary, another leading supporter of Intelligent Design, has stated on her blog that ID is not the first or even the only scientific debate in which one side has been attacked and declared to be ‘anti-science’ by another.

Now this does not mean that Dawkins’ view of evolution is necessarily incorrect. It just means that in this instance, his view of science is less Fortean than that of the supporters of Intelligent Design, even though they aren’t sceptics like Fort himself. However, I do find interesting the recommendation of one of Dawkins’ defenders in their letter that Dawkins’ successor as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science should be invited to take part in the Fortean Times’ annual Unconvention and debate the motion ‘this house believes that all science undergraduates should be made to read Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned’. 7 My guess is that they wouldn’t, especially if the similarity between Fort’s views appeared to support the wider philosophy of science expressed by Intelligent Design.

Notes

1. Philip Bolt, ‘Dissing Dawkins’, in Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008), p. 74.

2. X, ed., with introduction by Bob Rickard, Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (London, John Brown Publishing 1995), p. 1.

3. ‘Scepticism’ in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 314.

4. ‘Scepticism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314, and ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

5. Aristotle, On the World, 396b7-8, 20-25, cited in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 114.

6. ‘Science, Philosophy of’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 320.

7. ‘Dissing Dawkins’, Jason Mills, Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008, p. 74.

Steyn, Levant, Channel 4 and the Western Suppression of Free Speech

June 9, 2008

Last week, the American Conservative journalist, Mark Steyn, went on trial before a Canadian Human Rights Commission court, accused of spreading hate against Islam. Steyn is extremely critical of radical Islam, and the author of a book, America Alone, which considers that America will quickly end up as the last refuge of Western values and politics as Europe is taken over by Islam. It’s a controversial book, and Steyn’s critics have pointed out a number of factual flaws in his arguments. It is not, however, the reason Steyn is on trial. Steyn, with the Canadian magazine, McClean’s, is on trial for an article he wrote for them critically describing the threat posed by militant Islamicists in the West, quoting violently bigoted comments by various western imams and religious leaders themselves. His opponents in this case are Mohammed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress and three young Muslims, who demanded that, through right of reply, McClean’s should run an article by them criticising Steyn’s comments. McClean’s refused to be dictated to in this fashion, so Elmasry and his three colleagues took Steyn and McClean’s to a Human Rights court.

The Canadian Human Rights Commissions were set up originally with the best of intentions to protect people from ethnic minorities from genuine discrimination, such as being summarily evicted by their landlords and left homeless. Since then, according to their critics such as Steyn and the Canadian Conservative journalist Ezra Levant, the courts have become increasingly dictatorial and anti-democratic. Normal legal rules of procedure and evidence don’t seem to apply to them. Neither does factual accuracy. Under Section 13 of the code establishing the Human Rights Commissions and their courts, factual accuracy is no defence if the accused is nevertheless considered by the court to be spreading hatred or prejudice.

Ezra Levant is similarly being prosecuted by the Human Rights Courts for his critical comments about militant Islam and specifically for publishing the notorious Danish cartoons. He is extremely critical of the Human Rights Commission and their apparent contempt for free speech and the normal rules that govern the police and judiciary in democracies in order to protect democratic freedom. His blog, like Steyn’s site, includes details of his individual case. Levant also covers what he considers to be the abuse of power by the Human Rights Commissions generally, and campaigns for their abolition.

While critical of militant Islam, Steyn and Levant also have the support of Muslim journalists and writers in Canada who are strongly opposed to the militant intolerance preached by the militants in the name of Islam. Levant has said something in his blog to the effect that the Canadian Islamic Congress is unrepresentative of Canadian Islam as a whole, and that their attempts to suppress criticism of militant Islam has probably done much more to spread suspicion of Islam generally than either Steyn or himself.

Now this would normally be a matter of concern only to Canadians. However, Steyn, Levant and their supporters, such as the Canadian writer and ID supporter Denyse O’Leary, have stated that foreign individuals outside Canada should closely examine the conduct of Human Rights Commissions in their attack on free speech in order to prevent similar abuses occurring in their countries. This also goes well beyond the lines of party politics. Steyn and Levant are Conservatives, but their prosecution is of real concern to people concerned with maintaining traditional democratic liberties such as free speech and conscience regardless of party allegiance. Some of the appointees to the Human Rights Commission courts were given their posts by Conservative administrations. As for Steyn and Levant, it shouldn’t matter here whether the accused are Conservatives, Liberals or members of the Socialist New Democrat Party. Their prosecution before a court system where factual accuracy is apparently no defence is a threat to democracy itself.

As for their comment that the situation in Canada should also concern non-Canadians, it’s a very, very good point. Unfortunately the prosecution of Steyn and Levant for their coverage and criticism of militant Islam is very relevant to British politics and the attempt by some parts of the British legal system to prevent the media from covering militantly bigoted attacks on British society by British Muslims. In the middle of last month, the Crown Prosecution Service and West Midlands police force gave a statement recognising that they had been incorrect to accuse Channel 4 of misleading editing in its programme, Undercover Mosque, and agreed to pay damages of £100,000 to charity. The programme Undercover Mosque was broadcast in January 2007 in the Channel 4 Despatches documentary series. It showed supposedly moderate Islamic clergy vehemently denouncing non-Muslims as ‘filthy’, ‘accursed’ and ‘criminals’. The West Midlands police then investigated the clergy involved, before claiming, seven months later, that the programme had misrepresented the clergy through selective editing. Ofcom, the government’s broadcasting watchdog, then investigated the programme, and came to the conclusion that the editing had not misrepresented the militant preachers. This verdict was accepted by the West Midlands police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

What is disturbing about this case is that rather than accept that militantly bigoted comments and sermons were being preached by the clergy concerned, the police force and CPS instead attempted to suppress its reporting. This seems partly to have been due to prevent racial tension and violence. Anil Patani, the West Midland Police Force’s assistant chief constable (security and cohesion), stated that the programme threatened ‘community cohesion’ by unfairly representing the Muslim preachers. My own view here is that this is rubbish. Community cohesion was threatened long before Channel 4 made the documentary the moment when the imams concerned were allowed, or invited to speak. In fact violent denunciations of non-Muslim Britons by radical Muslim clergy have been a problem for a long time. In the 1990s the BBC filmed one cleric telling his congregation that British society was a monstrous ‘killing machine’ and that ‘killing Muslims comes very easily to them.’ This particular cleric was intensely controversial in the Muslim community, and there were demonstrations against him and his bigotry by British Muslims.

However, there also seems to be a real reluctance to act against militant Islamic bigotry on the part of the British authorities, even when they have been alerted to a very real threat posed by some mosques and their clergy by concerned Muslims. The people who first attempted to alert the authorities to the militant activities at Finchley Park mosque, which was closed down a few years ago after it was found to be supporting Islamicist terrorism, were Muslims, and for a long time their warnings were ignored.

My feeling is that there’s a political aspect to this reluctance by the authorities to act against the Islamicist militants. Some of it is probably an attempt to avoid making this situation worse by appearing to provoke, or increase suspicion and hatred of Muslims in wider British society. However, there’s also a diplomatic element involved. Many British mosques are funded by the governments of Muslim countries, partly as a way of extending their influence into British Muslim society. Where that particular Islamic nation has a particularly intolerant attitude, there’s a danger that this influence will be passed on to British Muslims through the funding nation presenting it as a genuine part of Islam. Moreover, the programme Undercover Mosque was particular embarrassing for the British government as it showed supposedly moderate Muslims as preaching vehement hatred instead of peace and harmony.

My point here is not to attack or criticise Islam or muslims generally. The militant preachers of hate are intensely controversial in the Muslim community, and I can remember reading comments by muslim writers demanding that the media also pay attention to demonstrations by Muslims against them and more generally as normal members of British society. Across the world, ordinary muslims have acted to save non-muslims from terrorist atrocities committed by the Islamicists. When a party of German tourists was massacred by Islamicist militants in Egypt in the 1990s, a number of them were saved by the local people running out to hide them in their own houses. The Shari’a, the Islamic legal code, explicitly forbids killing women, children and non-combatants, and members of the Egyptian public condemned the Islamicists’ atrocity as ‘completely against Islam’ when interviewed on a BBC Radio travel programme. What concerns me is that rather than tackle the fact that there are bigoted clerics preaching a vicious hatred of non-muslims, the authorities have instead attempted to prevent it being reported. The suppression of the reporting of militant hatred for apparently political reasons is the real issue here, and it is a genuine, threat to democracy whatever the group or organisation preaching hatred and bigotry is. Christians and members of other faiths and ideologies have and are being persecuted for their conscience in numerous states around the world, so I’m acutely aware of the danger of creating a similar climate of religious intolerance in Britain towards Islam. However, genuine democratic politics depends on the free discussion of issues, and this becomes particularly important when there is a very real danger from terrorism and susceptible, confused or alienated people being turned against their fellow countrymen by bigots. In this situation, it is entirely appropriate that the problem should be reported and discussed. Attempting to ignore the problem, or deny that it exists by prosecuting those who do report it won’t change the situation and will set a dangerous precedent for the official suppression of news the authorities consider embarrassing or potentially threatening generally. The Human Rights Commissions in Canada and the attempt by the West Midlands police force and the Crown Prosecution Service in Britain to prosecute the producers of Undercover Mosque aren’t just a problem for the reporting of militant Islam, but a threat generally to free speech and democratic politics.

The Divine Right of Kings and Secular Politicians

June 6, 2008

In a comment to an earlier post of mine, Jor, one of the great commentators to this blog, expressed the view that modern cops and politicians felt they had the same divine right to rule as medieval kings. I was sceptical of this, as although politicians and the police do consider that they have an automatic right to rule and enforce those rules, this is almost exclusively based on secular political theory, rather than theology. Nevertheless, the great architectural historian, Lewis Mumford, held a similar view that the state’s claim to power over its subjects and their property was based on the divine right of kings, and traced this conception of the state’s right to sovereignty to the very origins of kingship and civilisation itself in ancient mesopotamia.

In his classic book, The City in History, Mumford states that

‘Private property begins, not as Proudhon thought with robbery, but with the treatment of all common property as the private possession of the king, whose life and welfare were identified with that of the community. Property was an extension and enlargement of his own personality, as the unique representative of the collective whole. But once this claim was accepted, property could for the first time be alienated, that is, removed from the community by the individual gift of the king.

This conception of the royal possessions remained in its original form well past the time of Louis XIV. That Sun King, a little uneasy over the heavy taxes he desired to impose, called together the learned Doctors of Paris to decide if his exactions were morally justifiable. Their theology was equal to the occasion. They explained that the entire realm was his by divine right: hence in laying on these new taxes he was only taxing himself. This prerogative was passed on, undefiled, to the ‘sovereign state’, which in emergencies falls back, without scruple, on ancient myth and magic.’ 1

Now while this was probably true of Louis XIV’s government, the situation was rather different for his successor, Louis XIV. His reign ended and the French Revolution broke out partly because of the monarchy’s inability to the raise the taxes it needed to run the country through the obstruction of the Parlement of Paris and other, regional parlements that ruled the new taxes unconstitutional, while the vast wealth of the nobility and church was unavailable as they were exempt from taxation. For example, when Louis XVI’s Controleur-General, Turgot, attempted to reform the French agricultural system according to Physiocratic ideas of free trade, the reforms were vehemently attacked by the Parlement of Paris. In his Six Edicts of 1776, Turgot attempted to free the internal grain trade, abolish the guilds and convert the corvee – the labour service performed by the rural peasantry – into a money tax paid by all landlords. The Parlement of Paris, the assembly of French lawyers which examined royal legislation to see if it was constitutional before it could be passed, rejected it as an intolerable attack on privilege. Their comments demanding its rejection denounced it as a ‘project produced by an inadmissible system of equality, whose first effect would be to confound all orders in the state by imposing on them the uniform burden of a land tax’. 2 Confronted with this opposition, Louis backed down and dismissed Turgot.

Mumford himself had a negative view of the social effects of the rise of civilisation. He viewed the development of the city and the settled state as a process by which the earliest, egalitarian communities, ruled by a council of elders and characterised by little difference in social roles and comparative wealth between its members, was destroyed and replaced by absolute states, characterised by a social stratefication that reduced many of their citizens to slavery, forced individuals into specialised social and economic roles, and ruled by military aristocracies. These early states were totalitarian and belligerent, with power eventually becoming centralised in the person of the king, and maintained by warfare against rival states. It’s a view of the origins of the state that, in looking back to a more egalitarian, democratic state before the rise of civilisation, has much in common with the contemporary distrust of civilisation as a whole and a very positive view of indigenous, tribal societies who are believed to be more noble and egalitarian than industrial, technological cultures. Given this awareness of the oppressive consequences of the development of the autocratic state in antiquity, it’s possibly not surprising that Mumford was similarly critical of the tendencies towards centralisation and authoritarianism in modern, industrial states.

It’s probably safe to say that most people would reject the idea that the aristocratic, centralised monarchies of the ancient world had anything in common with contemporary secular, democratic politics, beyond the fact that many of the problems and issues that occupied the early kings, such as their statements that they intended to support justice, maintain or create prosperity and defend their nation against invaders are the same issues that face just about every politician and statesman. However, Mumford’s comment here, like JOR’s, does pose the interesting problem of how much of the modern conception of the state is due not to the rational analysis of its nature and powers, but derived from the idea of the state as it was constructed in remote antiquity, and passed down since then as a fundamental assumption that is simply accepted as automatically true and rational, rather than analysed and debated. This is not to say that the state is necessarily oppressive or coercive, as even in antiquity there were debates about the nature of the state and how it could be organised to give the greatest freedom and justice. Nevertheless, modern politics after the horrors of the totalitarian regimes of left and right in the 20th century is acutely aware of how oppressive the power of the state can be in the hands of those determined to destroy its citizens’ freedom. An awareness of the authoritarian nature of some ancient states, and the process by which their citizens attempted to reform it and check the power of monarchies and oppressive governments, such as in democratic Athens or ancient Rome, clearly have important lessons for contemporary, democratic states, despite the immense differences in time, culture and the nature of the ancient civilisations.

Notes

1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1961), p. 129.

2. E.N. Williams, The Ancien Regime in Europe: Government and Society in the Major States 1648-1789 (London, Penguin 1970), p. 239.