An Ongoing Dialogue on Religion and Society

This is an experimental page in which both authors are writing back and forth in conversation about a topic. It starts with an article which we both read: “The Old Enemy: Anthony Burgess and Islam”.


Logan:  I guess I’ll start with Anthony Burgess’s claim that, “Catholicism will have turned into Protestantism and Protestantism into agnosticism.”  Instantly I remembered your post on Spiderman and the work of Jame Sire.  Basically the argument goes, once someone starts at the top of the world-view hill of deism, it will roll an individual down to the valleys of nihilism.   What do you think about the possibility that Protestantism lowered the rolling resistance for the West to crash into the enlightenment and finally into Post-Modernism and truths being relative?

I  think it did.  John S. Mill in On Liberty discusses the concept of religious freedom and how that developed.  It wasn’t tolerant citizens that sought to give their neighbors a chance to  live their lives according to their preferences, but the lack of a majority with powerful religious doctrine. Now any believer can take what they read and interpret what they will. Whatever taste satisfies the moral and social palate.  Anything goes [1][2][3].   In essence, Protestantism began the shift in the West to broaden its world-views, relative truths and narrow the concept of morality.

Derrick: I’m going to be blue. Ok, that’s a good starting point, and I kind of agree, but I don’t think it’s as simple as Burgess argues (or at least the sense you get from the article).

First, the protestant revolution was not about de-stabilizing the authority of Christianity, it was about returning it to the written revelation of the Bible. So there’s still dogmatic truth and morality that comes from scripture. There’s just no longer a human intermediary by which those scriptures are authoritatively interpreted. So, you’re right, if you can make a moral claim jive with the Bible, you can give it authority; and this can easily lead to competing/contradictory interpretations. Still, there’s an authority there. It’s no longer a human institution (the papacy) but it’s not relativism. 

The confusion of interpretation can lead to agnosticism, but it’s not a logical progression–more of a disillusionment. 

I think that part of the reason for this confusion is the nature of the Bible. It’s a fragmented, complicated book that can be very hard to understand. I think part of the reason that Burgess seemed to think Islam was (in some senses) stronger than Christianity is because the Koran is very similar to the Pentateuch: a lot of direct instructions. The Bible gets much more complicated than that, especially in the interaction between the Old and New Testament.

Logan:  As Hillary Clinton would say, “what difference does it make at this point ” whether it’s a logical progression or disillusionment?  With either, the West has broadened its world-views, truth, narrowed the concepts immorality and decreased the influence of religion and faith.  Am I wrong? Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so, given human nature (groupish, slaves to emotions, hypocritical,  prideful, and violent).

I will concede that it’s more a disillusionment.  I don’t think the fragmentation of religious doctrine is a bad thing.  It creates conditions to break up an oppressive human institution that may form.  At the same time give life to much needed debates on injustices, such as slavery, give opportunities to churches to act as a center piece for the civil right movement, or simply show religious hypocrisy.  Additionally, this fragmentation has helped remind society what actions and beliefs we shouldn’t adopt. I think of Westboro Baptist Church as a good example of what not to be.  I think the benefits of religious freedom and religious diversity outweighs any cost, such as disillusionment.

Derrick: Granted that we have, since the protestant reformation, generally narrowed our idea of immorality and decreased the cultural influence of Religion (institution?) and Faith (personal value?); is it a bad thing? Maaaayyyyybbbeee? Certainly I think the the decrease of personal faith is a bad thing for individuals. Is the lessening influence of religion on society a bad thing? 

Well what benefits does Religion offer society? You probably know the answer to that better than me?

About Westboro: wouldn’t you rather live in a world where the agents of the inquisition would take such heretics and burns them at the stake? Isn’t that just as good of an example of “what not to be?”

LOGAN: Burning Westboro members at the stake is not good.  The agents of the inquisition weren’t seeking truth; they were attempting to maintain a pure ideology.  (Take notes Shiite and Sunni Islamist!)

I think of dueling as a similar analogy.

Rand Paul, U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was accused of plagiarism not too long ago.  He wrote an article for the Washington Times about minimum prison sentences.  Apparently, the Senator lifted a significant number of sentences from an article that appeared much earlier by Dan Stewart in The Week magazine.  The Senator has taken responsibility, but not at first.

When this event began to pick up controversial steam, the Senator’s initial response was, “if only dueling was legal in Kentucky…” 

Dueling, ideally, was used to defend one’s honor and integrity.  This was the practice for a long time.  In fact our first Secretary of Treasury and founding father, Alexander Hamilton (the man on the 10 dollar bill) was killed during a duel with then Vice-President Aaron Burr. (And we think politics are uncivilized now!)

Hamilton didn’t like Burr and publicly stated that Burr shouldn’t be trusted with public office.  Burr asked Hamilton to retract his statement, but Hamilton refused.      

To settle the dispute they took to dueling.

Hamilton dies.

What did we learn from this duel?  Burr had the better shot and that’s it.

Was Burr a trustworthy public official?  That wasn’t investigated here.  Dueling doesn’t seem to have a purpose in regards to finding truths.  It just shows who is willing to die for what they believe in, whether it is true or not, or stand by their lie for some personal or social purpose. 

This goes for the inquisition as well; burning heretics at the stake did not establish if heretics or the religious establishment claims were true or false or examine the proper way to settle differences.

2 + 2= 5

If you disagree with the above statement you’re a heretic or if you’re an aspiring mathematician and want to prove the world wrong and you believe 2 +2 does equal 5 and someone in the back of the room yells, ‘you’re an idiot’  to which you reply, “DUEL!”    So you duel away.  You kill your opponent, but the obvious question is still left unanswered, does 2 +2 =5?

The inquisition, KKK, Nazis, Sunni and Shiite violence are duelist.  Westboro and other belligerent, yet peaceful assemblers are 2 +2= 5ers and we are, again, reminded why 2 + 2=4.

 I will touch on religion’s benefits to society later.  I got carried away with this one.

Derrick: ok but you’re assuming an objective standard of truth. Sure, burning a heretic at the stake doesn’t make them wrong, but it sure does shut them up, and afterwards we’ve got a uniform ideology. No more uncertainty, relativism, etc. If there is no objective truth (a religious claim) and one of the great benefits of Religion (as Burgess seems to say) is that it unifies us, isn’t silencing the opposition a really valuable thing? Isn’t Islam just a little bit impressive because of the fervor and speed at which its countries can collectively act?

Relativistic Democracy is weak, because people like Westboro can show up and we all have to say “well, I don’t agree with what they say, but I’ll defend their right to say it.” Hell, no! How about when you say something like “God hates fags!” and “Thank God for dead soldiers!” you have to put your life on the line to back it up. How ’bout we understand the power of our words?

I have to admire Islam just a bit, because they say “Thou shalt not make an image of Mohammed” and if you do, there’s no waffling of “well, he’s just being artistic.” There’s real risk. Sure you can push the envelope, but unlike pushing the envelope in Western Culture (I’m thinking of Piss Christ) there’s some real risk involved. 

It seems like sometimes our Freedom of Expression has led to the idea that only something that is shocking is worthwhile. We’ve deadened our sensibility. In other words, maybe strict Religion is valuable because it makes us think carefully before we embrace or ridicule ideas. People who criticize Islam must do so very seriously in an Islamic culture. People in the west who criticize any religion are often fools. The internet abounds with them.

LOGAN: I can’t help but look toward North Korea and how a uniformed ideology has strangled all hopes of serious debates or positive ideas.  The West looks towards this country in pity (not compassion).  We can not even identify if the majority of the country is motivated by fear or true belief anymore. Isn’t this the fate of all established religion states, like Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan?

Members of the North Korean society who push back on the Juche doctrine are subject to severe punishment. Change is slow, if any. In N.K. everything is almost eternal in the realm of ideas, ideologies, and worldviews– but at least they are certain? At least their worldview is simple and every role equal, purposeful?  It’s Plato’s cave!


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