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On Faith: History, human rights and hazards

On Faith: History, human rights and hazards

John Nassivera On Faith

Aug 13, 2022

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If there is one reaction I hear over and over again from various friends who are kind enough to read these columns, it is the following: “Why do you suggest that one has to be religious and believe in God in order to know how to do the right thing, to have a solid sense of morality? I’m an atheist, or at least an agnostic, and I’m pretty sure I’m an ethical and kind person.”

If I had $1,000 for each time I’ve heard this, l’d buy a new used car — which I need, by the way. The issue with these remarks is that the people saying them are not representative of humanity in general. My friends are not only living in the so-called First World, but most of them are from New England and New York — a section of the world that has one of the highest per capita ratios of advanced college degrees on the planet. I’m not saying these people are better than everybody, but I am definitely saying they are not representative of the American or the world population.

They are not necessarily and automatically better, because the highly educated can be horrifically bad people. We only have to look across history, and recent history, to have that point proven. The Nazi Party had lots of Ph.D.s and M.D.s not only as token supporters but as fervent activists on the front line of Nazi programs. The Communist Party in Russia and China had their own intellectual elites pushing things along.

But fortunately, higher learning — and even simply good secondary education — in our western civilization has, in the grand scheme of things across time, fostered a betterment of society. The Nazi/fascist takeover of Germany and the Communist/Stalinist takeover of Russia were exceptions to the rule and were relatively short lived.

I would suggest Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany are, in fact, exceptions that prove the rule. It is important to remember both of those regimes fought hard against religion. Hitler’s party was against Christianity (especially Catholicism) and worked hard to create a Nazi/Aryan ‘Christian’ Church, with some pagan elements thrown in. The Communist Party in Russia shut down all religions; however, in recent years, Putin has fostered a deeply nationalistic “rebirth” for the Russian Orthodox Church — as long as it supports him and his policies.

Looking further back in western history, one cannot help but notice it was Christianity that reformed the bad habit of higher learning’s concubinage with violent despotism. Just prior to the Christian age, the greatest Roman poet, Virgil (70 BCE–19 CE), sang praises for Augustus Caesar in his masterpiece, “The Aeneid.” Horace and Ovid did the same in their writings. But the New Testament displays disagreement with the powers of the state and despots over and over again. Of course, Jesus himself was put to death by those powers.

Prior to the advent of Christianity there was no widely held concept of the inherent worth of the human person, no concept that love and charity should be at the foundation of society, no concept that slavery was a vile institution, no concept that ‘might equals right’ was a modus operandi to be questioned. Before Christianity exerted its influence across the Roman Empire and then around the world, ritual human sacrifice was practiced in almost every culture on every continent. It is an irresponsible disservice to humanity that this last historical fact is not widely taught and understood — in fact, it is downplayed and whitewashed constantly.

The ill-founded and silly romanticization of pre-Christian pagan tribal cultures across the world does not help anyone better understand human history. It does the opposite. It cheapens what we have accomplished in the past 500 years.

It was not easy to shut down slavery and paganism’s rituals of human sacrifice. It has taken 2,000 years to (almost) finish the task — although the popes condemned both from very early in church history. This change in mindset was a true revolution — a revolution from which we are still reaping the benefits to this very day.

Europe’s foremost living philosopher and historian, Jurgen Habermas, said not long ago: “Christianity (is the source) from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy. To this very day there is no alternative to it. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.” And Habermas is not Christian — he is one of Europe’s most famous atheists.

So the question now on the table for the 21st century is: Can we foster human rights, encourage human flourishing, and build a better world without God? There are many, especially among intellectuals, who hold that we can. I hold that they are wrong.

Without God in the picture, from where will all the people — not just the bookworms — get their idea of morality, justice and charity? From politicians? From philosophers? From professors? From whatever trendy ’isms are the talk over cocktails or around a keg of beer? ’Isms change their direction as fast as fashion models change their clothes.

And I’m willing to go a step further: Without the idea of divine judgment and the potential of heavenly reward (or punishment) for leading a good life (or not), from what source will all the people — not just the bookworms — get the strength of resolve to stay on the straight and narrow and not revert to a constant state of barbarity? (And don’t talk to me about those 72 virgins waiting in heaven for dead Muslim terrorists to arrive — that is a perversion of Islamic teaching.)

If you think politics and philosophy can, on their own, fix and control the moral hazards of human nature, then I’m ready to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Even if someone tells me God and those commandments are just inventions of humans — as Ludwig Feuerbach and Emile Durkheim so famously told us — I would reply with the old Italian witticism: “Se non e vero e ben trovato” (If it’s not true, it’s a good invention).

Belief, having faith, in a just and merciful God and in a divine judgment for our actions is the bedrock of the Judeo-Christian moral system we have inherited and built upon. Without that foundation being recognized, can western civilization survive? Or will it end, as Elliot said, “not with a bang but a whimper” — ?

John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.


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