Thursday, December 21, 2006

Troll the ancient Yuletide peril

My wife informs me that Timothy Garton Ash has been singing some Christmas carols and doing some thinking about religion:

In my judgment as a historian of modern Europe, the positive side is larger than the negative.

Believe me, I was practically bursting with anticipation to see what came next. Which was...this:
It seems to me self-evident that we would not have the European civilisation we have today without the heritage of Christianity, Judaism and (in a smaller measure, mainly in the middle ages) Islam, which legacy also paved the way, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly, for the Enlightenment.

Try as it might, my modern historian's brain cannot quite work its way to finding any meaning at all in this passage.

The first half is a truism: it is self-evident (though meaningless) that if European civilisation had been built on different foundations it would look rather different today.

The second half is even more confusing. If this religious heritage didn't foresee (i.e., the 'unwittingly' bit) and resisted ('unwillingly') the Enlightenment, what credit does it get for the benefits which flowed therefrom?

Moreover, I can think of a rather different way to join these two clauses: wouldn't 'the European civilisation we have today' have been much better off if our 'religious heritage' had given way a little less 'unwillingly' to rational thinking?

And then there's this:

Routinely, almost instinctively, we distinguish between the belief and the believer. To be sure, it's easier to do that with some beliefs than it is with others. If someone is convinced that 2 + 2 = 5 and the earth is made of cheese, that will impede everyday coexistence a little more. Yet it's amazing what diverse and even wacky beliefs we do, in practice, coexist with quite happily. (The widespread popular faith in astrology is a good example.)

Well, I, for one, am rather less than 'quite happy' about astrology's popularity. I have to also say that my opinion of someone declines (almost instinctively) if I discover that they put much 'faith' in it.

More importantly, though, I suggest there is a certain apple/orange problem here.

It's one thing (and quite annoying enough) that someone spends ten seconds reading his (or more likely her) horoscope over breakfast; it would be quite another thing if fanatical astrology advocates systematically tried to infiltrate school science courses, issued death threats against those who disagreed with them or went so far as to wage war in the name of their wacky little belief system.

Which of these two things is a better description of the comparative contemporary history of religion?

Back to the holiday punchbowl with you, Mr. Ash.

And a happy winter solstice to us all, every one.

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