Red Meat for My Atheist Friends

I thought I might attempt to delegate my brain work and see if anyone can help me out with a critique of a recent article by Ross Douthat that appeared in The New York Times last week.

It starts with what Douthat finds to be an interesting discussion on the website the Edge, “Death is Optional,” between Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Daniel Kahneman, a noted academic and psychologist. It’s an interesting conversation that covers a lot of ground speculating on what changes in technology might mean for human society. Douthat, however latches onto one thing that they say that Douthat says he found “provoking.”

In the original conversation, in trying to speculate on what might happen in the future, Harari talked about the industrial revolution and how society responded to that.

What I can say is that maybe we are again in analogous position to the world in 1800. When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.

What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant. Today, everybody is talking about ISIS, and the Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian revival, and things like that. There are new problems, and people go back to the ancient texts, and think that there is an answer in the Sharia, in the Qur’an, in the Bible. We also had the same thing in the 19th century. You had the Industrial Revolution. You had huge sociopolitical problems all over the world, as a result of industrialization, of modernization. You got lots of people thinking that the answer is in the Bible or in the Qur’an. You had religious movements all over the world.

In the Sudan, for example, you have the Mahdi establishing Muslim theocracy according to the Sharia. An Anglo-Egyptian army comes to suppress the rebellion, and they are defeated. They behead General Charles Gordon. Basically, this is the same thing that you’re now seeing with ISIS. Nobody remembers the Mahdi today because the answers that he found in the Qur’an and the Sharia to the problem of industrialization didn’t work.

This was the part that provoked Douthat. In response, Douthat writes:

New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

I don’t have the necessary depth of historical knowledge to refute this completely, but I do have to wonder how accurate his version is. It seems to me, writing off the top of my head, that well over a millenium and a half of Christianity did nothing to wear away the institution of slavery and it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment that individual became more valuable than the community and institutions like slavery could be drawn into question. Slavery in France was ended with the Revolution. Many of the prominent freethinkers in the U.S. in the decades before the Civil War, like Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, Elizur Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, were abolitionists, as well as being active in other social movements like feminism.

The reformers who worked in the slums have a somewhat checkered record and many of them supported eugenics themselves. I don’t know much about the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century reform movements, although I see monuments to that period about the city. A quick look turned up a book titled Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. From the synopsis of the book:

Many religious leaders embraced eugenics, often arriving at their support through their involvement with other social reform movements, including campaigns to sterilize the “feebleminded” in the states; new efforts by the state to regulate marriage; the birth control movement; efforts to combat “social evils” such as venereal disease; and the movement to restrict immigration.

Although much of the left in the United States traces its heritage to the Progressive Movement, I know embarrassingly little about the period. However, one of the major educational reformers of period was John Dewey, an atheist and humanist.

I don’t want to go to the other extreme and deny the work of religious people during this period, but I’m not willing to accept the statement that the “reformers who made the biggest difference” were those who were religious and the agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists, and atheists were irrelevant.

So, I would love a little help from my friends here. I should add that I’ve been fixating on the U.S., but that is only because I know the history better. Harari was most certainly talking about historical trends that will affect the entire world. Douthat writes:

As the developing world has converged in prosperity with Europe and America, old religious ideas that have been given new life — Christianity in China, Hinduism in India, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa — are playing as important a social role as any secular or scientific perspective.

Take a look at Douthat’s column and let me know what you think.

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4 comments
  1. Daz said:

    Did you change the theme?

    Anyways, I’m in the middle of my early-morning stuff—job hunting and the like—but I wanted to quickly address this:

    and it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment that individual became more valuable than the community and institutions like slavery could be drawn into question.

    There’s something which I think is often overlooked. The industrial revolution brought machines which could do the work of many people. Machines which, though it may sound cynical, were cheaper than slavery. I don’t think it’s possible to fully address why slavery became questioned at that time, without taking note of the fact that for the first time it was becoming possible to do work which had previously needed mass cheap labour—either slavery or at poverty-level wages—without the need for masses of labourers.

    • fojap said:

      Normally, I do tend to like economic arguments and feel that they often trump cultural arguments. However, in the United States, slavery appeared to be declining in importance economically when the cotton gin was invented. Douthat is actually right about that much. PBS: Africans in America. Although, to say that technology entrenched slavery in the context of comparing it to religious people who opposed it is inaccurate. There’s no reason to think that scientists and inventors inherently supported slavery.

      It is an interesting question. Definitely, labor shortages contributed to the slave trade.

      Another thing that supports the ideological view is that several of the people I named were also feminists and held other views of society that we might call progressive today. I looked up a list of prominent atheists and agnostics from the time period and then looked to see if any had taken an active position on slavery. Although, I learned in school that many of the early campaigners for women’s suffrage had first become politically active in abolition, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

      • Daz said:

        Oh I don’t mean to imply it trumps the cultural side of things. More, I suppose, that the growing awareness that it was becoming possible to do ‘mass labour’ work without mass labour, however well-treated, made it easier to gain popular support.

        Another thing that supports the ideological view is that several of the people I named were also feminists …

        Indeed. One of the things that strikes me is that feminists have actually been the group that brought together various other mass movements in common cause, at various times and places. Anti-slavery, black civil rights, various anti-war campaigns, unionism, animal-protection, ecological…

    • fojap said:

      Oh, yeah. Regarding the theme. I did change it. I had gotten the customization “upgrade” because I originally wasn’t happy with any of the themes, but then WordPress changed the interface for that and made it less enjoyable to use, so when it came time to renew I let it lapse. Can’t say I particularly like this theme. You might see it change a bunch of times over the next few days.

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