Western society has become more secular in the past 20 years, especially in Europe. People are losing interest in religion and some have become anti-religion. I am not interested in proving any religion to be true but in assessing the societal and economic consequences of religious beliefs or non-beliefs.
Those of you who have read my earlier articles will discover that in my opinion, Islamic beliefs lead to backwardness. I had argued that Islam was designed to facilitate Arabic imperialism and the same qualities that ensured its success in the first few centuries of Islam are now holding back the progress of Muslims. That is why Muslims are today amongst the most backwards, unhealthy, uneducated people in the world - facts which are acknowledged by Muslim leaders such as Mr. Pervez Musharraf and Dr Mahathir Mohammed.
But what about secularism? Western society, especially Europe is increasingly becoming secular with people losing traditional religious beliefs. Church attendance in Europe has gone down. Christian ideas are been eroded as can be seen by the legalization of same sex marriage in most parts of Western Europe. What are the societal and economic consequences that flow from secularism?
To begin with, secularism promotes a more short term and hedonistic attitude towards life. Since secular people have little faith in God or an after life, the tendency is for them to adopt the attitude of “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. Of course, not all secular people are like that. But in general, secularism promotes such attitudes.
Their time horizon is therefore their own lifetime. Religious people on the other hand are more long term. Their eyes are on eternity. If you go to Europe, you will come across many Cathedrals that took centuries to build. For example, Cologne Cathedral took more than 300 years to complete. (1)
Why did the Medieval Christians start a project that none of them would live to see its completion? The answer is that they look to the hereafter. Their desire was to please God and go to heaven. They say that faith can move mountains. Here a mountain of stone was literally moved to build the great Cathedrals of Europe.
But what of the secular people in now post-Christian Europe? What are the economic consequences of people whose time frame is simply the rest of their lives?
For a start, they (in general) want to enjoy their lives to the hilt. For some, this could mean early retirement with loss of still productive workers to the economy. For others, it could mean fewer or no children for children means responsibility and a tax on their resources which could be used to indulge themselves. Statistics from America have shown that regular church goers tend to have more children than those that seldom or don't attend church. (2)
When interviewed, 47% of people who attend church weekly say that the ideal family size is three or more children, compared to only 27% of those who seldom attend church.
This implies a correlation between religious faith and the birth rate which of course has economic consequences. I can detect two reasons for this. Firstly, all religions tend to assign gender roles. Women are seen to be primarily as homemakers with men the head of the household. Thus those women with higher religiosity tend to have more children because they are more ready to accept that child caring is an important part of their lives. Women who give higher priority tend to have less children.
But there is a second reason which is more subtle and in my opinion more powerful. As I said earlier, secular people tend to have a "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die," attitude. Since they have little faith or no faith in God and an afterlife, they want to enjoy their lives now while they still can. In the modern world, children are no longer seen as providers in our old age. They are seen as drain on our resources because we have to feed and educate them. Hence you will get a low birth rate among secular people.
A low birth rate in Europe, besides creating an aging population with its attendant strain on the welfare system, must be seen in the context of rising immigration from Muslim countries. These Muslims, perhaps with greater religiosity, tend to have a higher birth rate. Scholar Bernard Lewis commented that by the end of this century, Europeans might be speaking Arabic and majority Muslim.
Besides this, secularism has another impact on society. Secularism creates a culture that is very similar to that of the culture of polytheistic societies. Secularism and Polytheism produce societies that are too tolerant, too undisciplined, too lacking in a moral compass to resist an aggressive monotheism like Islam. I fear that what happened to the ancient polytheistic Meccans is beginning to happen to secular Europeans
We can gain an insight by comparing Roman/Greek polytheism with Christianity which replaced it. The first thing that struck me when reading about Roman (and Greek) gods was (related to: the first thing that..) that they had very human qualities as compared to Jehovah or Allah. Jupiter (or Zeus) was a philanderer and his jealous wife always takes out her anger on the unfortunate mortal women her husband seduced.
Why did they have such human qualities? That is because in all likelihood they were once human. The ancients and not so ancient people have a habit of deifying humans. Roman emperors were often declared gods by the Roman Senate. Hadrian, a pederast Roman emperor made his lover-boy Antinous a god after he drowned in Egypt.(3)
In Malaysia, there is a temple in Malacca dedicated to Cheng Ho or Zheng He, an eunuch, Chinese, Muslim Admiral. (4) I also recall reading somewhere that devotees in an Indian village are worshiping at the grave of a 19th century British officer. They offer his spirit liquor because he was reputed to love strong drink.
So we have a motley crew of an emperor's Greek lover boy, a Chinese Muslim, eunuch Admiral and a drunken British officer added to the pantheon of polytheistic gods. Thus we may assume that the main Greek and Roman gods were once human and thus have human failings.
The second thing about polytheistic gods is that they do not appear all powerful. Often they are at odds with one another (eg Zeus and his wife Hera were always quarreling) and can sometimes be manipulated by mortals. Amongst Chinese folk religions, there is a kitchen god who ascends to heaven once a year to tell the Jade Emperor whether the people of each household have been good or bad. So once a year, worshipers bake a special sticky cake to bribe him. If that fails, then they hope that maybe his mouth will get stuck by the sticky cake and he can't talk. (5)
The Jewish-Christian God and the Islamic god Allah are very different. They don't have human flaws and are all-powerful. Belief in such gods demands more from a worshiper. A philandering worshiper in ancient Greece may take comfort that Zeus also does the same but not those of monotheistic religions.
If he thinks that he has offended Zeus, he can turn to Hera or other gods. For followers of monotheistic religions, there is no escape. Unlike a worshiper of the Kitchen god, the Christian or Muslim cannot hope to bribe their God. What this means is that monotheistic religions are better at compelling their worshipers to abide by the prescribed code of conduct.
Of course not all polytheistic gods are undemanding. The Japanese god-emperor during the Second World War demanded and got kamikaze pilots to die for him. In general however, I think it is safe to say that most polytheistic gods are too human like, too varied in their emphasis and too lacking in perceived power to demand much from their worshipers.
Also, judging from Roman/Greek gods, it is not clear to me if there is much of a cohesive code of conduct. Each god seems to encourage different behavior or different lifestyle. For example, Pan (6) is the Greek god of music, sexuality, sensuality and creativity. Those who aspire to a life of women, wine and song will find Pan a very suitable god to worship. Roman soldiers, on the other hand may prefer Mars, the god of war. Farmers and hunters would worship Diane. It creates a very tolerant or if you like a very permissive society.
There seems to be a god to suit every lifestyle. All gods and all lifestyles are tolerated. It is this third observation about polytheistic religion that struck me as similar to modern secularism. In the modern secular world, there is increasing tolerance of all kinds of lifestyle. Once upon a time in the west, having a child out of wedlock was considered shameful.
Today being a single mother is a lifestyle choice and soon same sex marriage will become accepted in law in the US as it is increasingly acceptable in Europe. After that I predict that sex with minors will also become acceptable. Secularism engenders the same kind of tolerant (or permissive) attitudes that polytheism once did.
Everything becomes relative. There is no good or bad. What is good to you may be bad to another. Without the discipline of an omnipotent, omni-present monotheistic god with one standard of prescribed behavior, there is no fixed standard of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Everybody is free to decide for themselves. All gods and lifestyles are permitted and tolerated.
This is why you get political correctness, multi-culturalism and moral relativity which makes it difficult to criticize Islam. As a result of this nonsense, western countries give Islamists the right of residence and often housing and unemployment benefits even though they make no bones about wanting to destroy the very societies that are so generous to them.
Secularism dulls the ability to see that Islam poses a danger to freedom in the west. In the name of multi-culturalism, you end up tolerating those that do not tolerate you and wishes to destroy you. Multi-culturalism is the product of those who are unsure of their own values and this is the result of the loss in religious faith.
You can see the effect of the different attitudes between the secular Blue States that voted for Kerry and the Red States that voted for Bush. Red state people, who are more religious voted Bush. While they may not comprehend the war on terrorism fully, they at least see this as a fight between good and evil.
Kerry on the other hand promised to fight the war “sensitively”. This suggests to me that his target audience thinks that America's enemies in Iraq (the Jihadist who want an Islamic state and the remnants of Saddam's Baathists) have somehow got a legitimate grievance against America. People who are tolerant of every lifestyle and every kind of value system cannot recognize evil even when it is staring them in their face. Even the intolerable must be tolerated. Red state people, being more confident of their own values simply think America's enemies are evil.
Secularism accounts for Europe's opposition to the war. Europe today is, I suspect, similar to the situation in Mecca 1,400 years ago. The Polytheistic Meccans then were no match for Islam. They tolerated Mohammed for far too long and could not see the danger his ideas were to their society. Also Islam is a religion whose god is viewed as all powerful and can thus demand great sacrifices such as martyrdom from its followers. This gave Mohamed a decisive military advantage which Meccan gods did not confer upon their worshipers.
A secular European is likely to shrug his shoulders when told of Bernard Lewis's comment that Europe is likely to become Arabic and Muslim by the end of this century. So what? We won't be here. Eat, drink and be merry. Unlike their ancestors who could be moved to undertake the construction of Cathedrals that won't be completed within their life-times, today's secular minded Europeans do not care what is going to happen after their life-times.
Europe's salvation from Islamic takeover may depend in large part on reviving Christian beliefs, if that is possible. Secularism and polytheism engenders a tolerant (or permissive) culture that is too hedonistic, too short-term, too lacking in moral fiber to defend itself against Islam's aggressive monotheism.
But those who dislike all religions and dismiss them as superstitions may take umbrage at my suggestion that the west and especially Europe needs to revive Christianity. Didn't Christianity stifled science as Islam did? Didn't Christianity bring forth witch-hunts and the Inquisition? What about the Crusades? I will answer each charge.
It's true that Science and Christianity had clashed before notably in the case of Galileo which I wrote about in my earlier article, "How Islam failed Muslims".
More recently, there was the Scopes trial and Bush's ban on stem cell research. These are high profile cases that obscure the other side of the ledger. Christianity, had in fact, been good for science and helped facilitate the scientific revolution.
Let me explain. When our ancestors invented the wheel, the benefits were immediate. It could help them transport things with less effort. Such inventions were the "easy" ones. As time went on, all or most of the "easy" inventions were made. New inventions require more research and thus more investment of time and resources. The discovery of new scientific principles often do not have any immediate practical use. This body of scientific knowledge must be kept unused for a long time before it can be combined with recently discovered knowledge and put to some practical use. For example, billions are spent to gather knowledge about the planet Mars but it could be centuries before that knowledge can benefit mankind.
This explains why all, except Christian civilization, stagnated after showing much progress in its early years. Roman civilization lasted 1,000 years and did not make the scientific revolution. Neither did the Egyptian nor Chinese nor Indian civilizations which have been around for even longer time than did the Romans. All stagnated after making impressive initial gains in scientific knowledge. This is because the natural human tendency is to want immediate results. If the research does not yield reasonably quick benefits, interest wanes. You need a critical mass of accumulated scientific knowledge before the Scientific Revolution could be ignited.
Why did the scientific revolution begin in Christendom or what the west was once called? Its because of Christianity. Firstly, the Bible commanded mankind to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living creature. (7)To subdue the environment, you need to understand how things work. But that is not all. The Christian faith has always portrayed God as a rational being who made the universe work according to rational laws, which await human understanding. (8)
Christian philosopher and theologian, St Augustine (354-430AD) said:
"Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls."
An even earlier Christian theologian, Tertullian (160 - 225 AD) taught that "reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason - nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason."
Thus you can see that church leaders from its earliest times view reason as being from God. This position was comparable to the Mu'atazilites who, if they had triumphed against the fundamentalists might have saved the Muslim world from backwardness. But Islam is too fatalistic a religion for the Mu'atazilites to triumph. God is believed to determine everything. If the trajectory of an arrow is determined by God there is no need to discover the principles of gravity, velocity and momentum.
Not only does Christianity give space to human reason, it actually encourages a duty to understand God's creation, the better to marvel at it. St Bonaventure (1221 - 1274) said that the purpose of science was to honor God. Since God's laws are immutable, it remains for us to discover them. Because God is perfect then the laws that govern the universe must also be immutable.
This kind of beliefs permeated the thinking of scientists during the Age of Enlightenment. For example, Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691) in his last will and testament urged his colleagues at the Royal Society of London that "they and all other Searchers into Physical Truths may thereby add to the Glory of God and to the Comfort of Mankind."
Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650) said that rational laws must exist because God is perfect and therefore acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible except for miracles which occur rarely. (8)
Other scientists during the Age of Enlightenment that also shared this view of a rational Creator God who created the universe according to rational laws were Newton, Kepler and even Galileo. (8) Of these, Newton appears to be the most devout. He left copious quantities of writings on his ideas about God. In his much acclaimed work, the Principia, a whole section was devoted to God, which did not always coincide with the official opinion of the Anglican church. It is obvious Newton gave much thought speculating on the nature of God.
Thus you have a group of people eager to discover what these scientific laws are in order to glorify God even though they may not yield any immediate benefits. Thus scientific discoveries can accumulate for years, decades and even centuries without any practical use for them. Eventually, of course these scientific discoveries yielded new inventions and other benefits. This permitted the eventual breakthrough which became the Scientific Revolution. Today, science has a momentum of its own and does not need religious motivation to sustain research.
But that is why scientific revolution took place in Christendom and not elsewhere. The breakthrough was made possible by Christian scientists who pursued what they thought of as their religious duty.
Besides Science, Christianity was among the first to produce an Abolitionist movement. Slaves have been part of all human societies since ancient times. In the 19th century, it was the churches, beginning with the Quakers that took aim at slavery. This is because Christianity teaches respect for human life and that all are equal before God. You can still see this concern for human life even today as Christian groups still oppose abortion and stem cell research.
This is also why Christianity initially appealed to the lowest classes of Roman society such as slaves. It is still true today. In India, most Indian Christians come from the Dalit caste. Antislavery doctrines first appeared not long after the fall of Rome and slavery soon disappeared in most of Europe.
When it was revived to serve the interests of plantation owners in the New World, the Pope strongly opposed it. When Papal opposition failed, the Catholic Church tried to soften the effects of slavery. As a result, slave conditions were much better in the lands colonized by the French and Spaniards than by the British. The abolitionist movement sparked of a bloody Civil War in America and the British paid a huge sum of money to compensate plantation owners in order to end slavery. Religious people are often prepared to make sacrifices in order to do the right thing in this world in order to please God. This respect for human life not only led to the abolition of slavery but also developed into the concept of human rights.
Such people are more willing to make sacrifices provided they can be convinced that what they are doing is good. That is why the more religious red state people supported Bush in his war on terrorism. Secularism creates hedonistic, value neutral people who do not want to make sacrifices for the long term good.
But the problem with all monotheisms is that its believers tend to see the world in black and white terms. There is God and the devil, good and evil and nothing in between. As a result, monotheistic people have strong convictions of good and evil even though they may not always be right.
For the most devout, this can produce either Mother Theresa or Mohammed Atta depending on what the devout believes his God expects of him or her. Such people are the easiest to motivate in times of war or difficulty.
The downside of monotheism is that it imparts a black and white view of the world. This explains the witch hunts and the Inquisition. There is God and Satan and nothing in between. If it is not from God, it must be from the devil. If monotheism gives rise to witch-hunts when there are no witches, then secularism blinds you to witches even when one is about to throw you into the boiling cauldron as what these Islamists are now trying to do.
It should also be noted that secular ideologies can result in intolerance and bloodshed as well. Communism and Nazism are secular ideologies that caused purges and massacres. I believe more people were killed by these two secular ideologies than in the witch-hunts and the Inquisition. Think of Cambodia's killing fields. The Communists, being atheists did not feel restrained by fear of a God that prohibits murder.
Democracy is also a secular ideology and its proponents can be as intolerant as any religious fanatic. Other forms of government are viewed as illegitimate and ought to be converted into democracies. Many democrats cannot tolerate any kind of dictatorship – not the fascist kind nor the communist kind or the Islamist kind like what you see in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Islamists think that the only legitimate form of government is an Islamic state and therefore oppose Bush's plans with suicide bombers.
Thus two intolerant ideologies, one secular and the other religious are fighting it out in the sands of Iraq. However, I believe that democracy is not the end of history. Francis Fukuyama is wrong. Democracy will one day be replaced by something else. Perhaps, in a thousand years' time, people will view democrats of our present era as being intolerant of other forms of governments like people of our era view medieval Christians as intolerant of other religions.
Finally, what about the Crusades? In these politically correct times, the Crusades have become a symbol of religious bigotry. It should be remembered that for the first 1,000 years of Christian history, there was no crusade. The Crusades happened after more than half of Christendom was conquered by Muslims who were trying to take over the rest. It was only then that the church decided to put aside Christ's teachings of turning the other cheek to save the west. Holy war was an innovation, an alien concept probably imported from Islam.
Going on Crusade was made a form of penance. This was something new. Prior to the Crusades, doing penance to atone for one's sins was by going on pilgrimage or spending time praying in an austere monastery or even carrying a heavy load up a mountain as in the movie, “The Mission”. This shows that Christianity is basically a peaceful religion that acquired its sword only under threat of conquest and destruction.
Some Crusaders went for spiritual reasons while others went to seek their fortunes. Whatever the reasons, they did the world a service. Without the Crusades, Islam would probably have dominated the world by now. There would have been no Scientific Revolution, no Enlightenment and no democracy. We would all be living in poverty and under dictatorships like most of the Muslim world today.
Its true that the Crusades failed to permanently recapture the Holy Land. But it did delay the Fall of Constantinople by another 350 years and therefore the invasion of Central Europe, allowing Christendom time to strengthen itself.
It should also not to be forgotten that the Reconquest of Spain after the 11th century was also officially part of the Crusades. Here in the Iberian Peninsula, the Crusade was a success because Spain and Portugal became permanently part of the west. The Iberian Peninsula was a far more strategic piece of land than the Holy Land because it was from here (being closest of the European land mass to America) that Europe discovered America. Christopher Columbus's voyage was only possible after the Fall of Granada, the last Moorish kingdom in Spain.
The settlement and conquest of America by Christians and the resulting prosperity that the trans-Atlantic trade brought, tipped the balance against Islam. For that we owe a huge debt to the Crusaders especially those who fought in Spain and Portugal. If not for that united effort from otherwise warring European monarchs, it is likely that Europe would have been conquered. When the Crusade was first declared, Islam held sway from Spain to India.
A Muslim Christopher Columbus sailing from a Muslim Spain would have resulted in the conquest and settlement of America by Muslims. Thus it would be a matter of time before the rest of the world falls to Islam. The blood, sweat and tears of the Crusaders not only saved Christendom but also the world.
To sum up, in the current war against terrorism, secularism is a hindrance. It encourages political correctness, low birth rates (fatal against the high birth rate of Muslims), self-doubts and apathy. The west, especially Europe, is in a deep spiritual crisis. Secularism could be a fatal weakness in its body politic against a resurgent Islam as polytheism probably was in 7th century Mecca. Modern Europeans are the lucky heirs of Christian civilization which has contributed so much to human progress. It has brought on the scientific revolution, abolition of slavery and human rights. The separation of Church and State also created the space for democracy to take root.
Christianity has benefited mankind well in the past and it can do so again. It has valuable services to render, especially in helping to defeat the Islamic threat. But for it to be useful, Christianity needs to be revived, particularly in very secular Europe which was once part of Christendom. Bring back that Old Time Religion.
(2) See the book, "The Empty Cradle", by Longman.
(7)The Bible, Genesis 1:28
(8)See the book, “For the Glory of God” by Rodney Stark
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