A Thought Experiment

je-suis-charlieLet’s try a thought experiment, shall we? Suppose we lived in a society where …

o … all civil government was subject to religious authority ... in fact, in most cases, the civil government just is the religious authority

o … that religious authority took its talking points, decision criteria, its policy directives from a dusty, mouldering religious text which was revered, even though vast tracts of it were well-nigh incomprehensible, and even the parts that could be understood were subject to a welter of varying, often contradictory, interpretations

o … even the authorized and approved – by the religious authority – interpretations of that text were subject to authoritative explication by councils of an exclusively male clergy

o … scholarly criticism and analysis of that text was strictly forbidden, literally on pain of death

o … women were rigorously kept in a condition of subservience to men in all areas of life – except child-bearing, of course – and were, always implicitly and sometimes as a matter of explicit law, considered basically as chattel property

o … all forms of homosexuality and homoeroticism are prima facie justifications for imposition of the death penalty

o … all forms of heterosexuality and hetero-eroticism outside the marriage bond are prima facie justifications for imposition of the death penalty

o … the religious community is involved in incessant warfare against all other religious groups – even, perhaps especially, variant sects of the dominant / authorized religion

o … scientific research on any basis other than within a strictly theological and teleological context is strictly forbidden, on penalty of – as usual – torture and often death; hence, no strictly materialistic account of natural law and natural events

o … Jews are sometimes tolerated, but at least as often persecuted – many times forced to convert on pain of … you guessed it! … death … or banishment, which could be a slow-motion equivalent of death

o … a kind of “religion police” roams the streets of major cities to monitor the behavior of citizens, especially on certain especially holy days


Question: given the above clues, where do you think you would be living?

 Iran? Saudi Arabia? Syria? Afghanistan? Kuwait? Morocco? The Emirates? Yemen? Well, those are all really good guesses. But those are not the places I had in mind when I wrote the foregoing “bullet” list. Actually, I was thinking of two places, one actual, the other potential.

The actual place I was thinking of was Europe prior to … about … approximately … the very early 1700s. At one time or another prior to around 1700, plus or minus, all the above were true of Christian Europe. (The “religion police” I had in mind with the last bullet referred to agents of John Calvin’s Geneva, who would go from house to house on Sundays and literally peep through the windows to make sure everyone was praying or reading the Bible or engaging in some other type of “holy” activity instead of doing something as mundane, secular, and unspiritual as … like … sleeping.) The potential place I was thinking of was also Christian Europe in an alternative universe in which the great European Enlightenment of the 18th and early 19th centuries had never occurred. We can even see unsettling similarities between that bullet list and America as it potentially would be, were the religious right to ever attain a lock on serious power.

In August of last year, I wrote a “Skeptics Collection” post on precisely this subject. But in light of the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris – only two days ago, as I write this (8 January) – I think it bears repeating. By the words “us” and “we” in the following, I refer, not only to the United States, but to all nations who are heirs to the values, practices, and ideals of Western civilization, both those who were born there and those who immigrated there from elsewhere. The only reason we, especially native-born Westerners, enjoy that which we customarily take for granted – freedom of speech and press, gender equality, increasing equality for sexual-orientation minorities, freedom of religion, freedom from religion, parliamentary / constitutional government, due process protections, etc., etc., etc. – the only reason, the sole reason, the unique reason, the game-changing reason we enjoy those rights, those privileges is because (a) European nations exhausted themselves in an at-least-two-century-long effort to enforce religiously based political and doctrinal uniformity by sheer force of armed coercion; and (b) after stacking the bodies high enough to blot out the sun and after having exhausted themselves in the attempt to achieve (a), agreed, as a matter of sheer self-preservation, to allow a degree of religious diversity that would at least permit their exhausted populations and their depleted economies to survive. Concurrently with (a) and (b) occurred a great efflorescence of empirical science and a spectacular rebirth of rational inquiry that would not be equaled until the period beginning in the middle 1800s (I peg the beginning not-quite-arbitrarily there because the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859) and that continues down to our own day. What the Big Bang was to the physical cosmos, the European Enlightenment was to its (at least Western) cultural counterpart. (For details, see the above “Skeptics Collection” post.) There are two “take-aways” from this paragraph:


o The first take-away is that the real culprit, the real worm at the heart of two great civilizations – three, if you count modern-day Israel – is monotheistic religion. I do not have space to even summarize the late Gore Vidal’s never-excelled Lowell Lecture at Harvard in 1992 on “Monotheism and its Discontents”. (I recommend a close reading of the entire text. But if you don’t have time, I urgently recommend fast-forwarding to the eighth paragraph, the paragraph that begins "Now to the root of the matter".) I concur in every regard. In fact, if anything, I think Vidal was a tad too charitable.

o The second take-away is that monotheistic religion never – absolutely, categorically never – “polices” itself. Think about it a minute: how would you go about restraining the behavior of anyone of any religious tradition who is sincerely convinced that she / he is acting in accordance with the imperious dictates of any monotheistic god? By definition, those dictates are beyond the writ of any merely human code of laws. They emanate directly from The Boss ... and I most emphatically do not mean Bruce Springsteen. That is why – just from a strictly logical standpoint, and never mind theology – the actions of any monotheistic group must be restrained, either by an alternative monotheism – but then the same problem recurs – or by secular power. All that restrained the warring powers of Europe in the 1600s were considerations of sheer survival. All that restrains the religious right in the United States is the US Constitution, especially (though not exclusively) the First Amendment. The only agency that enforced any degree of accountability on the Catholic Church and that prevented it from degenerating into a child-rape syndicate was the power of secular law enforcement in the form of grand juries, district attorneys, and the criminal justice system – certainly not considerations of doctrine and morals.


This is not to say that all religious people, monotheists and others, conduct themselves in such a reprehensible fashion. In fact, vanishingly few -- not identically zero, unfortunately, but vanishingly few -- actually do.  What saves human beings from the fatal consequences of lemmings-over-the-cliff fidelity to their own professed ideologies – religious, political, economic, and philosophical – is the exasperating, but nevertheless blessed, human capacity for breezily, often even unconsciously, acting in a manner diametrically inconsistent with their own professed beliefs. Not always. But usually. The Westboro Baptist people who favored death for gay and lesbian people were merely being consistent Christians. Ditto Christian believers today who support “de-programming” of sexual-orientation minorities. Muslims who decapitate journalists and aid workers are merely consistently obeying qur’anic commands to defend the umma (the Muslim community) against perceived threats, a use of force sanctioned by the Qur’an. The vast, vast, vast majority of us -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, Reformed Druids, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Cthulhu-worshippers ... you name it -- are not consistent with our own beliefs to that uttermost extent. In some ways, this is bad: conservative members of Congress profess belief in the New Testament – and may even read Matthew chapter 25 in preparation to voting against food stamps. But other conservatives, after having having waxed all purple-jowled preaching against the moral degeneracy or "the gay agenda," etc., suddenly undergo some kind of inner Damascus-Road experience, changing both their rhetoric and their beliefs, when their son or daughter tells them they are gay / lesbian / LGBTQ. Somehow the love of their child effortlessly trumps all their moral and theological bombast. So in many other ways – I would even go so far as to argue in most other ways – the human inability to be consistent with our professed beliefs is a good thing. Therefore, I will continue to throw in my lot with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. But such a response is not universally reliable, because monotheistic religion -- any monotheistic religion -- always incorporates a demand, often quite explicit, for absolute, unwavering faithfulness to its teachings that brooks no compromise:  "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62, NIV). But the truth is, almost everyone chooses.  Not literally everyone.  But almost.  We plummet down the cliff face of absolute, uncritical commitment, but most of us, at the last instant, put out a desperate, trembling hand and grasp a tree root growing out of a fissure on the cliff face.  Our religious ideology will not save us.  So we save ourselves.  And others.

So I would suggest that, before the day ends, you bow your head and thank Yahweh, Jesus, Lord Krishna, Odin, Allah, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or your favorite pasta), Great Cthulhu and the Old Ones … etc. … that we in the West survived our period of internecine religious bloodletting – especially since it could have been otherwise – and pray / meditate / reflect ... pick your own word – that the Muslim world, with which we share the same small, jewel-like planet, will do as much.

And, above all, be especially grateful that you have such a choice.

James R. Cowles




  1. Pat said on January 15, 2015
    There are more liberal, non-hierarchical, religious denomination that call for their members to study and analyze their holy book in order to understand and know how to implement the wishes of their one God. They are also instructed to do this within the body of believers because of our inability to perfectly interpret the message from God on our own - as individuals. This is a guard against the blindness and self-preservation that is present when too much power is given to a select few humans to interpret and impose the truth for the masses. I belong to the Presbyterian denomination because of this liberal stance to the interpretation of the Bible. And I am thankful that I live in a country where I have the freedom to choose. My fear is that there are not enough people who have the ability to engage in critical thinking for us to maintain our civil government that protects these freedoms. When the far right becomes a part of the government, then I worry.
    1. jrcowles said on January 15, 2015
      That's right, and I would argue that the reason it is possible to interpose a "filter" or "grid" of rationality between ourselves and the "bare bones" of the Bible is because the Enlightenment, by putting human reason in the driver's seat, moderated and drew the fangs of religious passion. That is also why we live in a country that has a First Amendment (to name just a single example) where such "de-fanging" is permitted. We can put into practice the title of Kant's book from 1792: "Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone".
  2. Terri said on January 16, 2015
    You know the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, right? Scripture, tradition, experience, REASON.
    1. jrcowles said on January 16, 2015
      Yes ... and apart from the Enlightenment, the last 2 items never would've been added. Basically it's a "nutshell" summary of Immanuel Kant's argument in "Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone".
      1. Terri said on January 16, 2015
        Wesley was a man of his times ... the 1700s. Yah?
  3. jrcowles said on January 16, 2015
    Yes ... And in some ways far ahead of his time ... Kant's publication of "Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone" in 1792 resulted in Kant being forbidden by the city govmnt of Koenigsberg and the regents of the univ thereof, where he was very senior tenured faculty, to speak or write about any theological topic. And this was, I say, in 1792 or 1793 -- a year after the Bill of Rights, in particular, the First Amendment, was ratified in the States. Wesley was ahead of ALL of those curves.

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