Quotes Tagged "monotheism"
The pages of history go silent. But the stones of Athens provide a small coda to the story of the seven philosophers. It is clear, from the archaeological evidence, that the grand villa on the slopes of the Acropolis was confiscated not long after the philosophers left. It is also clear that it was given to a new Christian owner. Whoever this Christian was, they had little time for the ancient art that filled the house. The beautiful pool was turned into a baptistery. The statues above it were evidently considered intolerable: the finely wrought images of Zeus, Apollo and Pan were hacked away. Mutilated stumps are now all that remain of the faces of the gods; ugly and incongruous above the still-delicate bodies. The statues were tossed into the well. The mosaic on the floor of the dining room fared little better. Its great central panel, which had contained another pagan scene, was roughly removed. A crude cross pattern, of vastly inferior workmanship, was laid in its place. The lovely statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, suffered as badly as the statue of Athena in Palmyra had. Not only was she beheaded she was then, a final humiliation, placed face down in the corner of a courtyard to be used as a step. Over the coming years, her back would be worn away as the goddess of wisdom was ground down by generations of Christian feet. The ‘triumph’ of Christianity was complete.
As a convinced atheist, I ought to agree with Voltaire that Judaism is not just one more religion, but in its way the root of religious evil. Without the stern, joyless rabbis and their 613 dour prohibitions, we might have avoided the whole nightmare of the Old Testament, and the brutal, crude wrenching of that into prophecy-derived Christianity, and the later plagiarism and mutation of Judaism and Christianity into the various rival forms of Islam. Much of the time, I do concur with Voltaire, but not without acknowledging that Judaism is dialectical. There is, after all, a specifically Jewish version of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with a specifically Jewish name—the Haskalah—for itself. The term derives from the word for 'mind' or 'intellect,' and it is naturally associated with ethics rather than rituals, life rather than prohibitions, and assimilation over 'exile' or 'return.' It's everlastingly linked to the name of the great German teacher Moses Mendelssohn, one of those conspicuous Jewish hunchbacks who so upset and embarrassed Isaiah Berlin. (The other way to upset or embarrass Berlin, I found, was to mention that he himself was a cousin of Menachem Schneerson, the 'messianic' Lubavitcher rebbe.) However, even pre-enlightenment Judaism forces its adherents to study and think, it reluctantly teaches them what others think, and it may even teach them how to think also.
Gnosticism, a highly intellectual second-century movement (the word ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’) that was later declared heretical, didn’t help. Heretics were intellectual therefore intellectuals were, if not heretical, then certainly suspect. So ran the syllogism. Intellectual simplicity or, to put a less flattering name on it, ignorance was widely celebrated. The biography of St Antony records with approval that he ‘refused to learn to read and write or to join in the silly games of the other little children’. Education and silly games are here bracketed together, and both are put in opposition to holiness. Instead of this, we learn, Antony ‘burned with the desire for God’. That this wasn’t quite true – Antony’s letters reveal a much more careful thinker than this implies – didn’t much matter: it appealed to a powerful ideal. No need to read: give up both books and bread and you will win God’s favour. Even intellectuals were susceptible to this pretty picture: it was hearing about how the simple, unlettered Antony had inspired so many to turn to Christ that led Augustine to start striking himself on the head, tearing his hair and asking, ‘What is wrong with us?’ Ignorance was power.
The philosophy they had lived for starts to die itself. Some strands of ancient philosophy live on, preserved by the hands of some Christian philosophers – but it is not the same. Works that have to agree with the pre-ordained doctrines of a church are theology, not philosophy. Free philosophy has gone. The great destruction of classical texts gathers pace. The writings of the Greeks ‘have all perished and are obliterated’: that was what John Chrysostom had said. He hadn’t been quite right, then: but time would bring greater truth to his boast. Undefended by pagan philosophers or institutions, and disliked by many of the monks who were copying them out, these texts start to disappear. Monasteries start to erase the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca and Archimedes. ‘Heretical’ – and brilliant – ideas crumble into dust. Pliny is scraped from the page. Cicero and Seneca are overwritten. Archimedes is covered over. Every single work of Democritus and his heretical ‘atomism’ vanishes. Ninety per cent of all classical literature fades away. Centuries later, an Arab traveller would visit a town on the edge of Europe and reflect on what had happened in the Roman Empire. ‘During the early days of the empire of the Rum,’ he wrote – meaning the Roman and Byzantine Empire – ‘the sciences were honoured and enjoyed universal respect. From an already solid and grandiose foundation, they were raised to greater heights every day, until the Christian religion made its appearance among the Rum; this was a fatal blow to the edifice of learning; its traces disappeared and its pathways were effaced.
To many intellectuals such as Celsus, the whole idea of a ‘Creation myth’ was not only implausible but redundant. During this period in Rome, a popular and influential philosophical theory offered an alternative view. This theory – an Epicurean one – stated that everything in the world was made not by any divine being but by the collision and combination of atoms. According to this school of thought, these particles were invisible to the naked eye but they had their own structure and could not be cut (temno) into any smaller particles: they were a-temnos – ‘the uncuttable thing’: the atom. Everything that you see or feel, these materialists argued, was made up of two things: atoms and space ‘in which these bodies are and through which they move this way and that’. Even living creatures were made from them: humans were, as one (hostile) author summarized, not made by God but were instead nothing more than ‘a haphazard union of elements’. The distinct species of animals were explained by a form of proto-Darwinism. As the Roman poet and atomist Lucretius wrote, nature put forth many species. Those that had useful characteristics – the fox and its cunning, say, or the dog and its intelligence – survived, thrived and reproduced. Those creatures that lacked these ‘lay at the mercy of others for prey and profit . . . until nature brought that race to destruction’.
So which is more probable: That today's atheist apocalyptans are unique and right? Or that they are like their many predecessors—at the very least, in their motivations? If anything, the vehemence with which the believers in emergent complexity debunk all religion may betray their own creeping awareness of the religious underpinnings and precedents for their declarations. In fact, the concept of Armageddon first emerged in response to the invention of monotheism by the ancient Persian priest Zoroaster, around the tenth or eleventh century BCE. Until that time, the dominant religions maintained a pantheon of gods reigning in a cyclical precession along with the heavens, so there was little need for absolutes. As religions began focusing on a single god, things got a bit trickier. For if there is only one god, and that god has absolute power, then why do bad things happen? Why does evil still exist? If one's god is fighting for control of the universe against the gods of other people, then there's no problem. Just as in polytheism, the great achievements of one god can be undermined by the destructive acts of another. But what if a religion, such as Judaism of the First and Second Temple era, calls for one god and one god alone? How do its priests and followers explain the persistence of evil and suffering? They do it the same way Zoroaster did: by introducing time into the equation. The imperfection of the universe is a product of its incompleteness. There's only one true god, but he's not done yet. In the monotheist version, the precession of the gods was no longer a continuous cycle of seasonal deities or metaphors. It was nor a linear story with a clear endpoint in the victory of the one true and literal god. Once this happens, time can end. Creation is the Alpha, and the Return is the Omega. It's all good. This worked well enough to assuage the anxieties of both the civilization of the calendar and that of the clock. But what about us? Without time, without a future, how to we contend with the lingering imperfections in our reality? As members of a monotheist culture—however reluctant—we can't help but seek to apply its foundational framework to our current dilemma. The less aware we are of this process—or the more we refuse to admit its legacy in our construction of new models—the more vulnerable we become to its excesses. Repression and extremism are two sides of the same coin. In spite of their determination to avoid such constructs, even the most scientifically minded futurists apply the Alpha-Omega framework of messianic time to their upgraded apocalypse narratives. Emergence takes the place of the hand of God, mysteriously transforming a chaotic system into a self-organized one, with coherence and cooperation. Nobody seems able to explain how this actually happens.