There’s a calculator at the EFW site with this heading: “The average American’s lifetime share of the national debt is $482,367. What’s your share?”
One enters one’s age and clicks the calculator. I entered age zero to calculate for a newborn American. Result:
“Your lifetime share of the national debt is: $1,536,621.”
How’s that for Original Sin? You are born into this world and haven’t done anything yet — but you have inherited the misdeeds of earlier generations and must spend the rest of your life paying for them.
Nietzsche comments wryly on contemporary religious morality:
“One believes one must disapprove of Cesare Borgia; that is simply laughable. The church has excommunicated German emperors on account of their vices: as if a monk or priest had any right to join in a discussion about what a Frederick II may demand of himself. A Don Juan is sent to hell: that is very naive. Has it been noticed that in heaven all interesting men are missing? — Just a hint to the girls as to where they can best find their salvation.”
This is a good debate between Andrew Bernstein and Dinesh D’Souza, hosted at the University of Texas. Arguments about religion typically fall into three categories:
1. Philosophical arguments about supernaturalism, faith and reason, the source of morality, and so on.
2. Scriptural arguments about passages in the religion’s core texts.
3. Historical arguments about the record of the religion in practice.
One striking feature of this debate is that history is most prominent in both Bernstein’s and D’Souza’s arguments: Why did Rome fail? How individualistic were the Greeks? What did Christianity accomplish in the Middle Ages? How brutal were the religious wars of the Reformation? What was the significance of the Enlightenment of the 1700s?
The image is Raphael’s version of Hypatia, the astronomer, mathematician, and neoplatonic philosopher who was murdered by a religious mob in 415.
Hypatia lived and died in Alexandria, Egypt, then a clashing hotbed of philosophical schools and rising radical religion. The rising radical religion of the time was Christianity.
Hypatia’s nemesis was Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria and leader of a fanatical group of Christian activists. The Christians lived their mission of converting everyone, by whatever means, to their doctrine. Under Cyril’s leadership, the Christians accused Hypatia of paganism and witchcraft, threw stones at her allies, and became increasingly violent until a violent Christian mob killed her, dismembered her body, and burned it on a pyre.
Fast forward 1,600 years to Egypt now and the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood. The MB movement was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists), and it has led a mostly-underground existence since then. In the second half of the twentieth century, Sayyid Qutb became the MB’s leading intellectual voice and his Milestones its manifesto:
“When Islam strives for peace, its objective is not that superficial peace which requires that only that part of the earth where the followers of Islam are residing remain secure. The peace which Islam desires is that the religion (i.e., the Law of the society) be purified for God, that the obedience of all people be for God alone” (Milestones, p. 63).
(Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid’s younger brother, was a university professor in Saudi Arabia, where one of his students was Osama Bin Laden.)
The ousting of Egypt’s thug-president Hosni Mubarak has led to a power vacuum, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s has now become a potent political force in Egypt. The MB’s motto: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
So how different is Egypt 1,600 years later? And whither Egypt’s philosophers, scientists, and independent thinkers?
In this third Socratic seminar on the Best Arguments against Free-market Capitalism, we take up three arguments:
a) the paternalist argument that human beings are incapable of living freely,
b) the collectivist argument that wealth is a social creation (at 11 minutes), and
c) the religious argument that value is not of this world (at 32 minutes).
I recently re-opened Confessions and came across Augustine’s strong version of original sin. As he exclaims to his God, “no one is free from sin in your sight, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is but a single day” (Book I).
To explain, Augustine tries to reconstruct his own infancy: “What then was my sin at that age? Was it perhaps that I cried so greedily for those breasts? Certainly if I behaved like that now, greedy not for breasts, of course, but for food suitable to my age, I should provoke derision and be very properly rebuked. My behavior then was equally deserving of rebuke.”
And of course the tantrums. Witness “the actions of a child who begs tearfully for objects that would harm him if given, gets into a tantrum when free persons, older persons and his parents, will not comply with his whims, and tries to hurt many people who know better by hitting out at them as hard as his strength allows, simply because they will not immediately fall in with his wishes or obey his commands, which would damage him if carried out?” The little rotter.
Not to forget what kids do to diapers.
Thus, Augustine concludes, “The only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames; the minds of infants are far from innocent.”
Supposing that babies are wicked, the next question is: How did they come to be so?
Western religions start the sordid story with Adam and Eve, but original sin is a puzzle. How can later generations be held responsible for the mistakes of the earlier? A cross-generational collectivism is necessary, and it needs a method for the guilt to be transmitted from one generation to the next.
Here’s a possibility. On standard religious accounts, a human being is an immaterial soul conjoined to a physical body. So sin originates either in the soul or in the body. But if the soul of each person is made afresh by God, then it can’t be corrupt since God is supposed to be a perfect creator. So the source of sin must be in the body. That could make sense, since the original sin was committed by Adam and Eve and we could inherit it from them by being made by their bodies through sexual reproduction. But above Augustine clearly holds babies’ “frames” to be innocent and to locate the sin in their minds.
So we’re back to sin’s source being in the mind. What feature of the mind could be problematic? Free will, Augustine suggests. But other problems arise, since he is also committed elsewhere to God’s omnipotence and omniscience. If God is omnipotent and we are made weak and powerless, how can we be held responsible? Also, free will is a power; but if omnipotent God has all the power, then humans can’t have any. Further: if God is omniscient, then he knows the future, in which case there are no genuine options and so no free will.
But the philosophical puzzles don’t get babies off the hook for Augustine. Their sinful natures develop for the worse until adolescence generates even more sin. “From the mud of my fleshly desires and my erupting puberty belched out murky clouds that obscured and darkened my heart until I could not distinguish the calm light of love from the fog of lust.”
Greed, anger, lust, and the full panoply of sins thus become the lot of weakling mankind. And we know what awaits the wicked.
For my Introduction to Philosophy course, a question on the final exam [pdf] was:
“Religion was a theme for all of our authors this semester:
* Socrates was put on trial and found guilty of impiety;
* Galileo was silenced despite arguing for a compromise between science and religion;
* Descartes tried to prove with certainty the existence of God;
* One of Rand’s characters says to Roark: “You are a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark—in your own way. I can see that in your buildings”;
* Lewis devoted two chapters to how and why religion must be a matter of faith;
* Freud dismissed religion as a childish illusion but nonetheless argued that it is necessary socially.
In your judgment, which of our authors has the best approach to religion?”
My twelve students’ responses:
None chose Freud.
One voted for Socrates’s skeptical-but-searching-for-wisdom approach to piety.
Two defended Rand’s approach, arguing that for modern, natural-minded people worshiping human creative potential for greatness is the best “religion” (one student used the scare quotes).
Another two liked Descartes’ attempt rigorously to prove the existence of God, though one seemed more to admire the attempt than to think it worked.
Three agreed with Lewis’s strong humility-and-faith-based approach to religion and Christianity in particular.
Four approved of Galileo’s separation of religion and science and especially his argument that since God gave us our senses and reason piety is best served by using them to come to understand the natural world He created.
So I hereby declare Galileo Galilei to be the best philosopher of religion for the Spring 2011 semester.