Category Archives: History



Inter-Religion Clashes

All the religious wars that have caused blood to be shed for centuries arise from passionate feelings and facile counter-positions, such as Us and Them, good and bad, white and black.

-Umberto Eco

A video has been posted showing a British Christian group, Britain First, walking into a Luton neighborhood (a suburb of London) with a concentrated population of Muslim citizens, intending to antagonize them with large crosses. As expected both sides quickly engaged in angry shouting and middle-finger brandishing. The exchange is unsettling, though no violence ensued.

As demographics grow and shift we will watch this type of event happen with greater frequency. Though groups of humans will always find ways to conflict with one another there is a desire among many to have us grow out of this part of our nature. Do we really have to continue a conflict that has been raging regionally since 700 A.C.E.?

I remember watching a movie about Camelot years ago, Arthur the good king coming to power replacing the bad king of yore. It was exciting, romantic, righteous and triumphant. Years later it occurred to me that this narrowly-timed story, a mythical consolidation of English kings, would be but a happy(ish) episode in a long line of sad stories. Without a system to cultivate good kings it was likely that despicable kings would follow as common as not. The average person, largely powerless, would be dragged through the reign of one ruler after another, stability and happiness in their lives subject to rounds of Russian Roulette leadership quality. (See too Russian history when murder and assassination was the typical method of succession for centuries.)

This is how it feels watching religious adherents clash—endless rounds of righteous rivalry teeing up to claim territory. (This is not to imply that one side is better than the other. Certainly there are differences; your viewpoint can apply those labels.) Though both religions have scriptural elements that teach of peaceful coexistence they also teach the opposite, that their worldview is the holy correct one and the edge of the sword should be taken up in defense and offense. It is far too easy to cherry-pick justification into righteous conflict. From Roman era conflicts to twentieth century Christian/Protestant battles to Islamic sectarian rumbles of today, mankind has seen uncompromising threats of misery from literalists, aimed at those who do not yield from without or stay true from within.

But we no longer live in 3000 B.C.E., 700 C.E., or 1800 C.E.; we live in a time when the findings of physics, astronomy, biology, cognitive science and geology have demonstrated that the existence of deities is…no longer the most likely explanation for reality. However we are stuck with brains that evolution has provided—prone to belief. It feels archaic to be among those who hiss, fume and attack in the name of religion but this is modern. It is present day. And a few miles from such street conflicts colleges teach evolution, secular courts enforce civil laws, and stores sell meat products that have not been sorted by cloven hoof. Collectively, we are of mixed mind.

Humanity seems to be going through its adolescent phase—persisting with its early intuitions while, holding a thickening encyclopedia of new knowledge, not yet able to let the new information revise the old. This growth arc, the lifespan of intellectual humanity, seems to be thousands of years long. In maturity years we have just passed our teens.

Can we use cultural tools to help this maturation, to help strong believers get along despite their impulses to not? Hopefully but the time scale remains unknown. It will take an unprecedented shift within religious communities led by the leaders within. Sacred needs to be corralled. This is not to suggest that strong believers give up their belief; that aspiration is unreachable. But why can’t they agree to let God make the judgments in His appointed time (end of natural life) instead of mortal humans making and imposing judgments here and now? Where is the trust in the deity? Where is the mortal humility? Must we continue to site writings of human leaders, old and new, to force faith and impose harm onto others? Doesn’t our mortal imperfection disqualify us from imposing irreversible punishments on other mortal beings? Are we that arrogant, that unable to control our tribal impulses?

Scriptural interpretations are just that—interpretations. They may be flawed. This does not mean the scriptures are wrong, but our readings of them can be fallible. Every holy person who has disagreed over the smallest scriptural word, phrase or passage—over thousands of years—has proven this. Sounds like a decent basis for minimally, not harming one another.

In light of these issues, not the least of which are ongoing terrorist bombings, can we also agree to do more as a global population? How about an annual Copenhagen-style worldwide conference on the issue of religious conflict, on the scale of what we did to battle the HIV crisis? Time sensitive. High on the priority list. Ongoing. Until we are done. If we can’t evolve our biology out of religious conflict can we at least evolve our culture?


Turning the Reality Corner

 Ignorant themselves of the forces of nature and wanting to have company in their ignorance, they do not want people to look into anything; they want us to believe like peasants and not ask the reason behind things …. But we say the reason behind everything should be sought out!

(William of Conches (c. 1090-1154 AD), Philosophia mundi)

The horizon of our collective knowledge has expanded hugely over the millennia though with setbacks that have caused knowledge to be lost, some not to be rediscovered for centuries, some permanently. We have also endured forces that stifled progress until these obstacles were overcome or discarded.

The losses are many and multifactorial. Starting from the peak of scholarship by the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire simply did not translate all texts to the dominant Latin (100-300 ACE). Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the only legitimate Roman religion (380 ACE) establishing a theocracy that suppressed thinking that might contradict biblical teachings. Similarly illiteracy was encouraged, even among many priests who could not read their own bible, in favor of looking to church leaders for proper biblical life instruction. To be fair this was as much a wielding of religion by leaders to consolidate and maintain power, a tool used by English kings in later centuries. Non-Christian temples were destroyed across the empire including the library in Alexandria (391 ACE), the world’s largest depository of international scholarship. As the empire declined a resource shift to military assets redefined priorities (to 476 ACE), this lasting for the hundreds of years after the Empire’s fall. The church was the surviving entity and thus began the Dark Ages (476-1000 ACE).

Arab culture took a different route, with intellectual study flowering in the wake of the unity generated by Islam’s early Caliphates. They built on the collective works of the Egyptians, Hebrews, Persians, Greeks and Romans—in fact much of the Greek works being carried forward in history is due to this work, translated texts into Arabic. While the Europeans were muddled in darkness, the Arabic empire became the world’s preeminent center of scholarship (700-1300 ACE) until being broken up by assaults from Ottoman Turks and crusading Europeans. The renewal of Arab regions today after several stages of transition and influence is again attempting to reconstitute its caliphate, this time against the competition of modern knowledge.

Though the west has experienced a steady growth of knowledge from philosophy and science (1600’s) to physics and biology (to today), a resurgence of Christian religious conservatism (1980+) especially in the United States is causing factual back-stepping in a large portion of the population. This refocus to biblical teachings is having detrimental influences within government as adherents have worked themselves into power.

Both Christianity and Islam today struggle against modern knowledge which largely debunks diety-based explanations of nature. It is interesting to note that, while early Christianity led to the suppression of non-religious thought, early Islam prompted intellectual study and coexisted with the results. To some degree philosophical ideas (as proto-science) were absorbed as explanations of how God worked. This was perhaps an easier outcome when so little was known about how nature worked; God of the gaps was more accepted when the gaps were so large.

Why does religion hold such domain, belief over fact? There are psychological and evolutionary factors but the common thread is a failure to hold reality as the highest worth, in exchange for maintaining the sacred. Best knowledge illuminates fact and reality, not opinion and belief. It is also subject to correction when newer, more proven information is obtained. Systems of religious doctrine are defined and then held to, resisting intake of new information. They strive to maintain the old, teaching that they had it right at origin.

The path to embracing reality involves a willingness to move in whatever direction evidence carries us. Early evidence points us; repeat and reinforcing evidence moves us. Beliefs based on speculation or hearsay should be studiously, if not reverently, retired to the archives of history reflecting not what is known but what was once thought to be known.

Science does this to itself in a process known as paradigm shift. When trusted concepts—even those trusted by the majority—are overturned, the new replaces the old. Examples are our shifts from Earth-centered to Sun-centered to non-centered cosmology, each reducing the apparent significance of man but placing us closer to  understanding reality. Progress too can be made as refinements built on past knowledge, for example general relativity as a refinement of the Law of Gravitation.

Evolution points to belief originating as a survival tool, thus it is a natural tendency that will be hard to overcome. However it is important that we make this belief-to-reality transition. The instincts that kept us alive 50,000 years ago are now having the unintended side effect of causing us to make decisions on false information.

There are four possible roads ahead. One is where we fall back to historical and religious delineations for society, advocating suppression of new information and oppression of dissenters (sound familiar? 16th Century Galileo). A second is where we stagnate in eternal conflict, struggling between those of conflicting beliefs as well as those who don’t believe. A third is an abrupt end to our species as a reckless result of this conflict—nuclear war, etc. And a fourth is a movement beyond the bottleneck, the elevation of truth-seeking.

These are very broad strokes but outlines of our choices are now visible. Where do you stand? What road do you choose for your children? What path do you choose for the future of our species?