Sunday, June 26, 2016

EO Wilson and the Meaning of Human Existence

Image result for eo wilsonI recently finished reading the kind of atheist rant I enjoy: an eloquent, deeply human, and oh-so-wrong (yet not so long) tome by evolutionary biologist EO Wilson, entitled The Meaning of Human Existence.  I concluded that Wilson may be the best person in the world to talk about ants, but only among the top (say) billion in his insight into human beings.  Still, there's hardly a dull word in the book: it is a pleasure to read, even with false skeptical cliches increasingly clogging the flow of Wilson's prose towards the climax of the work.

Here are some initial reactions to Wilson's thoughts.  This is a preliminary and incomplete form: I may rearrange this into a review article later, adding additional material:

"We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own.  Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us." (15)

But it seems free will is an illusion, so we have no power or understanding, either, just whatever thoughts (right or wrong, who can say?) that evolution has programmed into us.

Anyway, most of what Wilson says in this book against religion is mere assertion: he is in hurry, does not seem to anticipate many skeptics of his secular humanism to read it, and thus gives few, if any, reasons for rejecting "religion."  So why should anyone accept such dogmas as this from the world's leading authority on ants?

On the Humanities

"This task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave exclusively to the humanities." (17)

Wilson argues for a two-pronged approach to understanding meaning, which includes both science and a scientifically-informed humanities.  While a famous scientist himself, he thinks visiting aliens would find our humanities more unique and therefore far more interesting than our science, which they would see as rudimentary indeed.

On Human Social Nature

The key to human evolution, Wilson posits, is something he calls "eusociality."

Eusociality, the most advanced social system in Nature, arose among 19 separate species, Wilson argues, including termites, ants, and two kinds of African mole rats, a few kinds of shrimp, and preeminently human beings.  The key to this important advance is a protected nest, from which specialists emerge to forage: "risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses."  Society thus begins with a "nested community:" a care-giver or mated pair, and one or more leaving the nest (or hearth, in the case of humans) to find food, from which eventually develops a more complex society.  A fully specialized community works wonders for the social insects, who constitute a small fraction of insect species, but half by weight, due to their success.  

(Isn't this why making women serve in the army is against our nature?  And why women think the world is too dangerous, and men think it is too safe?  Why should we now pretend that women and men must be interchangeable?  Isn't modern social dogma a triumph of dogma over human nature, "malsociality," if I can coin a word?)

The family is the basic structure, Wilson suggests, from which society emerges. (Are you surprised, Plato and Confucius?  Has evolutionary science really provided us with a new insight,here?)

"We are compulsively driven to belong to groups, or to create them as needed."  (24-5; True, as Aristotle pointed out, man is a political animal.)

Are humans intrinsically good or sinful?  "Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past 20 years, suggest that we are both of these things simultaneously.  Each of us is inherently conflicted."  So then we won't need Pascal to tell us that 400 years ago, describing this as a discovered of his much older faith:

"The more enlightened we are the more greatness and vileness we discover in man." 
Or Walker Percy, with his Pascalian dualities: "I am at once the hero and the asshole of the universe."

Or even Shakespeare's "What a piece of work is man!"  And the soliloquy that follows.

"All normal humans are geniuses at reading the intentions of others, whereby they evaluate, proselytize, bond, cooperate, gossip, and control." (30)

"Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals; but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals." (31)  

Wilson should read Don Richardson's Peace Child, and see how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can transform groups of selfish individuals within a single generation.

Creativity involves "inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection." (37)
What makes (or made) us human is relationship. (75)  Here Wilson unconsciously echoes none other than Moses: "It is not good for man to be alone." 

"The meaning of human existence cannot be explained until 'just is' is replaced with 'just is, because.'" (81)

But Wilson can't do that.  He can only see a proximate not ultimate "because."  He sees the golf ball heading towards the hole , and tells us he knows the velocity and topography and wind speed -- but refuses to consider what set the ball rolling and why.

On Francis Bacon

1620 Bacon "Empire of Man" (38) was the greatest forerunner of the Enlightenment, which proposed that "entirely on their own, human beings can know all that needs to be known."  But what Bacon actually said, was that shallow science frog-marches one towards atheism, but deep study of science draws one back to Christ.

On the Humanities

"Metaphor is everything" in the humanities.  That will be news to historians, even to psychologists, heck even to a writer like George Orwell or J.R.R.Tolkien.

Chapter 5 "The All Importance of the Humanities."  The humanities which we as humans create are unique: an alien visitor would know our science better than we do ourselves, he would stay to read Shakespeare and listen to the Blues.  And now, individual scientists can discover much less than when Wilson was young, ten researcher co-authoring reports together.

Wilson expends a great deal of ink attacking a rival theory of evolution called Inclusive Fitness Theory, and kin selection.  He does not try very hard to prove the relevance of the topic to his book, which seems odd, since the topic of the book is great and the page count small.  But this does make for interesting "creative rivalry" with Richard Dawkins, especially.  And it is interesting to hear so committed an atheist echoing complaints Dawkins' Christian rivals have made about Darwinian selection mores for years:

On Fremont

Image result for fremont center of the universe signThe discoveries of astronomy "affirm that Earth is not the center of the Universe."

Actually every point is at the center, modern astronomy postulates.  (C.S. Lewis appeared to recognize, or anticipate, this astronomical insight already in the speeches he gave his heroes at the end of Perelandra).

But physical centrality is itself a mere metaphor for importance.  If you set a baby in her crib in the corner of the room, does that make the stuffed bear she throws out of the crib into the geographical center of the room more important than the child?  The actual center of the Earth is volcanic nickel and iron, not the choicest real estate on the planet.  Nor is the brain at the center of the human body.  Placement does not entail importance.

On Evolutionary Bigots

"By 2005, they had gained enough strength represented in the anonymous peer review system to hinder publication of contrary evidence and opinions in leading journals." (71)

Well fancy that!

When Wilson and two like-minded colleagues published a rebuttal in a 2010 edition of Nature Magazine, the following year 137 biologists signed a response, and Mr. Dawkins suggested hurling Wilson's book against the wall with the usual violence.  Dawkins responded, in Wilson's words, "with the indignant fervor of a true believer." 

Wilson had best be careful, or he will give comfort to Intelligent Designer proponents who have been calling Dawkins and his ilk "fundamentalists" for years, to much scoffing among his fellow skeptics.

On Cool Ants

Humans are limited, Wilson notes, to a narrow range of vision and sound, and miss out on the rich word of chemical smells.  "Ants are possibly the most advanced pheronmenal creatures on earth." (87)  Aside from ten or twenty different pheromes they use, the meaning of those scents further depends on dose, combinations, and context -- creating an entire chemical language.

Wilson then proffers a full chapter on ants, and why humans should respect but not copy them. ("Admire their stripes but avoid their claws" as Chesterton said of tigers.)

On Clever Microbes

He then praises the flexibility of microbes.  Life arose quickly after the Earth had cooled a bit, and microbes have learned to thrive in diverse biomes.  Wilson suggests this proves that life could arise easily elsewhere.  But the adaptive power of DNA is not relevant to how easily DNA-based life could first arise, anymore than the many uses computers can be put suggests they can be casually manufactured.  That life arose quickly is at best very weak evidence that chance creates life easily, since we do not know that chance created it this time, and it may be that (from an anthropic perspective) microbes required billions of years to build up soil and to fix minerals, so if they had NOT arisen quickly, we would never know our loss.


Image result for spock
Watch out for those fingertips
Wilson's chapter on ET offers fascinating speculation - he lives on land, depends on eyes and ears like us, has sensitive fingertips.  Wilson is here conspiring with physicists and astronomers to pour cold beer over the bar scene in Star Wars, indeed on most space fiction in general.  Even if we could travel between planets, which is highly unlikely, when we got to an occupied one, not only would the locals not speak English and fall in love with Captain Kirk, their microbes would kill him and all the crew almost immediately, as in War of the Worlds.

Wilson is not satisfied with being a second second Adam (by naming the animals) or a new and better Solomon (considering the ants), he also takes up Noah's cause of saving our fellow earthlings.  While I doubt climate change alone has driven anything extinct, generally speaking Wilson adopts a lofty air, writes eloquently and insightfully on the environment.  "We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual.  We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind." (132) Wilson is a genius at describing nature, but can be a darn good preacher, too.

Unlike Adam, Solomon, Noah, Pascal, or Moses, Francis Bacon is not only echoed by Wilson, he is named as among Wilson's heroes, indeed a whole chapter nods to Bacon by being entitled "Idols of the Mind."

"Some writers have tried to deconstruct human nature into non-existence.  But it is real, tangible, and a process that exists in the structures of the brain." (141)

On Music

"Our loving devotion to (music) has been hard-wired by evolution in the human brain." (147)

Odd, that evolution would choose just one species to do this with (birds do not chirp just for fun, nor compose), and that so recently.

On Religion

"A religious instinct does indeed exist." (148)

Yes.  So do angels. 

"The brain was made four religion and religion for the human brain." (150) 

Here Wilson should be cited at length, to get a feeling for both sides of his insight:

"The great religions "perform services invaluable to civilization.  Their priests bring solemnity to the rites of passage through the cycle of life and death  They sacralize the basic tenets of civil and moral law, comfort the afflicted, and take care of the desperately poor.  Inspired by their example, followers strive to be righteous in the sight of man and God.  The churches over which they preside are centers of community life.  When all else fails, these sacred places, where God dwells imminent on Earth, because ultimate refuges against the iniquities and trajedies of secular life.  They and their ministers make more bearable tyranny, war, starvation, and the worst of natural catastrophes." 


"The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering  They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality . . . It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things."

While there is much truth, there is also much confusion in this second paragraph.

Does "pure religion" have moral tenets and humanitarianism?  Wilson observes humans so more cavalierly and simplistically than ants.  Were the Aztecs not religious?  Their religion was not humane.  Why assume that all religions or "great religions" (which means "big") are equally human in their pure form?  That is simply to toss aside the scientist's curiosity, the empirical call of Bacon which always results in empirical differentiation, and escape hard reasoning and the inevitable complexity of any set of concrete realities, by positing a silly equivalence.

God is not the center of "pure" Buddhism, anymore than the Aztecs were driven by humanity.  And tribalism, Wilson has already pointed out, was a force upward in evolution.  And was the Good Samaritan told by a mere tribal leader?  Or Mozi's (let me paraphrase) "God is love, so man ought to model his own actions on the love of God?")

But Wilson has a theory, and ignores such complications.  Religions define themselves by their creation stories, "the supernatural narrative that explains how humans came into existence."  (Actually, they often do no such thing.) "The core belief assures its members that God favors them above all others."  "There is no way around the soul-satisfying but cruel discrimination that organized religions by definition must practice among themselves.  I doubt there ever has been an imam who suggested that his followers try Roman Catholicism or a  priest who urged the reverse." (151)

Actually, there have been, but like Wilson, they were mostly heretics.  And the reason is one Wilson, of all people, should understand.

We Christians believe that Christianity is true, as Wilson believes materialism is true.  He does not advise people to believe what he thinks to be a lie.  Why should he?  Neither do we.  This is not "cruel" or "soul-destroying" (and Wilson does not believe in the soul anyway-- has he forgotten?) -- it means treating other people with the dignity that allows one to say, "You are wrong."

Wilson says philosophy is on the endangered list, thanks to the insights of science.  Of course the truth is, this is itself largely a book of philosophy.  Though to give Wilson credit, if that's all the better modern, science-fed teachers can do when it comes to philosophy, maybe it is, indeed, in danger of going extinct.

But I like Wilson.  He is a graceful, intelligent writer, and seems a graceful and likable gentleman.  One can learn a lot from him -- including many insights that his Christian and pagan forebears announced centuries ago.   He tries to weave the wisdom he has "discovered" into a comprehensive evolutionary narrative, leaving out far too much of human experience -- miracles, for instance, and answered prayer, and the revelation of God.  (Not to mention freedom, and truth, and a genuine choice between right and wrong.)   But his instinct is sound.  We do need to tell a story, one which embraces the truths Wilson has noticed, and those he has overlooked.

I believe the Gospel does that, better than anything else.  Nothing in this book works to change my mind.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Did Christianity Spread by the Sword?

Christianity is the world's largest and most widely-believed faith.  Islam is second.  How did they get that way?  Many suppose they both spread by conquest and force.

This is true of Islam, but not of Christianity.

I initially posted my analysis in response to a claim by Richard Carrier, on another web site.  Since the question is of perennial interest, I've now adapted that article for this site, to make it more easily available to readers.

Perhaps in late 2008, a young atheist and philosopher who read my book, The TruthBehind the New Atheism, challenged me to read and respond to the work of Richard Carrier.  He felt Carrier, editor-in-chief of the “Internet infidels,” who holds a doctorate from Columbia in Roman history, offered a more substantial atheist critique of Christianity than the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

I bought a copy of Carrier’s book, Sense & Goodness Without God, and began reading.  I later posted a mostly critical, but courteous, review on Amazon.

I pointed out fourteen errors in Sense & Goodness, including Carrier's claim that Christianity usually “spread by the sword,” only thrived when it could wipe out other religions by force, and was (with Islam) the bloodiest and most intolerant religion known to man.

Carrier responded with pique, calling me a “liar,” among other things. (The accusation only slightly surprised me, since he had told me in a personal e-mail that his debate partners generally turned out to be dishonest.  Who am I to be the exception?  He reverted to this style more recently in response to my comments on the Amazon forum for On the Historicity of Jesus.)  After arguing back and forth several rounds, Carrier posted an attack on me on his web site, focusing on the issue of biogenesis. Several other people joined the conversation at times, including three philosophers, who had been taking part in the Amazon discussion already, and two scientists, who weighed in (at my request) on the state of the evidence on the origin of life, which was another issue on which Carrier had offered strong views.

While the tone of Carrier’s attacks is often discreditable, his claims are popular enough that they merit response.

Here, I’ll post our arguments on whether or not Christianity mostly “Spread by the Sword.”

Round One Richard Carrier, from Sense & Goodness Without God:

"Most people in ancient times believed it was proper to respect the gods of other peoples.  This changed on a global scale when Christianity was spread, quite literally, by the sword.  Those who attempted to assert their religious differences were harassed, tortured, robbed of their land and belongings, even killed.  Before it achieved political power, Christianity was a small sect, a heresy against the Jewish faith, that had to accept equality among all the other religions of the Roman Empire.  Yet it was the first religion to openly attack the religions of other people as false (the Jews, at least, were a little more tactful).  Needless to say, Christianity only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competitionwhen it had the full support of Rome’s Emperors after 313 A.D., and when, in 395 A. D., every religion other than Christianity was actually outlawed. Through force and decree Christianity as immersed in the cultural surroundings of lands near and far, and in an environment where it was widely accepted, it not the only thing accepted, it spread and planted itself among subjugated peoples.  As kids grew up taking Christian ideas for granted, they often did not realize that only a few generations ago those ideas were entirely alien.”  

Colonization of the world, more often than not by robbery and warfare, spread Christianity into the Americas and other corners of the earth, just as Islam was spread throughout Asia and Africa.  It is not a coincidence that the two most widespread religions in the world today are the most warlike and intolerant religions in history.  Before the rise of Christianity, religious tolerance, including a large degree of religious freedom, was not only custom but in many ways law under the Roman and Persian empires . . . Indeed, Christians were persecuted for denying that the popular gods existed – not for following a different religion.  In other words, Christians were persecuted for being intolerant." (264)

David Marshall, from review on "Finally, from another section of the book, there's this jumbled thicket of confused revisionism " . . ."

"To begin at the end, if it is "intolerant" to deny that popular gods exist, what is Richard Carrier? He denies not only the Greco-Roman gods, but Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Aussie, and every other vision of God as well!

"In fact Christianity mostly did NOT spread by the sword.  Constantine adopted the faith because it had already become the strongest spiritual force in Roman society already -- by caring for the sick, treating women well, and showing courage in the face of death, as Rodney Stark shows in The Rise of Christianity.

"Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion tells the rest of the story for Europe, others for the rest of the world -- force was the exception, not the rule.

"Christianity has always been strongest in a free market of faiths -- as in modern America, Korea, and even modern China.  Here Carrier badly needs to read Stark's other studies.

"To say even Islam is the most intolerant or warlike religion in history reveals gross ignorance.  Has he never heard of the Aztecs?  The Tai Pings?  Yanomamo shamanism?  Jim Jones?  Or (to stretch the term "religion" slightly) Vladimir Lenin?  Adolf Hitler?

"The tolerance of the Greco-Romans was punctuated by episodes of persecution, bigotry, witch-hunting, and murder.  Elsewhere in the same book, Carrier admits that one sect began their rituals with the shout,  "Away with the Epicureans!  Away with the Christians! . . . this hostility could come to slander and violence.  Challenging a popular legend might start a riot, even get you killed."   In fact you didn't even have to go that far -- Socrates was not the only one to get officially killed for unorthodoxy.

Round 2 (Note: Here I quote only Carrier’s response to this one issue.  For the rest of that part of our conversation, see the discussion under my review of his book on, linked twice above.)

Carrier: As I show in Not the Impossible Faith (chapter 18), Marshall is misusing Rodney Stark in his attempt to claim that Christianity became the dominant religion peacefully.  Stark argues (as do all other modern experts) that Christianity was still a small minority religion even in the time of Constantine.  And beginning with his conversion, force was used to support it: already in his reign pagan temples were robbed of their wealth by force, being given to Christian churches instead, while by the end of the same century paganism was actually outlawed, and over subsequent centuries gruesome displays of force were used to terrify the disobedient into compliance (see Not the Impossible Faith pp. 21-23).

Likewise, no one reading the history of the Christianization of the Americas can possibly believe "force was the exception, not the rule." The history of the European Middle Ages is likewise just as bloody (simply read The Carolingian Chronicles for the Christians' own account of what they did). Indeed, actual force was often not necessary precisely because the threat of it was enough (as I discuss on p. 265 of Sense and Goodness without God).  Since I cite abundant scholarship confirming everything I say (pp. 267-68), again, Marshall is the revisionist here.

Marshall: What did Carrier mean by saying that Christianity "spread by the sword?"  The comment is rather ambiguous.  From the context, in which Carrier talks first about the spread of Christianity in ancient Rome, then in the world in general, it is clear he is referring to the overall history of Christianity.  And given the rest of his comments, it is clear he is, at minimum, referring to the most normal method of proselytism.  He is not saying that Christianity has SOMETIMES employed force, but at the least, that it has USUALLY (if not ALWAYS) employed force.

What does "by the sword" mean?  I will not require that it mean most converts had actual metal pressed against their throats (though the adverb "literally" is, as often, misused here.)  I take "by the sword" to refer to bringing people to faith under military or police compulsion.

I do insist, however, that conversion involve direct physical violence, or the threat of violence, against the potential convert, to count in favor of Carrier's claim.  It cannot even mean that mob violence was occasionally employed, or even that Christians occasionally persecuted people of other religions.  This for the simple reason that Carrier is comparing "intolerant" Christianity with "tolerant" paganism in this passage.  ("It was the first religion to openly attack the religions of other people.")  Yet he admits there was persecution of Christians (and other sects) in pagan Rome, along with mob violence against them.  Clearly the phrase "spread by the sword" must mean something above and beyond what Christians experienced at the hands of the pagans, to justify the contrast Carrier is drawing.

Finally, what might Carrier mean by "spread?"  Should it refer to transmission of faith to new lands, cultures, or individuals?

We can probably rule geography out.  It would be unreasonable to count the spread of faith among Eskimos in Alaska as more significant than among some tribe in Rwanda, just because more territory is involved.

Spread to individuals seems more likely at first.  If this is what Carrier meant, however, his claim may be too obviously absurd.  The vast majority of Christians have accepted faith from parents or teachers, through education, not the threat of death.  Furthermore, most Christians have probably lived over the past 200 years. (By my back of the envelope calculation, about 40% of all people who have lived in the last 2000 years, have lived in the last 200. Towards the beginning of that period, the percent of Christians in world population increased dramatically.)  Over the past 200 years, only a tiny minority of believers converted on pain of death. Neither, of course, did most Christians in the Middle Ages.

So the only plausible meaning of "spread," and the meaning most likely intended, is "transmitted into a new politico-cultural sphere, so as to be adopted by a significant portion of the populace."

Now we can analyze the accuracy of Carrier's claims about the history of Christianity.  I'll look at twelve great population groups, to which the vast majority of Christians belong.  I'll begin from the first days of Christianity.

(1) Roman-European Christians, 33-600 AD 

According to Rodney Stark, by the time of Constantine's conversion and the Edict of Milan in 313, proclaiming religious tolerance, about 10% of the entire Roman empire had become Christian. Obviously, before this time Christianity was NOT spread by military compulsion.  In fact, it spread in the face of often severe persecution.

Furthermore, according to Stark, Christianity was growing by about 40% per decade at this time.  By that natural growth rate (similar to that later traced by Mormons), Stark argues, the success of Christianity was already a fate accompli:

"In fact, Constantine's conversion was, in part, the response of a politically astute man to what was soon to be an accomplished fact - the exponential wave of Christian growth had gathered immense height and weight by the time Constantine contended for the throne (One True God, 61)."

Capturing 10% of the "market" shows that a religion has "arrived." We know that before this time, Christianity had spread to almost all of the empire - without force of any kind, but in the face of force.  By the natural growth pattern it had already established, even without state support, one could expect Christianity to surpass 50% of the population in the latter half of the 4th Century.

While Christians did take matters into their own hands by forcibly destroying temples at times, for the most part conversion to Christianity during the 4th Century was by free will, not compulsion. (Read Augustine's Confessions, for example - St. Augustine converted as late as 386, in apparent freedom, having freely chosen among contemporary beliefs.)   Occasional mob violence or state sanction do not constitute "conversion by the sword" on Carrier's own terms, as we have seen that he praises the ancient Romans, who engaged in both, for being quite different than and superior to Christians.

Theodosius I established "Catholic" Christianity as the state religion in 380.  In the 5th Century, the conformity of all, apart from Jews, was mandated and enforced.  As we will see when I address Carrier's second claim, Stark and I agree that the vital impulse of Christianity largely died in this period.

Several of the most prominent 4th Century Christians were born into a Christian family: Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzus, (his father was converted not by the sword, but by his wife), Basil the Great and his many siblings, Jerome.  This is consistent with Stark's thesis that like Mormons today, much of the Christian increase came through larger families and better health care.  Others, like Augustine, came from a partially pagan background, and were converted after dallying with pagan philosophies: Theodore the Interpreter and John Chrysostom were both educated under the pagan Libanius and then chose the Christian faith -- again, not at the point of a sword. Nor do their biographies seem to involve anyone who converted that way, as far as I know.

Sketchy as this is, this empirical evidence, from various parts of the empire, tells against the claim that the great numerical increase in Christians over the 4th Century came about primarily through military force.  It agrees fully, however, with Stark's arguments.

In any case, what happened in the 4th Century is best described as "consolidation," not "spread" as we defined it.  As I pointed out, "spread" must refer to the transmission of a religion to a new politico-cultural entity, not to individual conversions, or consolidation.

If we count individual conversions, then the early Christians will count for very little, compared to the billions of Christians in the modern world, and Carrier's argument will be rendered even less plausible!

(2) North African, West Asian Christians, 600-2016

In the first centuries after Christ, as in European Rome, Christianity spread through missions, voluntarily. Some consolidating force was employed late in the Imperial era.

After the Islamic conquest, for the next 1400 years, Christianity in the Middle East was mostly transmitted from parents to children, rather than by military force.  Millions of Muslims become Christians today (especially in Algeria, Iran, Egypt, and in parts of black Africa), not only of their own free will, but in the face of often strong persecution.

(3) Chinese Christians, 624-2016 

Christianity spread to China in four main waves, and one or two smaller ones - all without military or police compulsion on anyone to convert.

Nestorian Christianity spread peacefully, with some minor support at first, and some persecution later, from Chinese emperors.

Catholicism spread peacefully, with some persecution from the government, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, until there were about 300,000 Catholics in China.  In this case, European meddling and Chinese strong-arm tactics combined to undermine Christianity, keeping it from growing much after the "Rites Controversy" erupted in 1705.

In the 19th Century, Protestants entered China as a correlate of European imperialistic action against a weak Qing government.  Missionaries did not, however, use force; in fact imperialism was a strong disincentive to conversion, making "yang jiao" or "foreign religion" very unpopular.  It was in the face of persecution (most famously by the Boxers, who killed tens of thousands of Christians in 1900, but all through the 19th Century at a lesser level) that Christianity spread.

In the 20th Century, both under the Nationalists, and far more under the Communists, Christianity was officially discouraged.  It has been under persecution that the number of Christians in China has grown to some 70 million not "gua ming" or nominal Christians, but largely highly committed believers - the second largest number of any country, after the US.

(4) European Christians, 600-1800 

The grassroots missions impulse having mostly died within Latin Christianity, the faith did however spread to northern Europe, and was then consolidated as the official religion.  (And later, as dueling Catholic and Protestant official religions.)  Mass forcible conversions did occur during this period, including of the Saxons under Charlemagne, in the 8th Century.

Joseph Fletcher, Professor of History at the University of York, notes however in The Barbarian Conversion, "It is a striking feature of the spread of Christianity to barbarian Europe that it was, before Saxony, so tranquil a process."

Force was also employed on later occasions, among some Norse, Slavs, Finnish, and Baltic peoples. Other methods of transmission that seem to have been more important, however, were evangelism (St. Patrick, to the Irish) and the export of Christian wives to pagan kings. Of course the history of the Middle Ages was bloody, as Carrier remarks - as are all histories. But the spread of Christianity in Europe can't be reduced to Charlemagne's religio-political campaigns.  As Fletcher shows, the most common pattern was for a king to marry a Christian bride; the kingdom generally following his lead. It's true that there often was an element of compulsion in the subsequent conversion of nobles and laity (also later, with the spread of Protestantism, and the Catholic reaction.)  But it would be simplistic to say Christianity was mainly spread "by the sword" to Northern Europe - sometimes it was, more often it doesn't seem to have been.

Still, this period is probably the second-best case for Carrier's claim. Christianity may have spread into new cultural spheres during this period between one twentieth and one quarter of the time, off the cuff.

(5) Latin American Christo-Catholics, 1492-1900 

This period is probably Carrier's best argument for the "spread by the sword" hypothesis.  The conquest of South and Central America by the Spanish and Portuguese was, beginning with Christopher Columbus himself, a bloody and terrible affair.  What spread most quickly, though, was germs, wiping out much of the Indian population before they had the chance to be subjugated by Rome.

I am not a Latin expert, but the history of conversion in Latin America seems complicated. Conquistadors did make Christianity a tool of oppression and conquest.  Colonists sometimes attacked the Jesuits, though, for defending Indians against their own depredations.  Slaves were sometimes baptized, perhaps against their will; at other times prevented from voluntarily becoming Christians voluntarily. Whether or not Christianity (as opposed to colonialism) spread primarily by the sword over this region during this period, would require closer study than I have had the chance to accomplish.  But on the surface, Latin America seems like the best case for Carrier's claim, as clearly it sometimes did.

(6) European Christians, 1800-2016 

Ours has been an era of consolidation, revival, and a neo-pagan and secularist ("Enlightenment") backlash.  While often seen a "great following away" credited to the Enlightenment, it was also in the modern period that the Bible itself was translated into most European languages, and printing allowed pietist and other revival movements to spread the influence of the Gospel in a way that it could not in the relatively illiterate Middle Ages.

Christianity spread, to the extent it did in modern Europe, almost entirely by voluntary conversion.  In Eastern Europe, Christianity spread in the face of communist suppression - most successfully in Poland, but also in other countries. (See, for example, the works of Richard Wurmbrand, George Weigel, and James Felak.) Solzhenitsyn's story of conversion was in some ways typical of the era - and was, of course, of his own free will.

(7) North American Christians, 1620-2016 

Christianity spread to North America primarily through immigration, education, and voluntary evangelism.  There may have been rare instances of force (mostly in the earliest years of this period, among small groups, and through schools in 20th Century Canada), but choice has been the overwhelming pattern.

In fact, predominately Christian American and Canada have allowed far more freedom of conscience than did pagan Rome.  Given that the US has had more Christians than any other country has ever had over the past century and a half (probably some 900 million self-declared Christians altogether), the history of his own society should have given Carrier pause.

(8) African Christians, 1800-2016 

In 1900, there were only about 9 million Christians in Africa, including Copts and other small minorities in Muslim countries.  Today there are over 400 million at least nominal Christians.  (For a total approaching perhaps a billion over the past century.)  The vast majority have come to faith of their own free will, in response to missions.  (Sometimes in the face of persecution, as in Uganda under Idi Amin, Ethiopia, and in some tribes.)

(9) Latin Protestants, 1900-2016

The number of Evangelical Christians grew from negligible in 1900, to some 60 million by 1997. (First Things, Pedro Morena, June / July 1997) Few converts seem to have been zealous Catholics; most seem to have been religiously apathetic, or Christo-pagans.  Few, if any, came to Christ "at the point of the sword," or any other weapon.

(10) Indian Christians, 33 AD-2016 

Aside from the case of Goa, where Catholic inquisitors forced the population to adopt Christianity, the vast majority of converts to Christianity in India came to faith of their free will.  Even during British rule, compulsion to Christian faith was seldom if ever used; some were even persecuted for belief.

Today, there are between 25 and 50 million Christians in India. The free spread of Christianity has worried some "Hindutva" fanatics to the point of persecution and other pressure on Indians to abandon Christianity.

(11) Korean Christians, 1900-2016 

Again, Korean converts adopted Christianity freely, not under compulsion. Much of the conversion went on in the face of communist or Japanese oppression.  Some 30% of South Koreans are Christian today, often extremely zealous.

(12) Tribal Christians, 1900-2016 

Taiwan: About 12 tribes (Ami the largest) converted to Christianity, under no compulsion.  China: Lisu, Lahu, Wa, Jingpo, some Yi, Miao, Bouyi, small groups of Dai, all converted freely, or in the face of anti-Christian persecution.  Southeast Asia: Karen, Kachin, Lisu, Lahu, Wa, Hmong, all converted freely.  India: Naga, Mizo, other tribes in eastern states, Santal, Kholli mountain tribes, also converted freely.  New Guinea: millions of Christians among the Dani, Yali, and other tribes, became Christians without being forced to it.  Polynesians also adopted Christianity because they wanted to, not because missionaries threatened to kill them if they didn't.  Tribes in North America have generally either adopted Christianity of their own free will, or not at all.

Some exceptions may be found among Indian children who were forced to go to Christian schools during the mid-20th Century.

In summary, Carrier is clearly  and badly mistaken. As I said, use of force was clearly the exception than the rule in the spread of Christianity.  Only in some parts of Latin America, and in some cases in Northern Europe, did Christianity spread to new people groups primarily by force.

In the vast majority of cases, peoples adopted Christianity because they wanted to. The same is even more clearly true if we look at individual conversion, rather than the conversion of groups. Furthermore, both of the periods in which force WAS an important means of "converting" people, occurred (1) long after the initial and defining spread of Christianity; and (2) after Christianity had become institutionally corrupt, in part for reasons I will now explore.

Does Christianity only thrive by violently suppressing other faiths?

Round 3

Carrier: "Marshall falsely claims `Christianity has always been strongest in a free market of faiths -- as in modern America, Korea, and even modern China.'  Yet it is not "strong" in China or Korea (it is a minority in both countries), and even in America it claims only about 80% of the population. Compare that to a rate of 95% and more in much of medieval Europe and all of early Spanish-controlled America, when one had to be Christian under pain of death or prison or dispossession or exile, then you'll understand the difference I am talking about: Christianity was strongest then, not now.

Allowed to compete fairly in a free market, Christianity slowly washes out into a minority religion, or else must change radically to accommodate popular desires (which is why Catholicism is a minority now and losing ground in America, while most Christians are merely nominal, unable even to name the four Gospels, with nearly half now claiming Christianity is not the only path to eternal life, while secularism and other minority religions are growing, as they have done in Europe--slowly reversing the after-effects of an ages-long era of force and intimidation that really only ended in America with the demise of the McCarthy witch-hunts barely fifty years ago)."

Marshall: Carrier’s arguments here are not just wrong, they are poorly informed and often bizarre.

Senator Joe McCarthy’s career marked the end point of Christian “force and intimidation” in America?  Can he be serious?  Carrier seems to be conflating “Christians” with “everyone I don’t like.”

As Stark shows in “Secularization, RIP,” citing a great deal of primary and quality secondary data, Medieval Europe was by nothing like "95 % Christian" in the very sense Carrier defines the term here. ("Most Christians are merely nominal, unable even to name the four Gospels.")  Compare that to Christians, and even the CLERGY, during the Middle Ages:

"In 1551 the Bishop of Gloucester systematically tested his DIOCESAN CLERGY. Of 311 PASTORS, 171 could not repeat the Ten Commandments, and 27 did not know the author of the Lord's Prayer." (my emphasis - DM) "During the middle ages and during the Renaissance, the masses rarely entered a church, and their private worship was directed toward an array of spirits and supernatural agencies, only some of them recognizably Christian." 

"In 1800, only 12 percent of the British population belonged to specific religious congregation. This rose to 17 percent in 1850 and then stabilized - the same percentage belonged in 1990." 

"French Catholics today participate more willingly and frequently, with far greater comprehension of what they are doing, than was the case 200 years ago." (All from Stark, “Secularization, RIP”)

So by Carrier's own criteria, and citing a leading sociologist of religion whom Carrier himself appealed to for demographics, it is balderdash to claim that "95%" of Europeans were Christian before the Enlightenment, in some more significant sense than Americans are Christian today.  Not even most MONKS could pass a simple test for biblical literacy in the Middle Ages, let alone ordinary folks!  Church attendance was often quite nominal, with only a tiny fraction of the populace coming to church even once a year.

In fact, the percent of Americans who belong to a church, and who go to church, is far higher today than it was in the late 18th Century.

I live in one of the most secularized corner of the United States. Washington State has had the lowest church attendance rates in the country, and Seattle is worse. Yet I know some two dozen "mega-churches," vibrant, evangelical Christian churches with 1800 or more attendees a week, in the Seattle area.  And only a fraction of evangelicals go to mega-churches.  And there are other kinds of Christians in the Seattle area, too, of course - Catholics, Orthodox, liberal Protestants.

To call Christianity "weak" in America, compared to the Middle Ages, is a secularist pipe-dream. And to say that about South Korea, where thousands meet for fervent prayer in the morning, or retreat to pray on mountains for days at a time, and has produced single churches numbering in the hundreds of thousands of worshipers, defies the imagination.

Christianity is thriving in huge swaths of the world today.  Under no compulsion, tens of millions of Africans and Latin Americans will engage in fervent worship this coming Sunday.  Millions more will meet throughout China, praying with fervency, singing and bringing friends.  Christians will meet in huge mega-churches in Singapore, then go out to eat in outdoor food courts, side-by-side with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and "freethinkers," as they call them there. The freer the market, the better Christianity does.

In fact, the problem with Europe is its state religions. As Stark has demonstrated through decades of empirical research (see our interview in Faith Seeking Understanding), monopoly religions lose their fervency:

"Christianity might have been far better served had Constantine's faith been pretended.  For, in doing his best to serve Christianity, Constantine destroyed its most vital aspect: its dependence on mass volunteerism." (One True God, 61)

"From a popular mass movement, supported by member donations and run by amateurs and poorly paid clergy, under Constantine Christianity was transformed into an elite organization, lavishly funded by the state, and bestowing wealth and power on the clergy.  Thereupon, church offices became highly sought by well-connected men, whose appointments greatly reduced the average Christian leader's level of dedication." 

"The Christianity that triumphed over Rome was a mass social movement in a highly competitive environment. The Christianity that subsequently left most of Europe only nominally converted, at best, was an established, subsidized, state church that sought to extend itself, not through missionizing the population, but by baptizing kings . . . corruption and sloth as well as power struggles and enforced conformity, became prominent features of the Christian movement . . . Most of the evils associated with European Christianity since the middle of the 4th Century can be traced to establishment." 

Stark traces that trend through the history of Europe to the modern day. (To me, he suggested that it is precisely the beginnings of competition in Europe that offers the most hope that Christianity will revive there.)  The atrophy of grass-roots fervor, and the corruption of the clergy by money and wealth, sent European Christianity into a long decline. There were still faithful Christians, but they were always a minority.  And they tended to come from the margins of society, like Francis of Assisi, or of the clergy, like Martin Luther. Most Medieval "Christians" also could not read, the Bible was prohibited them, and they knew little about their supposed faith.

Thus, Carrier's arguments simply display popular ignorance of the history and sociology of religion. His claim that Christianity has "only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition" is near opposite of the truth.   In fact, Christianity thrives best in a free environment, with an open market of ideas. (Or even under some persecution.)  That is how it arose, and that is how it spread in many cases.

It is no coincidence that the persecuting church was also a corrupt church, a "Christianity" that had left its moorings, and the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, far behind, in search of money and power.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Reza Aslan Eliminates the danger of Islamic Violence

Parents, stop worrying about whether your kids are going to join a cult or extremist ideology.  It doesn't matter.   It only matters that you raised them well.  

After all, Nazism is just an ideology, and like all ideologies, what you make of it depends entirely on what you bring to it.  Those who are naturally violent, like Adolf Hitler, bring genocide and attacks on Germany's neighbors.  But gentle, kind, and loving converts to Nazism, do as you know make a name for themselves by feeding the poor, curing the sick, and holding the hands of the terminally-ill poor, around the world.  

Voldemortism is also just a magical orientation, and like all such orientations, depends no more and no less than on what you bring to it.  If you are incurably gothic, you will probably get nothing out of it but death to muggles.  But many other followers of Voldemort become outstanding and kindly citizens, known for their public-spiritedness.  This is why "Death-Eaters" are known for their charity work on six continents, and are fast putting Kiwanas and Lions Club out of business.  

Security Risks?

Satanism, too, is just one of many choices off the shelf of modern religions, no better or worse than any other, which will in no way affect your kids, should they choose to hang their hats on that particular sharpened peg.  

Quarkerism, too, is just a denomination.  Like all denominations, what you make of it depends no more and no less than on what you bring to it.  If you're a violence person, then you will join the world-wide Quaker Jihad, and blow up people on a weekly basis on every continent except Antarctica.  (Since Quakerism just happened to spread by men on camels carrying swords, and there are no camels in Antarctica.)

Thank you, Professor Aslan, for explaining to your intellectual inferiors why they, too, can stop worrying, and learn to love the jihad.  We now realize, as Shakespeare put it, that "nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

And I think you're a poor logician with a shaky grasp on the relationship between ideas and actions.  But no doubt in your own mind, you're brilliant.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Chinese Wild Flowers

My hobby over the past two + years in China has been escaping the ugly cities and climbing mountains around the country.  One of my discoveries these years, though I knew this a little already, is the incredible diversity and gorgeousness of China's wildflowers.  Many of our favorite garden flowers -- lilacs, gardenias, numerous rhodys of different colors, lilies of the valley -- can be found in great profusion above the treeline in different parts of China.

"Consider the lilies of the field.  They
neither toil nor spin, yet in their beauty,
here today and tomorrow cast into the fire,
they surpass Solomon."  Jesus, right yet
Here are some of my favorite shots, the ones that I can find.  (Not counting all those gorgeous pictures from Mount Song in Henan -- no card in the camera! -- or the even more beautiful pictures of mustard fields in bloom, cherry blossoms against tiled roofs, and best of all, the lotus fields near my school, and other domesticated yet accidental beauties.) Also sorry to disappoint, you apologetic junkies and politics addicts who follow this blog, but stop and smell the wild roses (of which I found another kind on the border of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia this past weekend, the yellow one below.)

Flox, I think - though my co-worker claims it's a kind of lily.  This weekend, border
of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia,about 7000 feet above sea level.  

Is this what the yellow rose of Texas looks like? 

One of many kinds of rhodydendrums, on Green Mountain above Dali, Yunnan.  (This is the
mountain from which Kublai Khan mounted a successful attack on the city.  See, you can
be a flower-lover AND a warrior!)
Grass is a flower, and bamboo is a flowering grass.  

Lilacs  above the timberline in the dry north.  Others are white. The fragrance is amazing.  

Monday, June 06, 2016

The Truth About Pascal's Wager

One of the most popular arguments for God, among those who claim not to believe in Him, is something often called "Pascal's Wager."  Ascribed to the great scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, generally by people who have never read him, this is the idea that even if there is no decent evidence for God, or if the evidence flows against Christianity, you should believe anyway, because the consequences of being wrong (hell) are so severe, and of being right (heaven) so wonderful, if you lay your stash on the "Yeah God!" slot, and gamble all you got on Christ in the great gaming casino of life.  

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Why Christians Shouldn't Cite Ehrman to Prove Jesus

These days one often runs across a refugee from the Land of Fantasy History called the "mythicist."  This is a person who claims that Jesus never lived.  Some Christians are quite concerned about the trend in skeptical thought these creatures represent, which they believe (rightly, I suppose) has been growing over the past few years.

I am presently writing a book which deals with the best-known modern mythicist, the historian and radical atheist Richard Carrier -- along with his even more prominent opponent, the famous New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.

I don't want to say I refute Carrier, because frankly, I have bigger fish to fry -- or catch.  But press me, and I'll confess that I think refuting Richard Carrier should prove one of the minor side-benefits of that book in the eyes of most readers.

Yet one thing I will never do, which I see sincere and good-hearted Christians often do in response to Mythicism.  And that is to cite Ehrman to disprove Mythicism, to show that yes, dad-nabbit, even sensible skeptics affirm that Jesus really lived.

I don't do that, for ten reasons: