Saturday, August 31, 2013

Enlightenment, Death Penalty, and Religion

In my researches about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, I recently came across this article: How the pacification of Europe came to an end, by Peter Frost.

Frost argues that the movement to end the death penalty in Europe came not from Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Rousseau, but from new trends in Christianity:

"The same processes that made the Enlightenment possible—invention of printing, mass distribution of books, rising level of literacy—also allowed more and more Christians to discover the Bible. They soon discovered that this book did not contain the overlay of correction, interpretation, and commentary that had been added during the Middle Ages. Why, they wondered, was this overlay absent from the Holy Scriptures? Surely it must be a sham! And so they discarded the hard lessons that had been learned at much cost. The clock was literally turned back to the Dark Ages—when the Church provided murderers with sanctuary and when the State preferred to be an arbiter between the murderer and the victim’s family.


It is this Jesus-centered Christianity, much more so than the Enlightenment, that has shaped modern liberalism. For every copy of John Locke’s works, there have been millions more of the Bible, and millions more of writings by people who spurn medieval Christianity as one would an impostor."

The enlightenment philosophers, by contrast, tended to be deists, or at least less devout than their forebears. I tend toward pacifism myself, influenced perhaps by my religious upbringing and the writings of Christian anarchists like Tolstoy. (I am always at peace while reading Tolstoy--except when Andrei is doomed and that dratted epilogue.) But perhaps I would have turned out similarly even with a different upbringing--perhaps these things have appealed to me because of who I am, rather than the other way around. It is impossible to say.

In A Midwinter Night's Revolution, while religion is clearly an important part of the characters' daily lives (as it was in reality,) I've shied away from church-related matters in the context of the revolution. In reality, church and religion were so important in those days that one could hardly speak of government and revolution without touching on matters like the divine rights of kings and taxes on the clergy (or lack thereof) and so on. But religion is a very dear topic to many, and I would not wish a fictionalized discussion of topics related to 18th century power structures to be accidentally mistaken for an allegory or commentary on modern religion. 'Twould muddle the tale.

Still, I do like to think and learn about the broader socio-political picture. How did the area of the US founded by the Puritans--New England--end up one of the more liberal, atheistic parts of the country? How did parts founded by more economically-motivated folks, like Virginia, end up more conservative and religious?

Frost, in his conclusion, states, "an ideological change within Christianity ... has become secularized and now dominates the modern world view. One might call it “secularized Christianity” or perhaps “Christian atheism,” but neither is really appropriate. It is a changeling. It claims descent from our rich traditions of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment … while actually owing little to either."

(Frost is not keen on this "Christian atheism.") Are these the Puritans who founded Harvard? Are these views really inconsistent with the Enlightenment? Or are there other valid approaches to these questions?

What do you think?

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