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Posts Tagged ‘J A Froude

The Religion of Sensible Men

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The historian, J A Froude, told this story in his essay, A Plea for Free Discussion (1863):

“What religion are you, Mr Rogers?”, asked a lady once.
“What religion, madam? I am of the religion of all sensible men.”
“And what is that?” she persisted.
“All sensible men, madam, keep that to themselves.”

Would that Christians were sensible men, like Mr Rogers.

Written by mikemagee

8 July, 2012 at 12:53 am

The Philosophy of Christianity

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The Test of Truth

What better test of truth do we have than the ablest men’s acceptance of it?

So asked the historian J A Froude in his 1851 essay, “The Philosophy of Christianity”. He was defending Christianity against the accusation of being intellectually absurd, practically an offence and generally a misfortune. In essence, he was arguing that the best minds could not have been wrong for 1800 years. Or, if they were, then we have no basis for believing anything, for whatever it is might turn out to be just as absurd, offensive and unfortunate.

Well, for good or ill, that is nevertheless what science does teach. Science has to be corrigible or it cannot make progress. So what is true today, may not be true tomorrow. Science determines what is true by testing its ideas against reality. If they can predict reality—if the ideas work—then they are considered true, but not otherwise. A Christian has the idea that there is a mighty personal power in the universe that can do what it likes. Science would want to know how that can be tested.

One way would be to say, God answers prayers and therefore changes reality. We can test that. Yet no such test of the effectiveness of prayer has ever produced a convincing result. When they have seemed to, a fault in the method has been found skewing the results. So the idea of God has not so far been confirmed by science, and consequently scientists cannot accept the idea of God. For the corollary of testing is that we do not believe what is not shown to be true. It is called skepticism. The Christian understands it for they are skeptical of all other claims of divinity other than those of their own gods.

So, by this process of incremental testing, science accumulates knowledge. The increments are most often small ones, but sometimes a basic idea might need to be changed and then a large step is necessary, called a paradigm shift. But rarely is any new truth far removed from an older one, and always it must be a better one, more precise or comprehensive.

Religions are not generally corrigible, but, on the contrary, claim to be permanently fixed by the all encompassing power of the universe called God. It is not strictly true, of course, authorities like the pope or some council somewhere do change religions, and, besides that, they evolve from generation to generation, therefore imperceptibly to each in its day. As it is fixed by God, at least notionally, it needs no criterion of truth. A religion is accepted by a child or convert as being true—they are assured it is the only truth—and thereafter there can be no basis for questioning the truth of it.

Even so, Christians are allowed and perhaps encouraged to doubt, as long as the doubt is not itself allowed to change belief. It is not therefore a genuine doubt, for a real doubt can be resolved in one of at least two opposite ways. To be genuine, doubt must frequently lead to a loss of faith, something the local priest or pastor cannot allow to happen for that is to let a church member fall into sin and hell fire, a serious matter, they think. Consequently, the doubt of the Christian is to be countered by a firm application of faith bolstered by the assistance of the ablest of church men in accepting “the truth”. In short, Christian doubt is spurious. It is a mere test of a faith which once applied generously should cure the patient.

Knowing No Better

As churches have no criterion of truth other than faith, Froude’s criterion is the one they always have used. It is the reason why religions base themselves on authority—the judgement of the ablest of the men among them. It is not therefore an objective criterion of truth, but the opposite—these able men accept the truth they have been taught, and have no other criterion than what they have been told. It is biased, and there is no way of rebutting the bias in it except by contradiction. Yet throughout that 1800 years, it was the only “truth” available, so even the ablest did not notice the bias or felt unwilling to contradict it, probably for love of their mortal lives, the lure of heavenly bliss notwithstanding. Had we been in the same situation, with no alternative to the “truth” offered us besides death, we would have been the same.

So, the modern skeptic ought not to scoff at the Sumerians “feeding” their gods because it was their duty as god’s slaves to do so, and if the priests always looked well fed, it was because the gods looked upon them favorably! They ought not to scoff at Abraham being willing to sacrifice a child to his god because that is what Canaanites did, according to their beliefs, and as many were poor and could not afford to support large families, they might have been grateful that their gods were pleased to take back a child. Nor ought we to scoff at a medieval Catholic peasant brought up to the “absurdities” of Christianity for those were all they were allowed to know, for they could not read their bibles for themselves, unlike the modern Protestant who chooses not to and therefore believes everything except what Christ taught them. We are entitled to scoff at them.

The modern skeptic scoffs at those who now should know better, but prefer to put their heads in a bucket because Christ sounds more like a liberal than a libertarian. These people do not want to know the truth but still want to profess “the truth” as they define it. Today we have proven methods of investigating the truth of things, and we have criteria for truth so as to test that it indeed is. It is those who are perverse and refuse to consider the progress we have made in investigating reality who deserve the disdain of the scoffers. Whatever the ablest once thought, though wrong, was excusable then, but it is inexcusable now.

Possibly primitive people took it for granted that the earth was flat, but by the time of the Greeks of Alexandria, it had been proven to be a sphere. We are justified perhaps in scoffing at those after then who still believed in the flatness of the earth, depending on their level of education, but we are led to believe that many even of the ablest men still believed it. Of course, a reason for the lamentable education of everyone except the very rich, and even some of them, was that the Church had refused to copy any books it deemed superfluous—most of them except Latin and Greek grammar books for priestly education, bibles and devotional books. It suggests how dangerous and destructive mere faith is.

Contrary to Froude therefore, the ablest men are not necessarily right and can be utterly wrong en masse when alternatives are forbidden and scholarship is considered subversive. It is those who were willing to speak up for alternatives to “the truth” whom we can thank for the modern world’s achievements.

Good and Evil

Yet “the truth” persists in the face of truth, and we are held back by a large number of people who will not let go of medieval religion, even in the knowledge of the technological sophistication achieved in our world. Matter was the source of evil. The Persians had solved the problem of theodicy by conceiving a wicked god whose aim was to spoil everything the good God did. These were metaphors for the bad and good behavior that humans could choose between—we were meant to choose good and reject wickedness. We ourselves had to choose with every decision we made and act accordingly. Given sufficient people choosing “good”, the world would be good.

Unsophisticated people cannot understand abstracts and have to think they are like real solid, perhaps living, beings, albeit supernatural—they are out there! So the metaphors always became actual entities for the simple. As is the inevitable rule dictated by opportunism and human selfishness, the simple creed, “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”, was changed. The individual was not directly to blame by making the wrong choices, instead the wicked entity had infected the material world, which was therefore contaminated with wickedness. Choices still had to be made, but the presumption was that worldwide pollution left everyone compromised. In Christianity, it became “Original Sin”.

The ablest men could now have little or nothing to do with the material world. They were safer withdrawing from it rather than trying to make the right choices while living in it. They had to be devout, had to exercise their minds with prayer and incessantly praising God, so as to leave no room for anything but God, and thereby cease to be a normal human to ensure entry into God’s angelic kingdom after death. Real life and the real world had no purpose, unless ceaseless other worldly devotions are considered it. Needless to say, if everyone did that, then we should all die. But many of the ablest did just that, albeit many with an utter lack of sincerity, paying lip service to piety while fully enjoying the temptations of the sinful world.

The crucifixion of the good God while visiting the earth as a man had saved all believing Christians from the wickedness around them, so they might as well seek high office, palaces, good food, fine wines, seraglios, and so on, while they were here, content in the knowledge they already had the key to the Pearly Gate. Though their own God while on earth had blessed poverty and damned the rich, they saw no incongruity, continuing to think they had been saved by their belief, even though they made no effort to act upon the moral instructions the incarnated God had issued from his own mouth.

The material world was a world of disease, decay and death, a world in which entropy inevitably increased, but another world free of entropy awaited simply for accepting “the truth”. Matter is the cause of evil, and Christianity is the cure. Mere belief in Christ, a savior, is the magic salvific thought. No choice of good deeds over evil ones was necessary, and so nothing in the wicked world could, in fact, change. There was no will to do it, as there had once been. Reward came after death. That was it.

Christ taught an admirably practical philosophy, but Christians sidelined it. Now, not only is Christianity intellectually absurd, practically an offence and generally a misfortune, it is the ultimate scam.