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This is an exercise in historical writing for “a time before there were authors” (Robinson, 14). I will be focusing on Late Antiquity Arabia in an effort to describe what history is. Therefore, the form of this essay, along with the actual historical content, are both equally as important.


A narrative on Muhammad inevitably involves looking at him as he was, as a man of his time. Although it is inescapable that we describe Muhammad’s life with a degree of agency, this is only the fault of our own imaginations. Even greater, it is also the fault of our own narratives. All historical events can be said to be intimately linked to everything before it; this much is obvious. Therefore, it is the historian’s role to delineate which events were formative in history, and which were less so. In other words, which events allow us to view history in motion? – And how are these events situated in relation to another? Little can be said about the continuity of history with any certainty and, as historians, we are left fumbling to find causation.

As Isiah Berlin writes in his seminal essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, “we will never discover all the casual chains that operate: the number of such causes is infinitely great, and the causes themselves infinitely small” (Berlin, 44). Therefore, all historical writing ultimately takes the form of a kind of narrative, none of which are “true” in any objective sense [1]. Rather, they are approximations of a historical reality; all history is the history of approximations, some of which are closer than others, naturally, but they all have a desire to reign in history as an effort to ground it. Walter Benjamin so eloquently writes of this in his Theses on the Philosophy of History: “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger” (Benjamin, VI). Any writing of history is such an exercise.

Appropriately, a discussion on the context of pre-Islamic Arabia (and the greater Middle East) before the rise of Muhammad involves privileging certain causalities as more crucial to historical progression than others. Because of this, it is central that a historian examines structures in relation to particulars, rather than just particulars [2] – in other words, we must not look at Muhammad only as a man; we must look at the social fabric in which he was thrown into, and the great powers that shook his conscience so heavily that it demanded he act. Therefore, I will speak of Muhammad through what he did, but we must be cognizant there is no “being” doing anything; everything is happening, and unfolding, in an infinite amount of ways. I propose an account of Muhammad, not as an individual agent [3] but rather as an agent of history, of a force greater than himself, who is irrevocably linked to the material conditions which produced him. In this sense, he is not an actor – he is merely acting. It is on this account that we begin by introducing the world that Muhammad would soon inhabit.

I.  The Material Conditions That Preceded Muhammad

The Arabian Peninsula is vast, “nearly as big as one third of Europe, but very sparsely populated” (Rodinson, 11). The entire region is mostly desert, with low rainfall and dunes that stretch several miles in length and hundreds of feet into the air.  Oases dot the landscape as a refuge for vegetation, along with coastal regions which enjoy agricultural development unlike the majority of the region. It was during these early centuries, before Christ and until a century or two before Muhammad’s birth, that the “the way of life was [solely] dictated by the land.” The majority of inhabits were nomadic, unless they were living in a lush, hydrated area to settle (Rodinson, 12). Therefore, some degree of symbiosis was necessary for social order between the farmers in the lush regions, the Bedouin nomads, and the townsfolk of the surrounding villages. A loose system of protection was developed, where communities purchased safety from the herdsmen. The economic relationship was based in trade, helped by the domestication of the camel, which provided a link between the Fertile Crescent, the caravans, and the bustling communities growing deep within South Arabia. This produced a cultural exchange, hastened through trade, with goods passing through from “India, East Africa, and the Far East on the one hand, and from all over the Mediterranean on the other” (Rodinson, 13). A social structure had emerged – and it lay in the stationary communities alongside oases and the coast which enjoyed all of these cultural treasures that passed through it from all over the known world. The riches flowed into Arabia, especially Southern Arabia, and “the growth of Mediterranean civilizations had the corresponding effect of increasing the wealth of their South Arabian suppliers” (Rodinson, 21). Arabia, therefore, was not a “pure seed in a rotten earth” as it were; it was very much connected to the cultural developments of its time (Rodinson, 24).

It was from the land that basic units of life and of civilization were created – tribes, kinship, and genealogies served as the only foundation with which to grow as a community (Donner, 28). For those living in the Hejaz, life was immensely difficult; they lived on “the verge of famine, drought, and death” (Brown, 3). The tribe and its customs were the only protection an individual possessed in such a tumultuous environment and, naturally, some clans possessed more clout and wealth than others. However, Arabia was still relatively poor – class differences were felt, but in times of war or catastrophe, all social classes were equal in their wretchedness. The instability of life, and the possibility of death and ruin, was the ultimate equalizer.

South Arabia proved to be more fortunate than its northern counterpart, but it is likely that its influence spilled over to its common Arab neighbors. Here, skilled architects built large palaces and monuments. Art was realized, infused by Roman, Hellenistic, and even Indian influences. Luxury commodities began taking form. Writing took shape on social, legal, and administrative questions. All of these developments were in continuous contact with the northern peoples of Arabia. A social divide was thusly being created between the settled peoples of South Arabia and the Arabs in the northern periphery hundreds of years in the making before Muhammad’s birth (Rodinson, 21- 23).

All of this brings us to the 6th century where multiple events transformed the Middle East and, to some, signified apocalyptic proportions. The great Byzantine and Sassanid empires were competing for economic mastery of world. As Maxime Rodinson writes,

From 502 to 505 there had been war under the reforming King of kings [Kavadh I]. He resumed it in 527 over the Caucasus, and it was continued by his son [Khosrau I], who offered to make an eternal treaty of peace with Justinian in 532, But war broke out again in 540 and Antioch fell to [Khosrau I]…. an armistice was signed in 545… however, war broke out again in 572 (Rodinson, 26).

The ruling tribes of Arabia looked at this with envious eyes, for it was them that, too, wanted the fertile lands of Syria and Mesopotamia. Soon, the Arabs settled in these regions found themselves forced to take sides rather than simply assimilate. Because of a lack of resources, the Byzantines and Sassanians established indirect control over parts of Arabia through alliances with its tribes “in exchange for cash subsidies, weapons, and titles” (Donner, 31). Many became auxiliary units, fighting for either ruling power that was willing to give them a reward. And it is certain that culture permeated through these interactions – Christianity had begun to make headway among the Arabs (Rodinson, 28). Christianity’s foothold in Arabia only served to intensify the ongoing war and, by association, now implicated the entire region into the world conflict [4] if it had not been before.

Although it is difficult to personify this 6th century power struggle, its vast implications were felt under the rule of Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās [5] in South Arabia who began persecuting Christians Monophysites in an effort to appeal to Persian power. Byzantine attempted to provide protection to these Christians through Ethiopian auxiliary units in 512, but they were crushed. Thousands were murdered under the rule of Dhū Nuwās consequently. It was to be known as a period of pillage and general indiscriminate slaughter (Rodinson, 32). This undoubtedly made a strong impression in Arabia; for those that had not realized it already, it revealed the serious stakes that were at play.

Everything was changing and history had begun to accelerate in ways previously unseen in the decades before Muhammad’s birth which, according to Islamic accounts, was in the year 570CE. South Arabia became the center of intense conflict, a type of proxy war between Persia and Byznatium, because of its pivotal trading position into the Indian Ocean basin (Donner, 33). Pro-Persian Arabs, the old supporters of Dhū Nuwās, began attacking Southern Arab communities; Abraha came to power in Southern Arabia with the help of Ethiopian soldiers who still remained there, whose successors took a strong anti-Persian stance; Khurso I allied with the Turks and deepened Persian hegemony in Central Asia. All of Arabia felt the pull of history ripping it apart. Southern Arabia felt it most violently, with bloody factionalism draining its wealth and strength (Rodinson, 33-35).  Petty feudal lords began to fill vacuums of power and the Bedouin nomads profited from the chaos by charging more for their protection services. Now with capital and profit, communities soon became centers of Bedouin operations and prospered during regional chaos. All of Western Arabia underwent incredible economic expansion, most notably Mecca and as south as Medina, where new Jewish settlements created an agricultural life previously unfound (Donner, 35). In Mecca, cultivation was unsustainable because of the poor climate; instead, the Meccan tribe of Quraysh turned to commerce and traded with regions as vast as “Yemen, eastern Arabia, and Southern Syria” that were in perpetual need of supplies (Donner, 36). Mecca, and the Quraysh tribe specifically, was now in a position to network with tribes across Arabia and establish joint commercial ventures. It was in the midst of this economic transformation that Justin II declared war on Persia in 572 CE which only further expanded this emerging economic hub (Rodinson, 33).

From the shell of traditional, nomadic Arab society emerged a new form of organization: a mercantile economy. And with it, the tribal structure could not contain itself anymore.  It had begun its slow decline as its values became unintelligible within the new market system. In an environment of panic, a thirst for something new was in the air as some Arabs began to turn to universalist religions as a means of solace, as a means to make sense of the chaos. Yet, these religions – Christianity, Judaism, and all its sects – still seemed foreign; it was not of the land, and could in no way propel Arabia beyond the great powers that were collapsing. Something else was needed. It was at this precise historical moment, amidst an unprecedented shift in Arab consciousness, that Muhammad was thrown into the world to make it his own.

II. The Movement of Ideas

Ideas cannot be separated from their historical moment nor can be they seen wholly separate from the material conditions that produced them. Therefore, ideas Muhammad transformed for his own movement were not entirely new, but they came at a time when there was the historical “space” for them. Muhammad’s ideas would have had no currency had the situation not been so dire, had the entire social order not been slowly uprooted by new economic necessities. The conditions were ripe for Muhammad’s religion to materialize.

Philosophies were constantly in flux in the Near East and their influence was felt deep within Arabia, starting hundreds of years before Muhammad’s birth. Many of them became infused with indigenous cultures in the region, but this would reach its ultimate conclusion with the establishment of Muhammad’s movement. We must first understand Arabia’s own way of life, however, in order to fully comprehend how these other foreign ideas fused with it. The most widespread means of native expression in this largely nomadic society, still unstructured, was through words – poetry was highly prized as a means of persuasion, for it showed wit and vitality, not to mention it being incredibly useful within tribal politics (Rodinson, 15). It was a culture of “mainstream orality and marginal writing, where poetry and other forms of oral performance were Arabian tokens of pride” (Robinson, 11). Muhammad must have encountered these orators, for he was a man with a gift for persuasion. He was a “remarkably able diplomat, a capable of reasoning with clarity, logic, and lucidity” (Rodinson, 53).

Arabia also lacked a cohesive moral structure before Muhammad’s movement. There was nothing uniting the Arabs in social, political, or moral terms which would allow them to assert their power effectively. Communities had moral standards, but these were not inspired by religion; they were “realists” in this sense, and mostly believed in what would create order. The most prized personality was one who had virility and this was maintained through honor. If a man did not act with courage and compassion towards his kin, he would disrespect his honor within the tribe (Rodinson, 17). None of these social organizations had any real supernatural basis that was felt strongly. Many Arabs were, however, polytheists – but some also nurtured an ancient legend of the one God, the God of Abraham, especially those living in the Hejaz. Symbolically, Mecca also had the Kaba “which was a shrine built ages ago by Abraham as the ‘first house of worship appointed to men’” (Brown, 4). Despite these appeals to a greater divine order, for most living in Arabia, man was the measure of all things. In such a harsh environment, there was no time for meditations on the infinite. Muhammad would be responsible for changing the equation; Instead of man being the measure of all things, it would be God.

However, which ideas entered the collective consciousness of those living in Arabia around the 6th century? – And from where did they come? South Arabia was the first to experience an influx of new ideas, but by the 6th century this had begun to spread to all fringes of the desert and even to Bedouin nomads themselves. Aramaic and Hellenistic influences were felt most strongly. This is even demonstrated through the language used in Southern Arabia, where Arabic “had assimilated Greek, Latin, and other foreign words, for the most part through the channel of Aramaic” (Robinson, 25). It was also around the 6th century that Arab paganism began “receding in the face of a gradual spread of monotheism” (Donner, 30). After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around the year 70CE, communities of Arabic-speaking Jews began to spread into Arabia and were especially prominent in Yemen and the northwest. Christianity, too, began to penetrate into Arabia and its communities settled in Yemen (with the help of Byzantine influence), eastern Arabia and the northern fringes bordering Iraq and Syria (Donner, 30). Monotheist religions and their philosophies were being felt throughout all of Arabia; they constituted a kind of “religio-cultural matrix” which was a continuum of “belief, ritual and practice, overlapping multiplicities of Neoplatonism, monotheism and polytheism” which avoided being formalized into any idea that could concretely take hold across all of Arabia (Robinson, 6). All of these philosophies lacked the impetus to catch the entire region in its imagination on their own. This would require someone that was of the land, who was deeply in tune with Arabic traditions, and who would make these monotheist religions accessible to Arabs while also transforming it into their own project.

III. The World-Historical Moment Through Images

To the common people of Arabia and the greater Middle East, the war between the Sassanian Empire and Byzantine Rome signified apocalyptic proportions. It had begun in the 6th century but such feelings continued well until the mid-7th century and the establishment of a new major power, the Rashidun Caliphate. Muhammad was forced to reconcile these early cataclysmic events with his conception of the divine, for it seemed as though God was Himself intervening and accelerating history — and to Muhammad this signified a change in the very direction of what was to come.

IV. The Role of Muhammad in This Historical Moment

As been demonstrated many times over now, Muhammad was not born in a vacuum. There were world powers vying for hegemony in Arabia and the entire Near East, which situated Muhammad in a historical moment and propelled him into a role almost without his choosing. God chose him; and, if we take this for its deterministic implications, history had chosen him as well, even without him consciously choosing.

However, what was Muhammad’s historical “role?” He was situated in a context that demanded him to take on certain responsibilities, divinely-inspired no less, but he still had serious material concerns for the well-being of his contemporaries. Still, the question of “’Who was this Muhammad?’ … was a question posed already during his lifetime” (Robinson, 4). Above all, he claimed he was just a man, which further grounded him in the material conditions of his time. And, just as importantly, he was “the seal of the prophet” whose aim was to remedy the abundance of philosophies that were flowing into Arabia and make them one whole. Muhammad’s role as totalizing all these particulars which were in constant conflict (the many sects of Christianity, Judaism, etc.) was a direct response to the moral panic that ensued during the instability of the 6th century – Arabs were being humiliated abroad; tribal customs were outliving their worth; no one know which gods to worship; and the rich began to trample on the disenfranchised (Rodinson, 66). The Second Rome was expected to fall and apocalyptic catastrophe, Judgement Day, seemed imminent. Muhammad was necessary to stem the tide, so to speak, and to prevent Arabia, and supposedly the world, from succumbing to its rampant vices and violence.

For much of his life, Muhammad was situated in Mecca which was booming economically. The tribe of Quraysh had raised themselves to dominance. They held many Ethiopian slaves and those who settled in Mecca could become clients of their power (Brown, 6). Those who flocked to Muhammad’s words were oftentimes the most alienated in Meccan society. These included adolescents who wanted fresh ideas, those who were dissociated from the social system, those critical of Meccan power, the impoverished, and many others. The Quraysh looked at this amusingly at best and, at worst, “there was a certain contempt for the low social status of those involved” (Rodinson, 102). Whether Muhammad had formalized it or not, what he was doing was creating a power in direct opposition to the elites – and “perhaps Muhammad thought that Allah would make use of the fortunes of war between Byzantium and the Persians” and use it to rally his people to create a new society (Rodinson, 123).

Muhammad, therefore, took on a very social role that was very much intertwined with the politics of his day. He was an arbitrator between different classes, an orator of the divine, and a mediator in times of conflict. After arriving in Medina, the first thing he did was write up a written agreement with the townsfolk and his believers (Brown, 27). The very material basis for his actions is even evident in the Qur’an itself, for “not only did the Qur’an provide guidance for dealing with the poor; it also dominated much of the thought and behavior concerned with economic activity” (Bonner, 392). This is no coincidence. For Muhammad, every ‘social’ act was a means of worshiping God and would form the foundation for a new social order.

History knows no true narrative, and no real causality, but we are forced to create them for the sake of relevancy.  Although history cannot be personified through any single individual, the phenomenon of the “holy man” or “prophet” is precisely about acting as if one is this personification. As Peter Brown writes in The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity:

What is decisive, and puzzling, about the long term rise of the holy man is the manner in which, in so many ways, the holy man was thought of as having taken into his person, skills that had previously been preserved by society at large (Brown, 100).

Muhammad encapsulated this phenomenon by being the vehicle through which his long-view of history could be realized. In this sense, he was the living embodiment of the events that tore apart his time. Muhammad, thus, can be said to be the personification of the entire sum of his society, all that preceded him. It is by this account that we can begin to construct a history without agency, and without a Great Man to direct it. Just as God spoke to Muhammad to push towards what was divinely inevitable, we, too, can play with this language and characterization – we can speak freely of God, an ever-present force said to guide us, as synonymous with the incessant march of history forward. If it is not God who we serve as determined beings, then maybe it is God who serves history, for whom Muhammad was the vehicle towards what He deemed as salvation.

***

[1] “Objectivity” is a difficult concept to even conceive of, especially in historical writing. Surely, there are “facts” that are true, but how do these facts fit into the greater narrative? Is there one correct narrative? It is on these grounds that I discount “objective” or “scientific” history as being impossible.

[2] By particulars here, I mean individual actors and events. It would be foolish to stress these without placing them within the structure from which they were conceived.

[3] Once again, language fails us here. I will be speaking of Muhammad as a “man,” sometimes even discussing his actions, but this is only because it is rhetorically useful; if we abstract too much, we might be left with absolutely no narrative at all. We just must remember that his actions are not wholly his own.

[4] In the context of the time, this was most definitely a “world conflict” or “world-historical moment” in the sense that this encompassed what was the known “world” at the time, or the center of it at least.

[5] Interestingly enough, Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās was of the Jewish faith allied with Persian power which showed that religion was perhaps more fluid during this time than it is now.

Bibliography

  • Berline, Isiah. Russian Thinkers. 22 – 81. The Viking Press, New York. 1978.
  • Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. Dennis Redmond. 2005. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Trans. Anne Carter. Pantheon Books, New York. 1971.
  • Donner, Fred M. Muhammad and the Believers. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2010.
  • Brown, Jonathan A.C. Brown. Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Robinson, Chase F. History and Heilsgeschichte in Early Islam: Some Observations on Prophetic History and Biography. City University of New York.
  • Bonner, Michael. Poverty and Economics in the Qur’an. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Pp. 391 – 406. XXXV:3 (Winter, 2005).
  • Brown, Peter. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies. Pp. 80 – 101. Vol. 61 (1971)

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Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

I. The Merging of Catholic and State Power

“The empire on which the sun never sets”

This phrase encapsulated Spanish pride during the 16th and 17th centuries. Behind all of that however, the Spanish Golden Age involved the systemic subjugation of indigenous peoples, expropriation of their natural resources, and assimilation of their respective cultures. Generations destroyed by Spanish (and other Western) colonialism left a crippled continent that lacked the capital to upstart its uphill battle from subservience, even to this day. As Uruguayan journalist writes in his book The Open Veins of Latin America: “Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations.” And with the arrival of Spanish boats on the Latin American continent emerged a new chapter in their once-proud history; one marked with decline and subservience to a power that simply saw their blood as money. The Spanish invasion of Latin America was pushed by its thirst for economic prowess, and was facilitated by demands that held Spain and its Habsburg royal family by the handles. These included mineral profiteering, religion, and finance. Ideologically, the Catholic Church and its thinkers played a crucial role in legitimizing colonial expansion. Monetarily, the influx of silver and gold from Spain’s colonial plunders financed the growth of arms and territorial expansion. This vicious cycle was largely made systemic until the steady decline of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century.

RequerimientoBefore creating conflict, presumably war, it is essential to have academic backing beforehand to hold popular support. Despite being an autocratic monarchy, an ideology was necessary to justify Spain’s colonial ventures. The Catholic Church proved to be a viable outlet since its power was diminishing on the European stage. Critics, such as Martin Luther, questioned the Papacy and threatened the Catholic rule that had been the status quo for over a millennium. The Church struggled to counteract the powers that were splintering its unity and it found leverage in Spanish politics. Given the expansionist aims of Spain, the Catholic Church viewed this as a proper opportunity for evangelical expansion. Therefore, the Spanish state and the Catholic Church worked hand in hand but for different reasons – the former wanted to reap profit and the other wanted to expand its mode of theological thinking. Throughout the Spanish Empire, the Catholic Church worked alongside colonial interests to build on its influence although its prevalence was most prominent in the formative years of the empire. Many conquistadors pursued conquest for materialist and religious aims. Declarations titled Requerimiento were read aloud by Spanish authorities upon calling a new region their own, citing divine law and God’s plan as their justification. Written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a Council of Castile jurist, these degrees were given credibility through the Catholic Church and its dominion. The language was purely Catholic, naming Saint Peter and his Papal successors as proper evidence that God had the right to rule over the entire earth. Naturally, by association, God had given this authority to the Spanish monarchy. And if the indigenous people refused to be converted or ruled, they were threatened with murder, torture, and enslavement. Oftentimes, such theological justifications were read to indigenous people despite language barriers and to empty towns as a rationalization for murder and destruction. Dominican friars usually accompanied the conquistadors as they read the declarations, granting the decree holy justification. Despite enriching the coffers of the Spanish ruling class, the Requerimiento was abolished in 1556, since it was deemed unjust to impose a religion by threats if the victims had never heard of Christ prior. However, Requerimiento served its purpose – it established the religious justification for Spanish imperialism.

The marginalization of the New World began with the creation of administrative regions of control. The North and South American continents were carved up by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between the Spanish Crown and Portugal. Another treaty was signed between them in 1529 titled the Treaty of Zaragoza, which aimed at determining their respective regions of control in Asia. With the territorial lines set, the Spanish empire could now employ its ecomienda system of labor which institutionalized the enslavement of indigenous peoples and spread its Catholic evangelical message by sword even more efficiently. The Catholic Church sanctioned these territories with the papal bulls given in 1493, setting the groundwork for the Treaty of Tordesillas and Zaragoza. Called the Bulls of Donation, it granted overseas territories to the Catholic Spanish monarchs and Portugal. The major area of contention was Latin America, but is also involved a few islands in Asia among other regions. This holy sanctioning of land fundamentally usurped the power away from the Native Americans and granted the Spanish Crown the divine right to rule. Likewise, this was evoked many times over in conquest. Aside from the Requerimiento, which was read after a region was conquered, the Spanish Crown also instated the Spanish Requirement of 1519. This solidified Catholic rule in the colonies. It decreed that the Spanish Empire was divinely decreed to take the land of the New World. It also explicitly granted Spain the privilege of exploiting, subjugating, and enslaving the native inhabitants when they saw fit. The conquistadors that invaded, then, evoked this and believed those who resisted occupation also resisted God’s plan. Thereby, from then on, the colonial mission was fully set in motion – it had a monetary incentive, since territorial expansion provided bullion for the coffers of those in power, and it provided an ideological justification through God’s will.

II. The Catholic Theological Debate Over Colonialism 

The Spanish Empire was unique in that it had a strict religious undertone. Other empires, such as the British and French, lacked such a prophetic message and were not as fervent in their religiosity to new-found lands. The difference was that the religious and governmental spheres of Spanish societies overlapped. This was especially evident in the Spanish Crown’s insistence in spreading Catholicism by lawful decree. The law of Burgos was passed in late December of 1512 and it was the first set of laws to govern the behavior of Spaniards living in the Americas in their treatment of indigenous peoples. It forbade them from being “mistreated” and facilitated converting them to Catholicism.  However, it was largely ineffective in preventing the former. The system of ecomienda was too ingrained in the colonial economic system to be ruined by Spanish decree. This was tried to be corrected again in 1542 by King Charles V, but it was again largely ignored in the largest colonial regions. The native peoples of the Americas were then left with mistreatment and forced Catholic conversations, the decrees doing little to better their condition beside force more religion upon them.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of  universal conception of rights.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of universal conception of rights.

In theological circles, the question of forced conversation and treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas was one of much debate. Although the political sphere justified its colonization of peoples through a religious lens, the Catholic consensus on the matter within the upper echelons of its administration were split. This disagreement on the treatment of Native Americans would eventually reach its culmination in the Valladolid debate, which was held in the Colegio de San Gregorio of the Spanish city of Valladolid. The two debaters were the Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas, defending their right for equality, and Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that their enslavement was justified by divine law. Casas was one of the first individuals to criticize Spanish colonization and argued that the Native Americans were capable of reason and could be brought to Christianity without coercion. And, according to natural law, they were to be treated just as the Europeans were. Sepúlveda, on the contrary, argued from a strangely secular position. Arguing from an archaic Aristotelian point, he stated that indigenous peoples have a predisposition for slavery since they fall into the definition of “barbarian.” Hence, they were to be considered “natural slaves.” He went on to outline four mine reasons for the enslavement of native peoples of the Americas. Firstly, their condition in nature was one that was akin to slavery and demanded a Spanish master. Secondly, it prevented the indigenous peoples from engaging in obscene acts such as cannibalism and sexual perversion. Thirdly, it prevented chaos amongst them and stopped them from engaging in forms of offensive sacrifice. And finally, slavery was the most effective way of teaching them of European Catholic culture. Casas, furious, responded that there is an international duty to protect innocence from being treated unjustly. Remarkably, this was one of the first public callings for universal human rights. The debate ended with both sides polarized and there was no clear “winner” of the Valladolid debate. However, Casas’s arguments had an effect on policy to some degree. The ecomienda labor system was marginally weakened and the New Laws of 1542 were passed, however this did little to better the condition of the Native Americans. All in all, neither side came out truly victorious – to Cases’s dismay, Spanish colonialism and expansion continued and Sepúlveda, who wanted to strengthen the ecomienda system, failed to tangibly do so.

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Papal bulls served as the moral justification for colonization since the Spanish Empire had little in the law books over the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples.

III. The Ultimate Victor 

Despite the winner the argument being ambiguous, Sepúlveda argument for “natural slavery” is one that was prevalent in Christian circles. It originates from Aristotle, that certain individuals have a predisposition for slavery and subservience. The ideologically basis for it is inherently racist, Euro-centric, and was used to justify enslavement of the Native Americans by political, military, and Church leaders. However, it would be unfair to argue that the entire Church condoned the actions of the Spanish empire. Bartolomé de las Casas was only one of many that opposed such mistreatment on the basis of natural rights. Much of the opposition grew out of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which was interpreted as a rebuttal to the enslavement of Native Americans. This would eventually form a new school of ecclesiastical thought, from the turn of the 16th century, which aimed to reconcile the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas with the new emerging political order. It was titled the School of Salamanca. They tackled the topics of the Spanish empire and its treatment of peoples, the Reformation, and the rise of humanism. The school represented the eventual end of medieval thinking and the focus on individual liberty in ethics. Natural rights were elaborated upon and were argued to have been given to all humans, including Native Americans. This was contrary to the dominant opinion in Europe at the time, which was that indigenous peoples lacked such rights and were made for subservient positions. Moreover, this was one of the first times in history when a group of intellectuals questions the basis of imperial conquest rather than merely justifying it. One of the leaders of this group was Francisco de Vitoria, who was also the founder of the School of Salamanca. He argued that the claims to land by the Spanish Crown were largely illegitimate and that the peoples of Latin America also possessed property rights. From this, he outlined a rough conception of international law, which was the first of its kind, and his Just War theory. Thereby, he concluded as did others in the intellectual movement, that the enslavement of the indigenous peoples was unjust on the basis that it was provoked and it usurped them of their natural right to free will. Contrary to mainstream thought, Vitoria made the bold claim that wars for glory or forced conversion against “heretics” or “infidels” were inherently unjust since they were inherently aggressive rather than defensive.

The history of Spanish plunder in their occupied territories is one of complete destruction – not just in Latin American, but elsewhere also. Generally speaking, the purpose of colonization was to expropriate mineral-rich reserves from the colonies while maintaining it benevolent in the eyes of Catholic dogma. Largely efficient for Spaniards in power, some questioned it and such criticisms lead to the establishment of natural rights in intellectual circles. International justice came from ills of Spanish colonization, from within the Catholic establishment, and a set a precedent for future human rights movements. Thinkers along the likes of Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria argued against the subjugation of indigenous peoples from a principled position of ethics. Rejecting the Aristotelian argument of “natural slavery,” their writing focused on the soul of each man as being equal. This consequently broke the chains of medieval thinking, but it would take a long while until such criticisms reached the mainstream. Despite the dissenters, Spanish colonization was based largely on Catholic evangelism. Catholicism was the underpinning of all of Spain’s imperial conquests, one of the only empires to exclusively do so, and it provided a rationalization for the torture and violence that they would inflict on the native peoples. The synthesis of the Church, with the Pope’s involvement, and the political system of Spain created a deadly dualism that would eventually lead to one of the greatest tragedies in human history –involving the complete destruction of certain cultures and peoples just for the sake blood profiteering. With the Catholic justification as the mainstream ideology supporting colonization, its critics scrambled to stop the bloodshed. Eventually, their voices would be heard, but only after millions have been victimized by the brutal labor system imposed by the Spanish Crown. And this plunder would roll the clock back on the Latin American experience, and other colonies, hundreds of years. It is a tragic setback that is still felt today, in culture and in economy, and a wound that will perhaps never be fully healed.

616px-William_Blake_-_Socrates,_a_Visionary_Head_-_Google_Art_Project

Socrates, a Visionary Head (1820) by William Blake

In Athenian society during Greek Antiquity, religion played a crucial role in mediating public and state affairs. It served a social function rather than a personal one. Polytheism was embedded as the cultural foundation of Athens, where “priests and officials were regularly voted honors for their sacrifices that they had performed ‘on behalf of the Athenians’ or ‘for the health and safety of the Athenians’” (Parker, 95). Assemblies were opened with religious rituals to demonstrate good faith (Parker, 100). Thus, although individualist in nature, Athens was paradoxically mostly collectivist in its interpretation of religious affairs. To go against this consensus was public suicide – and likewise, any denigration of these practices was met with scorn by Athenians, especially by the more conservative members of the ruling class. For Socrates, this would mean his eventual trial and execution.

Impiety is relative to the culture in question. When discussing the charges against Socrates, it is important to realize the society which produced them. Firstly, the assumption must be made that Athenian law was justified in prosecuting persons for impiety, despite the fact that this type of offense does not exist in the contemporary Western world. From there, having abandoned our modern biases, the real contextual controversy arises – was Socrates impious or not?

Given what is known about Athenian religion, it would be very probable to argue Socrates was in fact guilty. In Plato’s account of the trial, Socrates speaks of a divine voice that prevents him from doing certain actions.

It may seem strange that while I go around and give this advice privately and interfere in private affairs, I do not venture to go to the assembly and there advise the city. You have heard me give the reason… I have a divine or spiritual sign… This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but never encourages me to do anything (Apology, 31c – 31d)

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

In alternate translations, this “divine or spiritual sign” is called daimonion in Greek. According to Socrates, this voice has been present since he was a child. He follows it to a fanatical degree, resembling religiosity, and it “continues [to come] to [him]” (Euthyphro, 3b). To the typical Athenian observer, Socrates’s daimonion comes off as antithetical to religious norms. He had a private channel of talking to the gods (Ferguson, 174), which threatened the power of priests who were seen as the mediators between gods and man. Plato hints towards the rowdiness of the crowd as Socrates truthfully explains his “inner voice,” while at the same time begging the crowd to bear with his defense and believe him (Apology, 31a).

In the earlier part of Apology, Socrates tells the story of Chaerephon and the oracle which proclaimed that there is no man wiser than Socrates (Apology, 21a). Socrates goes on to question different groups of people, each skilled in their craft, to test if their wisdom was greater than his own. “As a result of this investigation… I have acquired much unpopularity,” Socrates goes on to remark (Apology, 23a). In an effort to justify his inquiring, he appeals to the gods.

So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me – and I go around seeking anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not know who he is, I come to the assistance of god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the gods (Apology, 23b).

However, the immediate question that arises is – when did the gods ask that of Socrates? There was no command by the gods for Socrates to do such actions. The oracle merely declared that he was the wisest of men. The story is, therefore, inconsistent. It is likely that Socrates said this to appeal to the audience and to further prove his piety, albeit disingenuously.

Socrates’s assertion that his actions were god-inspired can be interpreted differently when related to his daimonion. He describes his divine signs as never action-inducing, but are rather a means to prevent him from doing wrong. Xenophon’s account of the trial disputes this. Socrates says bluntly, “a clear divine voice indicates to me what I must do” (Xenophon, 12). This is a noteworthy distinction. According to Plato, Socrates’s spiritual visions prevent him from doing certain actions. In Xenophon’s account, these induce him to act. Therefore, Socrates’s appeal to piety is a method to mask this inner voice. Regardless of this voice’s origin, be it religiously rooted or not, such a phenomenon goes against the orthodox Athenian conception of religion. Athenians practiced a public religion, not one of unique personal revelation – if such an interpretation was to take hold, the chief structure of Athenian culture would lose its rigidity. This was the fear of the Athenian ruling class and why Socrates was deemed impious, despite his efforts to mask these “voices” through the gods. In the context of the city’s religion, it certainly went against the consensus.

There are hints of Socrates’s skepticism in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the beginning of the dialogue, he questions the basis of believing in the stories of the Homeric gods (Euthyphro, 6b). However, this by itself is not entirely impious. Dr. Manuela Giordano-Zecharya writes in As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe Not in Gods, “[Athens] was moving away from a focus on ‘belief’ and towards questions of ritual, power relations and symbolic ambiguity…” (Zecharya, 328). Therefore, the fact that Socrates was questioning the Homeric stories themselves was not impious – it was that he responded to his skepticism by failing to engage in religious public life as he truthfully tells the audience in Apology.

Given what is known about Athenian religion, Socrates was indeed impious. His impiety can be broken up in two parts. One, Socrates failed to engage in the public rituals which held Athens together. Religion served a social function, to maintain hierarchy and social cohesion, and his absence from these customs was seen as contrary to orthodox traditions. And second, Socrates’s daimonion angered the ruling religious class in Athens since it was unprecedented. It created a personal channel with which Socrates could speak to the gods. And if such a conception became commonplace, it would leave religion to individual speculation and action rather than to experts. Aside from being offensive to the religious ministers, it threatened the Athenian consensus on religion. Simply put – regardless if death was the proper punishment or not – Socrates was impious.

***

– Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. USA: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

– Cooper, M. John. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub Co, 2nd Edition, 2007. Print.

– Freguson, A.S. The Impiety of Socrates. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul 1913), pp. 157-175

– Giordano-Zecharya, Manuela. As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe in Gods. Numen, Vol. 52, Fasc. 3 (2005), pp. 325-355.

I.   The Rise of the Bourgeois Work Ethic

The Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the first World Fair where Britain showed its industrial might and astute culture.

The Victorian Era was a strange time of mystic sexual morality, distinct fashion, industrialization, and — above all — imperial conquest. It was Britain’s century, their colonialist high-point, and they likewise influenced lands far beyond their water-locked country. The “Victorian morality” was a strange development in the emergence of bourgeois society. It was hypocritical as much as it was limiting; the mantra was to better the human condition, while, at the same time, turning a blind eye to the plight of the child worker and the general laborer (There were exceptions, of course. A spare few were in fact unsettled by the plight of these poor folk, one of them being Karl Marx).

With the rise of industrialization in the British mainland came a downplaying of hedonism. Pleasure was seen as seemingly antithetical to the ideal Victorian, where hard-work was cherished as a means to religious salvation [1]. Max Weber spoke of this in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues that the rise of Protestantism gave headway to new laborious expectations and allowed for further divisions of labor. In the Calvinist view, Martin Luther’s, and others of the Reformation, it was not enough to be devoted to supernatural salvation; one had to also be devoted to earthly labor and his craft. Because of the inability of individuals to influence God’s grace, given the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, they struggled to find signs of their destiny — which was either eternal damnation or salvation. A rigorous work ethic was preached as being a sign of “God’s grace,” and it became the epitome of the Calvinist tradition. Although only Scotland of Great Britain was largely Calvinist, due to the teachings of John Knox, the rest of the industrializing island also exemplified a similar outlook on labor. Religious individualism was crucial in any Protestant tradition that broke from the Catholic Church, even in the Anglican Church of England. In contrast, places such as Ireland (predominately Catholic), according to Weber, lacked this attitude due to the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church and its overreaching doctrine, which limited individualism [2]. Coupled with the fact that “sloth” was considered a deadly sin in Christian doctrine, the development of bourgeois society fall hand-in-hand with the development of this new robust industrial individualism and the facilitation of Protestantism.

II.    Demonizing Lust 

Because of the development of a new work ethic, sexuality became an impediment to such ends. Such relations were relegated to private rooms, away from public sight. The majority of children, even among the poor, were sent to Sunday school where they were inculcated in a belief that one must abstain from sexual perversion. It was seen as an obstacle to God’s grace (let us not forget, “lust” is yet another deadly sin) [3]. Pleasure, as told by religious dogma, was merely a test of faith and should not be responded in kind. In part by this, sexuality become externalized — it became part of the object, rather than the self — and became regarded, seemingly, as a necessary evil.

Poet Hans Christian Andersen helped to popularize the age-old fable of the white stork.

Sexuality become a construct of public attention and scrutiny even in common language. It became impolite to bring up such topics in company and euphemisms emerged to describe them, need it be brought up [4]. Nearly every part of the body had a corresponding euphemism, with even the term “leg” being impolite and being replaced with “limb.’ The entire concept of procreation was made into fables that were nicely-worded to be avoided with children; such as the famous story of the “white stork” being the harbinger of small children that became popularized with the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Storks [5].  Equally absurd, genitalia were seen as too explicit to be shown in any context, even in artistry, during Victorian times. Expurgation, the censorship of the “offensive,” become common. Perhaps the best known example is one of the “fig-leaf,” where Queen Victoria, as the story goes, was repulsed to see the genitalia of Michelangelo’s statue David. A proportional fig leaf was then made to cover the obscenity, so the figure could be tolerated [6]. Even classical literature was found guilty of obscenity — Dr. Thomas Bowdler omitted and rewrote Shakespearean plays to make it more “accessible to children and wives.” Called The Family Shakespeare,  minor expletives were omitted and death was made gentler, among other things. With the gentry holding morality of society by the handles, these such moral impositions pervaded all facets of British life, from the top down. Consequently, these norms were brought to all dominions of British rule and, given its vast empire, its sexually-repressive influence was vast and lasting.

III.   The Patriarchal Family

The standard Victorian family had many children.

Perhaps most striking, in contrast with late developments of the family, is the role of women in society. The structure was overtly patriarchal. In Victorian society, the woman was servile and sexually docile. She was bound to her domestic life, despite having some political and civil autonomy, and was given the unspoken task of functioning as the moral instruction for servants and children. Women were expected to give birth to many children and the standard was set by the Queen Victoria and her husband — i.e. the “Royal Family” — who, in total, had nine children. Standards of femininity were established in the higher rungs of Victorian society and were expressed actively in the arts. The great Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson espoused such repressive virtues in his poem The Princess: 

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion [6].

One of the reasons for this gender polarity and rigidity is the development of the bourgeois middle-class during the Victorian era. The average Victorian male worked, unlike the gentry, and was able to afford at least three servants [7]. The household became a symbol of the male’s moral character and was regarded as a reflection of social class.. Thereby, it did not matter if the working man had to face obscene conditions and do monotonous labor to earn his living; as long as he had a respectable house to come back to, his social class was maintained. The paradox of experiencing a inferiority in the workplace induced a need to establish a superiority in the household, ultimately giving rise to patriarchal sentiments and female submission. This dynamic would establish two separate spheres of control in Victorian society — the private and the public, the workplace and the home, and the domestic and the business.

IV.   Sexuality as an Object

The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction by Michel Foucault

In 1976, philosopher Michael Foucault published one of the first volumes to a three-volume series that would come to be known as one of his seminal works. His book, The History of Sexuality, analyzed the role of human sexuality in the Western world and its development. It aimed at questioning the presupposed “repression hypothesis” — that the current repressive elements of sexuality are a symptom of the Victorian era, which is when rigid restrictive norms were put in place. Although Foucault does not outright reject repressive Victorian morality as a major factor in the rise of modern Western sexuality, he turns the mainstream thesis on its head in arguing that sexuality was more discussed than ever before during the Victorian era.

The long rule of Queen Victoria has been characterized by sexual repression, censorship of the obscene, and domestication of the female; however, is there more to Victorian culture than merely superficial restrictions on discourse? Although there was relative silence on the topic between child and parent, teacher and pupil, or even master and house servant — was there not also, perhaps, a growing fascination with sexuality as a human condition? In 1841, the British state, for the first time, became instituting a full census of their population. This expansionary measure would include statistics on marriage, birth rates, and death rates [8]. The family was promoted as the building block of British life and marriage was superimposed as a guiding force in establishing such social harmony. Prostitution became an epidemic  as poor female laborers struggled to find an income and were economically coerced to sell their bodies to usually wealthy upper-class gentry [9].  Priests became more interested in “confessions on the flesh” during the Christian practice of Penance, where individuals would confess to the priest their supposed “impurities.” Foucault writes:

But while language may have been refined, the scope of the confession — the confession of the flesh — continually increased. This was partly because the Counter Reformation busied itself with stepping up the rhythm of the yearly confession in the Catholic countries, and because it tried to impose meticulous rules of self-examination; but above all, because it attributed more and more importance in penance — and perhaps at the expense of other since — to all insinuations of flesh: thoughts, desire, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and soul; henceforth, all this had to enter, in detail, into the process of confession and guidance [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

He goes on to argue how the establishment of Penance in Protestant (and Catholic) nations began deviating from actual confession of sins and became obsessed with the smallest of pleasures.

According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but all its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

Likewise, the Victorian era and the few decades prior to its development set a standard: Now, not only did one need to confess to acts that were against the law, they also had to tell all their pleasures and desires in church discourse, under the watchful eyes of the priest or minister. This set a new tone to sexuality in the Western world previously unheard of — it gave rise to innumerable euphemisms to describe acts or body parts previously taken as merely “being,” in an effort to describe this new sexual fascination. Sexuality was now externalized, treated as undesirable pleasure, and was to be repressed in public. And henceforth, the repression in Western culture took on a two-faced form; on the one hand, sexuality was to be beaten down from the public eye, but, on the other hand, was to be properly dissected under the guise of an authority that demands it.

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1886).

In academia, sexuality began to be added to the scientific lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary began to add specific terms to their newly-printed releases;  “sexual intercourse” (1799), “sexual function” (1803), “sexual organs” (1828), “sexual desire” (1836), “sexual instinct” (1861), “sexual impulse” (1863), “sexual act” (1888), and “sexual immorality” (1911). Moreover, sexual behavior became robustly studied as a field worthy of attention [10]. Sexuality was seen, in scientific circles, as a proper way to assess one’s personality and behavior. Who you slept with became, peculiarly, also an identity in the Western mindset. This became especially prevalent in psychiatry, before the Freudian revolution of thought, where sexual deviancy was seen as particularly problematic. And this phenomenon was present far beyond the bounds of Victorian England, since talks on sexuality were rising in the confession booths all across Christian Europe. Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing published his work Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 in which he outlined four sexual categories of, what he considered to be, symptoms of neurosis. They were titled: paradoxia (sexual desire at the wrong time), anesthesia (not enough sexual desire), hyperesthesia (too much sexual desire), and paraesthesia (sexual deviancy, i.e. queer and fetishism). He goes on to discuss the sexual “impassivity” of the female compared to the male, describing the male as having a “stronger sexual appetite” — only reaffirming the hypocritical sexual expectations of the male and female which is pervasive in Western culture to this very day.

V. Modern Victorian Sexuality 

The ramifications of such repression, and private sexual objectification, has reared its ugly face even in contemporary society. The hysteria over discussion on sexuality is still pervasive and shied away in any public discourse. Archaic conceptions of sexual “immorality” are still being tossed around in the public arena and are commonly told to children. Rigid notions of femininity and masculinity are institutionally enforced and kept in check by popular disapproval once one steps outside the preconceived bounds. Perhaps, what is seen more vividly, is the persistent caricature that one’s sexuality is an indicator of one’s personality. The marginalization of sexuality continues to plague the Western mindset, always thrown to the back-burner of our minds, too frightening to be discussed. Such are the chains that have to be properly broken if we wish to actually articulate real “sexual liberation’ or any humanization of what, should be considered, natural human urges. To put it most bluntly, perhaps it is time to bring, first and foremost, such topics of sexuality to light. And all the while, let us give those that decry its discussion the proper response — ignore and pressure them to change their repressive ideas of sexuality, which have been shamefully penning individuals in a sexually-normative box ever since its adoption as a Western moral imperative. It is about time the discussion has been opened, rather than have sexuality continue to be an object of scrutiny.

***

The Victorians: Gender and Sexuality 

The beliefs of Western liberal society are at a fundamental crossroads. In one direction, lies secular humanism — at the other, lies ancient Judeo-Christian heritage and its supposed claim of relevance. Most individuals walk a very fine line between the two; holding onto the cultural implications of religion, while also not minding its declining involvement in government. Belief acts as a mediator which holds this delicate balance together.

Belief, in and of itself, is a obligatory view. It is a tenet you live your life by, and it has profound implications on your social psychology and the general organization of a civilization. It would be foolish to discredit the influence of religiosity in the West, in spirit and in practice. However, belief can function as a sort of ideological trapSimply put, acting on a belief is not equivalent to actually believing it. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides us with a story to illustrate this point, in which he tells us the tale of physicist Niels Bohr.

“A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!” [1] 

In an excellent passage, Zizek essentially explains the function of belief in modern society. Although individuals may personally not believe an ideology, they act as if they do because they take it others believe. In fear of reprisals, they then live as if the belief is theirs. But there is a twist: what if the other individuals do not believe it either? With this, an entire belief system is build upon the existence of non-belief among individuals. I take religion to be in this same stride, functioning as a belief in a sea of disillusioned disciples.

Such a statement is hardly revealing to the standard American Christian household. The father takes his son to Church, to educate his child on Christian values. The father, himself, was pressured to do so by his own parents. They would be disappointed if he raised his children without such a pretense. The father, himself, does not believe, but acts as if he believes to give a proper impression on his parents. The child lacks the belief also, but to not disappoint his father, he refuses to tell him. Instead, he acts as if he believes. Here, we have a situation of two non-believers, paradoxically imposing a belief on one another. Would it not be another twist of irony to say the father’s parents do not believe, just as the father and the son do not? This belief is likewise solidified, passed through familial relationships, and built upon a structure of non-belief — giving those trapped within this dilemma the illusion of a belief that is absent from the individual’s own choosing, being imposed on them by the technicalities of human relationships.

This is the death of God. The death of God is not external invasion unto the Christian church hierarchy. It is not an attack from outside the prayer circles — it is within them. It is when God as an entity becomes irrelevant to the actual substance of belief, being replaced by a complex foundation of non-belief. In Europe, trends of non-belief are stronger than in the United States. According to surveys by the Financial Times/Harris Poll, only 27% of individuals living in France truthfully believe in a Christian God or Supreme deity. This is contrasted with 73% of those in the United States [2]. Bearing in mind the different histories of European and American ancestry, I take it that such a large disparity between religiosity is largely due to the culture of the United States. Religious disbelief is looked down upon, even persecuted, in American media and society — denigrated in excessively negative terms. The question is, how many of the religious belief structures in the United States are founded on fear of consequences? Potentially, very many, I would say.

However, the implications extend further than Zizek’s story on ideology. Equally important are those that believe (for cultural reasons generally), but live their lives as if they do not. Done through ritualistic ends, their religious ideology becomes a routine rather than a philosophy of action. For many Western Christians, this is the reality. They find themselves lofting to church on some Sundays, and then vehemently arguing over whether we should say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays, and fighting to preserve prayer before football games [3]. The extent of Christian ideology in American culture has largely become a gimmick of cultural preservation more than anything else, serving as the last backlash of a decaying social phenomenon.

Christian ideology makes many universal claims. It promotes objective truth and meaning, a belief system that is dogmatic and said to be true by its disciples. They have this bastion of knowledge, the key to God’s judgement and mercy, that is said to be the absolute truth. And yet they live their lives as if this is hidden, only resurrecting (excuse the pun) it when socially beneficial. If an individual held such truth of the universe, would they not devote their entire lives if they believed so strongly it was true, rather than bickering over trivialities on cable television? The charade of these religious charlatans defending “Judeo-Christian America” is a testament to the hypocrisy of the ideology in the hearts of those that follow it. True belief would not frequent itself in discussions on media sensationalism, in an attempt to keep what always has been in American society; it would prepare, and act, in the interests of God and rely on his judgements. Perhaps if they took God’s objective truth to its fullest conclusion, they would sit and pray rather than rely on themselves. If they are so convinced of their beliefs, they would be equally be convinced God would give them a hand.

The death of God does not involve the elimination of religion, nor does it involve the tearing down of religious institutions. It involves the hollowing out of religion by its believers. It makes God into a centerpiece of disbelief, propped by complex interlocked relationships and cultural enforcement. A belief propped by non-belief, it finds itself as the comfort to those that fear the destruction of their religious and cultural identity. It finds itself as the poster-child of reactionary backlash, the broken center of the exaggerated dichotomy of secularism and religiosity, and the illusionary opponent of civil institutions by religious disciples that lack the belief themselves. During the height of Catholic ascendancy, the belief was not so fractured. Prayer was seen as a powerful tool; the Devil was a real distinguishable threat. We have long abandoned such views, despite what is heard in Evangelical circles (I can assure you there would be little hesitation for them to take human action over prayer if their own lives were in peril). Let’s be frank, God is dead –The emperor has no clothes on, we are looking straight at him, but we are too naive to admit it.

[An old note that I feel deserved to be posted] 

Oftentimes I see atheism and agnostism get confused in meaning and intent, causing individuals to feel overly cautious when using these words to identify themselves. It is important that the semantics are fully clarified, rather than give the illusion that the atheist label is being improperly used. Being precise in definition is essential in establishing a cohesive rebuttal to the religious right, which has dangerously been very active.

Atheism by definition is the lack, or absence of belief in god(s).
Agnosticism is the position that we simply do not know.

Here lies the major difference; while skepticism shows one has a healthy respect for reason, one should not obscure the potentiality of something being true by giving the two possibilities unjustifiable equal weight. Based on empirical evidence and the scientific burden of proof doctrine, you make the assumption something does not exist because there is little rational reason to believe otherwise since there no evidence supporting the opposing view. Falling into the fallacy of giving a proposition with no evidence the same weight and value as a proposition with evidence is a distortion of facts.

If you bring this to its logical conclusion regarding atheism you reach the same outcome; you should not give the existence of God the same weight as its nonexistence, because there is not equal measure, or evidence, on both sides. The standard position of a skeptic is that something doesn’t exist until proven otherwise, especially in the realm of scientific inquiry. Oftentimes, this is ignored to perpetuate and excuse the necessary validation of our beliefs.

You would be essentially an “atheist,” in the more vague general term, toward many positions you deem to be factually lacking because you make an assumption and live you life based on that fact that it isn’t true. It would be silly to keep oneself purely “agnostic” in that position, because you would need equal reasoning for that object existing and it not existing to be a true agnostic; you would need equal weight of reason on both sides. You don’t know if that object exists but you assume, or believe, it does not making you an agnostic-atheist.

Thomas Henry Huxley first coined the term agnostic as “not a creed, but a method,” although it has now become something of a weasel word in the modern context. The definition of one’s own agnosticism is vital to its usage and clarity, because the term on its own is essentially meaningless. An agonistic-atheist would be the most complete phrasing when clarifying one’s lack of belief in a deity. It presents that the individual does not believe, but has not ruled out that deity might exist, regardless of how unlikely. Disowning this possibility is as a poor suspension of reason equal to being certain there is a deity (i.e. theism).

Simply said, agnosticism answers the question of “is there a _____” where ‘I don’t know’ is a completely valid answer, since it addresses a question of certainty. Atheism fundamentally answers a different question of “do you believe in ____” in which the answer is yes or no, simply. There is little room for uncertainty; if you live your life as if it exists, you believe. If you don’t, then the contrary applies.

[In response to an individual who used the “religious” founding of the United States to justify opposing gay marriage]

Well I would expect you to at least give me one example as to why [the right to marry established in Supreme Court cases overturning interracial marriage laws] doesn’t apply to gay marriage, or to recall your statement that marriage is a “privilege,” but I suppose that would be too much to ask. And don’t justify your religious agenda by using the line “this nation was founded on theistic religious belief.” This is the most overused, and misrepresented argument uttered by conservatives in defense of injecting religion and legislating morality in public policy. No, this nation was not founded on “theistic religious belief” and let me elaborate:

Firstly, many of our Founding Fathers were deists or anti-clerical, but most importantly they were children of the Enlightenment, believing in empiricism and the worth of scientific endeavors to support a seemingly naturalistic world view. This isn’t to say they were all deists, some were religious, one being John Jay who believed that Christians are best fit to serve this country, but does not represent a public policy position. For that, you have to look at the ideas that were behind the founding documents.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was vehemently opposed to religion. In his letters to Adams, he talks of the religious superstitions of Christianity as “one day being amongst the likes of Jupiter and other false gods.” He authored the Jefferson Bible, where he rewrote the New Testament taking out the supernatural, believing strongly in the ethical teachings of Jesus but denying his divinity. Jefferson was the first to note and advocate the “wall between church and state” of the Founding Fathers, initially used by the founder of Rhode Island, Baptist Roger Williams. He demonstrated his support of this separation in public policy as well apart from his private letters, writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which would become the basis for the First Amendment and the Free Exercise Clause in the Constitution.

James Madison, the author of the Constitution, has expressed in countless letters his original secular intent of the government, calling for the “perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters” in a letter he wrote to Edward Livingston in 1822. He even expressed opposition to Congressional chaplains and days of prayer. Our first president, George Washington, was arguably a deist, or at least a nonreligious man, although not expressing it in public, but rather his personal letters. He refused to take Holy Communion on Sundays. Benjamin Franklin was a deist, denouncing religion in many of his writings:”the way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.” John Adams expressed doubts, especially in his writings to Jefferson. And Thomas Paine was perhaps the most outspoken of them all, completely denouncing religion and despising it in his book “The Age of Reason” and his other writings.

Also you should note, the Constitution makes no mention of “Jesus Christ, divinity, Bible, Creator, Divine, or God.” And the Declaration of Independence, although mentioning the rights “endowed by our Creator,” this does not make it explicitly Christian, it was simply the reiteration of a Lockean concept that Jefferson elaborated on.

The Treaty of Tripoli, 1797

And lastly, one of the most important pieces of evidence for the secular intent of the United States is the Treaty of Tripoli signed in 1797. “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” is the direct quote from it, and was passed unanimously in the Senate, being read out loud on the Senate floor and copies being passed out for each Senator to read. There were no objections, because the secular intentions were clear, no matter how religious these Senators were they agreed on this basic concept of separation because they feared religion in politics would be destructive in the United States, as it had been in Great Britain. It was even published in the Pennsylvania Gazette with no public backlash. Although this treaty is now defunct, it makes the position of the Founding Fathers quite clear; that we were to be seen as a secular nation throughout the world, that we do not profess any particular faith, and that we are a nation which allows all different creeds, none of which would ever hold an advantage or special privilege in the rule of law.

I hope that clears everything up for you, and I hope you also realize that even if all of this nation was almost entirely Christian, that would not make the United States a Christian nation by lawful statute. We are, at least our original intent was, to be a secular republic that does not succumb to mob rule of the majority; where the rights of the peoples are protected, and this includes their right of religion or belief not to be infringed by the legislating power of another. It was a pure product of the intellectual followers of the Enlightenment, and its importance cannot be understated.

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