Modernity, Christianity and Islam

I linked to this earlier, but amateur history buffs will find Cato Unbound’s discussion on the origins of modernity pretty fascinating. The central point of contention is the so-called “first cause” of modernity – did the West develop because of spontaneous social change, secularism, the rise of “engineering culture,” or competition between European states? I’m inclined to agree with Stephen Davies insofar as competition among states probably laid the groundwork for the subsequent cultural, political and social changes we associate with modernity, but all four contributors raise some interesting objections.

One point of agreement among the contributors is the radical discontinuity between pre-modern Western civilization (read: Christendom) and modern culture. All four authors seem to agree that the connection between Christendom’s essential features and Western modernity is pretty tenuous, which raises a few interesting questions about other religions’ encounters with modernity.

Some of the best evidence for the modern departure from Christendom are what early European liberals had to say about religion. I’m immediately reminded of Leon Gambetta’s famous utterance, ,”Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi!” His views on Christianity were shared by any number of his classically liberal contemporaries. From Galileo to Darwin to the Scopes Monkey Trial, innumerable scientists of the early modern era also held skeptical views about the compatibility of science, reason and faith.

Christianity and modernity survived this encounter. The pope now speaks of the fundamental relationship between God and reason. The recent Manhattan Declaration emphasizes the connection between liberal accomplishments like ending slavery and challenging the divine right of kings and Christianity. The theological and historical truth of these claims are almost irrelevant – the larger point is that Christians have self-consciously accepted the legitimacy (and, indeed, desirability) of liberalism and modernity.

The disconnect between how the contemporary Church views its relationship with liberalism, modernity and science and how early liberals viewed the church is worth remembering in the context of the current debate over Islam. You frequently hear that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with pluralism, liberalism, and the penumbra of Western political and cultural practices. If the Christian experience teachers us anything, however, it’s that the fluidity of historical interpretation and theology can open up space for liberalizing movements to take hold within a major Abrahamic faith. Over the next few decades, it will not surprise me if major Muslim leaders begin emphasizing how Islam preserved the works of great philosophers and fostered scientific learning throughout the Middle Ages as evidence of their faith’s integral relationship with science and modernity. In fact, it’s already pretty common to hear similar talking points from moderate Islamic leaders in the United States and Europe. This narrative may not be completely accurate, but that’s almost beside the point. If the number of liberal Muslims reaches a critical mass, they’ll find ways to justify their political and cultural outlook within a rich theological tradition, just as liberal Christians have done in the West.

UPDATE: See also Johnathan Rowe at Positive Liberty.

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69 thoughts on “Modernity, Christianity and Islam

  1. Will, nice post. What would your view of non-abrahamic faiths and modernity be? Are you more Tocqueville, who thought that Hindus could never be made fit for modern republican society, or John Adams who thought that Hindus were just as good as people of any other faith to be citizens in a republic?

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    • To be honest, Murali, I know very little about non-Abrahamic faiths. But I suspect that any religion with a reasonably varied intellectual tradition can find justifications for embracing liberalism and modernity.

      As for Hinduism, I could see how the caste system would seem incompatible with democracy. But recent history suggests that the Indians have made it work.

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    • One might be tempted to point out that post-Christianity had a death toll with 9-digits despite itself.

      One reckons that the whole “you’re doing it wrong!” thing is unlikely to result with flowers strewn at our feet.

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      • Yes but Christianity didn’t use automatic weapons, explosives or planes flown into buildings.

        I could care less if the Taliban or other Muslims want to want to live in a medieval type theocracy, however I do take umbridge when they attack us.

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            • i don’t understand how it is desperate to point out that pious Christian nations have fought horrendous bloody wars, often with other pious Christian nations. sometimes pious Christian nations have used their faith as a key to subjugating other non-Christian peoples.

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              • Since you insist on being dense, I guess I’ll humor you. WW1 was fought over secular causes. Both sides may have claimed that God was on their side but neither went to war to convert the other by force or restore true Christianity.

                If Muslims need to mend their theological differences, great. It is just that it is much easier to kill large numbers of people with modern weapons while they are doing it.

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                • just because there is a secular cause for a war does not mean in any mean that relgion didn’t play a part if leading to that war. if a side feels God is on their side they might feel bolder about pushing secular aims.

                  in the most direct sense, the brits, french and germans ( among many others) who relentlessly mowed each other down with machine guns in all those muddy fields in WW1 were praying to the same God and sure that he was with them.

                  While AQ certainly is religiously inspired why do you assume they do not have any secular goals. The whole new Caliphate thing they seem to want sounds sort of like a new empire. there is simply no strict line between secular and religious motivations. Hamas and Hezbollah certainly have secular aims along with their religious inspirations. Religion and the secular intertwine.

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                  • In the context of this post, let’s just say that even if religion can at some point find an uneasy truth with modernity, it’s not necessary or helpful to modernity. It’s not exactly as if Christianity or any other major faith is helping the process. And yes, Islam is even further behind with honor killings and all.

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                  • greginak misses the point, either on purpose (because he’s following the liberal line slavishly, as is his wont) or not (because he’s around seventeen years old): Christians do not follow a doctrine like jihad, which mandates eternal war with unbelievers with the sole purpose of converting unbelievers to their so-called faith. Only Muslims do that.

                    Aside from that small difference, the two so-called faiths are alike. For example, football teams, both the home and away teams, will pray to their so-called god for victory over the other, which is praying to the same god. There’s simply no comparison to Islamic radicalism here, or anywhere in the so-called Christian world.

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                    • RN- classy as always.

                      yes jihad is an Islamic concept. so does that negate the blood that has been spilled in the name of Christianity? I don’t see how that is. Christian faith was intimatly tied to the horrors visited upon native peoples by imperialist Christians. Anti-semitism was strong far before the Nazi’s. and of course it would be useless to point out that Jihad has more then one defintion or way of practicing it.

                      Any religion can be a force of kindness and love or hatred and violence.

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                  • The Inquisition is not relevant. It happened in the Middle Ages. Since then, we’ve seen, for example, the Treaty of Westphalia, which put an end to religous wars in Europe. That was in 1637 (or thereabouts).

                    But if you want to compare medieval Christianity with today’s Islam, fine with me. That will be more accurate. And that’s the whole problem with today’s Islam: it hasn’t evolved; it has regressed, if one believes all the propaganda about all their amazing advances in science and philosophy during the Middle Ages. They had “advanced” to where Europe was in the late Renaissance way before Europe’s late Renaissance. But now they’re back to where Europe was in the eleventh century.

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        • “Yes but Christianity didn’t use automatic weapons, explosives or planes flown into buildings.”

          I specifically said *POST*-Christianity. And, indeed, automatic weapons and explosives were used. While there were fewer planes flown into buildings (LOOK OUT PRESIDENT CLINTON!!!), there were, in fact, atomic bombs used.

          I don’t know that post-Islamic culture will be all beer and skittles.

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  2. “Over the next few decades, it will not surprise me if major Muslim leaders begin emphasizing how Islam preserved the works of great philosophers and fostered scientific learning throughout the Middle Ages as evidence of their faith’s integral relationship with science and modernity. In fact, it’s already pretty common to hear similar talking points from moderate Islamic leaders in the United States and Europe.”

    One would think that such would have shown up in the immediate aftermath of the whole Rushdie incident.

    If there were a better time in the last 20 years, I can’t think of what it would be.

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  3. If the Christian experience teaches us anything, however, it’s that the fluidity of historical interpretation and theology can open up space for liberalizing movements to take hold within a major Abrahamic faith.

    What on Earth does the above even mean?

    Over the next few decades, it will not surprise me if major Muslim leaders begin emphasizing how Islam preserved the works of great philosophers and fostered scientific learning throughout the Middle Ages as evidence of their faith’s integral relationship with science and modernity.

    1.-Whether this new, happy future happens or not depends on whether we win or lose the war against jihadist Islam.
    2.-Islamic scholars may have “fostered scientific learning throughout the Middle Ages,” but it was not with anything like the scientific spirit as we understand it.

    In fact, it’s already pretty common to hear similar talking points from moderate Islamic leaders in the United States and Europe.

    1.-What’s a “moderate Islamic leader” and how would he (using the masculine pronoun is not a simple convention here) differ from his opposite (a radical/fundamentalist/neo fundamentalist [Whatever that means]?)
    2.-What “talking points” do you mean? The “integral relationship” between Islam and science, etc. etc.? Don’t be silly!

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      • “Can be” is too vague to be of any use at all.

        In spite of everything, you may want to read Bassam Tibbi. He’s no “Islamic leader” (moderate or not)–he’s an academic– but his defense of Islamic liberalization is worth reading if only to induce the proper pessimistic frame of mind in considering the topic. His liberalism makes the distance between him and mainstream Islam looks like the chasm it is.

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  4. Like for Pagden, Davies’ article seems weird to me. He seems to me to be starting looking for a magic moment that wasn’t there. Human progress, though miraculous if compared to its start, was actually incremental. The Web and blogs weren’t suddenly revealed wisdom during our lifetimes, but were worked on and used exponentially more and more over years. Nor is the advent of modernity something to care about, because “modern” is an arbitrary label given by historians. And, I bet very few classical liberal scholars believe in European exceptionalism, no matter how much he wants the straw man.

    Goldstone’s is much better, but gets wrong the specialness of modernity, but in a different way. Classical Greeks were 2/3 of the way to the scientific method, and did remarkable work that was stopped by the Roman conquest, and especially Caesar’s hackery of the Roman Constitution to absolute monarchy. And, Athenian citizenship was more open than American citizenship at our start, allowing the poor to vote.

    In fact, Muslims were generally ahead of Christians for their first few centuries – Constantinople was taken by Ottomans with cannon Rome didn’t have and refused to treat a Christian engineer well enough to get. Most Muslim societies were far more religiously tolerant for centuries than Western Europe, where being even the wrong kind of Christian would get you killed. Mohammed’s early successors as rulers were chosen by vote. The Ottoman Empire had checks and balances and was primarily secular in culture. Of course, now the shoe’s on the other foot to many states in the same region, though not so much to the many in democracies.

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    • That is absolutely, 100% correct. In fact, I think a more interesting question is: why did Islamic countries STOP being modern?

      It’s also worth mentioning that it was contact with Muslims vis a vis the Crusades that introduced Europeans to modern ideas, particularly the scientific method, as well as writings by the Greeks and Romans that hadn’t been preserved by the Church for one reason or another.

      And let’s not forget the influence of China, especially under Mongol rule, which spurred a number of both political and scientific developments that ended up influencing modern Europe.

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    • True, the Greeks were on their way but were still an oligarchy. A poor man in Athens could vote as long as: 1. He was Athenian. 2. He could afford his weapons. 3. He was male. 4. He was not a slave. Beyond that it is my opinion religion is used to maintain any secular power structure and that includes the Romans who made worship of the state mandatory, Constantine and all European leaders up to the Tudors (Henry wasn’t modern so much as seeking a way to survive) and beyond who found the Christian church a solid ally and those Eastern governments which found Islam a handy system to keep most citizens (the non-elite) illiterate or conversant only in religious writings. Modernity only seems to come from from the ability to get out of the prevailing cultural milieu.

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  5. Perhaps this interesting question deserves a wider (if not deeper) analysis.
    Since the rise of the modern ideological state in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in the slaughter of 150 million or so! This human abattoir, and the insuing philosophical, religious, political, and cultural disorder, was the result of an alienation caused by an immanentism-the destruction of the transcendent pole of existence-that continues to exist and dominate world politics (etc.)…simply put the Christian God, the Logos, has been jettisoned, and thus the loss of the eschatological hope in immortality and the ground of man’s existence. And, as Christ is the truth of existence (the ground of existence), we continue to yearn, hopelessly, for a life beyond.
    As Dylan said,…and those not to busy living,”… are to busy dying.”

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  6. You know, if you have more people and more modern weapons, more will be killed than in past wars when they are large scale events. It just wasn’t possible to transport so many people to a war in the 1700s as in the 1900s. No instant communications either.

    Ever read an Arabic newspaper? There are plenty of English translations. Strangely enough, it is full of politics.

    Steve

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        • I don’t know that it is. Surely there was a dynamic at work under, say, Lenin and Stalin that allowed for millions to be killed using technology that, really, wasn’t *THAT* many light-years ahead of the people they were starving.

          Or was there?

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          • A dynamic that wasn’t at work at other points in history? Maybe. I suppose one could argue that believing you can create a utopia on earth leads to more killing than assuming one exists in the afterlife that only people who do certain things (which may include massacring nonbelievers in a crusade). I generally meant that in terms of warfare, though. Even 19th century weapons would have upped the death toll in the 15th by quite a lot.

            Though I guess the question underlying this is, can Muslim societies progress on a vector (to use your language) toward freedom in your view? I would think so given your comments on Iran. You seem to be taking the position that classical liberalism caused Stalinism, which is weird coming from an atheist libertarian.

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            • “You seem to be taking the position that classical liberalism caused Stalinism, which is weird coming from an atheist libertarian.”

              Not exactly. My position is that one of the many manifestations of post-classical liberalism was Stalinism (also Hitlerism, also Maoism, and there are a lot of alsos).

              Classical Liberalism? I’m a fan. Post-classical liberalism? Not so much.

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                • I think it’s more the attitude that there ain’t nothin’ special about the clerics. We all have a relationship with Providence. We don’t need to go through a priest or pope or imam. Those what tell you that they are gatekeepers are lying. Perhaps to themselves, perhaps to you… but they ain’t telling the truth.

                  Clerics, of course, frame this as “clericist.”

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                  • I would have thought it was the place of the church in society, education, private land holdings and all. Looking back those were the things that were rid of first. It doesn’t seem much to do at all with the after life and everything to do with get out of my life in this world now. I suppose it will depend on who we consider the classical liberals to be.

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              • The point about the Middle East stands though: how do you see them getting from royalism and theocracy to a society that shares your values, and indeed why would you want to, if you thought that would be necessarily accompanied by some kind of even greater non-theistic evil?

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                • There are many dynamics going on here.

                  Here’s one:
                  Whether I think that the Middle East would benefit from an embrace of the Enlightenment Culture that we saw in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s and which philosophy led to such things as emancipation, universal suffrage, and alcohol prohibition?

                  Well, I suppose I would.

                  The other dynamic is this: Let’s say that Islam does “evolve” as much as Protestantism in the United States has over the last 200 years or so. Is it likely to evolve similarly in the “just as different over the years” sense of the term or similarly in the “ended up in a similar place” sense?

                  Being a pessimist, I suspect the former rather than the latter.

                  I don’t see an Imam Spong showing up or a Muslim Max Lucado writing childrens’ books about how Allah makes grey dots and gold stars obsolete. Hey, maybe they will. Sure.

                  But if one were to show up, one thinks that one would have shown up in the aftermath of that whole Rushdie thing. That would have been the *PERFECT* time for it.

                  What was at stake? It was a book. Nobody blew up, no buildings were crashing to the ground, there was no billion-dollar sum of damage being done or whathaveyou. It was a book. Imam Spong could have jumped up and said that we need a new re-interpretation of Allah and His Prophet in these days, Mohammed (PBUH) is a parable in his own right, perhaps the intercession of Al-Lat *IS* to be desired, Allah is Love, those fundies have an unsophisticated interpretation of the Koran, so on and so forth. It was about a *BOOK*. JUST A BOOK.

                  Nope.

                  I would like to see Islam take a road down an Enlightenment Path.

                  I suspect that their evolution is likely to be similar only insofar as it is as different where it is now from where it was then… and the question becomes “will that be likely to be better or worse than now?”

                  I’m a pessimist. It’ll probably be worse.

                  Moreover, anything we do to nudge will have unintended consequences. More often than not, these will be *BAD* unintended consequences (see, for example, Iraq).

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  7. What do you think of when you look at the cross and the crucifix? Do they hold sacred and religious value for you?

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  8. “If the Christian experience teachers us anything, however, it’s that the fluidity of historical interpretation and theology can open up space for liberalizing movements to take hold within a major Abrahamic faith.”

    Maybe, but at bottom I don’t think Islam in an Abrahamic faith in the sense you’re using it. What it really is the religious expression of the tribal nature of reality in the part of the world where it originated and reigns.

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  9. “The theological and historical truth of these claims are almost irrelevant – the larger point is that Christians have self-consciously accepted the legitimacy (and, indeed, desirability) of liberalism and modernity.”

    What are you talking about? Have you not been to an evangelical church in America?

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