Some reflections upon reading Tom Holland’s Dominion
Recently, one of my Muslim acquaintances went on a series of crusades regarding the state of women in her country. What surprised me about these social media rants was how she managed to read 21st century progressive ideals back into the practices of her premodern religion. It never occurred to her that the social context of the customs of her religion were not isomorphic to the values present in the social context of a western liberal democracy. That there was a ‘True Islam’ being corrupted by all those patriarchal mullahs seemed so obvious as to require no justification, and received no pushback. Such anachronistic views, however, are common amongst adherents of all religions today. Why is that so?
Often, when people hear the word religion, their minds conjure up ideas of confessional identity and beliefs (Especially that on the existence of ‘A’ supernatural being). Such discourse often leaves behind values, assumptions and attitudes. What remains is a discourse stricken by a poverty of insight, unable to excavate the pervasive influence of religion today. That many of the pervasive ideas originating from religion float around in non-theistic coats today should not fool us into thinking that they do not possess any links to religion. Such confusions can be cleared if one were to just adopt a genealogical approach.
With this privileged perspective, we will not have to suffer the myopic perspective that plagues Senator Rubio
Or be besotted with concerns of what are the ‘core beliefs’ of Christianity, as is the case with the commentator below, who does not realize that, with time, what may once have been a fringe belief can take the form of a ‘core’ belief later.
janatā janārdan hai!
One hears such slogans in political rallies. Quite surprisingly, this slogan captures the historical essence of democracy very well, the idea that there exists an Inner Light within all of us, and therefore the outcomes of an election are the expression of a divine will.
It was with this strength of the Inner Light that Benjamin and Sarah Lay deplored slave owners of Barbados and later Philadelphia, condemning fellow Christians who justified their own acts as benevolence toward the wretched pagans. In a famous incident, at an annual Quaker meeting in 1738, Ben Lay stabbed a juice-filled hollow bible, thus splattering red liquid onto an astounded audience. “Thus shall God shed the blood of those who have enslaved their fellow creatures” he yelled, with the conviction of a man possessed by the Inner Light.
It was with this strength of the Inner Light that the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, dug up land on St George’s Hill, as a protest against the monarchy, which they saw as an usurpation of God’s power.
The land of St George’s Hill may have possessed a special spiritual quality, for John Lennon conjured up ‘Imagine’ in precisely the same location, but three centuries later.
Winstanley would certainly have approved of the part of lyrics that called for the brotherhood of man, for no possessions, for no countries. Don’t be fooled by the dreams of no heaven, no hell or no religion, though. Such was the self-cannibalizing nature of various seeds of Protestant thought, that modern day atheism owes its dues to. Spinoza and Voltaire, key figures of the enlightenment period as they were, embodied this slippery slope with their ideas. Not fully doing away with a belief in a higher deity, they both however launched passionate attacks on scriptures, on traditions, on authorities, on lay religiosity. Yet, they both advocated for a universal brotherhood of man, in a specifically Pauline manner.
‘The last shall be the first’.
So said Jesus, in Matthew 19:30, in the same context where he also launched the famous rant against the rich: ‘it s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God’. It was not for no reason that the Diggers called Jesus the first Leveller.
So too, said Fanon, the famous decolonization thinker, when asked for a succinct definition of decolonization. Just as Christianity gave the confidence for colonizers to subjugate ‘pagans’, so too did Christianity provide the enslaved with a loud voice. Would it really surprise you, if you were to consider that MLK jr., Gandhi and Mandela were influenced by a particular brand of Christianity, in their strive for decolonization and emancipation? Their common source is Transcendentalism, led by the likes of Thoreau, which was, you may have guessed it by now, was another Protestant offshoot. That victory lay in weakness, that defeat lay in strength, was so obviously Christian that it would have Nietzsche spinning in delirium today.
Jesus’ polemic against the rich did not fall upon empty ears. The Pelagians in Late Antiquity certainly took notice, with their calls for all class and wealth divisions to be erased. So too did the Anabaptists heed, proclaiming common ownership of property in their Siege of Münster. So too did the Diggers, who railed against private property as a sin in the eyes of God. So too did the sans-culottes, in their vitriol towards the aristocracy during the French Revolution.
In the political sphere today, one can attribute quite a few crises to this lack of appreciation for Christian undercurrents. Take, for example, the conflict between Charlie Hebdo and Muslims. Historically, Charlie Hebdo is but following a specific line of French anticlericalism, which Catholics have got used to defending against, over the past few centuries. With the emergence of Islam in France, many expected Muslims to behave similarly as Catholics toward the playful blasphemy of Charlie Hebdo. Recent events tell us that such expectations were misguided. Why was this miscalculation made? The mistake was that the French, like many others, constructed this ostensibly neutral socio-legal category of religion, with characteristics like religion being a private affair, the ability to separate its church from the state even if that religion may not have an equivalent of a church, that manmade laws are more important that God-made laws to its followers, and so forth. Such a category however was not equidistant to all religions, and therefore not neutral. They had forgotten that secularism itself grew under a peculiarly Christian context, and thus failed to recognize that transposing secular values into non-Christian communities might produce unintended consequences. Similar analyses may be drawn for the liberal immigration policies of Merkel in Germany.
Democracy, multiculturalism, communism, cancel culture, pacifism, secular humanism, human rights, the veil of ignorance. Many ideas and movements emanating from the West today (and outside it too!) trace their genealogy back to Christianity. In order to effectively assess the viability and consequences of such, we need to excavate their ancestry, to uncover their substantial nature. For these are ideas and movements that the smartest people on the planet have bought into, and we are not going to step out of their shadows yet…