Saturday, December 24, 2022

Merry Christmas

 Merry Christmas to my long suffering readers.

Hopefully I'll be less slack and put up a few more posts next year.

Best wishes to all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022


One of the recurring tropes seen in conservative blogs is the opposition of modernity to religion. The implication of this line of thought is that somehow a return to pre-industrial society would shore up the decline of Christianity. I don't particularly subscribe to this point of view but I can understand how it came about.  That the the collapse of religion in the West is correlated with the industrialisation of Western society  is true but as all the good text books say, correlation is not causation and the relationship of modernity to religious decline is much more complicated.

But first we need to define terms.

Modernity as a concept has both temporal and qualitative aspects. Temporal, in that it acknowledges that that whatever modernity is, it marks a discontinuity with the past in time. Qualitatively, it acknowledges a civilisational change irrespective of time. I think that one of the reasons why modernity is so difficult to define is because its is one word linked to two different two concepts. 

The first thing to consider the is the temporal component of the concept which I think is its least important aspect. The Latin root of the term, modo, defines the present or contemporary. So the concept refers to the here and now. But the important point of the word modernity is that it is meant to distinguish a now that is different from the past, yet time itself is neutral with regard to modernity's qualitative aspect. The modern world is not modern because it is five hundred years away from the the 1500's, it's modern because there has been a qualitative change since then and its the change in things, not the passage of time that gives the term its major meaning. The reason why the 1500's are not modern is because the civilisation experience  of then is different to what it is today.

So what then are the major qualitative changes in modernity?  From the point of view of Western History, the two main factors would be the development of technology and the change in values, with technological aspect having greater value. Simply put, the modern world would be impossible without the technological innovations particularly of the last two hundred years. Technology has given Western modernity a large component of its qualatative aspect.

But technology does not apply itself and requires human agents for its implementation. Therefore the the expression of technology is conditional on the values used in its implementation. If a society decided, because of its values, to reject technology current technological modernity would be impossible. The point I'm trying to make here is that technology is "captive" to the values of society and these values modulate the expression of technology,  and hence modernity. The interesting thing about this line of thought is that modernity can have many forms and the modernity we currently have is not necessarily the only modernity that could have been.

However, qualative changes can also occur in a society in the absence of technology, and history is full of societies which were technologically backward but which culturally changed over time. Here it's the change of values and not the passage of time which is the marker of change. The late Roman Emprie was "modern" in that it differed from the founding values of the Republic.  Looking at the decadent values of the late empire and ours now, are we really that modern? Strip away the technology and we resemble a lot of "old" decadent societies.

Whats been interesting about the West is that it has undergone two transformations over the past few centuries. First, the material one, driven by technology, and secondly the cultural one, driven by other factors.

When religious conservatives talk about modernity they have to be quite specific. It needs to be understood is that incorporation of technology into our civilisation has bought, quite literally incalculable, benefits. The production of medicines, diagnostic equipment, food and safe transportation for instance, sits atop a vast mountain of technological capital. Turning the clock back would come at the price of an ocean of human misery. A more simpler existence, i.e. agrarianism, would be a more painful one as well. 

Of course, none of these religious conservatives would dream of getting of getting rid of the beneficial effects of technology what they want to do is simply change morality, but even here we have a problem.

Now, while I have separated technology and culture, treating them separately, the reality is there is an interplay between the two of them. Formally, technology shouldn't really impact upon our values system but materially it does, and the medium of the interaction, from a civilisational level, is the midwit. Culture isn't just a product of the guys at the top of the intellectual food chains, it is a product of all levels of society and I don't think what isn't recognised enough is just how powerful this midwit engagement with science and technology is in the shaping of culture.

"A little science distances you from God, but a lot of science brings you nearer to him" is a quote attributed to Pastuer but it captures the essence of things. Not thinking deeply about things is problematic but its how most of the human race lives and the midwit engagement and being satisfied with superficialities is a powerful solvent of traditional religious morality.  The experience of penicillin and fertiliser have probably been more effective de-Christianisers than nominalism.  For the day to day believer, penicillin cures, prayer doesn't. Fertiliser, rather than fasting, ensures the crops. God becomes increasingly irrelevant to our day to day lives.  Faith atrophies rather than is rejected and it is lived as if it is increasingly irrelevant. Only the troubled and the deep end up engaging religion.

The point here is that technology, in it's success, undercuts a powerful psychological mechanism which powers moral values, namely dependency, especially in the midwit class. As they say, "there are no atheists in foxholes" which simply is a recognition that in desperate times the midwit is prepared to give God some consideration: atheism and degeneracy being luxuries of comfort. 

Christian forensic philosophers have laboured to identify and combat the errors of modernist thought but the fact is that stupid ideas have been around since time immemorial. What distinguishes the  modern world from the past is the traction these stupid ideas have now, or appear to have now. The average man does not engage life like a Pascal, Nietzsche, Heidegger or Kant: in fact he's probably never even heard of them. The fault of Christian philosphers has been to map the thought of dissident philosophers on the brains of midwits, combating a process that isn't naturally occurring in their minds, wondering why their arguments don't work. The fault lays in the failure to recognise that  Homer Simpson doesn't do Heidegger and the widespread consumption of internet porn is not due the average man's acceptance of the arguments of Foucault.

Rather, how modernity attacks religion is "psychologically", through material comfort, security and abundance. The "argument" of modernity is not logical but existential. God is not needed, or sought, among people who are fat, happy and in-control enough.  Stupid ideas, which never would have been given the time of day in  a precarious world are suddenly given a hearing. Hubris, ingratitude and sloth act on a population-wide level consigning "hard" religion as an irrelevancy. The rejection of God is more pragmatic rather than philosophical. The relationship of Christianity to modernity is much bigger than just the world of ideas.