Saturday, November 21, 2015

Religious and Intellectual History of the West

Is this how you picture Witch Trials?

That's how I imagined the Witch trials. Superstitious Puritans, blaming marginally attached older women, for causes now known to have natural causes.  All to scapegoat.

How wrong I might have been.

To make the 30-40 minute commute more bearable, I've listened to a let of courses from the Great Lecture series. The last few weeks involved a lot of study of intellectual and religious history of the Western world, particularly the United States.

Turns out, the Witch Trials resembled something closer to this:

And the Puritans, so casually insulted in the first Simpsons clip, developed one of the first mass literate societies in human history, if not THE first mass literate society.

So, wait, smart people burned the witches?


Witch hunts don't become emblematic of European society until the 15th century, roughly contemporaneous with the Renaissance, and peak at the same time Newton hypothesizes universal gravitation and Galileo argues the Earth revolves around the Sun. England passes a Witchraft Act in the 1540s, the same decade Nicolas Copernicus passes into the next world.

What does this tell me?  I am not certain yet, other than that religious orthodoxy and intellectual development often go hand-in-hand throughout history. The same intellectual freedom stimulates both: the freedom to develop new ides means new crazy ideas as much as it means new good ideas, which is also why Marxism arises in the 19th century, the same time as the Industrial Revolution.

What else have I learned?

1. Speaking of the 19th Century, America in the 19th Century underwent the Second Great Awakening and the Protestant Factionalization. While the Catholic Church remained unified, a religious fervor swept the American frontier: new evangelists go around to bored, isolated farmers and preach their revivalism. This leads to Methodism becoming America's major religious denomination.

2. 19th Century leads to Millennialism in the US, which is the belief that the world is about to end. 
This tradition leads to groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, IE, Ben Carson.

3. Fundamentalism is an American religious phenomenon, developed from The Fundamentals. These are a series of pamphlets issue in the early 20th century, and are a reaction to the Modernism of some religious Sects, who steadily modified their religious doctrine throughout the late 19th and early 20th century to the point that their religions were no longer recognizable (Jesus isn't really the Son of God, etc.

I am still digesting some of these ideas, and wonder what priors I should revisit. I suppose that this makes me think that American religiosity is inextricably linked to American exceptionalism, and that there is an underlying quality feeding both. To attack American religiosity means to attack American exceptionalism, which is perhaps an unwise course of action in the current world.

See: European banking crisis, Syria, Paris attacks, Chinese pollution, Russian stagnation, etc.

The most important point, of course, is to continue to actively challenge preconceptions, and always strive to learn more: there's a lot you THINK you know, that is absolutely incorrect.

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