January 16, 2009

Religion, the universe, in a few paragraphs

Richard and James Kalb have both responded to my post, The Judeo-Christian West?  So what is religion?  The term itself covers a protean phenomenon, and it would take a great deal of effort to outline my own viewpoint in full, but, I will make a few quick responses to Richard & Jim.

I read The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity several years ago.  Great book. I would argue that the difference in the nature of the conversion of northern Europe, as opposed to southern Europe, has to do with a bottom-up vs. top-down phenomenon.  In the Roman Empire Christianity was an organic movement which claimed the on the order of 10% of the population as adherents before the Imperial government in the form of the Emperor began to show it favor; much of what characterized Mediterranean Christianity preceded Imperial Christianity.  The situation in northern Europe was different because outside of Ireland Christianity tended to spread through a very top-down process (see The Barbarian Conversion). For decades the only Christians in the lands of the Wends were the duke and his near relations.  The early Christian Emperors had to face men such as St. Ambrose, who were powers in their own right with deep roots in the civil society in the form of the Roman Church.  In contrast, early Christians in northern Europe were dependent on the king, and the first bishops may even have been foreigners with little understanding of the local terrain. These structural differences I think explain more the nature of early medieval Christianity than a deep cultural difference between Roman and German peasants.

As for Jim’s post, he is correct to point out that unbelievers have a peculiar take on religion which tends to reduce the phenomenon to customs & traditions. I will also agree with him that on some level all humans are religious (aside from the autistic).  I believe religion is a natural phenomenon which is evoked from our minds through conventional experience. It is more than simply a set of practices and avowed beliefs, it does express a particular ontology on a psychological level. Where I part company with Jim is accepting that religious ontologies differ, or that the nature of paganism was more pessimistic than the nature of Christianity, or that Christianity had a large effect on European history due to its pecific set of particular doctrines (these are ordered in terms of my certitude as to disagreement).  My support for these seemingly strange claims are in books such as Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.

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