Sunday, October 02, 2005


It is now commonplace for critics of the excesses of modern religion (particularly those forms of Islam, Judaism and Christianity which spout ignorance and hatred and call them 'truth') to talk about these deformations as 'medieval belief' and 'ancient superstition'. There are two major problems with this. First, it fails to recognise that what we call fundamentalism is in fact a distinctly modern thought disease - a kind of hyper-rationalism which feeds on circular logic, modern communications and a misappropriation of sacred texts in ways which are alien to their cultural and literary fabric. Textuality, by it nature, invites engaged interpretation not blind obedience.

Second, it libels our forebears. For while no-one should doubt that intellectual and moral failings afflicted past generations every bit as much as ours, it is simply ill-informed and arrogant to believe that earlier thinkers were uniformly inferior. You don't have to agree with everything the 'medieval' Thomas Aquinas said, for example, to realise that even his most contestable utterances are glorious wisdom compared to the foolish fulminations of a Robertson, a Falwell or a Bin Laden. And as for the current resurgence of 'creationism' (and its intellectually confused cousin, 'intelligent design'), we would surely be endlessly grateful if the exponents of this modern non-sense had attained the capacities of a fourth/fifth century thinker...

"Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, ... and this knowledge he [sic] holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn." St Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis: An Unfinished Work, tr. J. H. Taylor).

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