Reductionism in History

It is fall here in Toronto.  Looking out my window, I can see trees and leaves in beautiful colours.  As you watch them, sometimes they blow around in patterns that are hard to predict.  Some will blow up against the curb of the sidewalk, some will get wet and not be effected by the wind, some will swirl, all will eventually settle down but it is impossible to guess where that will be.  It is difficult to make any sense of the chaos.

When I look at human history, I see the same chaotic maelstrom that makes no sense.  Some people who claim to be Christians and model their life after Jesus Christ are murderous racists while some followers of a 7th century warlord advocate peace and egalitarianism.  It is all very confusing.  How can we make sense of human history?

As I noted in my essay on reductionist techniques, the only way to make sense of complicated systems is to view them as the aggregation of simple processes and study the simple processes in isolation.  Human beings are social mammals and desperately need the companionship of family and friends in order to function.  Societies of such creatures must have trust and amicability in order to function at any level at all.  At the same time, individual members of those societies will be prone to violence, greed, lust, distrust and hatred depending on their individual experience and economic circumstances.  Biological factors will come into play as some people will be irritable for reasons of hunger, general temperament, environmental factors or genetic disorder.  Finally, religious beliefs will play a role as people struggle to bring their biology, environment, social status and economic experience into alignment with their religious understanding of the world and their place in it.  Like the gravity, wind and obstacles that effect the movement of the leaves, these are the basic forces that shape human history.

Given this chaotic maelstrom of factors, it can be very difficult to make sense of any individuals behaviour.  As a Christian, I know in my own life that economic frustrations coupled with an irritability caused by hunger and pain can make it exceedingly difficult to live the Christian life that I know I should be living.  If even in my own life, complicated and diverse factors can make my behaviour difficult to control and understand, how much more difficult would it be to look at the history of millions of human beings and see a straightforward influence of Christian principles?

Atheists often argue that the historical violence of the church refutes the truth of Christianity.  When atheists make this simplistic argument against Christianity, they pretend as though they are not human beings subject to the same violent tendencies.  Having rejected the beliefs of their ancestors, they act as though they would have been perfect in historical situations which are far more difficult than anything we experience in the modern West.  It is easy for us to sit in our armchairs and say, “Yes back in those days of limited education, no knowledge of science, no travel, bad dentistry, rampant disease and food shortage I would have been tolerant and loving and kind”, but the reality is likely much different.

Before modern people judge our forebears for their crimes in the harshest possible way, therefore, we might be well-served to ask ourselves some questions in all humility.  What would we have been like a thousand years ago? Would we have been loving, tolerant, peaceful and educated before the industrial revolution increased our food supply, gave us good dentistry, modern medicine and taught us about other cultures?  Or would we have been just as bigoted and narrow-minded as they were?  What was the light that has guided humanity out of the darkness?

When I study my own life in a reductionist way and see the complex forces that drive me toward anger, intolerance, violence and evil, the simplistic historical case against Christianity disappears.  Trying to live the Christian life, I often fail and these failures can be cataclysmic and look to others as though Christianity is not real at all.  Internally, however, I can see that my behaviour would have been much worse were it not for the teachings of Jesus Christ.  In my essay “Is Islam a Religion of Peace“, I contemplated the question what I would be like had I become a Muslim instead of a Christian.  I concluded that I would have emulated Mohammad as opposed to Jesus Christ with disastrous consequences for everyone involved. There are very good systematic reasons that this should be the case.

There are roughly equal numbers of men and women in the world.  This being the case, the idea that someone could live a life like Mohammad or Hugh Hefner and sleep with as many people as he might like cannot lead to peace but can only lead to conflict.  Why?  Because different people vying for a limited resource is the definition of conflict and conflict is not conducive to peace. History and internal observation verifies that sexual competition is the source of a great deal of violence and Christian sexual mores have been an important part of societal progress.

Likewise, if you get angry at the owner of a business and blow it up or burn it down, this impoverishes everyone around you because infrastructure generates trade and wealth.  If you kill a class of scientists, managers or engineers, this destruction of expertise and knowledge similarly reduces societal wealth.  In this way, striving to forgive those who injure you leads to societal prosperity while acting out in vengeance leads to the impoverishment of society.  This truth is captured in the criticism levelled by Marxists that Christianity was the “Opiate of the people” promising heavenly rewards to those who did not lash out against their oppressors.

When a society of individuals attempts to emulate Christ, therefore, this leads to increased peace and prosperity and these effects will gradually accumulate over time.  Emulating men of violence, on the other hand, will lead to perpetual warfare and poverty as can be seen in the history of many third world countries.  In the swirl and chaos of human history these effects are only barely visible, but they are much more clear if we honestly examine our own hearts and lives.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  (Galatians 5:22,23)

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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