My Christian friends tell me that Lent is a time to face difficult problems in order to better understand and improve oneself. In the spirit of Lent, let’s look at what non-believers think about religious traditions.
Any discussion of what nonbelievers think must begin with the reality that not everyone thinks. Christians are familiar with the idea of “nominal Christians” who have never read the New Testament cover to cover, let alone thought about it. They may have only a hazy idea of their own denomination’s theology. They belong to church because their families have always joined together. Church attendance is part of the rhythm of their lives. They feel they receive profound social and psychological benefits from being even loosely attached to a church community.
This type of Christian has always existed. In the Middle Ages, when priests with their backs to the congregation said Mass in low, inaudible voices, it was evident that parishioners did not fully understand the mysteries of Catholic theology. Nor could they expect their parish priest, who might be illiterate or close, to explain it to them.
There are also “nominal non-believers”, and I suspect they are the majority. Perhaps they came from families without a church (or a synagogue). Maybe they had a first experience where they felt their church, their religion, or even their God had let them down. Or maybe they just aren’t comfortable thinking about big metaphysical issues. They live with unexamined unbelief the way some believers live with unexamined faith. They may never have heard of and certainly never read Hume, Bayle, Voltaire, Lucretius, the Existentialists or any of the great thinkers who explored varying degrees of unbelief.
Those familiar with the history of disbelief see several philosophical pillars that support it. Let’s look at one, which is the idea that organized religion has historically been a kind of bargain between civil power and religious authority. The government of the day supports and protects a chosen religious establishment. The religious establishment, in turn, uses its authority to convince the people that the government is legitimate and must be obeyed. A clear statement of this support can be found in Romans 13:2. Here is the New Century version of the Bible “Thus those who are against the government are indeed against what God has commanded. And they will punish themselves.
The Market has a long history. In the pagan Roman Empire, the gods and their worship were a function of the state. Therefore, as the early Christians discovered, denying public respect to state-recognized gods was treason. When Constantine and subsequent emperors made Christianity the state religion, the market remained in place. It was cemented by what would be called “interdependent leadership” in today’s business world. In the fifth century, the princes of the Church were largely drawn from the same families and certainly from the same privileged social class as the princes who ruled. Those mystics who wished to sever their ties with often corrupt and murderous governments had to walk into the desert and start over. Only thus could they break the chains that bound them to the civil authorities who trampled on the moral teachings of the faith they had established. It’s a bit like the story of Saint Francis, centuries later.
At certain points in the life of the Church, the bargain has become particularly blatant. Charlemagne was king of the Franks in the 8th and early 9th centuries. He protected the papacy by driving the Lombard Germanic tribes out of northern Italy and leading an expedition against the Moors in Spain. He also personally protected Pope Leo III when some citizens of Rome tried to gouge out his eyes and gouge out his tongue. The pope then settles a dynastic dispute in his favor, making him the emperor of what would become the Holy Roman Empire.
Although I sketched The Market in terms of Christian history, it was by no means limited to Christianity. The stories and legends that have been told of the Buddha belie an uncomfortable degree of acquiescence to the murderous misdeeds of the princes of his day.
Be careful not to paint with a brush that is too wide. While there is no doubt that the Catholic Church played an indispensable role in justifying the atrocities committed against the peoples of Central and South America during the Spanish conquest, it is also true that some priests tried to denounce the misdeeds of the colonial governors and their henchmen to the attention of the monarchy of Madrid. Today, some Latin American clergy have left the market by siding with their people against corrupt governments under the banner of liberation theology.
Of course, no one can examine the conscience of past believers unless they have left a written legacy. One of them was the French priest Jean Meslier, who left a book called Testament which was unearthed in 1729. In it he denounced Le Marché which he had supported throughout his professional life, saying that the “ great, unjust, and detestable disproportion between the states and conditions of men,” and by inference those governments which support the maintenance of this disproportion, are unworthy of the support of any godly faith.
Dr. Richard Rose is director of the instructional design and technology program at West Texas A&M University. The comments here represent his own opinions and not those of WTAMU.