Something happened nearly 1,600 years ago that we’re still suffering the toxic effects of.
What happened was St. Augustine (354-430 AD), a pioneering father of the Roman Catholic Church, dreamed up the poisonous idea that it was somehow sinful for human beings to use the power of their rational minds to try and understand reality.
“Insofar as human nature is concerned, there is nothing better than mind and reason,” the learned monk said, trying to give clarity to church dogma.
But Roland A. Duerksen, a 92-year-old retired English professor and author from Ohio, clarified it further in his latest “Humanist 101” column, titled “The Human Mind Unbound,” in the November-December 2019 edition of The Humanist magazine.
“If [Augustine had] left it at that, we could applaud his insight at that early time,” Duerksen wrote. “Unfortunately, he went on: ‘and yet the person who wants to live happily should not live in accordance with [reason]. Our mind should not be self-contented but should be subjected to God.’”
Duerksen explains that the kind of serenity recommended by St. Augustine is “the contentment of not having to ask or answer questions,” the idea that people should subjugate their greatest power — explorative reason — to a divinity that requires their permanent dependency and infantilism. He characterizes this thrall to religion as “essentially a denial of [our] humanity.”
“If this belief had been rejected fifteen hundred years ago, and humans had instead accepted the mind’s potential for ultimate responsibility, we might by now have attained a happiness of quite another dimension,” Duerksen lamented. “… The originators of the Adam and Eve myth posited a creator who condemned the attainment of critical knowledge — the knowledge of good and evil — as the worst of sins. In reality, the human capacity for moral judgment is the pinnacle of evolution.”
This kind of self-negating thinking led to the intellectual disaster that befell the Middle Ages, when, after the Roman Empire collapsed a few decades after Augustine’s death, the Catholic Church began a momentous ascent to monolithic temporal and spiritual power throughout the regions of what is now Western Europe.
And one of the key memes of the new, spiritually devout age was Augustine’s exhortation to “think not” except of God.
“Here is the tragedy of theology in its distilled essence: The employment of high-powered human intellect, of genius, of profoundly rigorous logical deduction — studying nothing,” wrote American philosophy professor Andrew Bernstein (1949-). “In the Middle Ages, the great minds capable of transforming the world did not study the world; and so, for most of a millennium, as human beings screamed in agony—decaying from starvation, eaten by leprosy and plague, dying in droves in their twenties—the men of the mind, who could have provided their earthly salvation, abandoned them for otherworldly fantasies.”
This is the deadly fruit of Augustine’s godly view of reality, which chronically halted human progress in its tracks as powerful church leaders crushed any scientific knowledge that might be seen to contradict holy scripture, from Copernicus to Galileo and beyond.It still bedevils scientists and philosophers today and in recent history.
“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world,” wrote atheist gadfly and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (1941-).
Before him, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote, ”Faith means not wanting to know what is true.”
Even revolutionary medieval priest Martin Luther, the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation that cleaved Christianity in two, implored true believers to jettison reason — “the greatest whore” — to fully embrace faith. He said it was a sin to try and understand the world, an affront to God, when everything anyone needed to know about anything He had put in the Bible.
It’s important to remember this history as we contemplate the current anti-intellectual, fundamentalist-Christian moment in American politics. Indeed, the current president during his election campaign declared that only he could save the American people — and he continues to insist that the only truth is his alone.
As Augustine’s supremely ill-advised advice retarded human progress for long centuries even after he died, it obstructs and impedes humanity’s march into the future still.
The “tragedy” evoked by Bernstein continues.
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