Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why I Love Edward Gibbon.

Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

I read Edward Gibbon’s ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ about once a year.

There are many reasons for this. For one, it’s a good book, for another, it’s very entertaining.

Gibbon considered himself as a ‘philosophic historian,’ and it has been said that philosophy is the highest avocation.

(It has also been said that all of philosophy is not worth a moment’s trouble.)

If travel broadens the mind, and if the past is a foreign country, then travelling into the past might be good for us once in a while. It is a reminder of who we once were, where we once where, and it shows just how far we have come.

If we know nothing of history, we are probably doomed to repeat it, although changing social conditions make this more and more unlikely as modern technology and communications, modern education changes the world.

There are still plenty of intolerant people in the world.

I would like to think atheism is about tolerance without benefit of religion.

I would like to believe that atheism is all about tolerance without the benefit of divine sanction; one that still requires a rational and free choice of the individual.

That choice is still a question of whether or not we will lead a moral life.

I would like to say that atheism is rational, without necessarily being right all the time, and I would point out that any belief system will eventually become outmoded as social conditions change.

Gibbon’s perspective on the early Christians is certainly interesting and resonates within me, as I will demonstrate in a moment.

“For ordinary Romans, religion was a part of daily life. Each home had a household shrine at which prayers and libations to the family's domestic deities were offered. Neighbourhood shrines and sacred places such as springs and groves dotted the city. The Roman calendar was structured around religious observances.” – Wikipedia.

In Gibbon’s own words:

“It might therefore be expected, that they would unite with indignation against any sect or people which should separate itself from the communion of mankind, and claiming the exclusive possession of divine knowledge, should disdain every form of worship, except its own, as impious and idolatrous. The rights of toleration were held by mutual indulgence: they were justly forfeited by a refusal of the accustomed tribute. As the payment of this tribute was inflexibly refused by the Jews, and by them alone, the consideration of the treatment which they experienced from the Roman magistrates, will serve to explain how far these speculations are justified by facts, and will lead us to discover the true causes of the persecution of Christianity.”

(Gibbon was a wonderful writer, which helps him present his thesis.)

According to Gibbon, the early Christians were surrounded by spiritual terrors. They could hardly participate in the life of the city or the republic without risking eternal damnation.

But whatever difference of opinion might subsist between the Orthodox, the Ebionites, and the Gnostics, concerning the divinity or the obligation of the Mosaic law, they were all equally animated by the same exclusive zeal, and by the same abhorrence for idolatry, which had distinguished the Jews from the other nations of the ancient world. The philosopher, who considered the system of polytheism as a composition of human fraud and error, could disguise a smile of contempt under the mask of devotion, without apprehending that either the mockery or the compliance would expose him to the resentment of any invisible, or, as he conceived them, imaginary powers. But the established religions of Paganism were seen by the primitive Christians in a much more odious and formidable light. It was the universal sentiment both of the church and of heretics, that the daemons were the authors, the patrons, and the objects of idolatry. Those rebellious spirits who had been degraded from the rank of angels, and cast down into the infernal pit, were still permitted to roam upon earth, to torment the bodies and to seduce the minds of sinful men. The daemons soon discovered and abused the natural propensity of the human heart towards devotion and, artfully withdrawing the adoration of mankind from their Creator, they usurped the place and honours of the Supreme Deity. By the success of their malicious contrivances, they at once gratified their own vanity and revenge, and obtained the only comfort of which they were yet susceptible, the hope of involving the human species in the participation of their guilt and misery. It was confessed, or at least it was imagined, that they had distributed among themselves the most important characters of polytheism, one daemon assuming the name and attributes of Jupiter, another of Aesculapius, a third of Venus, and a fourth perhaps of Apollo; and that, by the advantage of their long experience and aerial nature, they were enabled to execute, with sufficient skill and dignity, the parts which they had undertaken. They lurked in the temples, instituted festivals and sacrifices, invented fables, pronounced oracles, and were frequently allowed to perform miracles. The Christians, who, by the interposition of evil spirits, could so readily explain every preternatural appearance, were disposed and even desirous to admit the most extravagant fictions of the Pagan mythology. But the belief of the Christian was accompanied with horror. The most trifling mark of respect to the national worship he considered as a direct homage yielded to the daemon, and as an act of rebellion against the majesty of God.”

The lessons of history are clear.

For the atheist, at Christmas or Easter, or even New Year’s, when we walk into a store to buy a can of soda pop, and someone behind the counter says ‘Merry Christmas,’ we have a few choices.

We can return the conventional greeting. At that point we become a hypocrite.

We can refuse the conventional greeting. At that point we become a curmudgeon.

We can explain that we are atheists. At that point we are either proselytizing, i.e. attempting to convert, or we are being disrespectful of another person’s beliefs, or we are attempting to draw attention to ourselves, or we might be attempting to demonstrate our own rational, philosophical or moral ascendancy, i.e., we are trying to show that we are better than them—which is to misunderstand the whole ethos of what atheism is all about.

(The author realizes and acknowledges that there are more militant and even deliberately offensive atheists who do exactly these things, mostly for all the wrong reasons.)

We don’t even have proper Atheistic terms to describe such an event: we must use such religion-based terms as damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Some of what is written here may be offensive to some readers.

There is not much an atheist can do about that without falling into one trap or another.

If atheism is to be of any benefit to the world at all, then it must have a clear and concise message.

It might go something like this.

“There are no gods and there is no unchanging truth. The choices we make come from inside of ourselves, and have no other justification. What you do with your life and how you choose to treat with your fellow man is entirely up to you. Let those choices reflect credit upon you and yours.”

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