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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The revenge of God and the end of the age of reason

Reason versus religion. It’s a debate that has been going on ever since people tried to look beyond theology to try and figure out what was going on in the world around them.

The Age of Reason, or Enlightenment started in Europe in the 17th century and really took off in the 18th century. It helped give rise to scientific invention, a flourishing of the arts and commerce, and modern democracy itself. But as our world has rapidly advanced, it has grown ever more complicated and in so doing it has caused more and more people to turn back to religion to help make sense of our increasingly complex modern world.

Whether it be under the guise of reason or religion, fanatics will often try and exploit our desire for simple solutions to complicated problems. In the 20th century communism was responsible for the deaths of over 100 million people, mostly through starvation. Fascism probably killed another 50 million people before both were consigned to the trash bin of history.

But religious fanaticism has always been a force to be reckoned with. Whether it was Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Northern Ireland, or Shias and Sunnis killing each other in Iraq, sectarian violence has been an all too common occurrence in modern world events.

However it was in the 18th century, during full flower of the enlightenment, that the United States of America came into being. Far from wanting a theocracy, the founding fathers of our neighbour to the south were well aware of the harm that comes from not separating church and state. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need to build “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Ben Franklin wrote, “A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law.” While James Madison said, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

Yet increasingly people who not that many decades ago would have been dismissed as religious crackpots now hold great sway over the American political landscape. In Richard Nixon’s time foreign policy based on trying to set in motion the conditions for the apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus Christ would have been regarded as sheer madness.

Though to be fair to the current George W. Bush administration, it should be kept in mind that there have been other world leaders who put great faith (pun intended) in the Old Testament in terms of setting foreign policy. In fact it was Protestant British Prime Minister Lloyd George, along with key members of his cabinet, who set about after the end of the First World War to (re) establish the state of Israel.

As both Lloyd George and George W. Bush believed based on the writings of the Old Testament, without a state of Israel there could be no Armageddon and hence no second coming of Jesus. Hence the need to create and maintain the State of Israel and the inevitable backlash this helped create against the West in much of the predominantly Muslim Middle East.

But it was not just the creation of the State of Israel that got most Muslim leaders up in arms. After the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France in 1979, to impose strict sharia law on an Iran he felt had been corrupted by contact with the West.

As religious issues have come to hold increasing sway over recent world events, some have started to see this as the end of the age of reason. Some have even taken to naming this new era of religious conflict as “The Revenge of God.” I prefer to see things in less apocalyptic terms.

Notwithstanding their more religious leanings a majority of Americans now seem to understand that American foreign policy under the Bush administration has been nothing short of disastrous. Secondly if one looks at a nation like Iran you will find a people that are perhaps the most pro-western of any people in the Middle East living outside of Israel. There is nothing like living under a repressive religious theocracy to make people truly appreciate the freedom that comes with living in a democratic secular state.

Yes world events will continue to remain complicated messy affairs, as all human endeavours inevitably are, but I still think the overall trajectory of human events is on the upswing. In other words these are not the worst of times human society is living in, these are still the best of times and I expect the future will be for the most part, even better.

(For a truly inspiring example of one woman’s courage in speaking out to help make our world a better place click here).

However for those desiring an even simpler philosophy to help get them through these troubled times let me quote Ricky’s Dad Ray from the Canadian Television series Trailer Park Boys:
“Boys, sometimes that’s the way she goes. Sometimes she goes, sometimes she doesn’t cause that’s the way she goes.”

Mike Geoghegan is a consultant and business executive living in Victoria, BC. Although he has now been happily married for over a decade, he has been in relationships with women who were Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian (both Protestant and Catholic), Jewish, Muslim and Sikh.

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