The Dark Side of the Reformation

17 November 2009 at 12:38 pm (Uncategorized)

Let us be clear and upfront about it: All things considered, the occurrence of The Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries is a good thing. Had it not happened, the world would very likely be in a considerably different shape to how we presently find it. Each of us conceivably would be either an oppressed Muslim or an oppressed Catholic (with no real choice between the two), imprisoned or possibly dead at the hands of those who would “save” us.

The Reformation marks the historical divide where authoritarianism started receiving an escalating barrage of well-placed kicks in its proverbial nuts. Judged without overt reference to its religious background, the legacy of Luther and his precursors and collaborators is essentially the novel idea that the common person not only can, but indeed should think and act with a due degree of autonomy, latitude and sovereignty over his or her own life. It is this idea perhaps more than any other to which we owe our present-day liberties. Moreover, in the longer term it directly aided in the acquisition and growth of new knowledge (because contribution was less and less the exclusive province of an elite), culminating in a system where certain freedoms and the possibility of prosperity for anyone willing to make a sufficient effort are the hallmarks of a just, egalitarian and desirable social fabric.

To be sure, Luther’s thinking was confined principally to religious questions, but any good idea will inevitably show spillover into other areas. In particular, Luther rejected the notion that the Catholic Church, its cardinals and the Pope were the incontestable authority on all matters of religious doctrine, a position they had historically appropriated for themselves, mostly through tradition and arrogation. Luther challenged this status quo because he had observed numerous endemic abuses that were perpetrated on ordinary people but for which no good (read: “scriptural”) justification was evident. Not content to be told to “shut up, or else,” tensions between Luther and Rome escalated, and soon assorted flavours of Protestantism were born from the friction, all essentially based on the idea that Papal infallibility concerning scriptural interpretation, as well as the Catholic Church as ultimate arbiter of Truth and Justice, is a steaming, scheming pile of shit. (As an aside, that’s exactly what it is, so one might wonder why more than one-sixth of humanity revels in it.)

Thus, by insisting that doctrinal issues require rigorous scriptural justification, Luther pulled the self-accorded authoritarian rug out from under the Church. One might note tangentially that the selfsame insistence on scriptural validation still characterises many of the more fundamental flavours of reformed Christian sects, denominations and churches (of which, at ±38,000, there are far more than one might at first suppose), and that scriptural authority is hardly the alpha and omega when it comes to facts about the real world.

In a nutshell, the Catholic Church had taught that it is the one and only pipeline to god. The ordinary person is simply incapable of comprehending, let alone wrestling with, the intricacies and subtleties of theology and the dogma inspired by it. The Catholic Church opposed both bible translation and bible publication. Instead, it insisted that the ordinary person must base their faith in the full acceptance that the Catholic Church with its various officials, and it alone, is in the right position to mediate between god and the individual, a precept that led to the observed abuses mentioned above, and one the Church was quite reluctant to relinquish for obvious reasons. Through calling the Church’s authority into question in perhaps the only way that could conceivably count, i.e. god’s word, Luther made it not only at first possible, but later also respectable for ordinary people to examine doctrinal issues for themselves.

Luther’s underlying hope was to supplant the authority of men (the bishops, the cardinals, the popes of the church and their lackey princes and kings) on matters of religious doctrine with what he held to be the greatest of all sources of authority, namely god. To facilitate this, he put scripture within reach of ordinary Germans by preparing a translation of the New Testament into his mother tongue. He became a “man of the people” when he showed that a more-or-less ordinary person, i.e. one who stood outside of the “system” (even if only partially or to the extent of not being a member of the inner circle), could successfully challenge the established orthodoxy. Thus, he became an archetype, perhaps even the archetype, for the idea that ordinary people could sometimes heroically achieve an extraordinary social shift even in the face of formidable odds and adversity.

His idea was at first slow to catch on not least owing to a collective cultural inertia and the active resistance of entrenched authority. It resulted in violence, coercion and bloodshed. Catholics persecuted Protestants, and later vice versa. In modern times, they mostly resort to calling one another heretics upon clashing instead of, say, visiting death and destruction on each other, although this too still happens sometimes. Soon enough people began realising that finding out for themselves need not be restricted only to questions of faith. Science and progress flourished geometrically as the idea gained ground and respectability, setting up a positive feedback loop that snowballed us into the present amidst which we now find ourselves.

And that, in broad strokes, is Luther’s valuable and enduring contribution to humanity. As said at the beginning, all in all a good thing. This can hardly be overstressed.

So what, then, is the “dark side” of which the title of this piece speaks?

In short, it is that Luther’s example has nourished and encouraged the increasingly widespread notion that anyone and everyone can be a meaningful contributor through minor acts of rebellion. This situation is, of course, fuelled in no small measure by technology (itself arguably contingent on Luther’s actions) that both makes information ever more readily accessible and facilitates its dissemination – foremost the Internet. Digesting five minutes’ worth of soundbites and sampling the odd phrase here and there, and before you know it Joe and Jane Soap think themselves expert on this or that thing, suitably qualified and ready to challenge the orthodoxy. What they forget is that serious challenges to prevailing canons usually come from within and are marshalled by those with more than a superficial acquaintance of the subject matter. To wit, Luther had a doctorate in Catholic theology and taught its doctrines as well. He was learned in the topics of Catholicism and he had ministered to ordinary Germans (read: “peasants”). He knew his oats.

In contrast, today’s self-styled “experts” too often dispute issues not because their knowledge thereof is sufficient, but because it is woefully deficient. The supreme and risible arrogance is odiously manifest of those who would presume to argue against Darwinism (and the overwhelming throng of bona fide experts who know it to be true) not because they can rally any adequately countermanding evidence but because it offends their sensibilities and preconceptions. Ditto for those who seek to challenge any given established order for no good reason other than that it may induce in them a vague sense of unease.

More insidiously, we find ourselves increasingly burdened with the expectation that such half-baked disputations are to be met with an incommensurate and undeserved leniency, temperance and forbearance for what is more often than not, plainly put, no less than utterly ridiculous drivel. Declaring, “Oh, what ignorant rot!” in reply is all too often viewed as a social gaffe roughly on a par with vomiting drunkenly on the Queen’s birthday cake in her plain sight. That social attitude too is part of Luther’s legacy, and while it might make for continued social cosiness, the clear danger it presents is that factuality must bow to the vagaries of social etiquette. The suggestion is hardly that such blunt denunciation should displace reasoned argument in toto. That would be fruitless.

But it does strongly appear as if the old adage that goes “Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” seems frequently to be misread as “If I’m thought a fool, I’ll just open my mouth wider and drown ’em out that way.”

And that goes as much for all that you have just read here.



  1. Michael Meadon said,

    Very well written indeed.

    I like your analysis overall, but doing any sort of causal history is really really difficult. The error bars, as it were, are very wide.

  2. defollyant said,

    Thank you, Michael. You’re perfectly right of course: Causal chains in human affairs are rarely simple or one-dimensional. Still, the essence of my thesis is that The Reformation, as exemplified by Luther, prompted and facilitated egalitarianism (a good thing), but that its central lesson is being stretched quite a bit too far when it is taken as a licence to issue willy-nilly uninformed pronouncements in the full expectation that those pronouncements must be met with deference. As sceptics generally are well aware, many stupidities are simply too consequential to gloss over just for the sake of affability.

  3. Oubaas said,

    Interesting post.

    Why is “the increasingly widespread notion that anyone and everyone can be a meaningful contributor through minor acts of rebellion” a dark thing? Without this basic freedom of (mostly silly) action, hopefully tempered by respect for equal dignity, we will simply have another platonic elite (which may very well be a church).

    I believe this “dark side” to be the bright cause of the reformation, made possible by technology (then print now web), which includes the freedom we have to respond to other’s “ridiculous drivel”.

    We are all fools, as defined by Ambrose Bierce:

    FOOL, n. A person who pervades the domain of intellectual speculation and diffuses himself through the channels of moral activity. He is omnific, omniform, omnipercipient, omniscience, omnipotent. He it was who invented letters, printing, the railroad, the steamboat, the telegraph, the platitude and the circle of the sciences. He created patriotism and taught the nations war — founded theology, philosophy, law, medicine and Chicago. He established monarchical and republican government. He is from everlasting to everlasting — such as creation’s dawn beheld he fooleth now. In the morning of time he sang upon primitive hills, and in the noonday of existence headed the procession of being. His grandmotherly hand was warmly tucked-in the set sun of civilization, and in the twilight he prepares Man’s evening meal of milk-and-morality and turns down the covers of the universal grave. And after the rest of us shall have retired for the night of eternal oblivion he will sit up to write a history of human civilization.

  4. defollyant said,

    Oubaas, it’s a dark thing for the same basic reason that anarchy by a small group in a classroom is a dark thing: it is all too often unnecessarily disruptive to the smooth and orderly progression of affairs, and as such amounts to a form of intellectual terrorism that seeks not so much to find out as to vanquish and destroy that which it cannot or will not comprehend. The sentences and paragraphs following the one you quote perhaps don’t make that clear enough. My argument certainly isn’t with the principle that everyone should be allowed a voice; rather, my argument is with how indiscriminately and irresponsibly that principle is used and abused. I think it is one of the main reasons that most scientists are reluctant to engage with the public since they would surely be constantly and repeatedly challenged by every kook with an axe to grind, and that drives the existing wedge between them and the public in even further. Nor am I arguing for the establishment of any elite, Platonic or otherwise, but I do expect that the selfsame respect for equal dignity that you mention would entail the recognition that a few decades’ dedicated study (though not of course a guarantee of infallibility) can’t simply be nullified with a 3G connection and ten minutes with Google.

  5. Oubaas said,

    defollyant, I hear you.

    But who will do the recognizing? As the kook’s manual has it: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

    I once complained to a piano teacher (after a badly attended concert) that the idiots in the room have no idea what Bach meant. She answered that there is always someone who knows and hears. Now we may have more “noise” and clutter, but we also have more opportunities to reach like-minded “someones” and educate the rest.

    The more participants we have in this new global hyperlinked conversation (a la Cluetrain), the better the chance that those who deserve recognition will get it.

    You see, I’m really a positive person 🙂 and am thankful that the person who disagrees with me will do it with a powderless click.

    Also, the principle that “that everyone should be allowed a voice” cannot be abused. It is an absolute right, allowing many to make absolute idiots of themselves, and being recognized as such by google and other (imperfect) gods who promote the alchemy of PR(E). Have faith!

  6. defollyant said,

    Oubaas, I’d like to address your points more or less in reverse. I must strongly disagree that the voice-for-everyone principle cannot be abused. Many countries enforce hate-speech regulations, for one example. For another, one will face serious charges for shouting “Fire!” in a crowded place when there is no fire. Ditto assorted contempt-of-office transgressions. The circumstances and content together determine the degree to which contentious free expression is appropriate, but, sadly, the necessary discernment is often absent.

    On the other hand, you have my full concurrence regarding “powderless clicks” – a wonderfully evocative metaphor, BTW.

    Bach’s musical merits could, without ever reaching a resolution, be argued hither, yon and back again from an almost endless variety of standpoints – as many as there have been listeners of it, in fact. In contrast (and eschewing a postmodernist perspective), the same cannot be said of scientific issues where certain conceptions are demonstrably wrong for want of concordance with observable reality. In short, the two issues, to borrow Stephen Jay Gould’s word, belong to largely separate magisteria. (And would you be surprised to learn that Mahler does it for me slightly more than Bach?)

    With regards to the question as to who would do the recognising, in a near-ideal world that would be each individual, either due to sufficient knowledge or sufficient humility, but preferably both of course. Failing that, an adequate majority that is thus characterised, that cares enough about the truth and that is vocal enough in its defence. Certainly, one could rightfully argue that the answer ultimately is to be found in proper education, which obviously includes the various dimensions that feed into the ability to so recognise. The problem, though, persists and grows because pitifully few acknowledge the answer. The immortal words usually attributed to Voltaire spring to mind, but with a coda that goes, “Even more will I defend your right to check your facts first.”

  7. Balanced Truths said,

    I think it was Voltaire that, on his deathbed, expressed the sentiment, to a priest who asked him to denounce Satan, that it was no time to be making enemies.

    I agree largely with Oubaas, although, I fully understand Defollyant’s point.

    I would argue that evolution would be a good example of both points of view. Although it is scientifically not seen to be a goal directed process, evolution is always directed towards a goal that in itself is governed by the elimination of all the unsustainable ‘opinions’.

    Each voice is required in the bigger picture, even if it only serves the purpose of increasing the probability that the Dodo, before going extinct, could provide the required link to the eventual birth of the ostrich.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: