Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Did The Calvinist Reformation Pave The Way For More Militant Atheism?

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Johann Calvin- A "tyrant" to many but a "holy man" to his followers. He aspired to make Geneva the "holy city"

Travel to Geneva, as we did in August, 1997, and you can't help but be thoroughly impressed by this cultural, world class capital city in the southwest of Switzerland. Just sitting on the lake side and watching the Jet d' eau (color image lower right)and you have to marvel. Also, if you knew your Swiss history, how this location was a most uninviting place for freethinkers back in the 1530s, 1540s. After all, it was the zealous firebrand Johann Calvin (founder of Calvinism) who was called in 1536 to make Geneva the "Protestant Rome".

Did he succeed? Up to a point. But in his zealous program and reaction to it he may have unwittingly unleashed more militant, aggressive forms of atheism. Consider that even for lax Protestants - far less any Catholics - Geneva from 1541 to 1564 was not a very hospitable place. Committed to his program of rendering Geneva the "holy city" Calvin and his highly motivated minions went all out to do it. Their program included: routine and harsh censorship (i.e. no lewd, nude works of art), regular home visits by the clergy to ensure the faithful were toeing the line, and a network of informers who would have done the Nazis proud. 

The regulation included every aspect of life from the style of women's shoes to the names allowed for children as well as pets. Those who flouted the proscriptions or regulations, such as naming a dog after Calvin, faced more sever punishment including banishment and even execution. Yale prof Carlos Eire, author of the book 'Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450-1650', notes that over the time period indicated no less than 58 people were put to death and 76 were banished. This was out of a town with a (then) population of roughly 10,000.

Eire in his monograph is clear that the most potent force in the Reformation period is Calvin. Too many not au fait with the man (other than the American work ethic stereotype, i.e. forged by strict Calvinism) aren't aware that while Martin Luther spread his influence mainly through Germany, Calvin's spanned all of Europe. 

Interestingly, coincident with Calvin's reign, the Council of Trent (reactionary in itself) assembled over several periods from 1545 to 1563. It is not exaggeration to assert this Council set the program and course for Roman Catholicism for the next 400 years.  One of its offshoots, in fact, was the Society of Jesus - otherwise known as the Jesuits.  While the Jesuits have often been portrayed as the "shock troops" of Catholicism, it is truer to say that the Jesuits proudly reinforced the use of reason and pragmatism that - in Eire's words - "had always been an integral part of the Catholic tradition."

To substantiate this, attend theology (or philosophy)  classes at any Jesuit -run university - as I did from 1964-67 at Loyola University, New Orleans.  Discussions were wide ranging and critical thinking a required commodity.  These attributes served me well even after I'd transferred to the University of South Florida to pursue my degree in astronomy (which Loyola did not offer.)

In fact, as I observed in my June 29, 2010 post, Loyola's Jesuits were in many ways directly responsible for my atheist path.  As I noted:

"my questioning and suspicious mind and approach was only confirmed and augmented with each step I took, including a series of theology courses at Loyola. I'd also gone to hear one of the foremost Existentialist philosophers in the world, Jean-Paul Sartre, who came to the Loyola University Fieldhouse in 1964. And, of course, we learned at that lecture one of the cornerstone avoidances of the Existentialist, is "bad faith".

This was the cardinal sin, if you will. The most serious transgression an authentic being or person can make. By "bad faith", Sartre meant going against your own interior barometer, to "go along to get along". It made life relatively easy (few conflicts) but ultimately led to despair since an artificial life was substituted for an authentic one

Given this, it doesn't appear to be a stretch that Calvinism's excesses spawned a vigorous reaction of questioning and criticism from the Jesuits, also the products of the Reformation. And just as my continued critical thinking led me to atheism, that Reformationist reaction might have led to a more ambitious, aggressive form of atheism - as later vindicated by the onslaught of modern science. Who needs popes, Canon law or '95 Theses' when  Darwinian evolution and the Big Bang disclose supernatural agents as redundant?

Eire himself doesn't shy from the negative side of the Council of Trent including the Inquisition, the suppression of deviance, and the supremacy of value attached to celibacy and virginity. But looking at these in retrospect, they would have only incited an even more critical, hostile and militant atheism- of the form that ultimately took hold in the early 20th century, i.e. with philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and others.

Ultimately, I have to agree with Eire  that the Calvinist legacy of the Reformation period incepted Christianity's fragmentation.  With it, the epistemological space thereby created paved the way for secularism, skepticism ....and a hardy, no fools tolerated....atheism.  It is hardly astonishing that since the Enlightenment one finds most physical scientists are atheists. This is not merely a reflection of their ideological choices but also of the recognition that there is no place for supernaturalism in modern physics, chemistry or biology.

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