On Being Behind the Times

I think that the modern age is often pretty arrogant about its relationship with earlier times. We seem to assume that collectively we are always more enlightened, more ennobled, more understanding, smarter, more discerning, than those who’ve gone before. We’re always “climbing the mountain,” and each decade finds us farther up the ascent.

I mean, after all, we’ve ended slavery, women can vote, we’ve rallied against racial discrimination, etc., etc. We wear these accomplishments with pride, as evidence that we are intellectually superior than the generations before us who’ve either ignored these injustices or perhaps even engaged in apologetics in their favor.

Because of this assumption, we look to the shifting opinions of the masses as a guide for how we should view the world. Nobody wants to be “behind the times.” Currently, the fad is to discern where society is heading, and then get there first. If we’re going to be different than our peers, we want to be ahead of the times, rather than trailing behind. At least then, a decade from now, we can feel vindicated when most of our peers join our ranks.

But I don’t see any revelatory support for the assumption that society, collectively, will inevitable progress. The whole idea of the apostasy should indicate that, if anything, society often regresses. I don’t believe that the restored church will ever fall into general apostasy—that supposition would be counter-revelatory—but society at large can and probably will adopt worldviews entirely at odds with revealed truth.

I don’t see safety in looking to the crowd for our cues on which ideological directions to move. I see safety in looking to God’s servants. And they can be either ahead of the time or behind the times, and still be right. Joseph Smith and others were “ahead of their time,” in the sense that Joseph Smith’s abolitionism, etc., were adopting by society at large only later. Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, and others, were “behind their time,” in the sense that they were/are warning against the directions that society is currently moving.

Some members of the church view prophets as shepherds or tour guides along the trail of history, providing us with a rudder that helps us avoid rocks and pitfalls as we, with the rest of society, are swept along the river of progress. The final destination to which the prophets are leading us is the same destination towards which society as a whole is currently heading—the prophets just help accelerate that journey and make it smoother than it might otherwise be. To the extent that they are “behind the times,” it is only to avoid rocking the boat so much that some of our less progressive members fall out and are left behind. For this reason, prophets can’t get too far ahead of their time, else they ”imperil the unity of the Church.” But, in the end, the progressive views of society and the teachings of the prophets will someday converge.

I reject this view. Why have prophets at all, if they’re just going to keep us a trailing a little behind the moral progress of the rest of society? I believe that the more likely scenario is that society is sweeping us a direction entirely different than the direction that the prophets are gently leading us. I see the prophets as being a voice in the wilderness against some of the more “progressive” trends in society. The extent that they sometimes mellow their voices and cease warning about certain dangers is the extent to wich we do not listen, or contingencies in society keep them from speaking so loudly.

In short, prophets can be behind the times, and this is not a criticism. Sometimes being behind the times is good. “Being on the wrong side of history” is not a threat that scares me much. Being different from our peers isn’t only a virtue if they eventually catch up to our progressive vision. Sometimes being different from our peers is important because our peers (society) are moving in a wrong direction.

58 thoughts on “On Being Behind the Times

  1. I agree with your comments regarding G-d’s servants. They are indeed inspired. I agree with Geoff that progress is not all that it may seem. I do think it should be noted, western world is much more civilized than in previous history. We look at past practices such as: burning at the stake, drawn and quartering, heads on stakes, crucifixions etc..; torture and executions were for public entertainment.

  2. “western world is much more civilized than in previous history.” Then you really haven’t read more than condensed history. If history was more barbarous than now then there wouldn’t be a human race. You have just been lucky enough to be born in a prosperous family living in a middle to upper class part of the world. That has always existed and they always say the same thing about how better they are then their progenitors or neighbors. Of course, they also looked back at some “golden age” that never existed that this generation seems to believe they are currently living.

  3. “western world is much more civilized than in previous history. We look at past practices such as: burning at the stake, drawn and quartering, heads on stakes, crucifixions etc..; torture and executions were for public entertainment.”

    People still look at “torture and executions” for entertainment, sometimes simulated as in movies, and sometimes real, as in the videos of the hanging of Saddam Hussein or the beheading of Daniel Pearl. We also enjoy watching real and simulated adultery and fornication in huge numbers. Then there’s the 45 some-odd millions of our own children that we have legally and brutally murdered since 1973 (quietly and in private, in quite a civilized manner).

    Somehow I don’t feel all that smug about how civilized my century is.

  4. Guys, I am by nature a glass half full, rather than a glass half empty kind of person. I try to look for the good in the world.

    Jett Boy- I have indeed been very blessed, and I am very aware of my lovely American life. I am very grateful that my direct line ancestors survived: the Inquisitions, Eastern European pogroms, American/Native American Wars (on both sides), Crusades, Huguenot and Puritan persecutions, all the upheavals and terrors in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries over the centuries. I am so thankful we were all well established in the USA by the 1860′s, and in Utah so we could miss American Civil War ( as an aside I live very near a Civil War battlefield, there is not one day in the past 20 years I am reminded of that horrible horrible tragedy), Holocaust, WWI, WWII, Communist and Fascist regimes, etc…

    Agellius, I realize Western Civilization could go very bad, very fast because of the desensitization of our children, but we are not there, yet. Also, I am not in any way defending abortion. My youngest child is a Chinese female, who (thankfully) survived the One Child Policy of PRC. Abortion and the killing of infant and children has been a common practice thru out the ages. It was only for a short period of time that abortion was outlawed see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_abortion

    While there is much to be concerned with the state of our world today, compared to times past, violence is in decline. see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ramBFRt1Uzk

  5. We’ve definitely progressed in a variety of ways. Murder was six times as frequent in 17th century Europe as it is now (no doubt because they didn’t have police). Our judicial system is much fairer than even in the early 19th century. Quality of life has increased for everyone in the last two hundred years throughout developed nations and even, to a lesser degree, among underdeveloped nations. The same goes for life expectancy. There aren’t even as many wars or deaths in wars as there used to be throughout most of human existence.

    On almost every indicator that I can think of, the human race is generally more ethical than we’ve ever been. But that’s not to say that we don’t have our faults. And certainly we haven’t progressed nearly as much as we’d like to think we have in some areas (psychiatry, which, almost by accident, still can only sometimes treat depression for some people some of the time, is a perfect example).

  6. DavidF writes, “We’ve definitely progressed in a variety of ways.”

    I don’t deny that we’ve progressed in a variety of ways. One way we’ve progressed is in the efficiency with which we can kill large numbers of people. Modern machines and the advance of science have allowed us to make giant strides in that regard.

    You write, “There aren’t even as many wars or deaths in wars as there used to be throughout most of human existence.”

    In World War II, about 37 million were killed over the course of about 5 years; in World War II, about 60 million over 6 years. By contrast, in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), about 7 million, tops, were killed over the course of 12 years. In the Inquisition, about 150,000 were processed, and about 3,000 killed, over the course of more than 100 years.

    [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleonic_Wars_casualties; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Inquisition

    Thus I submit that it’s not so much that we’re less brutal now, as that we no longer want our brutality done in the light of day. We prefer it be performed privately and professionally, efficiently, mechanically and remotely, or preferably in a sterile, clinical environment.

    If you believe murder was more frequent in the 17th century, then you must be assuming that abortion is not the murder of a human being. There is no way that a million people a year were being murdered in 17th century Europe.

  7. JA Benson writes, “Abortion and the killing of infant and children has been a common practice thru out the ages. It was only for a short period of time that abortion was outlawed see [link to Wiki article]…”

    Ah, but the article you link to says the following: “Abortion has been banned or restricted throughout history in countries around the world.” The same article indicates that abortions were illegal in Catholic Europe from at least the 5th century. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_abortion#5th_century_to_16th_century]

    There is absolutely no way that a million abortions a year were taking place in Europe or the United States prior to the 20th century.

  8. Agellius,

    WWI and WWII were brutal, but they are just about the only exceptions you will find. Even proportionally speaking, while they were worse than, say, the Napoleonic wars, they weren’t tremendously worse. The world population grew hundreds of millions more in between Napolean and Willhelm II. And though both Hitler and Stalin killed millions upon millions, several other men killed even more, both in terms of absolute and proportional numbers. That is significant.

    Besides, one of the great achievements following WWII was the UN, which was set up mainly as a deterent for there to ever be the kind of mass killings anywhere in the world like what the Nazis did. Say what you want on its effectiveness, that is a major ethical step forward.

    Your point on abortion suffers the same flaw. You are dealing with absolute numbers, when proportional numbers would suggest more about how a culture behaved. Sure there are more abortions now than ever before, but the world population grew 500 million just between 1850 and 1900, and of course by *billions* since then. If all you look at is absolute numbers you miss the point on predominance and acceptance within a culture. And overall acceptance says more about ethics than a counting game.

  9. I’m not sure a murdered soul would appreciate the distinction between being counted as a “proportional” statistic or an “absolute” one.

  10. DavidF:

    To focus the argument: Do you contend that there were proportionately just as many abortions in Europe and the U.S. before Roe v. Wade, as there are now?

    Do you contend that there were proportionately as many murders in 17th century Europe, as there are abortions now?

    “WWI and WWII were brutal, but they are just about the only exceptions you will find.”

    So you’re saying 97 million people killed within 35 years gives no indication how civilized people were in the 20th century compared to prior centuries, because those were “the only exceptions”.

    But rather than conduct an accounting and mathematical exercise in response to your email, I would just suggest that it’s not self-evident that we behave better than our ancestors. I submit that the default position for a Christian is that the human race is a fallen race, and therefore people now are just as sinful as they ever were, even if our sins manifest themselves in different ways at different times. People who claim that the people of the 20th and 21st centuries are better than those of prior ages, have the burden of proving that people are not as bad as they used to be, notwithstanding the countless millions who have died at the hands of other people in the past 100 years.

    After all, I’m not arguing that things are worse now, only that we have no grounds for feeling superior to our ancestors. Yes, there are proportionately a lot more people than there used to be. But there were proportionately a hell of a lot more killings during the time period under discussion than there ever were in any other 100-year period (and carried out in a far more efficient manner). Unless you can show that there have been proportionately fewer killings than in any prior century, then I don’t think you have met your burden.

  11. Michael Town,
    Sure, they wouldn’t appreciate it. But I’m talking about the overall acceptance of a culture towards a terrible thing. If less people engage in a terrible behavior than before, proportionally, than our culture is ethically healthier (probably) than before.

    Agellius,
    Okay, these are important exceptions. And as I noted, the immediate response to these terrible wars were two (the first having failed) attempts to create an international body that would make sure this never happened again. It hasn’t been perfect, but this is an unprecedented step forward.

    But certainly you have to admit that in some ways we *definitely* are better than ever before. Slavery, although still persistent in the world to some degree, is an important example. If you are talking about at least non-abortion related murders, Europe is much safer now than it was several centuries ago.

    As for abortion? I don’t know if there are any estimates on abortions in Christian Europe in the medieval and renaissance eras. I’d actually be surprised if someone could make a reliable estimate. What I do know, however, is that the Romans practiced infanticide without a problem from pre-republic times until the late empire. Is that better or worse than abortion? I won’t make that call (at least not here), but it went without any recorded condemnation for centuries. At least we treat it as a controversial issue. Of course that may be a step back from medieval Europe, but maybe not. As we can see even today, an ecclesiastical condemnation of a progress does not mean the practice was rare.

    Still murder among adults IS rarer today than in medieval times. We have representative political systems, welfare programs (showing society’s continued interest in the poor regardless of a religious commitment), humanitarian programs, we are more tolerant of competing religious/anti-religious ideologies than western civilization has ever been (granting some occassional exceptions). We expect accountability from our government (probably not enough), we allow women more autonomy than ever before. In the last couple decades STDs and HIV have gone down along with domestic abuse.

    I will concede the argument on one important point, which is children born out of wedlock in western civilization. Today, in the US, it is over 50%. That’s huge. Interestingly, though, in 1820′s Europe, 25% of first born children were born out of wedlock. That number went down for several decades, but is now high again. This is a problem, and does weaken my claim, but given the vast amount of other positive factors that have improved, I think my claim still holds.

  12. DavidF:

    You write, “… as I noted, the immediate response to these terrible wars were two (the first having failed) attempts to create an international body that would make sure this never happened again.”

    I guess. Personally I’m not convinced that the UN does much that couldn’t be done otherwise. The members of the United Nations are not actually “united” any more than they were before, and it certainly has not put an end to war, persecution and attempted genocide, which have all gone on merrily as ever.

    You write, “But certainly you have to admit that in some ways we *definitely* are better than ever before.”

    I already admitted that some things are better. And some are worse. So it about breaks even, in my view.

    You write, “What I do know, however, is that the Romans practiced infanticide without a problem from pre-republic times until the late empire. Is that better or worse than abortion? I won’t make that call (at least not here), but it went without any recorded condemnation for centuries.”

    Yes, I won’t argue that we’re more civilized in many respects than the Romans. But since they were pre-Christian, I think it’s to be expected that we would find their moral standards rather shocking in some ways. As Christians now tend to find post-Christian morals rather shocking. Tell me: As we move farther and farther from being a Christian civilization, do you expect the moral standards of our culture to get better or worse?

  13. I’m more or less optimistic. As I look at the list of things I mentioned as improvements, its hard for me to see how Christianity helped. Take slavery, for instance. You’d think Christianity would have helped end slavery. True many abolitionists cited Christian teachings (Martin Luther King Jr. argued against segregation as a minister), but the whole curse of Cain belief came right out of 16th century Protestant religion to justify slavery and, as you know, even found its way among Mormons. The KKK also had strong Christian roots.

    An even stronger case can be made for tolerance. Christians don’t have a very good history of tolerance, and I’m not talking about people with same sex attraction, per se. I’m talking about other Christians, Jews, atheists. History is marred with worse examples of Christian intolerance than today’s Muslim terrorist can possibly match. And that’s not to say that the message of Christ is flawed, but it IS to say that whether or not someone is a professed Christian does not actually tell you as much about how ethical they are regardless of what we’d like to believe. Or so history shows us.

    But to answer your question: I don’t think it is a simple question to answer. Christianity has an ethical system with certain boundaries and accountability to God. Secular society has an ethical system with, well, slightly less defined boundaries and accountability to each other. The two systems are different but they overlap. What I see is that society is becoming more ethical according to its rules, in some cases lining right up with the ethical standards Christianity expects, but in other cases showing increased societal morality outside of the Christian context. So, for example society is now promoting increased autonomy for women. That’s great. The side effect means that there are more abortions. For Christians, that’s bad. For society, it is something that happens as a result of the better treatment of women. It’s a sign of society becoming more egalitarian. Again, a bad one from a Christian perspective, but I wouldn’t call it the sign that society is less moral, just less Christian-moral. And again, that’s not necessarily all bad.

  14. DavidF, I can’t help but feel, based on your statements, that you are a moral relativist. Is this a correct assessment?

    I would be extraordinarily careful in celebrating women’s current freedom to abort as somehow justifying the destruction of embryos, fetuses, and third-term viable babies, all in the name of “autonomy”. Legion are the numbers of females that spend the rest of their lives haunted by the abortions they received. That canker of regret does not feel like freedom or autonomy to them. Far from it.

    You could try to make the argument that Christian morality is of a different kind or order than secular ethics. Secular ethics is really a kind of amorality, based on nothing more than cultural whims that are popular at a moment in time. Religiously inspired ethics or morality, in contrast, are far more durable and long-lasting, with salutary effects upon families and nations.

    Despite the many centuries that Christians failed (and continue to fail) to live up to Christian principles, that does not in and of itself negate the intrinsic value of Christian morality. Just because one cannot live the law of “Thou shalt not steal” doesn’t imply that the law is invalid. Your statement in this regard rests upon faulty assumptions.

    What is your personal moral philosophy, DavidF? Are you Mormon? Atheist? Agnostic? I am intensely curious because it will help all of us here understand your extremely… odd views for a relatively conservative LDS website.

  15. “So, for example society is now promoting increased autonomy for women. That’s great. The side effect means that there are more abortions. For Christians, that’s bad. ”

    The beauty of the Christian position is that the ill effect of abortion on demand is not just “bad” for Christians, but bad for everyone, particularly and especially for women. Your statement is rather flippant, to be honest. It ignores the horrific cost that our moral actions make upon the psyche and spirit.

  16. Michael, I cannot speak for David F, but I agree with him on this particular subject. I also think the world is a overall better place than it was in past history. I think it is better than when I grew up in the 1960′s and 70′s in Utah. I am an active, conservative LDS, Temple attending, LDS pioneer stock, born in the covenant, sealed in the temple widow/mother of 5 with one kid an RM and another currently serving a mission. DavidF’s viewpoints on this issue are not “odd”. We are both optimists, not pessimists.
    We all agree abortion is evil and so is torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, war, human rights violations etc… We all agree that historically Christianity has not lived up to it’s ideals, not Jesus’ fault, but the fault of fallible human beings.
    I fail to see what it is that is so off the mark? Is it that this is an either/or proposition? Either the world is perfect or it is unredeemable y wicked? Perhaps, it is somewhere in between. Maybe humanity in certain areas of the world (for now) is improving, not perfect, but not as evil. Perhaps the increased Spirit of Christ, restored Priesthood, and temple work being done in many countries of the world is somehow making a difference in our human condition? Maybe it is the big lull while the gospel is sent out in the world, before all hell breaks lose. I don’t know. All I know, is right now, it’s not so bad.

  17. Michael,

    JA Benson makes as good a point as I could. I am not a moral relativist, but I can appreciate that other people have different ethical systems than I do. I don’t think theirs are better (I stand with the Church’s stance on abortion), but I am pleased to see anyone who follows the moral principles they ascribe to so long as there is at least something redeemable in them. Maybe you disagree with this philosophy, but it serves me well. And yes, I am active LDS. I enjoy this blog because there are a lot of conservative opinions here—with a fair amount of diversity in its own right—and I’d rather be challenged by conservative opinions here than go to more liberal blogs and engage in mutual high fives (most of the time, anyway).

  18. “WWI and WWII were brutal, but they are just about the only exceptions you will find.”

    Sheer and utter nonsense. Off the top of my head, there are the Boer Wars; the horrible pogroms in Kishinev and elsewhere; the Armenian and Assyrian genocides; the Russian Civil War; the Chinese warlords and subsequent Chinese Civil War; Holodomor; the Japanese Occupation of China; the Ukrainian and Polish mutual campaigns of ethnic cleansing; the Farhud; the Partition of India and Pakistan and the long events leading up to it; the Arab-Israeli conflict; the Korean War; Vietnam; the Mau-Mau; the South American conflicts and dictatorships; Biafra; the Lebanese Civil War; Pol Pot; Idi Amin Dada; Halabja Day; Nagorno-Karabakh; the Yugoslav Wars; Rwanda and the subsequent conflict, and I’m sure I’ve left out dozens more. The 20th century has been very bloody indeed.

  19. Allen, when I made the comment I made (#2), that maybe sent this conversation down this path, I was referring to Western Europe and North and South America. Please see this link for reference:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ramBFRt1Uzk

    I agree with you, that those are all awful horrendous events. You have to admit, some of those countries you have listed, have in the last few decades, become “more civilized” so perhaps, whatever spiritual influence is working here, will work there. Maybe it is the “McDonalds War Theory” see:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/06/russia.mcdonalds

  20. My post is refuting the claim that World Wars I and II were somehow the only exceptions to the progressive 20th century. These were not aberrations, merely larger manifestations of a very bloody century.

    The “McDonalds War Theory,” as your link demonstrates, is idiotic.

  21. Some counterbalancing points to show that we are not anywhere close to Zion:

    We have an entire generation of teenage boys that are addicted to widespread internet porn. This is a problem that spans borders the world over. We will reap the consequences of this addiction for decades as these boys grow up into men that have sickeningly warped views of females. This will spill over into their relationships in marriage and it will affect them as fathers.

    I think that DavidF and JBenson gloss over the very bad stuff that’s happening right now. Free extreme Internet porn is just one small example of what’s wrong with the world today, but the results that are flowing and will flow from addiction to it will destroy our civilizations.

    Human trafficking is RAMPANT in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, even South America has problems with it. It’s here in North America too. Human trafficking is a fancy way of saying slavery.

    We had another random shooting in Oregon. Just another yawn from most of us. We’ve gotten used to kids going to schools and shopping malls and movie theaters in order to blow innocent people away.

    I’m sorry guys, we live in a very wicked world. I suppose I should take comfort that I have access to cheap Chinese products while the moral underpinnings of society continues to rot?

  22. “I’m sorry guys, we live in a very wicked world. I suppose I should take comfort that I have access to cheap Chinese products while the moral underpinnings of society continues to rot?”

    Amen.

    On a related note, local government officials in Russia earlier this year engineered an artificial flood in order to kill off a significant population of the elderly, this in a county which has a McDonald’s…

  23. If I may enter the discussion briefly, I would like to point out that there have always been mass murderers. We hear about them more now because we have easy access to international information that was not available even a decade ago. I think there are two countervailing trends, which is what you would expect for the great winding up scene: increasing evil in many ways (secret combinations, moral decay, the breakdown of families, etc) and the astonishing resilience of Zion-focused people both in our Church and elsewhere. The evil may win in the short run, but we all know who wins in the long run.

  24. Allen, Sorry not idiotic. Show me one a modern war between two countries where, at the time, both had MacDonald franchises.

    Michael, I agree with you, bad horrible things, all of those sins have been with humanity since the beginning of time. Of course we are not close to Zion, no one is saying that. Nowadays the population is larger, violence ratios are smaller, just not as bad as it once was, well except maybe pornography. Western Europe and the AMericans are more civilized.

    The only reasons why we know about the sensationalized killings is because of 24 news channels. You are allowing yourself to be traumatized by news events. No one has gotten used to mall killings etc.. because most of us have never personally been in that situation.

    In times past, it was a common occurrence for an organized sane group of humans to invade and massacre an entire village, and put everyone’s head on a stake after they had been scalped, raped etc.. The left over children were sold into slavery. This occurred, frequently all over the world and in Western Europe, in the Americas etc.. Nowadays you have one/two random nut(s), doing the killing. Torture happens, especially in less civilized countries, but everyone does not show up to watch. For example, down the road from me in historic Franklin TN is a grand and historic courthouse. At the time it was built ( see: http://activerain.com/blogsview/447051/historical-court-house-franklin-tn) , the city spent a lot of money on a two story balcony with pillars. Two reasons; 150 years ago, Franklin wanted to look prosperous, and the other was a practical use of the balcony as a hanging site, and the lower level steps were used as a auction site to sell slaves. When these events occurred, the entire town would show up to watch. Human suffering was entertainment. Nowadays executions are held with dignity, and slavery is limited to underground.

    We both are saying the same thing except you are choosing to look at the world in an extremist all or nothing scenario and I choose optimism and balance. Because of our different mindsets, I will not be able to convince you, and you will not be able to convince me. :)

  25. “The only reasons why we know about the sensationalized killings is because of 24 news channels. You are allowing yourself to be traumatized by news events. ”

    Nope. Sensationalized killings happened way before 24 hour news cycles. The news cycle has literally nothing to do with it.

    The rate of killing has accelerated. Jack the Ripper killed a few girls in the late 19th century and made huge headlines around the world. Media, and pretty effective news media, existed well before the advent of radio or television. Every city had a newspaper and an ability to convey information since the 16th century, or the advent of printing. Naturally things get quicker and better but the same premise exists.

    I can’t take your statement seriously when you suggest that I’m allowing myself to be traumatized by news events. Gimme a break.

    If you really believe that there were mass shootings at the same rate in the 1920s as there are today, then you haven’t taken a deep, hard look at the facts. Something is different about our society today compared with 80 or 90 years ago. Guns were plentiful and laws controlling guns were sparse, and yet men didn’t show up at the General Store and blow men, women, and children away on a regular basis like today. Something is different.

  26. DavidF:

    I disagree with so many things in your last comment that it would be pointless to try to argue them all. I would just suggest you consider, that the reason democracy and science are so advanced in Western civilization is because of the influence of Christianity. The ideas of equal dignity among human beings, particularly of women and children, are peculiarly Western notions, though they have now spread along with the influence of Western ideas worldwide. In other words, generally speaking, a French Revolution, followed by eventual universal suffrage, would never have happened in the Islamic world or in China, for example, absent the influence of Western culture, nor is it likely that slavery would have been reduced to the extent that it has among Muslims.

    Nor would China today be Communist. This may seem an incongruous thing for me to say, after all Communism is anti-Christian. But my point is that the idea of equality among workers and common ownership of the means of production, is an outgrowth of Western, i.e. Christian, civilization. Again, the Bolshevik Revolution would never have occurred in Saudi Arabia or in India, and only occurred in China due to the influence of neighboring Russia, which in turn was influenced by ideas coming out of Western, Christian Europe.

    As to slavery, don’t forget that no one forced Western civilization to give it up. Slavery was abandoned in Christendom after some internal struggles, but not as a result of any other culture’s influence.

    In summary, I submit that we are living off the moral capital of our Christian past. The further the Christian influence on our culture wanes, the less objectively moral our culture will become, and human misery will increase accordingly.

    It may not be physical misery (though it might). We may well become more and more physically comfortable as technology progresses. But physical comfort (as I assume you will agree) does not equal happiness. As you and others have already aptly pointed out, I think we are already seeing the beginnings of it, in the form of the increased prevalence of children being born out of wedlock. This alone is a huge contributor to human misery. And it’s just one of many symptoms of what I’m talking about.

    It’s hard for me to believe that a Christian would think that Christian morals don’t make a big contribution to human happiness. Possibly that’s not what you’re saying, but that’s what it seems to me to boil down to.

  27. Sure news existed before the 20th century, but I guarantee you that Europe had no idea, for example, the extent of the atrocities the Belgians committed in the Congo under Leopold II the way that we would now. Today, we would know. We know about Darfur, Burundi, Rwanda, and so forth because of broadcasting. In fact, part of what made Vietnam such a controversial war is because it was the first war that non-military newsreporters were allowed to be imbedded with the military. The military couldn’t control the information as well and the American people were made privy to the terrible day-to-day happenings on the ground. Of course there were other things going on as well, but the role of better media coverage on public perception cannot be so easily dismissed.

    Allen, you bring up important examples. I was thinking in a European context. Ethically speaking, the world is not all at the same level. One will note, for example, that female genital mutiliation is still practiced in areas of the Middle East and Africa. BUT, the trend is moving away from this barbaric practice along with others. Less developed parts of the world still have worse tragedies than more developed ones, but they too show promising signs of improvement.

  28. “One will note, for example, that female genital mutiliation is still practiced in areas of the Middle East and Africa. BUT, the trend is moving away from this barbaric practice along with others”

    Such happy news!

    What about partial birth abortion? Is it on the same order of barbarity? Yes or no?

  29. Agellius,

    I think you have given more credit to religion than religion deserves. First, advances in science and technology have nothing to do with religion. They, like achievements in the liberal arts, are tied entirely to whether or not wealthy people pay for them. Most of Rome’s great achievements in this regard come out of Augustus’s reign where patronage became a big deal. Science in the Middle East flourished under the patronage of the Abbassid rulers and only ended because the Mongolian invasion destroyed the stability and wealth of the caliphate. The Renaissance, which developed from the Islamic golden age, had nothing to do with Christianity (which was already there) and everything to do with increases in patronage. It really is a stretch to say religion had anything to with all of this.

    Furthermore, I strongly question whether religion had anything to do with the development of democracy. A much more relevant factor is the mechanics of social relations. Democracy worked in Europe because there were no underlying informal systems that dictated who was more important among common folk. In other words, feudalism equalized every common man under the ruler, which is a necessary assumption for democracy to work. In the Middle East, however, the persistence of tribal systems made democracy (even today) difficulty to integrate. Some people, regardless of wealth or popularity, just are more important than others. This has nothing to do with religion. Culture, yes, but religion and culture do not always equate (especially in political systems), and I think you’d have to stretch to say they do in this case. It’s an overly simplistic way of doing history.

    I do believe that following the true message of Christ will make people happier, but I don’t think that Christendom (most of which, you will agree, is still in the great apostasy) has done as much as we would like to think. True, Christian peoples have come to embrace gender equality better than, say, Muslim peoples. But racial discrimination is still a bigger problem in the US than it ever has been in Muslim lands. We’re getting better, but Christianity has yet to solve some major problems that other cultures have already solved. And especially so when you consider that the US is probably the most racially divided developed country in the world (excepting Israel) and the most Christian developed country in the world. There’s a lot more at play than religion.

  30. “But racial discrimination is still a bigger problem in the US than it ever has been in Muslim lands.”

    Haha….how many Muslims do you know?

    Well, I speak Arabic, and know many Muslims. And they are just as racial as any other group. In some respects, more so.

  31. I started a detailed response, but realized I don’t want to make this a full-on debate on tangential issues. I will just say first, that I believe ideas have consequences, whereas you seem to believe only in material causes for societal trends and cultural phenomena.

    And second, if Christian morality is better than non-morality, then having Christian morality be generally accepted in society, *must* be better than having it rejected. The fact that non-Christian cultures are better in some ways than a given country which is historically Christian, is logically irrelevant.

  32. Michael,

    I can demonstrate this quite easily. Take a country in the Middle East, anyone of your choice. Then look at the demographics between ethnic groups and low income. No ethnic group will show up in any significant way (unless, perhaps, if you are talking about foreign workers in the oil states, but that is a different matter altogether). Then take the US. You don’t even have to do any research on this, tell me the two most prevalent ethnic groups tied to nationwide poverty. Blacks and Hispanics. There are lots of factors going on, sure, but the biggest divider in our country is race. This isn’t a problem in the Middle East. Not even close.

  33. Agellius,

    I don’t think I follow you. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by material cause, at least in this context. However, I don’t think you have me quite right. I do think ideas are important, but they are often hard to see how an idea relates to a culture’s zeitgeist. True, Christianity professes a moral system that, if followed well, produces a very moral culture. But I am trying to explain how, in history, the Christian message has been less than effective in cultures that profess it. Moreover, the Christian message is not always the reason why a culture becomes more moral.

    “And second, if Christian morality is better than non-morality, then having Christian morality be generally accepted in society, *must* be better than having it rejected.”

    Agreed, but, trying to predict your argument, I don’t think modern society is, strictly speaking, immoral. I think it follows its own morality. In some cases those moralities line up with Christian morality (i.e. decreasing domestic abuse), but Christianity may have nothing to do with why the culture becomes more moral. In fact, I think there is evidence that it sometimes does not have a positive influence (i.e. sectarian wars). Of course, modern society has a lot of progress to make before we can say it really is fundamentally good. Abortions are bad, non-committal sex is bad, widespread pornography is bad; HOWEVER, murder has gone down, abuse has gone down, tolerance has gone up, state corruption has gone down, issues of equality are getting resolved, etc. There are trends to a better society going on now that are different than anything like them in the history of the world. It’s not perfect, but there is a trend, and it is a good one.

  34. DavidF,

    Please don’t lecture me on the Middle East. I work as an Arabic linguist for the U.S. Navy, and actually know more about it than you do.

    Thank you.

  35. “Please don’t lecture me on the Middle East. I work as an Arabic linguist for the U.S. Navy, and actually know more about it than you do.”

    Kurds, for example, are a heavily marginalised group in Syria.

    For the record, I have spent most of my life in the Middle East, enough to recognise that David’s points don’t reflect reality..

  36. “Allen, Sorry not idiotic. Show me one a modern war between two countries where, at the time, both had MacDonald franchises.”

    I have a sneaking suspicion that you haven’t read your own link.

    “The Russia-Georgia conflict has finally blown this theory out of the water.

    Thomas Friedman, who invented the theory in 1996, said people in McDonald’s countries “don’t like to fight wars. They like to wait in line for burgers.”

    The Caucasus conflict shows it’s quite possible to do both.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/06/russia.mcdonalds

    Georgia has had McDonalds since 1999. If memory doesn’t betray me, the Southern Federal District of Russia, the region nearest Georgia, had around 5 McDonalds by 2008.

    I remember that the first McDonalds in Israel opened in 1993. Lebanon’s first was in 1998…

  37. Allen,

    You’re right. When I was running through the list of countries in the Middle East that could back up my claim, I was thinking of Jordan, the Gulf and northern Africa. Then I decided to make a more sweeping claim than my argument supported. Syria, Turkey, and recently Iraq are all good counter examples. But I believe I could confidently show that racial discrimination is not a significant problem in most ME countries, and where it does happen, it is not nearly as a dividing issue as gender, nationality or religion, and much less significant than it is in the US. Hopefully you won’t make me do the legwork to prove it though. :)

  38. Michael,

    I’m not lecturing you, and I’m sorry you took it that way. I lived in Jordan and also speak Arabic.

  39. Everyone in Jordan is better off than the Palestinians. That’s a nationalism, not ethnic issue.

  40. “Sure news existed before the 20th century, but I guarantee you that Europe had no idea, for example, the extent of the atrocities the Belgians committed in the Congo under Leopold II the way that we would now. Today, we would know.”

    http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=128597&page=1

    “TED KOPPEL, ABCNEWS (VO) At the heart of the continent, genocide in a tiny country, a genocide that horrified the world, brought chaos to a country almost 100 times its size, and you probably haven’t heard a word. Young boys serving time in prisoner of war camps with mass murderers. You think that’s bad? It’s the best thing that’s happened to them in years. What these children have endured is almost unimaginable. She resisted when soldiers were kidnapping children from her village. Animals that have always been protected have been slaughtered by people who simply need the meat. It has claimed more lives than all the other current wars around the world combined. But outside of Africa, no one seems to have noticed. Three years, two and a half million dead. We thought someone should tell you.”

  41. “Everyone in Jordan is better off than the Palestinians. That’s a nationalism, not ethnic issue.”

    And Circassians are better off than most. That is an ethnic issue, though, of course, tied into their long history of military and police service, beginning with the Ottomans. That they were brought at all to the area was on racial grounds. The Ottomans wanted a non-Arab group to help uphold their control on the region.

  42. Michael, No, I don’t believe in your viewpoint, I believe in mine. You can pull up random instances of violence; and act like Chicken Little, :) but I tell you this, no longer do the people of Franklin, TN run down to the courthouse to witness a public hanging or a slave auction. It would be unthinkable today.

    The fact is, Western Civilization, as a whole, has gotten less violent and kinder, considering the last 6 thousand years of history. I’ll tell you what, you go thru life afraid to go to malls, theaters etc.. Hunker down with your food storage, guns etc… Teach your children to be afraid. Ruin your one and only G-d given gift of life experience with fear. The rest of us optimists will leave our food storage and guns tucked away (just in case), enjoy life, and be grateful to G-d we live in a part of the world, that enjoys relatively peace and prosperity (for now).

  43. “The fact is, Western Civilization, as a whole, has gotten less violent and kinder, considering the last 6 thousand years of history. I’ll tell you what, you go thru life afraid to go to malls, theaters etc.. Hunker down with your food storage, guns etc… Teach your children to be afraid. Ruin your one and only G-d given gift of life experience with fear.”

    I find your statement to be extremely bombastic. Even silly. The above description in no way applies to me. I love guns, but don’t even own one. I only have two months (at the most) of food storage.

    I don’t teach my children to be afraid — I teach them to actually think using their minds and not to regurgitate what society and schools tell them to think.

    Get real. I’m not afraid of malls and movie theaters. I’m going to see the Hobbit tomorrow.

    How many folks in your blessed little paradise town are on welfare and have had abortions? I take a dim view of “Western Civilization” when we reward people for not working, take money from people like my dad who was worked 70 hours a week his entire life, use our tax money to subsidize late term abortions (because the funds are fungible and can be used for ANY purpose). Then they use our tax money to bomb women and children using drones. We run guns down to Mexico where they are used to kill innocent people.

    If you really believe we are SO suave and sophisticated, more power to you.

  44. “Allen, you bring up important examples. I was thinking in a European context.”

    If you’ll note, more than a few examples were in Europe, or carried out by Europeans. I did stupidly leave out the Spanish and Greek Civil Wars, though.

  45. Allen,

    The Circassians aren’t a great example for your point. Regardless of why the Turks brought them in, the Circassians have integrated well into Jordanian society. Do they tend to be wealthy? Sure, but their opportunities aren’t necessarily race based. They conform to the standard Jordanian practice of promoting relations in one’s formal group. It’s good to be a Jordanian, but it’s better to be a Hashemite. That the Circassians follow the same sort of informal group coalescence does not indicate racial discrimination. In fact, everytime they came up when I talked with Jordanians the reaction ranged from indifference to admiration. This is vastly different than the ethno-class separation that plagues modern America in every one of its 50 states. I hope you can see the difference because there is one, and it has important ramifications for how minorities interact with and integrate into society.

    Also, I did not make the claim that there have been no wars in recent times in Europe or the rest of the world. I get the impression that you’ve misunderstood what I am actually claiming. But at this point I think I have said as much as can be said on it. JA Benson linked to a youtube video where a man can cite some hard facts that matter more than listing off every single war that one can think of. I don’t really know how much more I can add to this conversation so I’ll probably bow out (unless I really feel a strong urge to comment). Still, it has been a good discussion. I’ve noticed some weaknesses in my argument. That is helpful. I still think the data strongly supports my position, but I’ll have to refine my claims to make it stronger. I appreciate the discussion that has contributed to this.

  46. DavidF:

    You write, “… I am trying to explain how, in history, the Christian message has been less than effective in cultures that profess it. Moreover, the Christian message is not always the reason why a culture becomes more moral.”

    I know it has been less than effective at times, and I know it is not always the reason a culture becomes more moral. Both those things are irrelevant to my point. Taking for example the acknowledged fact that single parenthood has skyrocketed since the 60s, it’s clear to me that the reason for this is the abandonment of any pretense of Christian sexual morality. It’s now perfectly acceptable, socially, to cohabit and fornicate. The result is what we see. Not abandoning the widespread social acceptance of Christian sexual morality would likely have greatly ameliorated it.

    You can ignore the effect that ideas have on this situation, and just focus on material causes, as this article does: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/4532456?uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101488646481, naming three theories for the increase in single parenthood since the 1960s: Liberal welfare policy; unavailability of employed single black men in the inner city; and the decline in shotgun weddings. It’s nothing to do with what people believe, you see. It’s only that certain events have occurred which have led to other events, which have produced the effect which is reflected in the statistics on single parenthood. As if people are just blindly going around doing things for no reason having anything to do with the predominant moral norms and expectations of the society in which they live. I just can’t buy that.

    You write, “… I don’t think modern society is, strictly speaking, immoral. I think it follows its own morality. In some cases those moralities line up with Christian morality….”

    It becomes apparent that you don’t consider Christian morality to be morality per se, but rather, believe that morality is subjective and relative.

    You write, “There are trends to a better society going on now that are different than anything like them in the history of the world. It’s not perfect, but there is a trend, and it is a good one.”

    I think that’s an absurd conclusion. I have admitted that some things have gotten better. But for fornication and illegitimacy to be the norm, and sodomy to be considered good, respectable and normal, and equivalent to marriage, and for a million babies a year to be murdered in their mother’s wombs with the approval of the President and the Supreme Court, is for me straight out of a science fiction horror story, along the lines of “Soylent Green” or something. Racism was bad, but abortion is the outright, wholesale slaughter of human beings. This apparently is something you just don’t think is all that bad for whatever reason. I consider that point of view to be quite alien, if I may say so, to the Christian viewpoint.

    Aside from the material effects of these behaviors, what about the souls of the people who do these things? Lord, have mercy.

  47. I said I wasn’t going to comment unless I got the urge. I now envoke that right! But only to address one point in Agellius’s comment which is to my stance on morality. Let the record show I am not a moral relativist. I don’t just believe Mormonism is good for me, I believe it is good for everyone and the world would be vastly better off if we were all true disciples of Christ. And as I’ve said before, I am against abortion. I will speak out against it. But I also believe God is going to take care of it. Clearly the Plan isn’t in tatters because of abortion, and society seems to be getting more moral in some very important ways even as this horrible practice is becoming more prevalent. But since you too see that society has become better in some respects, I am inclined to agree with JA Benson’s point, he and I are looking at the same info as you and just see a more optimistic picture.

    Also (okay one more point), I do believe ideas are important. I can’t see anywhere in my previous remarks an indication that I rank material causes higher than ideas. I’ve tried to note aspects of morality that can be linked to hard data (i.e. per capita violent deaths). I then argued that there is a positive trend at play. I then extrapolated that morality must be getting better. I assume that means that new ideas are driving this trend, and nowhere have I attempted to explain the data in terms of institutions, power structures, policies, or whatever. I’m afraid, Agellius, that you’ve assumed quite a bit about me that isn’t true. So be it.

  48. ” And as I’ve said before, I am against abortion. I will speak out against it. But I also believe God is going to take care of it.”

    That sort of just throws the ball in God’s court, does it not? Are we not expected to work for good in the world and not expect God to do everything?

    I believe that we will all be held accountable not only for the bad we do but the good we could have accomplished had we tried.

    I agree that the “Plan isn’t in tatters” because of abortion. However, I still find it morally repugnant that babies are being murdered in the name of convenience.

  49. DavidF:

    You write, “I’m afraid, Agellius, that you’ve assumed quite a bit about me that isn’t true.”

    I think the conclusions I’ve drawn about you have been warranted by your statements, and I think I made it reasonably clear which comments of yours led to my conclusions. For which reason, I will let my previous comments stand rather than reiterate them. However, if you want an explanation of any particular thing that I said, let me know.

    You write, “But since you too see that society has become better in some respects, I am inclined to agree with JA Benson’s point, he and I are looking at the same info as you and just see a more optimistic picture.”

    Optimism speaks to the future. My feeling about the future is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I have said that if the trend we have seen continues, then things are bound to get much worse, morally. But I don’t know that the trend will continue, or if so, for how long. Miracles have happened before, and formerly anti-Christian societies have become pro-Christian. I have faith that God can bring this about again in our case, if he so chooses. I just don’t know what his choice will be in our case, nor when we may expect it to come to fruition.

    Sometimes Christians are persecuted, and martyrs are made, and glory is given to God in that way, and sometimes in other ways. I don’t know what’s in store for me and my country, but whatever it is, may Christians everywhere say, Blessed be the name of the Lord.

  50. I’m not done reading through all the comments but this one tickled my funny bone. Someone may have already addressed this.

    Michael Towns “Guns were plentiful and laws controlling guns were sparse, and yet men didn’t show up at the General Store and blow men, women, and children away on a regular basis like today. Something is different.”

    Have you ever watched a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood flick? I’m quite fond of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” myself. Another great western based on a real shootout “Tombstones” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1vsmpGfB9Q This happens in the middle of town. Difference is it’s the sherif and his men looking for a fight.

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