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Asymmetric Humour

Why is it okay for the weak to make fun of the strong but not the other way around? I’ve heard of the saying that it’s okay to punch up, but never to punch down, but why? What is it about our culture that allows the ugly to joke about the pretty, the fat to insult the thin, the poor to lampoon the rich? In other words, why is humour asymmetrical?

The simple answer is that if you’re in a position of status and power, ridicule isn’t necessarily mean-spirited. The edge is taken off because at the end of the day, you’re still on top and a few jokes aren’t going to change that.

Western European culture and its derivatives have had a strain of thought that assumes that everyone has equal worth. If one of your basic premises is the equality of all people, then when faced with the reality of inequality, those at the bottom would need to be taken up and those at the top brought down to bring the world into balance. Thus if you feel this way, you would find it vaguely disgusting when the strong prey upon the weak and vaguely pleasing when the weak get their comeuppance on the strong.

This is something that’s been going on since ancient times, though the strain of thought was never as dominant as it is today. Whether it’s stories of the ugly yet quick witted slave Aesop getting one over on a dull and oblivious master, whether it’s Christianity’ assertion that all people are equal in the eyes of God or the egalitarian Germanic traditions that gave us Common Law, it manifests itself over and over in our culture.

Maybe this assumption of equality is something that’s somehow innate in people, but I’d be inclined to think not. There are many examples of societies in history where floating the idea that all people are equal would have gotten you laughed out of the room.

For instance, the very first account of a peasant weeping when it wasn’t a subject of ridicule happened in the Gospels, when the Apostle Peter was overwhelmed with regret over having denied knowing Jesus three times. This may have something to do with the fact that writing was, up to this time, the near exclusive preserve of the ruling elite and their records are the ones that get preserved. Still, history is replete with examples of people who clearly did not believe in equality. Imagine the response you’d get from a medieval Mongol or an ancient Spartan if you asked them what they thought about the basic equality of all people.

If we were to see how a Spartan might treat a Helot slave or a Mongol one of his subjects, we would call that bullying today, even if they were not physically abusive. These people were strong and their victims were weak and as their cultures believed that might makes right, making fun of underlings was just part of the natural order of the world. Because we see equality as a basic ideal, such attitudes become distasteful.

In the modern world, we see this yearning for equality in the political correctness movement. Its aims, at their base, are to promote equality by couching touchy subjects in scrupulously neutral terms. Encouraging people to use less scornful or insulting language regarding anyone in a position of weakness puts people on more equal footing within public conversation.

A side effect is that it encourages the asymmetric humour I pointed out.

When a Chris Rock (to use a famous example) pokes fun at white America, he gets a free pass because he is doing so from a position of cultural weakness. As an African American, he is part of an underclass that is still struggling to achieve social parity with the dominant culture. Were a white comedian to make similar comments regarding black culture however, that comedian would be a pariah because they would be speaking from a position of cultural strength.

The same applies for women making fun of men or the poor making fun of the rich – the strong are fair game. After all, they’re strong.

They can handle it.

Thoughts on Nero

I have just finished re-listening to all 179 glorious episodes of Mike Duncan’s amazing The History of Rome Podcast (not all in a single sitting – I’m not that crazy) and not only did it once again capture my imagination, trying to put myself into the shoes of these ancient people, but it also got me thinking that perhaps someday people will look back on us in the same way we look back on Rome.

The thing about the history of the era, and a point that Mike Duncan was always at great pains to point out, was how lumpy the record was. There were some periods for which we have quite good information, varied written sources and a lot of physical evidence with which to piece together the events and the world people lived in back then. Other periods however, regardless of how transformative they might have been, have infuriatingly scanty evidence. For the reigns of some emperors, for instance, we have but a single source or one that was written much later based on previous sources.

The problem with this is one of bias. Writers back then, and especially history writers, rarely wrote with even the slightest pretense of neutrality. Biographies especially tended to have an agenda, their aim being to teach the reader moral lessons or push a particular political view rather than relate the facts as they actually happened. The tough, charismatic men who became emperors became paragons of manly virtue or depraved villains depending on whether the author approved of them or not. Powerful women in those shockingly misogynistic times were invariably portrayed as virtuous matrons or as oversexed, overbearing harpies.

It puts us in a weird spot in terms of how to treat some historical figures.

Take Nero, for example. We know for instance that he died by committing suicide, friendless and abandoned by the people and Senate of Rome. That much makes a lot of sense and there’s little reason to dispute it. We also know that after his popularity took a sharp nosedive following the Great Fire of Rome, vicious (most likely untrue) rumours spread of his having started the fire deliberately. To take the heat off himself, so to speak, he blamed a widely disliked minority group for starting the blaze. These were the early Christians, weird impious atheists (yes, really – they were called this for denying the existence of the traditional Roman gods) whose secretive get-togethers apparently culminating in the eathing of human flesh and the drinking of blood. This started the first officially sanctioned persecution of Christians, which killed a number of prominent Christian leaders, including (traditionally) the Apostle Peter, who counted among Jesus’ original disciples.

That this treatment of the man who would later come to be seen as the first Bishop of Rome (i.e. the first Pope) came at his hands, it’s little wonder that Christian sources at the time came to portray Nero as being nothing short of the Antichrist. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the author of the book of Apocalypse/Revelations was referring to Nero and his persecution when writing down his visions of the Beast from the Sea. Nero’s name can even be equated to the infamous Number of the Beast, 666, in Jewish numerology. It is surely no coincidence that the Great Whore of Babylon was said to sit upon seven hills.

Suffice it to say that if you wanted an unbiased view of the man known to history as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, you would not look to Christian sources.

Another source we have is Tacitus, a gifted historian who wrote his account of the reign of Nero decades after the fact. Having lived not only through Nero’s reign but also that of the hated Domitian, he seems to have been trying to condemn rulers whose paranoia culminated in widespread and arbitrary political executions. What he wrote about Nero’s reign seems to be mostly within the realm of the plausible, barring a few colourful anecdotes regarding incest with his mother and playing the lyre while Rome burned.

If you ignore these dramatic flourishes, the story that emerges is one of a pampered princeling who came to the throne at too young an age. As emperor, he was first an irresponsible layabout who allowed his mother and close advisors to call the shots as he played music and wrote poetry, but became a capricious despot as he broke free of their shackles and lived a life of depraved excess, spending recklessly, appointing favourites to important positions over men of merit and arbitrarily having people executed, either for their money or because they had been accused by someone in his inner circle. He seemed determined to alienate everyone and undermine his own reign at every turn. By the time the Great Fire of Rome happened, it was little wonder people were ready to believe that he’d had it lit deliberately.

Then we have his contemporary Suetonius, who seemingly cannot wait to relay to us all the salacious details of Nero’s depravity. No story is too shocking, no rumour too outrageous for Suetonius, who gives us a picture of a man gone insane with power and whose sexual habits make him out as no less than a monster. I won’t repeat the stories here, but sexual murders, castrations and public humiliations all feature in Suetonius, who spins a tale that disgusts as much as it fascinates. He seems to conflate the perversion of the emperor with the decadence and rot he sees in Roman society. In condemning Nero, he condemns the world and times he lives in, yearning for a simpler time when men were virtuous, tough and good, thinking nothing of themselves and given wholly over to public duty and manly pursuits.

Put together, these accounts give us an image of a cruelty and depth of sadistic evil that is practically inhuman. If you take everything said about the man at face value, you could almost believe Nero really was the Antichrist.

But is this an accurate picture?

Probably not.

One thing you have to remember when you’re reading ancient sources is that to accuse your enemies of sexual deviance was a tried and true rhetorical tactic. Roman senators openly accused one another of being perverts all the time. Accusing someone of sexual misdeeds called other parts of their character into question, because it seems that in the popular imagination, people were either righteous or they were morally defective, wholly good or wholly rotten. Somebody born with a disability or disfigurement was seen as having being punished by the gods for one crime or other, and conversely, someone who was handsome or lucky was smiled upon by the gods. Someone with abnormal sexual appetites had to have something else wrong with them. It was just common sense.

It therefore wasn’t enough to simply call your political enemies liars, frauds, scoundrels and thieves, you needed to accuse them of partaking in sexually abhorrent acts to give your accusations some punch. You needed to besmirch their good name among society and not leave any room for sympathy. In the cut-throat world of Roman law and politics you couldn’t just accuse your opponents, you needed to destroy them.

In fact, the tactic is so common, it even shows up in the Bible. In one of Paul’s letters to Greek-speaking Christians, Paul accuses his correspondents of having been sexual perverts before having converted. He does it, not because he necessarily believes that all the Christians in that city had partaken in the acts he described, but because he wanted to shame his readers into contrition, to recognise that by Jewish standards, the worldview they had once lived by was considered evil and to contrast that with the clean lives he was asking of them. Basically, he was saying “You’re not as good as you think you are” using a common rhetorical tactic of his day.

The takeaway from all of this is that Nero probably was an irresponsible, spendthrift, drunken, debauched and cruel ruler, but it was probably not as bad as advertised. Did he engage in a systematic persecution of an innocent minority and subject many innocent people to horrific and painful deaths? Yes. Did he rape a vestal virgin, seduce his own mother, marry a boy he tried to castrate and kick his pregnant wife to death? Probably not.

Just remember – Tacitus, Suetonius and Christian sources just really, really hated the guy. It makes me wonder what people will be saying about hated figures like Adolf Hitler 2000 years from now.

Categories: History, Society

On the Frances Abbott Affair

I thought I’d comment on a political story that had emerged recently here in Australia wherein Prime Minister Tony Abbott is being forced to answer embarrassing questions about whether or not he used his influence to expedite the accreditation of a school attended by his daughter Frances. The school in question, the Whitehouse Institute of Design, is a private vocational establishment in Surry Hills, a gentrified suburb of inner Sydney known for its fashion.

The main thrust of the story is that the owner and director of the school, a close friend of the Abbotts, awarded Frances a one-off scholarship worth $60,000. This scholarship is not advertised, not regularly awarded, not open to applicants and conferred only at the discretion of the managing director. Ms Abbott received it after a single one-on-one interview between herself and said managing director and no announcement of any kind was made about the award.

In Australia, politicians are expected to disclose all gifts and donations they and their families may receive as a result of their positions in order to provide transparency to the public. A politician may be invited to attend a movie premiere or gala and such a thing might be declared. However, if a benefit is earned, say a political scion is paid a bonus at work or wins a competition, it need not be declared. This is only fair. After all, the proceeds of their own hard work is their own business.

The scandal then in this case, all stems from Mr Abbott’s failure to declare the scholarship. When the story broke, the Prime Minister’s office held to the line that the scholarship was earned and thus did not need declaring. Opponents in turn say that it was given in the course of lobbying by Whitehouse and accuse Mr Abbott of having a conflict of interest, especially in light of proposed sweeping changes to the way higher learning institutions are funded.

It seems to me that such accusations and insinuations are overblown. The director of Whitehouse probably saw in young Ms Abbott an opportunity to greatly enhance the prestige of her school at minimal cost to her bottom line. Counting among your alumni a child of the most actively powerful man in Australian politics is no small thing. That it would ingratiate her to the Abbott family on a personal level was, I’m sure, just a valuable bonus.

Much of the story sounds like people doing favours for their friends, something that happens all the time. Far from being frowned upon in private life, it is positively encouraged by many as the primary way to get ahead in life. Among business owners, this can take the form of discounted or gratis services, preferential hiring/promoting and referrals to/contact with other prosperous or influential people.

This kind of favoritism (dare I say nepotism?), while understandable and commonplace, has the effect of accruing these unearned personal benefits at the top. The list of rich people’s friends tends not to include many people on the dole, after all. This is fine on an individual moral level, but bad for society as a whole if you believe that equal opportunity is a public good.

Which is why this behaviour, which is perfectly acceptable in the private sector, is abhorred by the public when exhibited by politicians. The Commonwealth exists for and belongs to all of us, not just those who were born into the right families, attended the right schools, live in the right postcode or have the right hobbies and priorities. Fitting the correct mould should not, by definition, be a prerequisite for fair treatment in a just society. People who presume to legislate and control the public purse strings are held to a higher standard for just this reason.

I’ll be honest, to me it doesn’t look as though there was intent on the part of Mr Abbott to grant Whitehouse any kind of preferential treatment and I don’t think any evidence of such actions will be found. That doesn’t mean that Mr Abbott hasn’t failed multiple times to live up to the standards expected of a public servant, let alone the office of Prime Minister.

I couldn’t tell you if this is a scandal fit to bring down a government. My gut says no, that it lacks substance and will blow over in a month or so, though not before causing untold embarrassment to the Abbott family and especially the young woman at the centre of this furor. The fact is however that it looks bad, and looking bad, from a political point of view, can be just as corrosive to public trust as being guilty.

What rankles me the most about this is the sheer hypocrisy. At a time when the government proposes to deregulate tuition fees, impose real interest to HECS/HELP loans (government-provided student loans hitherto interest free and linked to inflation alone) and gut the welfare schemes that allow many students to study in the first place, the child of the man presiding over these changes gets her degree for free and for no other reason than because the director of the school likes her. It’s appalling and flies in the face of the personal responsibility mantra the Abbott government preaches.

Liberal Party ideology sees the world split between the ordinary and the excellent. The excellent, as they see it, have an outsized role in driving the engine of society and it is only just, they believe, that they should get to accrue as much of society’s rewards as they can get their hands on. Similarly, the ordinary, making less of a contribution, are thus deserving of less. This is why high taxes are bad – they take money from the pockets of the excellent. This is also why welfare is bad – it puts money in the pockets of the undeserving.

That those who see the world this way and would count themselves among the excellent get such an unearned head start on the rest of society and do it so unapologetically puts a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who has had to work their way through university or carries an unpaid student debt into their 30s (and following fee deregulation, their 40s). Life isn’t fair, obviously, but public life should be about doing as much as possible to make it fairer.

Economics are Hard

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There are probably a thousand little things about finance and economics you need to know if you’re going to be a “proper” grown-up in this day and age. However, the important thing to know about economics is that it’s still something of a hybrid between a black and arcane art and a rigorous and sophisticated science and the important thing about finance is that you need to understand it before you start dabbling in it.

Right now, economics is what you’d call voodoo science – it’s a discipline where there are concrete steps and all the principles are rooted in demonstrated real-world results or at least mathematics. Intuitively, this means that if you carefully follow each step from the beginning, you end up with predictions that follow the real world somewhat. However, as anyone who has spent any amount of time watching the news or tried to follow what the dollar or the price of fuel are doing week-to-week, this is rarely the case (and even when it is, you chalk it up to coincidence).

The reason for all this is that economics is hard.

No, wait, scratch that. Economics is easy. It’s predicting the future down to the day that’s hard.
It’s a bit like trying to predict the weather. How many times have you heard your mother tell you the equivalent of the phrase “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t tell me if it’s going to rain tomorrow”?

It’s a notion that we’re all familiar with, where the unaccountably good-looking and well-spoken meteorologist (that’s fancy-talk for weatherman/woman) on television tells us at the beginning of the week that your weekend at the beach is going to be ruined and you shouldn’t even bother trying to hang out your laundry, but by the time Friday afternoon comes along, the skies are as clear as a supermodel’s skin.

“Ha! Stupid weatherman/weatherwoman!” you scoff. “I could do a better job than that!”

And you probably could, if predicting tomorrow’s rain was all that meteorology entailed. In fact, there are statistical studies that have been done that attest to the fact that on many TV stations, the predictions on whether it’ll rain tomorrow are right about 50% of the time. You could get the same results by flipping a coin every time it looked like it might rain the next day.

The thing is that meteorology is about more than just having an unreasonably good-looking presenter tell you whether or not you should do your laundry tomorrow. The stuff they’re good at, and I mean really good at, is predicting how much rainfall is going to happen in a given year, how bad the storm season this year is going to get, whether or not emergency aid agencies should stock up on bales of hay or extra life rafts this year – that sort of thing. The models used in modern meteorology can track enourmous systematic trends like El Niño and La Niña and predict how they’re likely to rear their ugly heads in a given year and they get better all the time.

It’s all very sophisticated, mathematical and very scientific and it all works in percentages. Run a model a few times and you get a lot of useful information about this trend or that trend, but what you don’t get are exact numbers. You know storms are coming, but you can only guess at where or when they’re going to hit. The way modern meteorology works is that you can tell whether or not it’ll be a wet or dry October, but not whether it’ll be a wet or dry 12th of October.

People want to know what the science says about whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow, though, even if the predictions are going to be utterly meaningless. The result is that periodically, news programs scour the universities for suitably fresh-faced and well spoken meteorology graduates to come out, doll them up and trot them out in front of a green screen with a fancy-looking weather map so they can saucily explain that this high pressure region is hovering just over the G-spot of the nation, so expect things to get hot and steamy in the not so distant future in the naughtier parts of the country, perhaps while holding one of the legs of their black-rimmed spectacles to their lips.

What does any of this have to do with the price of eggs?

Everything.

The way we look at weather is almost exactly the same way we look at economics. We listen intently at the news, at the talking head from this bank or the consultant from that financial services company, or, if we think we’re really clever, we read the Financial Review. We take heed of them, take their nuggets of wisdom to heart, but when push comes to shove, we trust their judgements about as much as we trust the pronouncements of the weatherman. Not very much at all.

Instead, we put our trust in things we know we can trust. In some places, this trust is placed in property investments. Other times, those in the know say gold is the way to go. Still others think all that guff is far too risky and it’s better to leave your money in the bank to earn interest. Others, like my late grandfather, having lived through a bank failure or two, stockpile their cash around the house as though they were financial squirrels, burying nuts for a rainy day.

As tempting as it is to try to forget about the whole thing and live life, what the economy is doing affects huge portions of your life. It can mean the difference between having a job and being unemployed, between planning a holiday or losing your house. People vote governments in and out of power based entirely on how the economy is going under their watch. Even if you believe that material things aren’t all that important to you, you have to admit that money is a bit like love, freedom or air – not constantly on your mind, unless you don’t currently have enough to get by with.

We are all at the mercy of the world of economics and finance.

It’s all very bewildering and it’s so very difficult to get simple advice that breaks it all down in easy-to-understand terms. When you’re dealing with concepts with names like franking credits, debentures, credit default swaps, GDP, amortisation or even deceptively simple terms like inflation, debit and credit, all the English you’ve been using every single day hitherto seems to fail you in this utterly alien land. This is the land economists and financiers inhabit, where bankers roam free and accountants graze at the rolling foothills.

The good news is that the basics of this world aren’t all that hard to understand. The bad news is that beyond that, it gets very complicated very quickly.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of accounting and finance and why money moves the way it does, why some people have it while others don’t and why it seems to always conspire to screw you over, we first have to establish how economics works. After all, economics is the big picture stuff, right? Well, yes and no. Economics is also about small picture stuff. Individual decisions, really.

Confused yet? I know. I’m really very sorry.

Let’s make start with the concept of the rational actor, though, and see if I can salvage something half-sensical from this mess.

Remember what I said about economics being a voodoo science? Well, the voodoo starts here. Just as in voodoo (or at least the voodoo you see in the movies – I haven’t really done my research here), where you make a little effigy or doll of the person you’re trying to torture and stick pins in various parts of its anatomy, economics makes a little doll that represents you and uses it to predict what you’ll do.

Yes, you.

Why do they do it? Quite frankly, because it’s a lot easier to use a simpler version of you made from proverbial sticks and sackcloth than going up to you and asking you what you’d do in real life in a given situation. I imagine it’s the same reason voodoo doctors stick pins in little dolls rather than going to all the trouble and effort of kidnapping people and torturing them in person. It’s a real time saver.
They call this doll Homo Economicus – the rational actor.

The reason it has this name is because of a lame little in-joke economists have. As you may already know, a real human being is biologically speaking, a member of the species Homo Sapiens, which means “Wise man” in the Latin. The doll’s name is then a pun on this name, which means “Economic man”. Yes, I too can hear the guffaws coming from the School of Economics of the local university over this little detail.

Anyway, the thing you need to understand about Homo Economicus, this soulless doll version of you is that it is a bit of a menace. Not that the doll should be in jail, would cut in front of you and deliberately drive slow in traffic or tease little children for fun or anything, but it is stunningly selfish. Remember that this doll is a simplified version of you. This doll takes no prisoners, doesn’t believe in charity and makes every decision based entirely on how to maximise its own benefit. Teamwork? Friendship? The power of believing in yourself? Those other pro-social values you were taught by Saturday morning cartoons? They don’t matter to the doll. This doll slept in on Saturdays.

Now that we’ve established that the doll will not, under any circumstances, give your mother a discounted rate at the shops unless it is getting something in return, we’ll continue the lesson.

The doll does, however, possess one good quality that you, sadly, do not always display. It is coldly rational and always makes the best decision for its own well-being. Think about all the times you’ve eaten something you know is bad for you, contacted an ex you were still hung up on, procrastinated when you should have been studying or bought a lottery ticket. The doll would have done exactly none of these things.

Now, hang on, you say. If this doll doesn’t act like me, why do economists use it to represent me? Like I said, this is voodoo science and using it is easier than following you around and seeing what you do. Just like the voodoo doll kinda looks like the person being tortured, the economic doll sorta acts like you. It’s close enough that it doesn’t make a lot of difference in most situations and it allows the magic to happen.

And by magic, I mean sums.

See, the equations only work if you assume that, on average, people work in a predictable way. Otherwise, you have to account for a billion little things that people do that don’t appear to make any sense.

And the big things too.

For instance, cooperation. Our society is built on the idea that people agree not to harm one another in the pursuit of their own happiness. The flaw in this idea is that it gives people an incentive to cheat.

After all, if everyone agrees to be nice and share the resources, everybody benefits. However, if everyone else is being nice, being nasty can have quite big payoffs for you.

Why then does society not just devolve into Mad Max style dog-eat-dog chaos?

I think it’s because on some level, most of us understand that this is not sustainable. Niceness, you see, cannot be unconditional. You cheat one too many times and people will stop being nice and seek to punish you.

The best illustration so can think of is the money splitting game and people’s reactions to it. Now, I don’t remember the proper name of the experiment off the top of my head, but the basic way it works is that you give somebody an amount of money. You then tell them that they can split the money with you any way they like, as long as you accept the amount they offer you. If you don’t like their offer, neither of you get anything.

Now, a Homo Economicus would do a cold, rational calculation on any amount offered, realise it’s greater than the big fat nothing you’d get for rejecting it and automatically accept. So if the “pot” is $10 and you’re offered $0.05, you would rationally accept the offer since it’s better than nothing.

However, try to okay this game in real life and something curious happens. When people are offered paltry sums, they get offended and reject the offer. So, offer a person $0.05 when they know you’re getting $9.95 and they will likely say no, even though it’s better than nothing.

Why?

It all comes down to the innate sense of justice we share. Maybe it’s built into our brains from birth or it’s strongly instilled by our upbringing, but none of us like to see others get away with murder, especially when it comes at our expense. Perhaps a very long time ago, our mammalian ancestors discovered that by cooperating and not competing, that everybody benefited long-term, and this sense of fairness evolved to try to enforce cooperation, even when members of the party might prefer to cheat.

Having this sense means that the people rejecting insulting offers out of pride are often doing it because punishing a miserly player of the game is worth more to them than getting the money. Even when you play the game with huge amounts of money (say $150,000 total with a $1500 offer) and the person would benefit a good deal by accepting, they still reject the offer.

If course now you’ve given Homo Economicus something new to value – fairness. How much fairness is worth can then be measured in monetary terms by watching what offers they reject and which they accept. You’ve kept your voodoo doll and made it just a little more human.

Is he still rational? I would argue yes. It’s just that he factors other things, like justice, into his thinking too, not just money. Not only that, but his thinking can be resolved into dollar amounts too, which makes it easier to do sums.

The very long-winded point I’m trying to make in all of this is that at the end of the day, economics is the study of human behaviour when it comes to decision making. It starts off with simple concepts that quickly run away from you if you’re not careful and it’s important to remember what its concepts mean and what they don’t.

At the end of the day, a rational actor is not automatically a psycho. It’s important to remember this because there are those who would argue that rational actors are psychos, therefore we must smash any system built around them. There are also those who would argue that the system built around rational actors brings many benefits, therefore it’s important to become a rational actor (which they interpret as being a psycho).

Neither argument has a full grasp of the facts.

Categories: Society Tags: , ,

A World without Saul

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A while ago, I was part of a conversation on one of my favourite speculative topics – time travel. The question asked was, if you had access to a time machine, what would you do with it?

One respondent, presumably an ardent atheist, responded that he would go back in time and kill Saul of Tarsus.

For those of you who don’t know, Saul of Tarsus is otherwise known as St Paul, and he was a critical figure in the development and spread of early Christianity. He was central in taking the beliefs of a small pocket of Jesus followers centred on Jerusalem to the greater Graeco-Roman world. The history of the Roman Empire, and indeed of the world, would be extremely different were it not for his actions.

Now, the sentiment being expressed is a common one, especially on the Internet. There are a lot of people out there who genuinely feel that many of the world’s problems can be traced back to dogmatic religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. This is especially true of the New Atheists, the most famous of whom include Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. There are echoes of Enlightenment-era thinkers in their words and they are strident, unrelenting and unabashed in their criticism of religion and elevation of reason, science and skepticism as the ideal basis of any worldview.

As for why atheists tend to be so vocal on the Internet, I can only speculate. My guess is that many of the more pugnacious atheists are so because they grew up or live in a religious environment or surrounded by believers. Some natural reactions to ubiquitous attitudes that are contrary to one’s own are anger or withdrawal, sometimes both. So, people withdraw to the Internet and vent their rage online.

It certainly doesn’t help that a common belief among religious people is that because an atheist does not draw their morality from an ultimate authority, that they are therefore lacking in a moral centre.

To this young man (I am guessing his age and gender), I told him that I doubted very much that he would like the result.

Northern and Eastern Germany and Scandinavia would still be mainly rural backwaters filled with rapey, bearded, violent raiders. England would likely be the same. Eastern Europe would have no real cities and the rest of Europe and the Levant would cower in fear of Hunnic/Slavic/Mongol/Turkic/Avar horsemen from the Steppe.

Mediterranean civilisation, if it weren’t overrun by invading barbarian hordes, would be much the same as it is now in terms of social mores… only with slightly looser attitudes on things like slavery, which lost favour in Europe very slowly, first with a distaste for the idea of Christians being slaves of non-Christians, then for Christians being slaves at all and finally for slavery entirely. The process took nearly two millennia.

You have to remember that Christianity, by the time it became the religion of the Empire, had essentially absorbed Graeco-Roman morality almost in its entirety and appended some conservative ideas governing sexuality and a few ideals surrounding charity, suffering and pacifism. None of Christianity’s moral attitudes were entirely alien to Graeco-Roman culture, but Christianity did do a lot to standardise them across the board.

Of Graeco-Roman attitudes adopted by early Christianity, one of the more interesting ones is the attitude toward women. The restrictions on a woman’s role in the church by the author of the Timothy letters (attributed to Paul but likely a 2nd century author), for instance, were the result of one Christian community’s attempt at fitting in to the greater Graeco-Roman society around them.

They tried to do this by combatting some of the competing attitudes prevalent in Christian communities at the time, exemplified in popular writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which included the notion that a woman could do significant things and was in many ways the equal to any man. The idea that a woman could do more than simply get married and pump out babies was so radical that a common pagan criticism of early Christianity was that it was anti-family-values.

Bear in mind that this dissenting attitude would not be endorsed by many modern feminists. It held that chastity was the greatest virtue and that complete and utter submission to God was the ideal life. It did, however, provide a vision for a woman to have a far greater role in controlling her own life and in her faith.

People seem to misunderstand (and mischaracterise) just how Greek early Christianity was after Paul. From its Platonic conceptions on the nature of God, the immortality of the soul (hotly contested in Jewish circles but not questioned in Christianity), the afterlife, the organisation of its hierarchy, to the morals its adherents lived by and the analytical and argumentative nature of its theological scholarship, it all derived from or was guided by existing Greek philosophical tradition. Far from being an alien implant that swept away or poisoned existing Graeco-Roman culture, it was existing Graeco-Roman culture that happened to import and then digest a bunch of Jewish/Eastern ideas.

This became truer as time went on and Christianity became unmoored from its Jewish roots. When Graeco-Roman Gentiles became the majority of Jesus followers, it was all over. Graeco-Roman Christians depicted God in mosaic and statuary artwork, ate pork, failed to circumcise their sons and generally kept their own ways almost from the beginning.

Even setting aside all that, you have the various crises that beset Europe in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th centuries (invasions and plagues, mostly) and the state’s inability to respond to them effectively, and you have the entire thing breaking apart or being absorbed by foreign powers without some pan-European organisation holding it all together, which is what the Medieval Church provided. Indeed, for a long time, with the breakdown of civil administration in Western Europe, the withering of the educational system and the advent of an illiterate warrior nobility, the Medieval Church was the only institution that had anyone who knew how to hold a pen in some areas, let alone how to do sums, build in stone or preserve history.

Without Christianity, there would likely be no Islam either, which would mean that there would be no sudden papyrus shortage in the 7th century (due to the Roman Empire’s loss of Egypt to the armies of Islam) that precipitated a lot of the knowledge loss and paper-reuse in Medieval Europe (people would scrape existing words off a page to reuse the paper). But then again, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that papyrus eventually rots and parchment doesn’t if you look after it properly. The great library in Constantinople had huge issues with thousand-year-old manuscripts rotting away before they could be preserved. With so many books and copying having to be done by hand, it was inevitable.

The bottom line, however, is that without Christianity and especially the Medieval Church, Western Europe would have eventually been overrun and broken up by barbarians and the whole region would have splintered into regional powers with no real commonalities or transmission of ideas or technology between them at all. There would be whole swaths of the continent today where the whole society wouldn’t even know how to read, let alone know what the Romans did or who Aristotle was.

The upshot to all this is that you’ve got a world where European civilisation, mostly centred around the Mediterranean, has a half-remembered, glorious past but where anything too far inland in the north is barbarian land where ruined cities and forts stand in silent testimony to what could have been. In this scenario, China is the world’s leading power and the scientific revolution may never have happened.

With Paul out of the picture, Christianity remains a tiny splinter group within Judaism and may have in fact died with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Without Christianity, what hope could there have been for a pan-European common identity or a pan-European common language after the collapse of the Western Empire? In the chaos that followed, what other forces could have spread ideas as far afield as Dublin, Oslo, Palermo and Constantinople?

I would argue none.