I have always held a fascination with man’s preoccupation with a need for a deity. How have they managed to hold us with a slave mentality, chained to a supernatural being for so long? Simple: never educate the masses. In all cases, it boils down to control. To keep the populace in a perpetual state of drudgery one has to throw them some crumbs of reward, and what better system to employ than to make that reward post-mortem in order not to seem to have reneged on that promise – voila! an afterlife in a heavenly place of, as Hitchens’ said, North Korea. No complaints department there.
Simply put, religion feeds on ignorance.
“Religions are like glow-worms: they need darkness in order to shine. A certain degree of ignorance is the condition for the existence of any religion, the element in which alone it is able to live.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer.
Man lived in a stupor of ignorance for centuries.
Prior to the arrival of Augustine in 597CE, education was an oral affair organised by families. The earliest organised schools were purely for the study of religious texts.
The influence of the church was a guiding force in the Middle Ages, and it was purely religious. Education was only for the upper classes as the feudalistic system was very much alive and kept the peasants in their place. Let’s be honest, if you educated the lower classes they wouldn’t be prepared to toil on the land, rather, they would want to achieve much more and become rebellious. Religion wished to keep the lower classes in their place, illiterate and susceptible to suggestion by the clergy.
For the upper classes study was based around latin language, grammar, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, astrology, music and maths. Away from the educational classes study was based on superstitions and beliefs. Schools were primarily for the education of boys who would eventually progress into the priesthood or monastic work for the government and law.
Women on the other hand had little or no chance of attaining an education. A girl of the peasant class would have no hope of being able to read and write. Education for the upper classes was limited and controlled by the church. The general feeling was that a woman was secondary to a man and therefore only needed to serve, any education she did manage to receive was primarily to allow her to function well in her servitude to her husband and children.
Enter renaissance humanism, which primarily affected only the social elite, but at least it was a step in the right direction. In this period, we are not as yet alluding to the rationalist, Secular Humanism as we know it today, but rather, to “new learning”, has championed by scholars such as Erasmus, Colet and More who embraced ancient languages, philosophy and the classical studies of antiquity. It was the start of recovering and restoring knowledge that early Christianity had forcibly suppressed.
It was believed by humanist scholars that a classical education, combined with a Christian morality (don’t laugh) created a virtuous harmony in society and was a throwback to the Arthurian myths of knightly valour. What followed from these infant steps was the Protestant Reformation, kick started by Henry VIII and his “great matter” (we are of course talking of his infatuation with Anne Boleyn) and need to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Previously Henry had been a good little Catholic boy, but all that was to change when the Pope refused his annulment and therefore, what followed, was Henry’s break from Rome. Hurrah!
Although the Protestant Reformation believed in an education with the focus on religion, it was a step in the right direction. Initially it promoted better education of the clergy and basic reading skills in order to aid the salvation of the common man.
The great stride came in the translation and then publication of the Bible into English, which cannot be down played, it was huge, and the Catholic church has been watching the ripples of literacy to their detriment ever since. The Catholic church was fully aware of the need to keep the people ignorant of the words in the bible as a grasp of the underlying gist of that book would lead to difficult questions that they had no answers too.
The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries were set to liberate the mind from dogma and encourage critical thought. It’s goal was to promote tolerance and lead us away from texts full of bigotry and the narrow-minded ideologies of Christianity.
Although, in the 17th century, the Gutenberg printing press had opened doors and allowed access to many books for the elite, the mass production and the availability of affordable books also blossomed, thus allowing all in society to benefit. At the heart of this enlightenment was a group of thinkers who sought human advancement through logic, reason and criticism and allowed people to read their thoughts.
- Jean Le Rond d’Alembert 1717-1783
- Cesare Beccaria 1738-1794
- George Louis Leclerc Buffon 1707-1788
- Jean Antoine Nicolas Condorcet 1743-1794
- Denis Diderot 1713-1784
- Edward Gibbon 1737-1794
- Johann Gottfried von Herder 1744-1803
- Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach 1723-1789
- David Hume 1711-1776
- Immanuel Kant 1724-1804
- John Locke 1632-1704
- Charles Louis Montesquieu 1689-1755
- Isaac Newton 1642-1727
- Francois Quesnay 1694-1774
- Guillaume Thomas Raynal 1713-1796
- Jean Jacques Rousseau 1712-1778
- Anne Robert Jacques Turgot 1727-1781
- Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire 1694-1778
The old way of life was represented as full of blind beliefs and superstition, based on an absolute submission to the authority of a supernatural deity. The ‘Age of Reason’ on the other hand was a way of thinking that opened up the accomplishments of science and reason, and in which could bring happiness and progress. The guilt trip of religion was no more.
The divine right of kings was a myth promoted by self-serving rulers to keep the populace in thrall to supplication and religion was the tool they used to achieve that aim. The Enlightenment created the hope of equality and democracy for all.
By the 18th century the church was losing its role as the focus of society, it was replaced by clubs for hobbies, moral improvement, sport and politics. In 1711, the London Churches Act assigned money to build 50 new churches, only 10 were actually built. This was probably due to the growing irrelevance of religion and the decline in churches being viewed has hubs of the community and the glue with which society was held firm. Many of the poorest people in London entered churches only to steal from the wealthy sheeple at prayer. Charity also became a new secular philanthropic act with private, non religious donations.
Education for all has become a reality and the momentum continues, as the ideologies of religion become a receding pocket of ignorance.
Long may it continue…