Allen Brill, a Lutheran minister who runs the blog The Right Christians, recommended I read his post on a James Fowler book positing five "stages of faith." As it happened, he did this shortly after I'd left a somewhat sharp comment on his guest post on the Gutless Pacifist discussing another Fowler book.
I may have been unfair to Fowler's thesis, since, after all, everything I know about those books is from those two posts. I invite Rev. Brill to correct me if I was wrong. But I feel I should explain a little more what I meant by "an unpleasant Star Trek-y condescension toward the past." It's an attitude I've encountered a lot among secular liberals, and I feel the same thing happening in Fowler's theory that society has moved from a "childhood" before the Enlightenment to an "adolescence" and presumably on to more adult phases.
It's easy to look at people in, say, the Middle Ages as being childlike. They believed in things that only children believe in now; they feared ghosts and witches, and they told fairy tales. And it's easy for moderns to see religion (or in Fowler's case, a particular type of religion) as part of that childishness. Look at all those awful things they did in its name -- the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch hunts, etc. Who wouldn't want to put away that type of superstition?
I'm no expert on Christian history, but I will comment on one scary religious episode I know something about: the witch hunts. When I was in college I read Malleus Maleficarum an exposition on the subject by two Catholic priests who had roamed through Europe torturing and burning accused witches, and felt fully justified in their actions. To read it is to enter a frightening premodern world where the devil stalks the earth, copulating with and branding women, bringing disease and death.
Such a worldview was not specifically Christian; belief in witches, and their execution, has been pretty common throughout the world. But it's not an inevitable feature of premodernity. In fact, one problem the Malleus authors had to deal with was the Canon Episcopi, which had been accepted as Church doctrine for some centuries before the witch craze. This text actually declared it heresy to believe that witchcraft was real; witches might be able to create the illusion of power, but they cannot have real power. Such powers belong only to God.
Even during the craze, there were dissenters. Another book I read was Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, which I like to think of as an early work of investigative journalism. Scot gathered information and alleged instances of witchcraft and exposed their hollowness. I remember one poignant story in particular. A delusional woman one night breaks down and tells her husband that she's pledged her soul, and his and their children's, to the devil, and he would be coming that night at midnight to get them.
The husband answers something like, "How can you promise what you are not free to give? Christ died already for our souls, and they are his. Let's pray together." So they pray, midnight arrives, and nothing happens.
Now, neither the husband nor Scot nor the writers of Canon Episcopi had any knowledge of modern science, or of the natural causes of misfortune. I expect they all believed in Satan. But what they did believe was that Christ was stronger.
While I'm sure the Malleus authors would have said they believed that, it isn't apparent from their book. Christ barely appears in it; the devil is the realest, most active character. God, chillingly, appears largely to grant the devil permission to perform these depredations, and then sits back to see what happens. He's so passive he's almost Deist.
It's not hard to see why such a view would have been appealing in the 1400s. Europe had just endured the Black Plague, and depopulation brought social instability and religious schism. That may be why the Church reversed its earlier position about witchcraft at that time. But despite its reputation as a case of religious fanaticism run amok, the witch hunts bespeak a lack of faith. Rather than trusting God as the husband did, the hunters thought they had to track down and kill the devil's minions or be lost.
It's easy to be smug about witch hunting because we know now that the threat wasn't real. But focusing on the methods kind of misses the point. Even if it can't be accomplished by witchcraft, the suffering people inflict on each other is real enough. Today's terrorists are rather like witches were thought to be: a shadowy network operating undercover, with attacks carried out in secret so no one's sure who did them. Many people criticize overzealous effort against terrorists (or Communists, or criminals, or whomever) by calling them "witch hunts," implying they're as silly and childish as witch hunts were. But witch hunts really weren't silly or childish, and neither are their modern equivalents. They're outgrowths of fear, and the fears are often well-founded.
In other words, the struggle between faith and fear didn't go away with modernity. Even nonbelievers have to deal with it. When faced with a threat, do you stick to your higher principles even if it could get you hurt or killed? Or do you figure you just have to fend for yourself by whatever means? It's a hard, hard thing. Jesus famously agonized about it the night before his crucifixion. That's why when I look back at those witch hunters, much as they horrify me, I can't really feel like I'm so much more "evolved." Given enough fear, what would I do?