One of my biggest pet peeves today are modernist snobs, like people who refuse to watch black & white movies or silent movies just because they’re old. Perhaps the best example of this is when people ask me what the point is in watching classic movies on Blu-ray because, after all, they didn’t even have HD back then. Ok, I realize those who watch movies on their phones probably wouldn’t know this, but 1080p will never compare to the resolution of film. That’s right, that old-fashioned analog projector at the silent movie theatre actually presents films better than your expensive, state-of-the-art HD TV. Oftentimes, we’re so accustomed to the superiority of the next generation of technology that we lose sight of the advances that got us from A to B. We use cell phones even though the average person has no idea how they work, yet we consider ourselves more advanced than everyone in history before us who didn’t have a cell phone just because we do. It’s a natural human tendency to view older technology as primitive, and while it may be, this view becomes snobbery when we start to equate primitive with stupid.
Modern snobs tend to have a low opinion of our ancient ancestors. After all, if they lived before the Enlightenment or the Renaissance then they have little to offer us in this day and age. Yet drop these modern snobs in the wilderness without their modern technology and most of them wouldn’t know how to survive at a stone age level. The ancients may not have had combustion engines or the scientific method, but even primitive civilization requires a great deal of sophistication to function. Perhaps the biggest error made by the modern snob is to judge a past civilization’s progress from the vantage point of modern advances. This is not to say that civilizations cannot be judged for lack of progress or regressive social change, as seen with the spread of Islam today, just that forward moving progress should be acknowledged even when a society is in transition.
Enlightenment fundamentalists can be particularly guilty of this judgmental attitude. The new atheist revision of history holds religion responsible for any perceived lack of progress in the world until the emergence of reason in the 18th century, and then gives credit of all subsequent progress thereafter to the decline of religion. This is an obvious myth because the 18th century atheists proved to be even more oppressive of dissent than their religious contemporaries, as evidenced by the Cult of Reason and the Reign of Terror. While atheist societies were young compared to the scope of their religious predecessors, they wasted no time in stacking up a body count to eclipse all of the religious wars in recorded history. Far from pioneering the way towards progress, the atheists that emerged were a product of their time, a product that could have only arisen at that point in history because of the progress made by their ancestors. Today’s atheists often try to take credit for the advancements of society in general, when the reality is they have little understanding of how civilizations develop from precedent and accumulated knowledge, nor how few of their most esteemed values actually originated from atheists.
A favorite criticism of the enlightenment fundamentalist is the Mosaic Law. Their greatest champions like Richard Dawkins draw the majority of their anti-Christian ammunition from misrepresenting the Old Testament as a backwards law code by today’s standards, without acknowledging the advancements that it presented for civilization at the time it was delivered. Critics are quick to point out slavery, seemingly harsh punishments, and perceived misogyny in the Pentateuch, while ignoring advances like the Jubilee, limits of excessive punishment (which is the intended meaning of “an eye for an eye”), and protection of women. They also conveniently overlook the fact that these causes were not historically championed by atheists until more recently. Despite its egalitarianism, the Enlightenment fathers still valued property law over human rights and did little for the cause of abolition, which was largely a Christian movement resulting from an increased emphasis on Christianity from the Second Great Awakening. The United States Constitution’s compromise on slavery shows just how difficult it is for the architects of any new civilization to change longstanding practices overnight. American progress towards abolition is routinely criticized for being too slow by modernists, who’ve never lived with legal slavery. While it’s easy for those of us living in an economy with no dependence on the slave trade to judge even the abolitionists for being too soft on slave owners, we also have the luxury of not having to fight a bloody Civil War to end that institution once and for all. Likewise, the Constitution did not afford women the vote, but this right was won later following another Christian revival period. Nevertheless, the Constitution was a watershed moment in the evolution of law and freedom, as was the Mosaic Law for its time.
One particular remnant of America’s past that atheists have heavily criticized are blue laws. Seen as enforcing religious standards on a secular society, blue laws stem from traditional observance of Sunday as a day of rest and no work. Now that global economies operate 24/7, these days blue laws are generally more of an annoyance in that they merely restrict commerce of certain “vice” items, such as alcohol, cigarettes, or tampons. Admittedly, forbidding the sale of tampons on any day of the week was ridiculous, but the original spirit of the law in line with the 4th commandment served an important social purpose. While atheists may have a knee-jerk aversion to consecrating any day as “holy”, a day off is sacred to the worker in the simplest definition of the word, meaning inviolate or cherished. We need to remember that these laws date back to the time when slavery was still legal, so guaranteeing every worker a day off every week was a necessary human right. Abolition was just one of the many reforms that needed to be installed before society was ready to abandon compulsory days of rest. Today we have the benefit of countless other improvements often taken for granted: 40-hour work weeks, hourly wages, overtime, sick time, vacation time, etc. Worker’s rights are now protected under a complex law code instead of a simple umbrella, but the present status quo would have been unattainable without its antecedent principle, embedded in religion. Most modern atheists don’t even consider that striking this law from the books even just 150 years ago would have been a license for slaveowners to abuse their workers, and would have been a far cry from liberating.
Today’s atheists have inherited a civilization that they couldn’t have built themselves. Attempts to create an atheistic civilization in Revolutionary France or any Marxist experiment have been colossal failures. Some atheists may view religion as a nursemaid that carried civilization to maturity, which can abandon religion now that atheistic reason is here to move us forward, but this is an erroneous assumption: the precedent of freedom of conscience can be traced to the Puritans, much to the surprise of modern snobs; education of both sexes of all classes was an early Christian innovation; women’s suffrage and abolition have already been traced to their Christian roots; and despite however much atheists complain about Christians impeding gay rights in the US, we still have gay marriage legal in several states and DADT has been repealed, while you don’t find same sex marriages or openly gay servicemen anywhere in all of China. In virtually all aspects of reform, atheists find themselves trailing behind theists, and particularly Christians. Rather than being ready to take the wheel, atheists have been backseat drivers to Christian progress.