Authority, Superstition, Progress

Authority, superstition, and misapplied technophilia (it’s a real word) rate at least one post each: but that’ll wait until another day. Days.

This time I’ll take a quick look at all three, and then say why I don’t believe in Progress with a capital P — and don’t yearn for the ‘good old days.’

My attitude toward authority, real and imagined, hasn’t changed much since the ’60s. But as my wife showed me a few years back, it’s not authority I dislike.

It’s pompous nitwits with delusions of competent authority that set my teeth on edge.

I must respect authority, but must not indulge in blind obedience. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1900, 1951, 2155, 22422243, 2267)

That’s gotten folks killed, like Thomas More and John Fisher, and I’ve talked about that before. (August 14, 2016)

Superstition is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. It feels a bit like religion; and can affect worship if someone gets the idea that prayer, for example, depends on ‘going through the motions.’ (Catechism, 21102111)

I’ll grant that some Catholics are superstitious: and incredibly gullible.

The tale that you can boost your property’s value by burying a statue of a particular saint was current in 2007, it popped up again in 2015, and still appears in ‘advice’ forums. It’s supposed to work like a charm: which is also a bad idea. (Catechism, 2117)

Progress, Imagined

The ‘science and technology will make the future wonderful’ attitude was fading in my youth.

I think it’s no more sensible than the ‘science and technology will destroy us all’ attitude that’s been fashionable more recently.

Like I keep saying, science and technology, studying the universe and applying our new knowledge, are part of being human. What counts is how we decide to use them. (Catechism, 22922296)

Giving science, technology, or anything else, the priority God deserves is a bad idea. (Catechism, 21122114)

That’s why I don’t ‘believe in’ Progress as the answer to our problems and the source of our hope.

I do, however, think that progress, lower case, happens: on average, given time. Lots of time.

Sumerian Renaissance, Roman Law

Ur-Nammu brought a measure of prosperity and stability to folks from Akshyak to Eridu, although some probably yearned for the ‘good old days’ of the Akkadian Empire or Gutian rule.

His law code seems a bit harsh in spots. Robbery carried a death penalty, for example. Other parts seem familiar, like monetary penalties for causing injury.

The Code of Ur-Nammu reflected the Sumerian Renaissance two-tier society: lu, free men and women; and arad or geme, male or female slaves. A slave could be freed, a slave and a free person could marry, but slavery is a bad idea. (Catechism, 2414)

Ur-Nammu’s Sumeria wasn’t a perfect society.

Two millennia later, Rome was building roads which tied their empire together. The roads, like my country’s Interstate highways, had military uses.

But they also helped folks travel and trade with each other.

Roman law was more complex than Ur-Nammu’s code, and arguably an improvement. Slavery, however, was still legal; but folks could still change their status. We get a look at that in Acts 22:2529.

Watermills let folks process materials like grain, ore, or wood, without having people or livestock providing power. Locks on Necho’s Canal made moving bulk cargo a lot easier.

Rome’s wasn’t a perfect society.

Radioactive Rubble and Law

Another two millennia, and slavery still exists. But it’s illegal in several countries.

Even more remarkable, I think: it’s becoming unfashionable.

That’s progress. Agonizingly slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

We’ve made some other major changes over the last few centuries. I think that’s a good thing, but some folks don’t.

International law in the sense of agreements between rulers, predates nations; but didn’t get traction until the First Geneva Convention. That was 152 years back now.

The Articles of Confederation was, arguably, an early effort at supranational law: a form of international law, based on sovereign nations giving some of their rights to a supranational authority.

The Articles of Confederation didn’t work, but the United States Constitution has held up for about 227 years, with only one major internal war. We’re still tweaking it, but I think it’s a good effort.

While digging out from World War II’s rubble — some of it radioactive — many folks decided that enough was enough. Some still act as if they prefer slaughtering each other in wholesale lots as a conflict resolution strategy.

I don’t.

I also don’t trust the United Nations1 any more than I do America’s Congress: but I’m pretty sure that it’s better than the alternative.

And I’m quite sure that we can do better.

Looking Back

(From D. Gordon E. Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Folks who thought science and technology, and better education, would solve all our problems were overly-optimistic. I’m oversimplifying the Idea of Progress something fearful, and I think they had a point.

I’m living in “the future,” which isn’t nearly as good — or bad — as folks hoped or feared in my youth. On the whole, I like it: partly because I remember ‘the good old days,’ and what came before.

The McCormick Reaper, patented in 1837, didn’t end world hunger.

But it was part of a process that arguably started about a dozen centuries back. Around the mid-17th century, rapidly-changing technology and economic systems streamlined growing and distributing food.

Food still isn’t getting to all the folks who need it: but I think it’s a distribution issue.

Oliver Wendel Holmes Sr. published “The Contagiousness of puerperal fever” in 1843.

Ignaz Semmelweis also noticed that fewer women died after childbirth when doctors washed their hands. That was 1847. Quite a few doctors didn’t like the idea of personal hygiene, but many years and unnecessary deaths later they started washing.

I’m not at all sorry to see more women get back into the healing arts, and that’s another topic.2

Thomas Beddoes and James Watt developed a machine that produced “Factitious Airs,” nitrous oxide; publishing their results in 1794.

Laughing gas” was a moderately popular recreational drug for the upper crust by the early 1800s. Humphry Davy was a nitrous oxide addict, and used it as a hangover cure. Several decades later, doctors started using it as an anesthetic.

We’ve gotten a lot better at pain management since then. I can use, or endure, pain. But controlling it is okay, and can be a good idea. (Catechism, 14311490, 2279)

Francis Ronalds developed an electric telegraph in 1816. The British Admiralty promptly rejected it as “wholly unnecessary,” but wireless telegraph eventually caught on.

The RMS Carpathia’s wireless operator learned that the Titanic needed help, a bit late, and the Radio Act of 1912 required ships to continuously listen for radio distress signals.

Working for Future Generations

(From Diliff, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Today’s world doesn’t have any perfect societies: mine included, although I like being an American, on the whole. I also like being Catholic: part of an outfit that’s literally catholic, καθολικός, universal, not tied to one era or culture.

We’ve been passing along the same message for two millennia: God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. (Ephesians 1:35; John 3:17; Catechism, 52, 1825)

We’re helping build a better world, one with a greater degree of justice and charity, and respect for “the transcendent dignity of man.” (Catechism, 19281942, 24192442)

More accurately, that’s what we should be doing. Some of us don’t act as if it’s true, but that doesn’t change our ‘to-do’ list.

Building a better world for future generations is a reasonable extension of a few basic ideas: that each of us should love God, love our neighbor, and see everyone as our neighbor.3

If we help others keep what is good and just in our societies, change what is not, and act as if we really believe that loving our neighbors makes sense: I think we can make a difference. We must be patient, though.

Folks can’t be forced to embrace truth: particularly when it means giving up some cherished injustice, or long-established privileges. But I am convinced that truth wins — eventually.

Maybe, if we keep working at it, two millennia from now we’ll have an “international authority with the necessary competence and power” to resolve conflicts without war. (Catechism, 23072317; “Gaudium et Spes,” 79 § 4)

(Cityscape, Inlakechh/Marco Bauriedel, used w/o permission.)

And two millennia after that, we’ll still have social ills.4 Humanity has an enormous backlog of unresolved issues. But like I said: we’re making progress. Slowly.

Posts that aren’t entirely unrelated:

1 Groundwork for the European Union got started the same year, 1945, but the EU’s launch was 1958. I have no idea how long it will last, but think the basic idea is a good one. Certainly better than more-or-less-constant warfare.

2 Happily, we’re recovering (my viewpoint) some measure of wisdom. One of my sisters-in-law is a radiologist; and my wife a self-taught expert on how to find and prepare healthy food, and appropriate use of herbs.

I haven’t researched this, but it seems to me that the wounded hero in old stories would get help from a woman who knew where to find useful plants. The old coot next door might be useful for other reasons.

I don’t know what went so hideously wrong in the millennium since Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote “Physica” and “Causae et Curae.” She’s credited with starting scientific natural history in Germany. She studied healing uses for various plants, stones, fish, reptiles, and animals.

This is a good idea. (Catechism, 2288)

Trying to force spirits to cure disease is not allowed, for pretty much the same reason that divination is a bad idea. (Catechism, 21162117)

3 I say that a lot. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 2196)

4 It’s possible that our Lord will return before the 61st century. But as I’ve said before, I’ll leave the ‘big picture’ decisions up to God:

My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that our long watch has barely begun; and that’s yet another topic.

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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15 Responses to Authority, Superstition, Progress

  1. I suppose whether we’re progressing or regressing depends on where one’s values and interests lie. Human beings, it seems to me, are prone to boredom, insecurity and dissatisfaction. These three elements alone, I think, cause, have caused, and will continue to cause strife and violence in our world.

    • I suspect difficulties in defining “progress” contributed to the Idea of Progress’ decline. No matter what the criteria, seeing it as a nearly straight-line progression (! there’s a better term, I hope) doesn’t fit reality.

      About boredom, insecurity,and dissatisfaction; I would add selfishness, which is arguably very close to insecurity.

      Some folks have had good reason to feel insecure, of course: in part,I strongly suspect, because others have been selfish.

      I think *any* aspect of human nature – even self-esteem, which can be healthy – can and has caused trouble. That doesn’t make human nature bad; and that, as I am fond of saying, is another topic. 😉

      Thank you for taking time to respond.

  2. Brian, the BC discussion board seems to have been shut down. So I’ll try to catch your posts here at your blog. Always a pleasure to read your highly informative and well-written articles. I’m on Twitter if you ever care to search me out there. Martyrubin@nothingprofound

    • Thank you for the heads-up, nothingprofound. And the good words.

      I’m not as active on Twitter as I am on Google Plus, but touch base there periodically: and will look for you.

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