"Muslims need … a new Enlightenment, a movement away from brutality." This remark came from a friend of mine as we were discussing the problem of faith in the public square. My friend is by his own description, "a militantly agnostic Jew", a philosophy professor who loves to debate anything that comes to hand.
His remark was in response to a discussion of Islamic law. While I acknowledge Muslims are to be admired for their rigorous prayer life, their marvelous emphasis on almsgiving and their belief in Jesus’ virgin birth and consequent great respect for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Islamic system of law is another matter. Sharia is brutal and cannot be permitted to exist.
My friend did not disagree, but he did point out something worth considering. Islamic sharia is not substantially different from the Mosaic criminal code in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Both permit polygamy. Both require the stoning of adulterers, blasphemers and those who lead others away from the faith, although for adultery, Hebrew law required the death of both parties, not just the woman. Both permit the death penalty for children – Hebrew children could be stoned to death for disobeying their parents. The similarities are really rather striking.
However, there are differences. The most obvious? One faith still insists on following a brutal law. The other does not. Why is that? My friend insists on the need for a new Enlightenment, but it was not the Enlightenment that caused Jews to stop stoning disobedient children.
The Real Enlightenment
It may not be politically correct to say this, but the primary reason the law code in the Torah is no longer followed is simple: from the late 300’s AD through the 1900's, Jews lived entirely under the dominion of Christian rulers who forbad the enforcement of Hebraic criminal laws. While the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D. thereby destroying the entire Hebraic system of animal sacrifice, it was Christianity that weaned Jews away from the sharia-like aspects of the Hebraic law.
To this day, polygamy is not illegal in Judaism – rabbis simply forbad the practice in the Middle Ages because it brought undue attention from Christian authorities. Similarly, while many of the Jewish rights to execute were taken from them by pagan Rome, the pagans had not removed all rights of execution. Both Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, for instance, attest that Jewish authorities could execute anyone who defiled the Temple, even a Roman citizen.
But, since 391 A.D., when Theodosius I made Christian Faith the official religion of Rome, that same Christian Faith has influenced the creation and application of law ever since. Because of the Christian dominance, Jews lost the ability to implement any part of their criminal law code. They retained only the right to continue the ritual worship aspects, such as circumcision and the observance of holy days like Yom Kippur and Passover. The Christian enlightenment which began in 391 fundamentally changed Jewish faith practices. No one talks about this, but it is the case. Instead, everyone talks about the Enlightenment and its civilizing influence on the world.
The French Enlightenment
Did the French Enlightenment bring a civilizing influence to the world? There is scant evidence for it. Like my professorial friend, many people suffer from a misunderstanding of what the movement was about. Despite its protestations to the contrary, it was not about human freedom, sweetness and light, liberty, equality or fraternity. The French Enlightenment was about manipulating blood-thirsty mobs in order to commit outrageous barbarities: nothing more.
The French Revolution, the child of the Enlightenment, produced the first totalitarian state. As revolutionaries seized power, mass slaughter became the rule of the day. Like Lenin’s grab for power in Russia over a century later, the French Revolution was primarily an urban phenomenon, in fact, primarily a Parisian event. Indeed, Marx, Lenin and the butchers who followed their logic consciously modeled their work on the French. For this reason, the atheistic appeals to reason and the barbarously violent attempts to crush all religious sentiment are different only in degrees of horrific magnitude.
In France, enlightened revolutionaries required neighbor to inform on neighbor and children to inform on their parents. Parisian jails were emptied, everyone within being mercilessly torn apart by bloodthirsty crowds who paraded through the streets with human heads on pikes as their banners. Priests, nuns and other religious were tortured to death, beheaded, burned alive, or tied together on rafts that were then sunk in the river. The decapitated corpses of men and women were joined in obscene ways and displayed for public amusement while still living men and women were stripped of their clothes, bound together naked and thrown alive into the river in a "republican wedding."
When the Vendee region fought the obscenities of Parisian revolutionaries to the extent of raising an army to repel Parisian soldiers, they were ruthlessly put down and a campaign to exterminate every man, woman and child in the region was begun.
Pregnant women were sliced open and left to bleed to death as their children, with umbilical cords still uniting them to their mothers, were stomped into bloody mush before their eyes or sliced to pieces. Women and girls were repeatedly raped, used again and again until they died, but though many died during the course of the brutalities, this did not stop the violations of their bodies. Corpses littered the streets; in some areas the dead were so numerous they formed pyramids. The enlightened revolutionaries also enjoyed roasting women and children alive – maximal pleasure was gotten by placing the victims in a cold oven that was then heated. Alternatively, children were thrown out of windows and caught on bayonets.
The revolution not only beheaded nearly every one of its own original leaders, it also ended by producing Napolean, the short Corsican whose war upon the continent of Europe would be emulated by atheists like Stalin and Hitler. Of course, these would in turn be emulated by other atheists, mass murderers like Pol Pot and Fidel Castro.
This is the Enlightenment. To insist on enlightenment rather than sharia seems hardly worth the effort.
It is a commonplace to point to the hundreds of Christians throughout history who have launched barbarities similar to those sanctioned by the criminal law codes of Islam, the Torah, or the Enlightenment. However, a further fact is not so often noted. Only the Christian faith has been powerful enough to stop those who launched such barbarities. Whether Christian or Jew, Muslim or enlightened atheist, the only law that forces each human being to respect the dignity of every other is Christian law. If Islam is still barbarously cruel, if Islam has never been enlightened, that is due to the fact that Islam has never fully been brought under Christian dominion.