Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Currently reading a great little book on minority groups in the Middle Ages: Sex, Dissidence and Damnation by Jeffrey Richards. Focusing on all the fun aspects of the Middle Ages; you know- lepers, heretics, homosexuals, jews, witches and sexual adventurers of all stripes. Basically all the groups that had trouble with giving mother Church what it wanted- total control over their minds and genitals.
The middle and late Middle Ages saw newly minted Christian sects popping up all around Europe, especially in south and east of France. The still hegemonic Catholic church was not amused. The major heresies of the period provide another nice example of how religious epistemologies are, at their core, fundamentally dependent on coercion and control of information in order to maintain their existence. Time and again the Church followed the same pattern when “dealing” with these heresies: first an attempt at open(ish) debate and “competition of ideas” followed by recourse to banning/killing/terrorizing their opponents when the debates didn't go their way or proved irresolvable.
It didn't matter that these competitors shared few attributes: some were stringent interpretations of the faith such as the Waldensians, who took the apocalyptic asceticism of the New testament seriously and denounced the bejeweled peacocks of the wealthy Church. After a short period of indulgence, the Church resorted to repression and execution of Waldensians and villagers that supported them, kicking off a few centuries of massacres. Others pushed the theological envelop until it was barely recognizable as Christianity. The Cathars, importing dualist and Gnostic ideas from Eastern Europe, held that the material world was the creation of the evil deity Rex Mundi (“King of the World”). The same pattern of attempted incorporation and persuasion transforming into slaughter followed. While the Waldensians survived clandestinely until the present, the Cathars were completely annihilated.
In each case, it looks like the really crucial point was that there was no way to decide the truth or falsity of the claims of any of the combatants. Of course the Church couldn’t battle and win against either of these sects in the realm of debate- how could anyone say one of these doctrines was true and the other false, when they’re all equally bereft of any evidence? Remember that unlike science, unlike any form of evidence-based rational investigation, religious claims are proud to proclaim that faith in the absence of evidence is one of the supreme virtues.