The other day, while waiting in a doctor's office, I picked up a copy of Smithsonian magazine. There was an interesting article on Rome, which included a sidebar on the HBO series of the same name. The article noted that the show tries to depict ancient Rome as it really was, "without judging by modern, Christian morality." It then quoted Bruno Heller, one of the show's creators, as saying,
Certain things are repressed in our culture, like the open enjoyment of others' pain, the desire to make people submit to your will, the guilt-free use of slaves ... This was all quite normal to the Romans.
(Since I didn't steal the magazine, I'm quoting from memory.)
This is an insightful comment, and it made me think of an article I'd read just a few days earlier, about a conference of skeptics in Amherst, New York, organized by the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz.
For three days, participants planned to explore issues such as physician-assisted suicide, evolution and ethics through the lens of science.
"Unfortunately," Kurtz said, "too many well-meaning people base their conceptions of the universe on ancient books, such as the Quran and the Bible, rather than going directly to the book of nature."
The congress coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Council for Secular Humanism, the arm of the center dedicated to promoting a nonreligious philosophy.
"Going directly to the book of nature" to determine one's moral outlook certainly sounds like a good idea - in theory. But in practice, as Bruno Heller reminds us, it means:
- "the open enjoyment of others' pain"
- "the desire to make people submit to your will," and
- "the guilt-free use of slaves."
Not to mention exposing unwanted infants to the elements, another ancient Roman practice that was ended by "modern, Christian morality."
The dangers of religious extremism are obvious today. What's less obvious are the dangers of the "nonreligious philosophy" Kurtz & Co. advocate. Yes, religion has given us the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch-burnings, and jihads. But it's also given us the concepts of charity, brother-love, respect for innocent life, nonviolent resistance, and the Golden Rule.
The skeptics might want to think about that - before they rush headlong back to the gory glory days of Rome.