VII. Heaven & Hell: Of Religion and Superstition

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo


Men have greater faith in those things that they do not understand. We soon believe what we desire. Prudent indeed are those who only believe what they see. For thinking is very far from knowing. That we can think of something does not mean that it exists. The more one knows, the less one believes. Only a fool believes everything[1]. He that knows nothing doubts nothing. And doubt is the key of knowledge[2]. For he that nothing questions, nothing learns.

In January 1443, Sultan Mehmed II (1432-1481), one of the great military geniuses in history, summoned his ministers to his presence in Adrianople. His message was simple and straightforward. The Ottoman Empire would never be safe while the heavily fortified city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, remained in Christian hands. The city must be taken and the time was ripe for the Ottomans to be victorious. Mehmed mobilised all the resources at his disposal and recruited hordes of mercenaries. In total, he amassed a standing army of eighty thousand troops, twenty thousand irregulars, and 70 artillery pieces.

Within Constantinople, Emperor Constantine could only muster some 7,000 troops to garrison the 13 miles of triple walls that surrounded the city. On 5 April, Mehmet sent a message to the Emperor as required by Islamic law undertaking that all his subjects would be spared in return for immediate, unconditional and voluntary surrender. Receiving no reply, the Sultan started the bombardment of the city on the following day. To completely encircle the Christians, the Ottoman Turks dragged around 70 light ships across a mile of land to enter the upper end of the Golden Horn. Constantinople was completely cut off from any help that might come at that crucial period.

With no hope of reinforcements, the Christians prayed for a miracle. But instead of signs of divine intervention, omens came of the looming defeat. On 22 May, a lunar eclipse occurred. Several days later, the holiest icon of the Virgin slipped from the platform as it was carried around the street. Soon afterwards, a violent thunderstorm caused the procession to be abandoned. The next morning the city was shrouded in fog, never before seen at the end of May. That same night, the dome of the Church of Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia, was surrounded by an unearthly red glow that crept from the base of the structure to the submit before disappearing completely. For the Muslim Turks who saw the light, this was interpreted that the Church would soon be illuminated by their true faith, Islam. For the Christian Byzantines, the Spirit of God had deserted the city.

Then the inevitable climax came. On 29 May, the Sultan started the assault with a wave of irregulars, the bashi bazouks. Badly armed, untrained, and undisciplined, they were beaten back by the defenders of the city. Then the Sultan launched the second wave of soldiers. These were highly trained regular standing troops. But the defenders, led by the Emperor himself rallied his troops and in a desperate counterstroke routed the Turks yet again. Flying into a rage, Mehmed launched the Janissaries, the elite regiment and imperial guard of the Turk army, against the triple walls of Constantinople. The Janissaries fell upon the city with ranks unbroken. Different divisions took turns to lead the assault. Some fought while others waited and rested.

In a desperate attempt to repel the Turks, the Emperor Constantine himself plunged into the heat of battle and was never seen or heard again. Soon a Turkish flag was seen flying from a tower towards the north. The Turkish irregulars had found a small door, half-hidden at the foot of a tower. The Turks swamped into the city and the looting, plunder, murder and rape begin. Mehmed prohibited the destruction of public buildings. The great church Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. The great city of Constantinople, the eastern bastion of Christendom, and the capital of the Byzantine Empire was no more. The Roman Empire of the East founded by Constantine the Great came to an end after one thousand, one hundred, and twenty-three years and eighteen days. In 1930, Constantinople was renamed as Istanbul.

Why did a miracle fail to manifest to save the city of Constantinople from the hands of the Ottoman Turks? Was not Sodom and Gomorrah completely destroyed by the fires of heaven for their cruelty and decadence? Did not similar miracles happen when Moses lead the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt and into the Promised Land? The walls of Jericho, according to the Jews, fell not only to the sound of trumpets but by the divine hand of God. So why did the Creator let such evil befall onto the city of Constantinople? Surely some of the inhabitants of the city were innocent bystanders and were helpless to the onslaught that followed the collapse of the Byzantine Empire.

God is above all. All must be as God will. All things are possible with God[3].’ Then why did a miracle not happen to stop disasters from happening and save the lives of innocent people? “Either God can prevent evil and he will not; or he wishes to prevent it and he cannot,” stated Voltaire in fury after clerics blamed the earthquake at Lisbon that killed 30,000 people as a punishment for the sins of the citizens within the city. A miracle defined David Hume, is a violation of the laws of nature produced by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent.

In Hume’s controversial essay, On Miracles, he stated that a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. Following this assertion, the naturalistic explanation must always be more rational to adopt over miracles even in the cases where we do not know what the naturalistic explanation might be. If evidence is the sole criteria to justify a belief, then surely the natural laws that are established through observation and experimentation is more reliable than miracles based on the testimonies of selected individuals! The evidence for miracles must always be weaker than the uniform operations of the laws of nature. Hume famously remarked that, “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.”

The famous mathematician, Blaise Pascal, however, had something different to say. According to Pascal’s Wager argument, to wager that God really does exist is significantly better than the results of wagering that God does not exist because if one wagers the latter, and is mistaken, one will be denied the eternal rewards of the afterlife. While such a wager itself may be a contradiction to religions that proclaim that one can only gain salvation through faith, Pascal further argues that one would win in this earthly life as well by believing in God’s existence and living a good, true and honest life.

Similar to Pascal, William James in his essay, The Will to Believe, stated that the justification of one’s willingness to live by his beliefs is because one cannot afford to suspend judgment until one is certain. Each person said James, must act as he thinks best. At the end of his essay, he wrote, “we stand on the mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is a right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who wrote The Critique of Pure Reason, would pose a different view on religion and miracles. For Kant, there is a limit to what pure reason can accomplish in knowledge. While his book was a maze of metaphysical problems and solutions, the outcome of its inference was simple; religion cannot be proved by theoretical reasons. A huge portion of his book was devoted in its earnest to argue that a benevolent creator cannot be proved by reason because God is an entity beyond the realm of sense-experience and pure reason.

But Pascal, James nor Kant can argue the fact that the various religions that we find in the world today are often similar in doctrines and in practice. All religions are based on the principle that we must perform certain rites or believe in certain things in order to gain salvation. Most, if not all religions, believe in life after death, in miracles and in punishment for evil. Similar as they are, they fight and squabble among each other, even within the same religion there are factions, denominations, and the rivalry for power and influence. While all reject superstitions, many religious practitioners are themselves terrified of superstitious things. What then can we say of people that do not practice what they preach?

It is commonly said that God moves in a mysterious way[4]. If there were a Creator both omnipotent and omnipresent, would this Creator not be, as Kant has insisted, beyond the realm of human understanding? Maybe the ancient Chinese were right. As Confucius has famously remarked, “until you know about life, how can you know about death?” Emperor Kangxi was told the Jesuits of his court, “is it possible that you are always concerned about a world you have not entered and count for almost nothing the one in which you are now living? Believe me, everything in its own time.”

In the mid-twelfth century, the city of Toledo was retaken by the Spanish and was once again a Christian capital. Its greatest mosque was converted into a cathedral. By the end of the fifteen-century, the crowns of Aragon and Castile were united and the Muslims were expelled from Granada, marking the end of Islamic Spain. In 1492, the Jews were also expelled from Spain. While those who believe in miracles would talk of the mysterious ways of God, it would be prudent to live by two principles. Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry[5]. And God helps them that help themselves[6].

[1] An adaptation of Proverbs 14:15

[2] A Persian proverb

[3] Adapted from Mathew 19:26.

[4] The first line of one of Cowper’s Olney Hyms (1799)

[5] Advice allegedly given by Oliver Cromwell to is troops while crossing a river during his Irush campaign (1649).

[6] First cited in this form by Benjamin Franklin (1736) but the thought is much older.

4 Responses to “VII. Heaven & Hell: Of Religion and Superstition”
  1. Pascal’s wager only works where there is god posited is a logical possibility; the god of the bible is as abusrd as a square triangle, and does not qualify to contestant in the god game.

    The biblical god is said to be a non-lying and loving god. Love is defined as patient (1 Corinthians 13), then this very same god is said to be so impatient, that upon every human’s very 1st sin, he, in his wrath, deems that human worthy of eternal torture.

    Sorry, but you’ve got a square triangle of a god on your hands that no amount of evidence can redeem back into coherency.

    If your friend tells you he has a golden square triangle in his pocket, then produces gold flakes as evidence, you don’t need to examine the evidence. You can rest assured your friend is a liar due to the incoherency of the claim.

  2. (My own 1st paragraph was a bit incoherent. Let me try one more time.)

    Pascal’s wager only works where the god posited is a logical possibility; the god of the bible is as absurd as a square triangle, and does not qualify as a contestant in the god game.

    • jamesesz says:

      Dear Phil,

      A valid argument. However, even if a God isn’t good, that does not mean that there is no God. An intelligent supreme Creator may still be around.

      Since “good” is in the eyes of the beholder, I think that the statement that “God is good” needs to be reexamined.

      James Ee

      • Agreed. It only means that there is no Jehovah as defined in the bible.

        Based on the silence, I think that a “personal” god is also rather incoherent, leaving a more deistic god as the only real possibility. The more I study cosmology, the less probable this also seems.

        What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: