Historical Narratives Affect our Views

When I was in high school, I used to take classes on “World Civilizations”. What that really meant was that we studied a detailed history of Western Europe, such as the wars between the French, English and Spain, a history of Rome, an overview of the Greeks, the splits within the Church, and other uniquely Western European lessons. The few times we looked into other parts of the world, it was Egypt under the Pharaohs, maybe China and parts of South America where (again, related to Europe) the Spanish explorers had colonized the land.

Perhaps the course was misnamed. Why is this a big deal? While this seems trivial, one’s view of the historical narrative profoundly affects the conclusions that one derives thereof. And though these conclusions are solely dependent on what part of the world you study, our ignorance leads us to believe that these conclusions are objective and true. Perhaps the most vehemently defended example of this is the separation of “Church and State”, which was codified in the Establishment Clause of the constitution. Consider the following historical narratives and the conclusions that are drawn from it:

During the European “Dark Ages”, the papacy held considerable authority over state affairs. This time was strongly correlated with the worst social problems Europe had ever seen. To list a few, widespread poverty, disease, illiteracy, opposition to scientific inquiry, persecution of the Jews, and many others. Continued scientific development was perceived as hostile to Biblical interpretation of reality and violently opposed. The Dark Ages are regarded as the worst period for Europe. This era was succeeded by the Renaissance, a time when government and intellectual thought were secularized. This was correlated with the greatest advancements and achievements that Europe had seen in the fields of economics, art, science, medicine, and others.

Those who study exclusively Western History might conclude that state-law directed by a religion stunted human development. Conversely, secular governments leads to economic, social and scientific progress. Therefore, it behooves a people to opt for a secular government over one led by a religious institution. In other words, as we Americans call it, the “Separation of Church and State”. Religion is strictly a personal matter. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Mark 12:17)

Now compare this to the Muslim historic experience. When Muslims applied Islamic law to the state, this was correlated with the greatest era of Islamic rule, nostalgically referred to as the “Golden Age of Islam“. Muslims excelled in all areas of human intellectual endeavor, such as philosophy, science and medicine. Islamic intellectual thought never perceived continued scientific developments as conflicting with Islamic belief. Instead, they were an explanation of the way God acts in the universe. This is in sharp contrast to recent developments in the Muslim world, where Islamic law has been replaced with secularism. (It is a wide-spread myth that Muslim-dominated countries adhere to Islamic law. Anyone who has even basic knowledge of Islamic legal principles would immediately recognize that literally all Muslim-majority states are secularist. At best, only some token aspects of the society implement Islamic law ). And in complete opposition to the European experience, the Muslims are now going through their dark ages, with economic stagnation, oppression of women, wars, corruption and countless other social problems.

If this was your historic narrative, you might conclude that the implementation of religious law leads to human progress and success. Therefore, it behooves us to implement religious law in the state. Conversely, secularism is correlated with societal degeneration.

The conclusions of the West and the Muslim world are diametrically opposed, not because one is objectively correct and the other is objectively wrong. The real difference lays in their historical experiences. Unfortunately, we Americans and Westerners in general (of which I am unapologetically one) are profoundly ignorant of the history of other parts of the world. Things we take for granted stem from our uniquely Western historical experience. If we take the time to educate ourselves about the rest of the world regarding their differing presumptions and unique historical narratives, we will gain a better appreciation of why others are the way they are, or even come to question concepts we take for granted.

The above is not only true regarding historical matters, it is also true regarding all aspects of the human experience, such as philosophy, economics, gender dynamics, religion, and more…

Comments? Thoughts?