Thursday, January 17, 2008

The clash of civilizations

I have just finished reading two novels -- Isabel Allende's Inez of My Soul, and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. They are very different books, set in very different times, but they both ask us to confront a sinister side of ourselves.

Allende's book recounts the Spanish conquest of Chile in the 16th century. As in Mexico and Peru, a small band of conquistadors, with guns, steel, horses and dogs, subdue a vastly larger indigenous Mapuche population. It is a story of mind-bending cruelties on both sides, inspired first and principally by the Spanish: the slaughter of innocents, heinous torture, decapitations, the severing of hands, feet, noses and ears, the heartless imposition of slavery. The Mapuche fight for their freedom and their homeland, the Spanish for God, gold and glory.

Kidd's story is set in South Carolina in the 1960s, as blacks begin to assert their civil rights. I grew up in the American South in the 40s and 50s, and the racial hatred and violence that Kidd describes is heartbreakingly familiar.

One comes away from the books with a depressing awareness of the dark potentials of human nature.

During the 16th-century Spanish conquests and 20th-century American racial apartheid, institutional Christian churches aided and abetted evil. Every contingent of conquistadors had its complement of priests, who wielded the sword as often as the cross. White Southern churches were often bastions of segregation.

Times have changed. Consider the outrage that accompanied the Abu Ghraib revelations, and the vigorous debates about Guantanamo. Western soldiers today by and large act in combat with admirable restraint, in accordance with the revised expectations of their societies. Few churches in the American South today do not welcome blacks, and where prejudice remains it is countered by law.

Religious people were often in the forefront of these revolutions, but I would hold that religion was not the critical transforming factor. It was the Western Enlightenment -- the development of free empirical inquiry, secular democracy, and emphasis on individual rights, together with a corresponding rejection of political and religious absolutisms.

Even as the Spanish conquistadors were hacking their way through Chile, Copernicus was moving the Earth from the center of the universe, Vesalius was tracing the Sierras and Amazons of the human body, and Agricola was compiling a catalogue of new technologies. Of course, the Enlightenment project is not complete; the dark potentialities remain. But in the secular democracies the confirmation of the dignity and intellectual autonomy of every human seems irreversible. It remains to be seen whether these values have global currency.