Friday, November 30, 2012

The Miracle of Freedom

Book Review : The Miracle of Freedom
Authors : Chris Stewart, Ted Stewart
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "The Miracle of Freedom : Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World"

Do you think that we are extremely lucky to be born in these times ? I do. My understanding of History suggests that, common people on an average have never lived a better life. In many parts of the world, people have the freedom to self-govern. It's not a perfect world, there is hunger and oppression in many countries, but remember, just a couple of centuries ago, democracy was virtually unknown to the most of the planet. Even in Western Countries with established democracies, suffrage became universal only in last 150 years or so.

All throughout history, almost everywhere in the world, lives of commoners had been considered near meaningless by whatever form of regime that existed. Wars and destruction have been all too frequent. The chance of being born to slavery was always much higher than being born in a privileged family.

Today's democratic system is not a logical outcome of any evolutionary process. It happened by chance. Considering how fragile it is in many societies, it's continuation is not a guarantee either. So how did our species come to this social destination that values individual freedom, and pursuit of happiness for everyone above some vague glory for a king or a religion ?

That is an enormously fascinating subject that the authors Chris Stewart (Republican Congressman from Utah) and Ted Stewart (Chief Judge of US District Court in Utah) tackle in their book. Or should I say, claim to tackle in this book.

First the good part. Their position about the exceptional state of today's political system is easy to agree with. They have a knack of engaging writing and make this a page-turner. The format of interleaving history, with stories of completely fictional characters works most of the time. Much of the presented history is accurate.

The bad news is plenty. I have no issues with their choice of events. I didn't always agree with the importance they give to a certain event, but it's a subjective choice. The problem is not this choice. The problem is the assertions they make.

If I have to summarize the book's arguments in once sentence, it is this. These key events saved Christianity and Western Europe, hence we have a political system that is based on individual freedom.

That's a bold claim bordering on propaganda. Especially the Christianity part. It's really hard to accept that any organized religion can be given credit for capitalism and freedom of thought. I am always willing to listen to a well-reasoned argument. No such argument came forth in the book. Instead, just a lot of assertions are made. Even for the not-religious aspect, arguments are not strong enough. I don’t think the defeat of Xerxes saved the world. Because I don’t think there is any evidence that the Greek kings were in support for democracy, and by all accounts the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great was famous for its respect for human rights.

Although I am not a religious person, I happen to have a favorable view of most religions. I think a lot of good has come from Christianity or any other religions. I am not making a politically correct statement. I very sincerely think that, even when you subtract all the atrocities committed in the name of the religion, the impact of religion on human happiness is still positive. That's just my viewpoint on this gray area. Nevertheless, I simply cannot accept that capitalism and freedom derived from Christianity.

On the other hand, I do agree somewhat with authors about the positive contributions of the Western Europe to the development of democracy and capitalism. This is another touchy subject for most people. But it is not as gray subject to me. Foundation of most of the "modern" achievements in all forms of human thinking indeed happened in Western Europe. This is not to say, that no other society achieved anything, or have not made any contribution. Hence the keyword "modern". Why this happened is a complex subject, and I encourage everyone to read Pulitzer Prize winning "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond - one of the best books I have read.

But was this achieved in Europe because of Christianity or in spite of it ? The authors agree that there was a dark medieval period due to corruption in the Church, but still claim that Christianity is somehow responsible for reason and freedom of thought. That's simply an overreach. I am aware that most of the scientists, including Newton and Darwin, were Christian and religious. Still, if Christianity played a role in their discoveries and inventions, it was miniscule. And what about the political thinkers and philosophers, who formulated the theories and affected our way of thinking ? How much of the credit for the work done by all the thinkers from Adam Smith to Carl Marx can be attributed to Christianity - probably none.

If there were no religious angle to their arguments, the book would have had great merit. As it is, I guess this book will have an appeal to someone leaning towards the Conservative Christian spectrum of politics. For most others, it will be frustratingly unsatisfying.

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