Monday, March 03, 2014

Things People Never Really Believed

This post occurred to me because I've been thinking a lot about an upcoming post on religion and the state, or specifically, Islam and the state.  This has brought me head on into the claims, by jihadis, non-muslims, talking birds and probably spacemen, that one of the hallmarks of Islam is "conversion by the sword".   I can't believe that average people of average intelligence and average sanity, anywhere in the world, speaking any language, practicing any faith, could ever really believe that you can change someone's mind by threatening to kill them.

Looking around for information on that got me thinking, how many other dumb things do we believe about other cultures or historic beliefs?

A. I can't believe they believed it factoid #1:

The Versailles treaty punished Germany unfairly, and led the Germans to embrace fascism and start World War II.

Ironically, one of the recent issues of WWII magazine has an article dedicated to dispelling the notion that the Versailles Treaty was an unfair, terrible burden on the depression-struck Germans, and no wonder the were all p'd off and elected Ghengis Khan's little brother.  Unfortunately, I apparently threw out the article, so what I've culled below is from Wikipedia.

Hitler fought in the first World War and attained the rank of colonel (hence the barbed taunt, "the little colonel").  He had  been appointed chancellor by Paul van Hindenburg, a hero to German-speakers who had played a great roll in strategic WWI victories.  So he would have almost certainly known that the represantitives from Germany at the time of the treaty had offered to pay $55 bilion in reparations.  Instead, the Treaty demanded $51 billion dollars.

The article also points out that while there was much uproar over the so-called "German guilt" clause, which states that Germany and her allies must accept responsibility in the war, but that this was pretty normal for treaties of the time; that is, that the losers would be charged with the expenses (the same happens in American civil lawsuits today).

Finally, of the $51 billion charged, Germany only ended up paying $20 billion, 12.5 of which came from American loans, and the rest of which was goods:  coal, railway supplies, etc.  Herbert Hoover encouraged an end to the payments despite the fact that they had not all been paid, and they were indefinitely suspended in 1932.

There was political outcry over several things that were misread or purposely misrepresented to the German people, and there were marchers in the German streets with signs saying "Reparations unfair" and "We will not be vassals" (an odd statement considering how much their government borrowed from Wall Street).  One was the idea noted above that Germany was the only country making reparations (all Central Powers countries were).  Another problem is that the Inter-Allied Reparations committee, for reasons that are oblivious to me at this time, released a statement in 1921 (three years after the treaty) that the "total sum due" from Germany was 132  billion Marks.  It wasn't.  According to Wikipedia, this was a bluff meant to frighten the German people, and it no doubt did a good job.

Now, if you look at Germany towards the end of the first world war there can be no doubt that she suffered greatly.  From 1914 to 1919 Britain conducted a naval blockade, aided by allies, to keep much food and other necessities from getting to Germany.  The German Department of Public Health in 1918 declared 763,000 Germans had died as a result of the blockade (an academic study ten years' later suggested the number was closer to 400,000).

But it is disingenious to say that those who knew better (Hitler, von Hindenberg, high officials during the war)actually believed that the Versailles treaty itself was unusual in its punitiveness, or that it gave them any kind of license for the attrocities they were about to commit.

B.  I don't believe they believed it factoid number 2:

The earth is flat, Christopher Columbus!  You'll fall right off!

I'm indebted to the report of Brian Dunning on Skeptoid for this one.

No one ever believed the world was flat, at least until the early 20th century when authors of children's books apparently thought Columbus too boring without embellishing him with brilliance.

I always suspected this.  I remember reading a book about Christopher Columbus as a kid, in which the young future mariner is thinking about boats coming into the harbor (this is accompanied by a beautiful 2 page picture of the lad standing on the beach, watching the sail of a ship come over the horizon).  The narrator says that the child realized that if he saw the tip of the sail of a ship on the horizon before the ship itself, the world couldn't be flat!  It must be a globe!

And I remember thinking...maybe not right then, but a little bit later...wait.  Wouldn't the sailors in the ships already know that?

Exactly.  How about the ancient Phoenicians, for example, or the sailors of ancient Rome?

C.  I don't believe they believed it factoid number 3:

The Spanish Inquisition converted Jews by force.

The Spanish Inquisition didn't convert Jews by force.  It forced Jews to pretend they converted.

This may seem absolutely obvious to some;  it always did to me.  But in the modern parlance, when we talk of Muslims converting Christians "by the sword" or the need for Christians (or anyone) never to talk about their faith because their views will infringe on the rights of others, I worry that there are a lot of people out there who believe that one's faith or other deeply held belief is so fragile that it can be "forced" out of someone.

A related oddity I see many times is the way people freak out when information comes out of a Southern Baptist conference saying that there are so many people on the earth who have been saved, and the remainder will go to hell unless they convert.

Yep, that's what Southern Baptists believe, and they run this study every so often because their job, as deliniated in Matt 28:16-20, is to make disciples [of Jesus Christ].  It's a belief that's actually pretty well-meaning.  Phil Donohue-not a Southern Baptist-once asked an atheist who was debating a Christian, "If you were driving on a lonely mountain road, and someone ran up to you warning that a brakeless semi truck was heading your way from a place you couldn't see, and you needed to get out of the road.....wouldn't you be glad he told you?"  Exactly.  Maybe the guy's delusional, maybe the truck was under control again by the time it reached you, or maybe the truck came careening by and you were relieved you took the guy's advice.  But you wouldn't be offended by him in any case and wouldn't think "He is condemning me to be hit by a truck!"

And even if Southern Baptists aren't always well meaning....either you agree with them or don't.  If you're saying "they're condemning me to hell", how are they doing that, if you don't agree with them?  Especially if there's no hell?  But even if you believe in your heart they are wrong, I can't imagine why you would think anything other than "those crazy Southern Baptists.  Boy are they wrong."

In any case....Al Kresta, the Catholic talk show host on Ave Maria syndicated radio, has said that the Pope nullified all  papers indicating renaissance Jews had been baptized....because they did so under duress.  Which didn't help the Jews much any, and they probably kept pretending to be Christian to the point that their kids never knew they were supposed to be Jewish.    But it also goes to show that, aside from highly unbalanced clerics, nobody probably goes around thinking they can force people to change their mind about something with violence.

Caveat: the 2 + 2 = 5 conundrum

In a great film adaptation of 1984, after the protaganist Winston is tricked by Big Brother into anti-government thoughts and activities, he's tortured.  After he's been tortured, the torturer (OBrien) holds up 4 fingers and asks, "How many fingers am I holding up?" "4," says Winston, and he's shocked or bitten by rats or whatever again. O Brien helpfully notes that he'd been holding up 5 fingers.  He holds up 4 fingers again.  "4," Winston says, and gets punished again.  They do this again and again until Winston's vision goes blurry.  He literally starts to see  5 fingers.

So I will allow for modern brain washing techniques to be able to change what's in our minds. But in general, I believe each one of us is alone responsible for what is in our head, and that it's not so fragile or susceptible as to be fully negated against our will by someone who means us harm.  Even under torture, I think people told they must not think something would do what everyone has done in those circumstances:  pretend to convert to the others' way of thinking, while keeping your own beliefs more jealously guarded.

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