January 27, 2006

Why Not Condemn the "Heart Attack" Lifestyle?

Wherein SWMNT again presses me to further support my arguments against homosexuality, first presented in this article: Is Homosexuality a Dysfunction?, and continued in this one: If Homosexuality is a Dysfunction, Why the Condemnation?.
Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the case, but it seems to me that health risks are being used to condemn a behavior as part of a justification for deeming it immoral. If that's the case, it seems to me that there are many behaviors ahead of homosexual related diseases that are more deserving of being labeled "immoral." It's not that we celebrate the "Heart Attack" lifestyle, it's that we don't define as immoral the behaviors related to it.
I think the two issues are being confused here: the moral case against it and the health case — perhaps my own fault for working both angles. The problem is that if one has no problems with sex-on-demand, no concept of how human relations ought to be structured, and no belief in an objective purpose and moral order for humans, then it becomes difficult to argue a strictly moral case for homosexuality itself. In this case, I must resort to a merely pragmatic approach to evaluating whether it is a prudent thing to do or encourage. Although, if it can be agreed that homosexuality is an unhealthy lifestyle, then perhaps it could still be agreed to be "immoral" by some secular standard.

The kinds of health risks are different in many cases for homosexuality than for heart disease. For heart disease it is a matter of poor diet and exercise (to simplify it), which may (or may not) lead inch-by-inch to a problem. But with homosexuality it is more like playing Russian roulette, since any one encounter could result in a sexually transmitted disease, some of which are devastating. It's more meaningful to say, "don't go to bed with that stranger, you might get AIDS" than it is to say, "don't eat that cheese cake, you might have a coronary failure."

It is also not a matter of saying that a bowl of ice cream or a chilidog are intrinsically bad. Our bodies are capable of processing such things in moderation. But there are things about homosexuality that the body was not "designed" to handle with grace, like anal sex. And moderation regarding singularly high-risk behaviors only reduces the number of bullets in the roulette chamber rather than being an ideal preventative measure as with heart health. And I won't even go into any related psycho-social issues, which would be difficult to find parallel in a mere laxity in dietary substance.

Of course we don't affirm those who are couch potatoes and eat burgers and fries for every meal, but I will admit to never having seen Jerry Falwell campaign against saturated fats and cholesterol. It is not that it is considered a virtue in the Christian community; indeed, I would say that abusing your body in this or any other way would be deemed sinful by any theologian that I can think of. However, I do know that James Dobson has dedicated shows to health concerns like this in addition to his shows on sexual issues; and even LifeWay has product lines devoted to health and fitness.

Christianity not only frowns upon the abuse of the body, through dietary means or otherwise, you will actually find numerous Christian ministries dedicated to the cause of health. Of course, there are a few ministries dedicated to serving homosexual causes, but the difference is that the health ministries are not picketed and accused of hate speech and bigotry. Here's a choice example of this, and a choice excerpt:
"If anyone deserves a plague of Biblical proportions right now, it's the Radical Right," said Avenger Liz Harris. Five Avengers stormed the organization's headquarters, carrying signs proclaiming "Queer Love Is Not A Disease," and chanting "Exodus, stop your hate and fear! Help like yours is killing queers!" Once inside, the activists climbed onto the reception desk, shouted "We don't need to be cured," and released 1,000 "locusts" (crickets) in an attempt to shut the operation down.
The thing is, this health cause is already taken up by the culture. Watch any secular talk show long enough or go to any bookstore and you will find a mountain of items on this subject. Christians do not necessarily need to preach the immorality of the heart attack lifestyle; it is already assumed by the culture. In fact, it is almost a morbid obsession in some quarters. It is a bit like the environmentalist movement. Christians should be, and are, concerned about the earth (in a balanced way), but we have little need to jump on a bandwagon that is already swarming with nutballs. Unfortunately, they have managed to turn us off so badly that many Christians don't even want the stigma of being thought of as an "environmentalists," even though that would not technically be a bad thing, and we have as much cause as any to lead that charge.

Your general point, though, is noted and should serve as an indictment of all those Christians who have their Burger King butts parked in their lazy-boys mocking Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It's a wonder that some of us can see well enough to aim our fingers with the kinds of planks found in our eyes.

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January 26, 2006

James Rachels: The Question of Homosexuality

This post is a reply to an excerpt from James Rachels' book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, which was posted on the Smooinaghey blog for my consideration. Here are my thoughts:
More than one gay writer has said that homosexuality is not about who you have sex with; it’s about who you fall in love with.
Well, I guess you can define yourself however you like, and I don't doubt their need for love and relationship, only how it is channeled. But I have to wonder if the prevailing atmosphere of promiscuity (e.g., one-night stands and a liberal view of "monogamy") is just a matter of desperately looking for "love" or a drive to satiate a compulsion. It seems to me, though, that sex is one of the main differentiators between homosexuality and heterosexuality. If this were not so, then Jeff and I could qualify as homosexuals, because of our great platonic "love" for one another. (Sorry Jeff, and those bear hugs make me really nervous sometimes ;)
Moreover, individuals do not choose their sexual orientations ... Thus to say that people should not express their homosexuality is, more often than not, to condemn them to unhappy lives.
I don't mean to be trite, but it occurs to me that I have many desires/orientations that I did not choose, but which I must deny. I would like to be a millionaire but I must resist the compulsion to rob. I have the need for power and fame, but I find I must settle for the mediocrity that I deserve. I am married, but I am sexually orientated to the idea of having every attractive woman I see. And I prefer young women, but my wife is aging every day. Am I obligated to actualize every one of my desires? I think it is understood that some desires can be wrong or extreme, and we incarcerate people daily for acting upon these.

It seems to me that the answer to this question lays not in having the desire, as James seems to be arguing, but in whether or not that desire is an acceptable one. If homosexuality is morally neutral (judged by whatever means), then there is no discussion here, go for it; but if not, then no amount of desire for it makes it appropriate.
If it could be shown that gays and lesbians pose some sort of threat to the rest of society, that would be a powerful argument for the other side. . . . Apart from the nature of their sexual relationships, there is no difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals in their moral characters or in their contributions to society.
First of all, it should be pointed out that James neglects the health controversy in favor of the moral and social point. This is unfortunate, since there are some grounds for debating the "threat to the rest of society" from this perspective.

Second, if you get to define your own criteria for "moral character" and "contributions," then you can make anyone look good. I think James would like to confine it to getting an education, holding a good job, and providing some creative output. I certainly have great reservations in claiming that homosexuals are any more "evil" than any other random population group, but from what I have been able to glean, they at least represent a different kind of culture. This difference seems to include a much higher level of casual sex, recreational drug use, and a raft of psycho-medical ailments. Now, perhaps James denies this, or perhaps he thinks this a morally neutral observation; but if it is true and we think it a shame, then he cannot say that there is no moral difference between the two. The fact that they may make meaningful "contributions" to society in the area of economics, art, and politics would be beside this point.
However, if gay sex were condemned for [functional reasons], a host of other sexual practices would also be condemned: masturbation, oral sex, and even sex by women after menopause.
And so maybe we should think about these things as well, I dunno. But James simply assumes that it is ridiculous to even go there, and uses that presupposition as a form of evidence for his case. So, is he arguing from our moral intuitions that these things are okay, or is he simply leveraging some sacred cows to make his point? Either way, he's got a problem.
The “purpose” of the eyes is to see; is it therefore wrong to use one’s eyes for flirting or for giving a signal? Again, the “purpose” of the fingers may be grasping and poking; is it therefore wrong to snap one’s fingers to keep time with music?
I find these to be very bad examples. Flirting and signaling involves more than the eye and a corruption of "sight" to accomplish, and it's difficult to flirt with what you cannot see. And as to the hand, he makes a spurious assertion that it is merely for "grasping and poking."

James' argument at this point misses the larger concept of sexual/gender teleology. It is not just that the penis and vagina are instruments for reproduction, it is all the things that are implied by that fact, i.e., that the owners of those instruments are made for each other and that reproduction leads to family, which has certain social ramifications. The state has always understood this — especially that the state itself is dependent on the family, which is the whole reason that the state would have any concern at all about this kind of private relationship.
The word unnatural has a sinister sound, it might be understood simply as a term of evaluation. Perhaps it means something like “contrary to what a person ought to be.” But if that is what “unnatural” means, then to say that something is wrong because it is unnatural would be vacuous. It would be like saying thus-and-so is wrong because it is wrong.
Either I don't get this argument, or it's a bad one, or he's just trying to dodge the larger question of teleology. Seems like he's got the distillation of the idea wrong. I think it would more accurately be stated as this: "Thus-and-so is wrong because it is contrary to what a person ought to be." And if we "ought" to be some way, then not being that way is ipso facto wrong. Of course, he can always argue that there is no particular way that we "ought" to be (because there's no God or objective moral order in the universe), but he hasn't even stated that assertion, much less defended it. Indeed, his whole essay appears to presuppose relativism, which would, ironically, mean that it's not "wrong" to suppress homosexuality.
The problem is that you cannot conclude that homosexuality is an abomination simply because it says so in Leviticus unless you are willing to conclude, also, that these other instructions are moral requirements; and in the 21st century anyone who tried to live according to all those rules would go crazy.
It is way too early for you and I to have a theological discussion on this, but it is clear that James is not familiar with the Christian response to this. Now, a Jew, not having the lens of the Messiah through which to see the Old Testament, has a much more difficult road in answering these kinds of theological objections. However, it is interesting to note that James chooses to quote from the Old Testament vs. the New Testament condemnations of homosexuality. And I might also point out that the Leviticus passage is sandwiched between the prohibitions against bestiality and child sacrifice. Yeah, let's just throw it all out categorically.
In any case, nothing can be morally right or wrong simply because an authority says so. If the precepts in a scared text are not arbitrary, there must be some reason for them—we should be able to ask why the Bible condemns homosexuality, and expect an answer.
Maybe he'd like to step up to the throne of God and demand an accounting on this one. I can see him now: "God, you need to explain to me why homosexuality is wrong before I'll change my moral position. Why must I assume that just because men and women are anatomically and psychosocially constructed in a complementary fashion that we are obligated to behave in a way consistent with that fact? And make it a good reason, because if it doesn't jive with my own higher moral standards I am honor-bound to reject it."
But the main point here is not about homosexuality. The main point concerns the nature of moral thinking. Moral thinking and moral conduct are a matter of weighing reasons and being guided by them. But being guided by reason is very different from following one’s feelings. When we have strong feelings, we may be tempted to ignore reason and go with the feelings. But in doing so, we would be opting out of moral thinking altogether. That is why, in focusing on attitudes and feelings, Ethical Subjectivism seems to be going in the wrong direction.
That's weird: this closing paragraph seems to work more in my favor than his, especially since he begins the essay by grounding the whole issue on the homosexual's "strong feelings." Observe:
The most pertinent fact is that homosexuals are pursuing the only way of life that affords them a chance of happiness. Sex is a particularly strong urge—it isn’t hard to understand why—and few people are able to fashion a happy life without satisfying their sexual needs.
I think what he would be forced to argue is that the homosexual's strong feelings trump the strong feelings of their objectors. Unfortunately, there are more objectors than homosexuals.

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January 23, 2006

If Homosexuality is a Dysfunction, Why the Condemnation?

An astute commenter has encouraged me to take my thinking in this article to the next level. In the original article, I make the case for homosexuality being a psychological dysfunction — the product of negative environmental factors in childhood. I am then asked why we should blame or condemn the victim if it is no different from other things that could be the result of a medical condition or upbringing. Why not condemn the physically disabled too? Here are my further thoughts:

There are certainly many other parallels to homosexuality (as a consequence of environmental factors). Some are directly analogous, like alcoholism and abusiveness, and some are not so directly parallel, like asthma and HIV. The distinction between the two is a matter of direct, unmediated, involuntary causality. For example, if a parent hit his child in the head with a baseball bat the child may well receive brain damage. There is a direct causal connection which the child had no hand in processing, reacting to, affirming, or reinforcing.

With alcoholism (assuming an environmental influence), the connection is not determinative, like the bat against the head. It is a matter of conditioning, which requires the child to respond to his upbringing in a way which is not guaranteed to result in alcoholism. He could manage to rise above it, commit suicide, become a criminal, become homosexual, or become an alcoholic. And if he does become an alcoholic, it does not mean that beer gets into the car, goes to his house, and jumps into his mouth. There is volition (will and action) involved, unlike with brain damage. The mentally defective child does not have a desire to be brain damaged, which he acts upon, rationalizes, and surrenders to.

So, in this sense at least, we should be able to see a distinction between those problems for which we could find personal guilt and those for which the person is a wholly passive "victim." But the other problem is that nobody's on a crusade to normalize and celebrate things like brain damage and alcoholism (other than nutburgers like this). If it turns out that homosexuality is indeed a dysfunction, as it once was understood to be (having been declassified as a result of political pressure), then this would pull the rug out from under the gay advocates. And therein lies my main theme.

I (and I am not alone here as a Christian) am not suggesting that persons with this dysfunction are hell-bound simply because they have homosexual compulsions. We all have sinful compulsions for gosh sakes. I am suggesting that it is wrong to celebrate this dysfunction, to normalize it as just another valid (even "God-given") lifestyle, to belittle those who want out of it, and to encourage youth to explore this path if they feel so inclined. Indeed, this path is being paved and lighted for all those children who are sufferers of those environmental factors that may potentially develop into some sort of dysfunction. If we can first admit that it is a dysfunction, it seems that a number of conclusions and responses naturally follow from there. And that is exactly why such a conclusion is being fought so ferociously by the gay community, who seem to enjoy their dysfunction, just as many alcoholics do.

My commenter then goes on to ask why is it important that homosexuality be defined as a dysfunction, and why it should matter to us personally.

If it is a dysfunction, let us call it a dysfunction, and without all the politics and propaganda. It might even foster more sympathy than hostility by those who have moral concerns with this condition. In fact, I have issues on the other end of the spectrum with Christians who still think of this as nothing more than an arbitrary "choice." It may be helpful for all parties to understand the deep complexities involved in this and why someone might end up going down this particular road as opposed to some other which may yield more sympathies.

As far as why I would care about this, well, first of all, I'd point out that if this really were a problem in one's relationship with God, then I would care by extension of my concern for others. If I really think life has eternal consequences, and I really care about others, then overlooking this issue is a form of spiritual apathy and neglect.

But even if there were no moral/spiritual ramifications, we could still consider the immediate physical concerns. This lifestyle is not without its side effects and consequences — things that not only affect the homosexual but society itself. One might also ask why we should care about cigarette smokers, but society seems to care very much. Since cigarette smoking (and homosexuality) is harmful, then we care about the participants, our youth who might be influenced to take this path, and the impact that it has on the culture-at-large, insurance rates, and healthcare costs. Basically, we care about this if we subscribe to the philosophy of "the public good," which is regularly applied in many other areas of society.

Here is a sampling of the kinds of things that are found in higher levels among the homosexual community:
  • Numerous physical health problems (AIDS is just the latest on the scene)
  • Mental health issues
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Substantial promiscuity
  • Promiscuity in "monogamous" same-sex relationships (even by consent)
  • High alcohol and drug use
  • Domestic abuse
  • Shorter life-spans
Here are some articles that flesh out these talking points. Perhaps a skeptic will not like the sources, but they are at least heavily footnoted from secular journals: Here and here
Here is a list of other articles regarding homosexual health issues: NARTH

It is more difficult to find the same kinds of comprehensive articles on gay health issues from pro-homosexual sources (it's bad press that they'd prefer to avoid), but you can find them candidly discussing their woes here and there: Sample 1, Sample 2, Sample 3, Sample 4, Sample 5, Sample 6

If it were any other condition bearing such risks and consequences, like cigarette smoking, we would have clamped down the constraints long ago. We would certainly not be working to give it normative status in our culture, crafting laws to prohibit opposition to it, and writing it into our school curriculum as a good and healthy avenue of sexual exploration.

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January 17, 2006

Can I Lie or What?

Something occurred to me recently that I had never thought of before: If you are a full-blown relativist, then you cannot affirm that there is such a thing as a lie. You see, "lying" is intentionally hiding or twisting the truth. But if there is no such thing as truth (as epistemological relativists believe), then the "lie" is just as valid as what some might consider the "truth." Truth must exist in order to say that someone is out of compliance with it.

Now, in my experience, very few relativists want to claim that truth does not exist across the board. They generally have no stomach to defend relativism for mundane truths, such as the shape of the earth or the make and model of their cars; they are much more interested in disputing the murky areas of religious and moral claims. And since you may say "all religions are true" or "there are no absolute rights and wrongs," and not suffer the consequences in the next breath (like denying on-coming traffic), you may imagine yourself to be wise.

However, if you insist on maintaining that there are no rights and wrongs — goods and evils — then even if you can define a "lie" as some particular state of affairs, you can't then claim that there is something "bad" about it.

For example, let us say that it is a "fact" that your money is in my pocket. If I then tell you, "I have your money," let us say that I have told a "toon." But if I say, "I don't have your money," let's say I've told a "slurm."

Now, if there is no such thing as evil, then that means that a toon and a slurm have equal moral standing. Indeed, they have no moral status at all, they are value-neutral. To say that a slurm is "bad" is to impose an external, objective concept upon it; it is to say that it does not measure up to some fixed and virtuous standard of behavior.

Of course, the relativist is certainly free to assign a private value or hold a preference regarding toons and slurms. She can say, "I don't like slurms" or, "being on the receiving end of slurms causes me inconvenience," but she can't call me "bad" if I enjoy telling her slurms. In fact, what if I said that I like to slurm relativists because they are all slurming slurmers? Would I be lying? Would I be wrong?

The moral objectivist (or moral realist) can say, "You betcha, even the relativist deserves our honesty and respect." But for the relativist there is no "wrong" answer here. Her conscience is freed to tell the truth or to lie as sentiment and circumstance warrants. Even if relativism were somehow "true," you can see why its broad acceptance would be cause for concern.

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January 12, 2006

Liberal Christianity: No Sale!

Let's say that you believed that Muhammad was nothing more than a clever guy who didn't really receive revelation from the angel Gabriel, and that his followers simply made up stories about him and inserted their own claims about history and God to further their own interests. Would it then make any sense to call yourself a Muslim?

Or let's say that you believed that Joseph Smith (of Mormon fame) was a schemer and concocted the tale of meeting the angel Moroni and translating the golden plates in order to forge a new religion, and that his successors continued the fiction by extending his ideas as opportunity and need presented itself. Would you think kindly of the religion and be pleased to call yourself a Mormon?

These seem like odd scenarios, and I can't imagine an earnest and right-thinking person subscribing to a religion on such a basis. That is, unless they hoped to use the religion, like its founder, for some self-serving purpose.

Now, imagine that you believe that Jesus was no more "divine" than any other human is or can be, and that he merely made certain wise and "spiritual" pronouncements and showed compassion for the social outcasts of society. Imagine that you believe that his disciples embellished his sayings and mythologized his deeds, and that their followers further reworked the stories and edited the written materials to suit their own theological and political agendas. Imagine that you thought the mainstream historical church to be a body of oppressive, simple-minded literalists who had gotten the real Jesus wrong all these years (assuming we could know what was real in any case). Would you then be anxious to also identify yourself as a "Christian?" Would you view the Scriptures, creeds, and liturgies of this contrived institution with fondness and think all its myths and exaggerations useful in the service of your true spiritual beliefs?

Sound strange? Some do exactly this. We might call them "liberal" Christians. But why go there? Why be a "Christian" if it's a forgery or hopeless historical muddle? Why not pick a different religion, make up your own, or be agnostic?

Perhaps it is for the fellowship and music. But you can get the same at a cocktail party or a witch coven.

Perhaps it is for the charity and social activism. But these are found in political organizations and among secular humanists.

Perhaps for the love of tradition. But tradition is hollow once divested of its purpose and meaning by liberalism; it's just social convention, and why pick the Christian conventions?

Perhaps liberals like some ideas found in Christianity. But why put up with all that is "wrong" in it just to benefit from a few valued items? I like furniture, and it can be found in junkyards, but I don't shop for it there.

Perhaps they just think Jesus is a swell guy. But almost every cult and alternate religion finds a place for Jesus, and without assuming some accuracy to the Bible you can't have any confident knowledge about him anyway.

Perhaps they just find the myths and parables fetching. But I find Homer's Odyssey and the Lord of the Rings fetching, and equally "true" on a liberal accounting. The problem with the Bible is that it claims its "myths" are real and the authors claim to speak for God. If that's not blasphemy then the word simply has no meaning.

Christianity seems to be the preferred ore that people use to forge their own idols. But why should I want to play the spiritual games of a contrived religion under the rubric of a mysterious and mythologized Christ? Be a liberal Christian? No thanks! No sale! I'd rather sleep in on Sunday morning. Rather than that, I'd go where God seemed more profoundly present or I'd cook something up from scratch much closer to my own liking. Fortunately, it's okay to be brash and dismissive about this anyway, since, on a liberal understanding, there's ultimately no final judgment and hell. I can afford to reject liberal Christianity if it is somehow right, but I can't afford to reject classical Christianity if it is true.

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January 02, 2006

Shedding Light on the "Dark Ages"

The idea that the period of the Middle Ages, when Christendom reigned supreme, was an uncivilized and uncultured time filled with (as one commentator phrased it) "dung covered surfs and oppressed women" is ubiquitous. It is such a basic assumption of our cultural story that I had not largely doubted it until recently. When the accusation that there is some direct connection between this "dark" period and the church's dominance comes up I find myself reaching for defenses (like pointing out the thriving Christian east, i.e., the Byzantine Empire) rather than dispelling myths.

Based on the other myths from my school days that have been burst one by one, like Columbus being the first to think the world was round, I should find it no surprise that the true nature of the Middle Ages is quite different than I imagined, especially given that there is every reason for secular historians to choose to spin or filter the facts in this area.

Following are a few tidbits I've come across recently that encourage me to see the "Dark Ages" in a new light (pun intended).

From this World Magazine interview with professor Rodney Stark:
WORLD: But a lot of us learned that Europe fell into the "Dark Ages." How did that historical understanding originate, and what's wrong with it?

STARK: The Dark Ages have finally been recognized as a hoax perpetrated by anti-religious and bitterly anti-Catholic, 18th-century intellectuals who were determined to assert their cultural superiority and who boosted their claim by denigrating the Christian past—as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after Rome came the "triumph of barbarism and religion." In the past few years even encyclopedias and dictionaries have begun to acknowledge that it was all a lie, that the Dark Ages never were. This always should have been obvious since by the end of the so-called Dark Ages, European science and technology had far exceeded that of Rome and Greece, and all the rest of the world, for that matter.

WORLD: Could you be specific? What were some of the "Dark Ages" innovations that show the folly of considering Greek and Roman culture the apex of civilization until recent times?

STARK: How about the perfection and widespread use of waterwheels, windmills, and pumps, the invention of the compass, stirrups, the crossbow, canons, effective horse harnesses, eyeglasses, clocks, chimneys, violins, double-entry bookkeeping, and insurance? This list doesn't begin to do justice to this era that historians of science now refer to as an age of remarkable innovation and discovery.
Perhaps the most revealing instance involves the "story" that in order to gain backing for his great voyage west, Columbus had to struggle against ignorant and superstitious churchmen who were certain that the earth was flat. Truth was that all educated Europeans, including bishops and cardinals, knew the earth was round. What produced church opposition to the Columbus voyage was that Columbus believed the circumference of the earth was only about one-fifth of its actual distance. Thus, the church scholars who opposed him did so because they knew that he and his sailors were bound to perish at sea. And they would have done so had the Western Hemisphere not been there to replenish their food and water.
Renowned French historian Régine Pernoud wrote a book entitled, Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths.

Here is a excerpt from a thoughtful Amazon reviewer on this book:
Pernoud is not afraid to express her anger and frustration with the lack of accurate teaching about the Middle Ages. She causticially notes that the "Middle Ages is privileged material: one can say what one wants about it with the quasi-certitude of never being contradicted."
...
Pernoud's ability to right the record by turning stereotypes and fallacies upside down shines through. Her major concern is that what passes for an education in history within public schools is often little more than a string of stereotypes held together by the glue of gullibility: "The Middle Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance, mindlessness, or generalized underdevelopment, even if this was the only period of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!"
...
The facts show again and again that the Middle Ages, far from being completely ignorant or dim-witted, produced scholars of astounding learning such as Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable, Gregory of Tours and Hildegarde of Bingen. The latter, a woman, is not, as Pernoud demonstrates, an exception. Many women religious were accomplished scholars, theologians and even leaders. Just one example is Petronilla of Chemillé, an abbess who presided over convents of both women and men-at the ripe old age of twenty-two! Far from being a time when women were "oppressed" and "marginalized", the Middle Ages witnessed an amazing flowering of the feminine in the Church, society and home. It was no coincidence that the Middle Ages also witnessed a remarkable growth in devotion to the Virgin Mary and other female saints. It was in the seventeenth century that women began to lose privileges and authority, essentially reverting to the status of property under the revived Roman Law. A similar situation occurred with slavery, which had died out during the Middle Ages but emerged again with the "colonial expansion that characterized the classical period." As Pernoud takes pains to show, the feudal system was a far cry from slavery-despite modern misconceptions--and was a way of life built upon honor, specific rights and a deep commitment to the agrarian life.
And here is an excerpt from a book review that speaks of Pernoud's observations on surfs and slaves:
Actually, the waning of Roman oppression was a good thing. Pernoud sets the vilified concept of the medieval serf in a new light by pointing out that being a serf was a good deal better than being a slave. "The fact is, there is no comparison between the ancient servus, the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf. Because the one was a thing and the other a man. The meaning of the human person experienced a change between ancient and medieval times, a slow change, because slavery was deeply rooted in the customs of Roman society in particular, but an irreversible one" (p. 87). So while the lord/serf societal split was perhaps not optimal, it was much better than what humanity had been doing for centuries. It was not until the Renaissance had abandoned and maligned the medieval mentality that full-fledged slavery once again sprang up in our more "humane" modern times.
Here is an excerpt from an essay on the Middle Ages by G.K. Chesterton:
A little while before the Norman Conquest, countries such as [England] were a dust of yet feeble feudalism, continually scattered in eddies by barbarians, barbarians who had never ridden a horse. There was hardly a brick or stone house in England. There were scarcely any roads except beaten paths: there was practically no law except local customs. Those were the Dark Ages out of which the Middle Ages came. Take the Middle Ages two hundred years after the Norman Conquest and nearly as long before the beginnings of the Reformation. The great cities have arisen; the burghers are privileged and important; Labour has been organised into free and responsible Trade Unions; the Parliaments are powerful and disputing with the princes; slavery has almost disappeared; the great Universities are open and teaching with the scheme of education that Huxley so much admired; Republics as proud and civic as the Republics of the pagans stand like marble statues along the Mediterranean; and all over the North men have built such churches as men may never build again. And this, the essential part of which was done in one century rather than two, is what the critic calls "little social or political advance." There is scarcely an important modern institution under which he lives, from the college that trained him to the Parliament that rules him, that did not make its main advance in that time.
I think I will go back to the drawing board on this history lesson.

Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN