CAT | Religion
Writing in Britain’s Catholic Herald, Ed West reports on the attitude taken by the Vatican to Brexit. I touched on this last week in a discussion on the award to the Pope of the Charlemagne prize, the first political prize to be established in West Germany after the war. The prize was the brainchild of Kurt Pfeifer, an Aachen textile merchant, and a former, if (it is said) reluctant member of the Nazi party. It is awarded every Ascension Day in, appropriately enough, Aachen, Charlemagne’s former capital, ‘for the most valuable contribution to West European understanding.’ This year, however the ceremony took place in Rome.
Ed West (my emphasis added):
The awards ceremony, held in the Vatican, was addressed by Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.
They must have been pleased to hear Francis identify Brussels with “the soul of Europe”. On immigration, the Pope brushed aside the fears of Eurosceptics and even the anxieties of pro-EU national politicians. Tighter border controls were a manifestation of “meanness”, serving “our own selfish interests”. It’s not hard to work out where the Holy Father’s sympathies lie in the British referendum. The Vatican’s “foreign minister”, the Liverpool-born Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has said bluntly: “Better in than out.”
Officially, Britain’s Roman Catholic Church is taking a neutral position on Brexit, but…
West delves into the early history of the EU, going back to the European Coal and Steel Community (1951), the body that launched the process of European integration on its current path:
[The] European Coal and Steel Community [was]formed after the Second World War by Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi. Of these, only Monnet – the French political economist who became the community’s first president – was not a conspicuously devout Catholic. (His private life was complicated: he was married to a woman who left her husband for him and had to travel to Moscow to obtain a divorce; the Monnets could not have a Catholic wedding until the first husband was dead, by which time Jean was 85. The ceremony took place in the basilica at Lourdes.)
Schuman, twice prime minister of France, and De Gasperi, eight times prime minister of Italy and founder of the Christian Democrats, were men of such personal holiness that there have been calls to canonise them. Adenauer, the scheming first Chancellor of West Germany, is not a candidate for sainthood – but he was a trenchantly Catholic statesman during a political career lasting 60 years.
For Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi, the European Economic Community was fundamentally a Catholic project with roots that – in their imaginations, at least – could be traced back to Charlemagne….
In 2008 the Catholic historian Alan Fimister published a book arguing that Schuman’s plans for Europe were “to a remarkable degree, the conscious implementation of the Neo-Thomistic project of Pope Leo XIII”.
Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer all believed that the answer to totalitarian ideologies lay in Leo’s vision of the restoration of “the principles of the Christian life in civil and domestic society”.
But Schuman went further: he subscribed to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s notion of supranational democracy as the foundation for a new Christendom. “He held fast to the magisterium’s demand that the final destination of Catholic political action must be the recognition by the civil order of the truth of the Faith,” writes Fimister.
Now, I have nothing to say about, good heavens, Neo-Thomistic projects (and I can think of kinder ways to describe Adenauer, a very great German chancellor, than ‘scheming’), but what’s interesting about all this is the way that these statesmen took Roman Catholic notions of Christendom, a Christian ‘ummah’, if you like, and transformed them into the idea of ‘supranational democracy’. Democracy? The idea of a supranational ‘democracy’ was, of course, a nod to the conventional political pieties of the postwar era. But a nod is all that it was, as those founders knew. Without a European ‘demos’, there could be no European democracy. There was no European demos then, and there is no European demos now. What’s left is supranational technocracy, something that’s very different.
West, focused on the Catholic debate (his whole piece is well worth reading) does not mention another of the founding key fathers of the European Union, Altiero Spinelli. Spinelli was no Catholic, but a communist, and then (eventually) a former communist, and thus, critically, someone else susceptible to a universalist creed impatient with borders. Democracy was not so much of a priority for him either.
Here is an extract (via Richard North and Christopher Booker’s The Great Deception) of what Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, a fellow political prisoner under Mussolini, wrote in their Ventotene manifesto (1944) (my emphasis added):
During the revolutionary crisis, this [European] movement will have the task of organising and guiding progressive forces, using all the popular bodies which form spontaneously, incandescent melting pots in which the revolutionary masses are mixed, not for the creation of plebiscites, but rather waiting to be guided.
It derives its vision and certainty of what must be done from the knowledge that it represents the deepest needs of modern society and not from any previous recognition by popular will, as yet non-existent. In this way it issues the basic guidelines of the new order, the first social discipline directed to the unformed masses. By this dictatorship of the revolutionary party a new State will be formed, and around this State new, genuine democracy will grow.
Spinelli died in 1986, after a distinguished career in the politics of the emerging European Union. He remains an honored figure in the EU’s pantheon. The main building in the EU’s (Brussels) parliament is named after him. The Spinelli Group is an initiative launched in 2010 led by the likes of Guy Verfhofstadt, the eurofundamentalist (and former Belgian prime minister) who heads up ALDE, the EU Parliament’s ‘liberal’ family’ and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, ‘Dany le Rouge’ of Paris ’68 infamy.
Ancient history, yes, to a degree, but only to a degree: To understand the EU it is necessary to understand its intellectual and political roots. And to understand the EU and to oppose Brexit is, I would argue, an….interesting choice.
One thing about this pope: When it comes to political matters, he has an unerring ability to be on the wrong side of the issue.
Pope Francis on Friday received the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, Germany, from Marcel Philipp, the Lord Mayor of the German city. The International Charlemagne Prize is awarded for work done in the service of European unification.
The Vatican Radio report includes the full transcript of Francis’ speech.
A couple of extracts caught my eye:
[W]e would do well to turn to the founding fathers of Europe. They were prepared to pursue alternative and innovative paths in a world scarred by war. Not only did they boldly conceive the idea of Europe, but they dared to change radically the models that had led only to violence and destruction. They dared to seek multilateral solutions to increasingly shared problems.
It is certainly true that these founding fathers did conceive an “idea of Europe”, but it was one with little connection to history, and even less to democracy.
As a reminder of that, the Daily Telegraph reports recent comments from Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s top bureaucrat, one of the apparatchiks present to watch the Pope receive his prize (my emphasis added):
Prime Ministers must stop listening so much to their voters and instead act as “full time Europeans”, according to Jean-Claude Juncker. Elected leaders are making life “difficult” because they spend too much time thinking about what they can get out of EU and kowtowing to public opinion, rather than working on “historic” projects such as the Euro, he said.
Note that use of “historic”, with its suggestion that there is a “right” side of history, a notion that comes, wrote Robert Conquest, that great historian of Soviet communism, with a “Marxist twang”.
And then there was this from the Pope:
The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures. The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.
Clearly, that is an indirect reference to the current immigration wave, a wave that Francis has, in his own way, done his bit to encourage, but it is a view difficult to reconcile with historical reality.
Yes, European peoples have enriched their cultures by learning from others, but they have also defended their distinctiveness of their cultures, and, as the years passed and Habsburgs faded, they increasingly did so behind national borders that created a space for a diverse Europe to develop and to flourish, something very different from the multicultural Europe that the Pope appears to be describing. There was pluribus, but not so much unum.
This process gathered pace as those national borders solidified, hugely accelerated by the manner in which ‘Christendom’, the Roman Catholic ummah, already divided by the breach with the East, was further fragmented by the Reformation, a movement that was political as well as religious.
Writing on this topic the (admittedly not uncontroversial) British politician, Enoch Powell, looked at Henry VIII’s break with Rome, arguing in 1972 that:
It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].
And this is not just an English thing. Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser notes that:
Research by social scientist Margarete Scherer from the Goethe University in Frankfurt has demonstrated a considerably higher prevalence of Euroscepticism in traditionally Protestant countries than in traditionally Roman Catholic ones. And this should be entirely unsurprising, given that the Reformation was largely a protest about heteronomous power.
As Cardinal Vincent Nichols said last month: “There is a long tradition in … Catholicism of believing in holding things together. So the Catholic stance towards an effort such as the EU is largely supportive.” Of course, the important question is: who does the “holding things together”? And for the cardinal – theologically, at least – it’s Rome.
Conversely, in Protestant countries, the EU still feels a little like some semi-secular echo of the Holy Roman Empire, a bureaucratic monster that, through the imposition of canon law, swallows up difference and seeks after doctrinal uniformity. This was precisely the sort of centralisation that Luther challenged, and resistance to it is deep in the Protestant consciousness…
Writing in Britain’s Catholic Herald, Ed West questions the Pope’s decision to accept the Charlemagne prize:
Francis is a great advocate of peace and brotherly love, but it is surprising that he has accepted an award that is so nakedly political, especially as the EU faces next month the first vote by a member state on leaving. It is one thing to promote “European unity” in the abstract, but this award explicitly promotes the cause of the EU, as can be shown by its recent winners, among them Donald Tusk, Herman Van Rompuy, Angela Merkel and, in 2002, “the euro”. Sure, from deep within Charlemagne’s empire the euro might have appeared to have promoted unity, but for Greece’s huge numbers of unemployed youths it probably does not seem that way.
Many, many British Catholics oppose our membership of what strikes us as a hugely risky attempt to create a superstate, despite such ventures normally ending in disaster; we know that the bishops both on the continent and in this country overwhelmingly support this venture, but it seems odd that the Holy Father should so openly take one side in a controversial political matter.
Not so much, I reckon.
This from Religion News Service:
The Battleground Poll has the Clinton-Trump God gap at under 15 points, with those who say they go to church at least once a week preferring Trump to Clinton by nine points and those attending less frequently preferring Clinton to Trump by less than six. That compares to a God gap in 2012 of nearly 40 points.
Since the God gap became salient in the 1990s, it’s always exceeded the gender gap. Not, evidently, this year. Between women’s support for one of their own and the misogyny of the other candidate, gender identity is trumping religion.
This parallels the seeming decline in interest in religion and the ramping up of a secularized culture war. The New World has been taking its cues from the Old World for a while now – as evidenced by the youth – and like Europe, America is implicitly agreeing that God is pretty much dead and moving on with matters more material. Oh, and this:
Roman Catholics voted for Obama over Romney by a couple of points but are now supporting Trump over Clinton 45 percent to 39 percent. Does this reflect a deep-seated Catholic proclivity for having a man at the top?
Except their man at the top has sparred with Donald Trump pretty visibly. Hm. As for Trump’s alleged misogyny, “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams makes the point that Trump is insulting to everyone, but it’s only his attacks on women that provoke people into clutching at pearls:
Donald Trump called John Kasich “disgusting” for how he eats. Trump insulted Rand Paul’s looks. He said Rubio was sweaty and little. He mocked a disabled guy (an enemy reporter) who has a bad arm. Ted Cruz turned into “lyin’ Ted” and Jeb Bush got tagged with the “low energy” kill shot.
What do you call it when a man insults his enemies who are both male and female? Democrats call it a “woman problem.”
VATICAN CITY The participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference have bluntly rejected the Catholic church’s long-held teachings on just war theory, saying they have too often been used to justify violent conflicts and the global church must reconsider Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.
Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence.
“There is no ‘just war,'” the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.
“Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war,” they continue. “Suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”
….Just war theory is a tradition that uses a series of criteria to evaluate whether use of violence can be considered morally justifiable. First referred to by fourth-century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, it was later articulated in depth by 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and is today outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Rome conference, held Monday through Wednesday, brought experts engaged in global nonviolent struggles to reconsider the theory for the first time under the aegis of the Vatican.
It comes after a number of theologians have criticized continued use of the theory in modern times, saying that both the powerful capabilities of modern weapons and evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns make it outdated.
Yes, of course, non-violent campaigns can (mercifully) work, but they work most effectively within a society – and usually a society where the ground rules of dispute resolution are already broadly agreed.
Thus in the West, non-violent protest can be very effective. In, say, the China of Tiananmen Square that was not so true.
Similarly between states, non-violent campaigns are only effective if those states have already agreed that the issues over which they are disagreeing are not the sort of issues over which nations go to war. Many states disagree with Japanese whaling, but they are not going to fight Japan over it. Instead they apply moral pressure.
But there are cases in which there is no agreed ‘non-violent’ mechanism to bring about (or halt) the change that one state (or para-state) wants to see. Non-violence, in the form of appeasement, was tried against the Third Reich. It didn’t work out. Neither the Northern nor the Southern States of the antebellum US wanted to go to war, but, in the end, war was all that was left.
Scroll forward a century and a half. Will ISIS really be stopped by a campaign of non-violence?
National Catholic Reporter:
At a press event launching the conference’s final appeal document — given the title “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence” — several of the event’s participants said the church should simply no longer teach the just war theory.
“I came a long distance for this conference, with a very clear mind that violence is outlived,” said Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda. “It is out of date for our world of today.”
No, Archbishop, it is not ‘outlived’. And for a man from Uganda, a land ravaged by the horrors of the Lord’s Resistance Army, to say that is disgusting.
And do the Yezidi believe that violence is outlived?
Do Odama’s fellow Christians, martyred in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and too many other places besides, believe that violence is outlived?
“We have to sound this with a strong voice,” said the archbishop. “Any war is a destruction. There is no justice in destruction. … It is outdated.”
Did the liberated peoples of Europe in 1945 feel that way?
Or read Sherman, that most eloquent, most reluctant warrior of genius:
“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
“We can make war so terrible and make [the South] so sick of war that generations pass away before they again appeal to it.”
Back to the conference:
Marie Dennis, an American who serves as a co-president of Pax Christi International, said she and the conference group “believe that it is time for the church to speak another word into the global reality.”
“When we look at the reality of war, when we look at the teachings of Jesus, we’re asking what is the responsibility of the church,” she said. “And it is, we believe, a responsibility to promote nonviolence.”
Dennis also said she understands that people may raise concerns in rejecting the just war theory over needing to stop unjust aggressors. Her group, she said, agrees that violent aggressors have to be stopped.
“The question is how,” said Dennis. “Our belief would be that as long as we keep saying we can do it with military force, we will not invest the creative energy, the deep thinking, the financial and human resources in creating or identifying the alternatives that actually could make a difference.”
“As long as we say that dropping bombs will solve the problem we won’t find other solutions and I think that’s feeling more and more clear to us,” he said….
Even if we accept unchallenged her assumptions about what Jesus actually said (ancient hearsay, after all), there is a certain presumption (a presumption rooted in a sense of moral superiority) running through Dennis’ comments, the presumption that nations rush into war. That’s rarely true. Man is a violent animal, but he knows what war means too. If a country can get what it wants without violence, for the most part, it will. War is generally not the first resort.
And as for combating ISIS with deep thinking….
There is something rather sickening about the spectacle that this conference represents. The priests, nuns and theologians will preen, and lay their virtue out for all to see, but they do so safe in the knowledge that most people disagree with what they have to say.
To preach non-violence while safe behind the defenses that others will man is the behavior of a hypocrite and, worse than that, a hypocrite who freeloads of the sacrifices of those who he or she condemns.
Ken Butigan, a lecturer at DePaul University in Chicago and executive director of the non-profit group Pace e Bene, said: “We have gotten a green light for months that this is something that Pope Francis is excited about moving forward on.”
“We are determined to support that momentum at this historical moment,” he said. “We know Pope Francis has a vision and we’re here to support that vision.”
The same Pope Francis, who just last June said this:
“The great powers had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to the concentration camps, like Auschwitz, to kill the Jews, and also the Christians, and also the Roma, also the homosexuals,” Francis said, citing the death camp in Poland. “Tell me, why didn’t they bomb” those railroad routes?
Well, no one ever accused Francis of intellectual coherence.
Did you know that Easter was originally a pagan festival dedicated to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, whose consort was a hare, the forerunner of our Easter bunny? Of course you did. Every year the fecund muck of the internet bursts forth afresh with cheery did-you-know explanations like this, setting modern practices in a context of ancient and tragically interrupted pagan belief.
The trouble is that they are wrong. The colourful myths of Eostre and her hare companion, who in some versions is a bird transformed into an egg-laying rabbit, aren’t historically pagan. They are modern fabrications, cludged together in an unresearched assumption of pagan precedence.Only one piece of documentary evidence for Eostre exists: a passing mention in Bede’s The Reckoning of Time. Bede explains that the lunar month of Eosturmonath “was once called after a goddess… named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated.”
However, even this may only have been supposition on Bede’s part. In the same section he says the winter festival of Modranecht was so named “because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night,” hardly the statement of a historian with first-hand information.
Eosturmonath may simply mean “the month of opening”, appropriate for a time of opening buds and arguably a better fit for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon months. They tended to be named after agricultural or meteorological events, hence “mud-month” and “blood-month”. Only one other month is, according to Bede, named after a goddess – Hrethmonath – and like Eostre, there is no other evidence of Hretha anywhere.
Known Anglo-Saxon deities like Woden and Thor are paralleled in Norse and Germanic pre-Christian religion, but there are no such equivalents to Bede’s Eostre and Hretha, which strengthens the case for them being inventions. Grimm explored the possibility of a German “Ostara” in Deutsche Mythologie, but in the absence of any primary evidence, all he could produce was conjecture. We’re also left wondering why, if Eosturmonath really was named after a pagan goddess, the staunch Christian Charlemagne chose it to replace the old Roman name of April.
There are no images of Eostre, no carvings, no legends, and no association with hares, rabbits or eggs. Yet a swift Google search turns up heaps of repeated Eostre lore. Even the usually formidable Snopes.com allocates Eostre her customary sacred hare, without any historical justification. So where do the tales come from?
The answer is found in the recent history of modern self-identified paganism. Back in the days when Catweazle was on telly, the movement was inchoate, disparate and in urgent need of roots. It was in the difficult position of claiming moral heirship from ancient pre-Christian religion, but having very few credentials to back that up.
Usefully, though, there was already a tendency (stemming from Victorian anthropology) to imagine repressed pagan roots dangling from anything sufficiently working class and folksy; and though academia had moved away from this, pagan revivalism had not. By asserting Christian appropriation of pagan customs as fact, modern paganism could claim both precedence and wrongful treatment, citing Pope Gregory’s letter as if that settled it.
Pagan origins were thus claimed for everything from Father Christmas to Morris dancing and the Easter bunny was retroactively recast as Eostre’s sacred hare, grafting a faked pagan provenance on to a creature first mentioned as late as 1682. A Ukranian folk tale about the origins of pysanky, painted eggs, was rewritten to star Eostre and her bunny. Some still claim Eostre’s name is the root of the word oestrogen, ignoring that human eggs are microscopic and that the real etymology of oestrogen in fact relates to the gadfly….
Oh well, there is (as I noted in a post entitled—ahem—“Happy Eostre”) always this (from another Guardian piece):
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.
The not always entirely reliable Sir James Fraser had quite a bit to say about Attis in The Golden Bough.
Another of those gods whose supposed death and resurrection struck such deep roots into the faith and ritual of Western Asia is Attis. He was to Phrygia what Adonis was to Syria. Like Adonis, he appears to have been a god of vegetation, and his death and resurrection were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a festival in spring. The legends and rites of the two gods were so much alike that the ancients themselves sometimes identified them. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved by Cybele, the Mother of the Gods, a great Asiatic goddess of fertility, who had her chief home in Phrygia. Some held that Attis was her son. His birth, like that of many other heroes, is said to have been miraculous. His mother, Nana, was a virgin, who conceived by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom.
…The great spring festival of Cybele and Attis is best known to us in the form in which it was celebrated at Rome; but as we are informed that the Roman ceremonies were also Phrygian, we may assume that they differed hardly, if at all, from their Asiatic original. The order of the festival seems to have been as follows.
On the twenty-second day of March, a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem…
There is, of course, nothing wrong with syncretism, so in the spirit of what this day now is: Happy Easter!
But the near-universal acceptance of a belief does not prove that it is valid or even meaningful any more than the general belief in witches or ghosts proved the validity of these concepts. What we have to deal with in the case of “social justice” is simply a quasi-religious superstition of the kind which we should respectfully leave in peace so long as it merely makes those happy who hold it, but which we must fight when it becomes the pretext of coercing other men. And the prevailing belief in “social justice” is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization.
Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice (1976)
America Magazine is, in its own way, an entertaining corner of the religious left published by Jesuits. It’s a reliable source of by-the-numbers leftism supplemented by pious distortions, holy evasions, extra helpings of sanctimony and regular hosannas for the Dear Leader, the (more or less) Peronist Jesuit now presiding over the Vatican.
So I suppose it wasn’t altogether surprising to read this there:
Like the Ebola panic of 2014, Zika reminds the complacent of the affluent world of a kind of enforced solidarity with folks in poorer regions, an impoverished and sometimes cruel imposter of the true solidarity we are called to embrace.
And for added points:
Zika joins an unhappy collection of diseases making the jump from tropical regions, where some of the world’s poorest people reside, to temperate zones of affluence. Global warming may be making previously hostile geography more amenable to the major vector for these illnesses, the humble mosquito.
Ah yes, global warming. Of course.
Here’s John Gray in The New Statesman, reviewing God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human by Dominic Johnson:
An evolutionary biologist trained at Oxford who also holds a doctorate in political science, Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.
Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.
That’s not true for everyone, of course (as it happens, the idea of a meaningless, indifferent universe suits me just fine) but as a general principle it is convincing. And that means that religion is not going away any time soon, or ever.
In the course of an article for Politix on godless conservatives written a couple of years back, I noted this:
Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.
New Atheists (and plenty of old ones too) not so much…
[The] “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.
But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world. What is needed – and still largely lacking – is a perspective in which religion is understood as an inexhaustibly complex variety of beliefs and practices that have evolved to meet enduring human needs.
If the religious instinct is always likely to be with us, then, rather than railing against religion as a whole, it is much more useful to weigh different forms of religious expression against each other. All religions are not the same. Some faiths will be more benign than others. Equally there are different ways of following a faith. What a holy book says is one thing, how its followers behave can be quite another. Religions develop over time: what was, so to speak, writ in stone thousands of years ago, may now be read by many of the faithful as nothing more than folklore.
And man, of course, can shape the course of that development. If I had to design a religion, it would be kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma. In fact, it would look a lot like an idealized version of the Church of England of seventy or eighty years ago, a happy accident of history that is far from likely to be repeated.
But back to Gray:
Practically without exception, the atheist movements of the past few centuries testify to a demand for meaning that has led them to replicate many of the patterns of thinking distinctive of monotheism, and more particularly of Christianity.
For Christians, human history isn’t an endless succession of cycles – as it was for the ancient Greek and Romans, for example – but a story, and one of a distinctive kind. Unlike practitioners of polytheism, who seek and find meaning in other ways, Christians have found sense in life through a mythical narrative in which humankind is struggling towards redemption. It is a myth that infuses the imagination of countless people who imagine they have left religion behind. The secular style of modern thinking is deceptive. Marxist and liberal ideas of “alienation” and “revolution”, “the march of humanity” and “the progress of civilisation” are redemptive myths in disguise.
For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.
Atheism need not be an evangelical cult. Here and there one finds thinkers who have truly left redemptive myths behind. The American journalist and iconoclast H L Mencken was a rambunctious atheist who delighted in lambasting religious believers; but he did so in a spirit of mockery, not out of any interest in converting them into unbelievers. Wisely, he did not care what others believed. Rather than lamenting the fact of incurable human irrationality, he preferred to laugh at the spectacle it presents. If monotheism was, for Mencken, an amusing exhibition of human folly, one suspects he would have found the new atheism just as entertaining.
Read the whole thing.
The Roman Catholic Church has always been somewhat suspicious of the nation-state, an institution it regards as an obstacle to its own claims of universal authority, so this story from the Daily Telegraph comes as no surprise:
The Vatican wants Britain to stay in the European Union, the Pope’s foreign secretary has declared.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See, suggested “Brexit” could weaken Europe.
In an interview with ITV, the English cleric who has a weekly meeting with Pope Francis, gave a clear signal of Rome’s view of the best outcome of the forthcoming in/out referendum on continued EU membership.
“The Holy See respects the ultimate decision of the British people – that’s for the British electorate to decide,” he said.
“But I think we would see it as being something that is not going to make a stronger Europe.”
No, Brexit would not weaken ‘Europe’, and, if it dealt a blow to the EU (which is something very different), it might well even strengthen it. The EU, based on post-democracy and an ideology imposed from the top, may appeal to the Vatican, but it has evolved into a catastrophe for the peoples of Europe. Under the circumstances, anything that might ‘weaken’ it (and, regrettably, Brexit could easily have the opposite effect) is only to be welcomed.
As to the Vatican and specific question of Brexit (the UK’s departure from the EU), perhaps it’s appropriate to revisit yet again what the British politician Enoch Powell had to say back in 1972 about Henry VIII’s assertion of English independence from Rome:
The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event.
The whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their unique quality from that moment and that assertion. It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].
Britain did, of course, go on to join that ‘Common Market’, not least because most Britons did not understand that ‘ever closer Europe’ meant what it said.
It’s time to reverse that now.
The New Atheist’s interview with Salon – a publication largely hostile to the Bertrand Russell-style liberalism of Harris and his ilk – is better read at Harris’s own website, in its unedited form. (A portion of the interview that badmouths Salon was cut by the site, not shockingly.) Below are some choice excerpts.
On American foreign policy and Islam:
You can make the list of U.S. crimes and missteps as long as you want, but it still doesn’t explain ISIS. The fact that we invaded Iraq is merely a background condition for a local explosion of jihadist triumphalism and horror – one that is fully explained by a commitment to a specific interpretation of Islamic scripture. Medical students and engineers, who are second- and third-generation British citizens, have joined ISIS. There is nothing about Western foreign policy, global capitalism, or white privilege that explains this.
I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty, but….there are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants?
On the problems of the multicultural left:
These people are part of what has been termed the “regressive Left” – pseudo-liberals who are so blinded by identity politics that they reliably take the side of a backward mob over one of its victims. Rather than protect individual women, apostates, intellectuals, cartoonists, novelists, and true liberals from the intolerance of religious imbeciles, they protect these theocrats from criticism.
On religion and the GOP:
Ben Carson is a perfect example of how even the process of becoming a neurosurgeon is insufficient to correct for this indoctrination. It’s astonishing: The man is both a celebrated neurosurgeon and a moron. Apparently, becoming a neurosurgeon can be like becoming an electrician or a plumber—you can learn it like a trade, and your mind can remain more or less untouched by the scientific worldview.
I felt that I glimpsed the possibility of Christian theocracy in the U.S. when Sarah Palin addressed the Republican National Convention. She was at the height of her powers, and she hadn’t yet unraveled in those interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. This was terrifying—because I knew her to be both a religious lunatic and total ignoramus. The fact that she had any chance of acquiring so much power and responsibility seemed to make a mockery of the entire career of our species.
On the potential of P.C. mission creep to leave only fringy undesirables asking the probing questions:
I worry that such Christian demagoguery could become even more attractive politically because the secular Left has made it so painful to speak about the threat of political Islam. By conflating any focus on Islamism and jihadism with bigotry, there may come a time when only real bigots and Christian theocrats will be willing to address the problem. And they could gain political power because then even sane, secular people might feel that they have no other choice [see the appeal of Marine Le Pen to a surprising number of gay voters].