Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Aug/09

30

From Christendom to the West

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Rod Dreher has an interesting post, Is religion necessary to Western civilization? There are many specific points where I agree, and disagree, naturally. Some reactions:
1) Dreher seems to assume that religious literacy is lower today than it was in the past. I do not think this is necessarily correct. It is correct that elites are less aware of the West’s classical and Christian past now, but the population was in general always ignorant of the details of the religions they espoused. In fact, Rodney Stark, a Christian sociologist of religion, has used the reality that functional literacy was so much lower in the past to suggest that the West is far more religious today than it was in the past. I think both Dreher and Stark’s position are over-simple; a society may be both more self-consciously Christian and yet more scripturally or theological ignorant simultaneously (as I think was the case in the past). In college I read the book Europe: Was it Ever Really Christian, which was from a conservative Protestant perspective. Of course medieval Europe was plagued by a lack of awareness of the tenets of Christianity, and often frankly pagan practice, on the part of the peasantry. But no matter their belief or practice, they conceived of themselves as one Christian people. That counts for something.

2) I don’t think people were more metaphysically conscious in the past, nor do I think metaphysical details are actually that relevant for ethical behavior. Kantian ethics had an enormous effect on the minds of philosophers, but little effect on the behavior of people.

3) I am not sure I would agree that the Enlightenment is as much a rupture with the past of the West (Classical and Christian) that Dreher assumes, though that might also depend on which Enlightenment you are talking about. The Scottish Enlightenment arguably exhibited a very different temper than the French, for example. Additionally, it does seem rather strange to claim that the Enlightenment was a rupture when it was also accompanied by ostentatious neoclassicism.

4) Even if the Enlightenment was a rupture, since Dreher’s post lingers on the role of religion, I would suggest that Christianity is no innocent bystander. I have pointed out before that Christianity during the Classical Age was a somewhat revolutionary religion, and birthed radical cults such as Montanism and was extremely fixated on short-term millenarianism (St. Paul is a staid voice on the topic in relation to the types who were responsible for the Book of Revelation). Many have argued that the Radical Reformation was only the culmination of many Christian inspired antimonian episodes in the history of the West, and the Enlightenment philosophies and their daughters, including socialism, drew from radicalism which is inherent in the New Testament and in some of the early Church Fathers.

I do not actually personally believe that Christianity stands guilty of the crimes of revolutionaries, because I suspect that particular radicalisms and utopianisms were a natural consequence of human social development so long as cultural complexity and economic growth ascended upward. After all, political and social revolution marched under the banner of Shia Islam, Taoism and Pure Land Buddhism in other civilizations. Religion is I think often less the ultimate driver as opposed to the proximate motive engine; the enabler, not the root of all evil. But Rod Dreher does not agree on this issue, and so I think it is important to bring up the idea that Christianity is not necessarily the anti-revolutionary and conservative cultural vehicle he presupposes it to be. At least no necessarily. For example, Matthew 10 has plenty which might satisfy the propogandistic needs of revolutionaries.

Of course, in many ways I agree with much of what Dreher suggests are and have been the failings of secular Left-liberalism. Needless to say I am not an eternal optimist about humanity and human nature, and I think the future is contingent, not inevitable. I also think that Left-liberals who wish to strip cultures of thick specific norms and values, and operate on the basis of thin general articles of utility, are on the wrong track and will only generate muddle and confusion. Dreher’s point that there is something important in the West retaining its identity as a Christian-derived civilization is something which I think is important. I would go beyond him and suggest that Spain as it is now is essentially a culture where Catholicism is the religion you are, or are not, and that in Sweden Lutheranism is the religion you are, and are not, and so forth. A Protestant or Muslim Spain, even one predominantly secular, would be at a fundamental rupture with its history, something different from what it is as we understand it (what would Spanish cuisine be without pork?). By the same token, a Christian China which condemned past Chinese religious traditions, from superstitious folk religion, indigenized Buddhism, to reverence of Confucius and subsequent sages, as deviltry would be a rupture which would transform China in some deep ineffable way.

To me the critical issue in a robust and vibrant culture which is one worth fighting for has less to do with acceptance of a particular metaphysic rooted in supernatural claims, and more with a shared canon from which one derives mores and allows for common cultural currency.* The liberal assumption of individualism, that we are utility maximizers who wish to optimize the lifetime hedonic values I think often results in a whole society be trapped in an aesthetically squalid rut. My conservatism is rooted in the acknowledge that the majority of the human race is fundamentally a high social and collective beast which flourishes due to their embeddedness in a comfortable and familiar matrix. Though I might disagree with Rod Dreher in details of interpretation, there are likely many points where such abstract issues such as whether Jesus Christ offers true salvation is besides the point operationally. If asked to choose between Aquinas or Al-Ghazali we are of agreement I suspect.

* The Chinese project for 2,000 years was exactly this; united by a common set of ethical and cultural values encapsulated in canon as opposed to specific institutional supernatural claims and metaphysics.

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8 comments

  • MSG · August 30, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    This construction —

    “I would go beyond him and suggest that Spain as it is now is essentially a culture where Catholicism is the religion you, or are not, and that in Sweden Lutheranism is the religion you, and are not, and so forth.”

    – is obscure. From context, I can guess what you might be trying to say, but with no great confidence. Can you rephrase, amplify? If the construction is conventional shorthand in the jargon of one or another field — some branch of logic? — could you at least link us to an explanation?

  • Mike I · August 30, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    I interpreted him to mean that “If one is a religious believer in Spain, one is Catholic; if not a Catholic, then one is irreligious.” And so on. Pleas correct if wrong, Mr Hume.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 30, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    i omitted an “are” in those two spots somehow. i hope that is clearer? by analogy, egyptians take some pride in the history of their nation, in great monuments and such. the genetic and anthropometric data imply that in general the ancestry of modern egyptians derives form the antique period (evident if you look at even the stylized portraits in the most ancient tombs, but especially late antique roman portraits). but, they speak arabic, not coptic (which does descend from ancient egypt), and worship allah, not amon-ra. this results in a rupture with the culture and civilization of ancient egypt.

    national cultures change all the time. lutheran northern europe witnessed a major cultural rupture during the reformation, with the rise in literacy due to the spread of bible reading in the national language, and somewhat a detachment from the catholic christian international. is it a surprise that arguably the most cosmopolitan of sweden’s monarchs, christina, converted to catholicism? but the lutheran religion has shaped the civilization of norden for centuries now, so if the largest religion in sweden became catholicism or islam, lutheranism might be of some antiquarian interest, but it would also result in a concomitant detachment from much of the cultural production associated with lutheranism.

    some might ask of course why it matters whether human culture takes a particular configuration (assuming you do not believe that configuration is not True)? why live and not die? some answers are not rational but foundational. we want humans to remain human, even if ultimately we acknowledge that the day will come when the last human is no more.

  • MSG · August 31, 2009 at 12:03 am

    Yes, we need conventions, for the sake of efficiency and cohesion. Indeed, the gains from this efficiency and cohesion are so great that noxious parasites can go along for the ride, at least at first. Old Spain is ridiculed for the bloated number of clergy hired to pray for the dead. (If a little is good, a lot is better.) At some point, people look at the balance and decide that the parasite costs exceed the gains from the conventions. These people are called liberals. American liberals seem almost blind to the gains from conventions and hypersensitive to the parasite costs. They are almost certainly wrong in both tendencies, and therefore they are frightening; they seem to threaten social collapse.

    But it is not as simple as the liberals and the people they frighten might think. The liberals are blind only to the parasite costs of the conventions of other people, not to their own. And they do have their own conventions. It is apparent that liberals are developing their own religion substitutes and conventions, with their own noxious parasites. Environmentalism is a religion substitute, often described and ridiculed as such; it stands in the place of sacrifice and holiness codes. Another religion substitute is a devotion to education and training; it may be an inheritance from Protestantism, from its trappings if not its substance. As we now ridicule old Spain for the bloated number of clergy hired to pray for the dead, future generations may ridicule liberal America for the bloated number of people hired as teachers and the number of years people, no long children, sit in classrooms. If a little is good, a lot is better.

    For better or worse, nothing comparable to militarism has yet emerged among the religion substitutes and other conventions of the liberals, so social collapse, through foreign incursion or domestic crime or discord, is a real possibility. But if this fate can be avoided, other conventions — those of the liberals — are being readied to take the place of the old ones. Some of us may prefer collapse.

  • Julien Peter Benney · August 31, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Interesting point. One can, however, see the point of writers like Evelyn Waugh being played out in cultures like Sweden. Even non-religious commentators like Arthur Brooks admit that Sweden – and indeed much of Europe – is extremely selfish and shallow culturally even if it may not appear that way because of the efficient law-enforcement systems that produce a veneer of selfless pacifism.

    If you read Dreher, you will see that he describes the US as “a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes” or in less flowery language as a nation of faithful Christians ruled by secularists.

    One thing that I have known for years is that twentieth-century Europe was to a very large extent a nation of secular socialists ruled by very old and highly religious ruling classes. This was most especially true of Spain and Portugal during the middle third of the century under the dictatorships of Franco and Salazar, who forced Communism underground and tried to maintain Catholicism as the dominant cultural force even though the social conditions which would allow for that did not exist even circa 1900. The resultant rapid secularisation of these nations, and of Italy, (Orthodox) Greece and even Latin America, can seem surprising to people who read old cultural and demographic books, but with the knowledge I have now it makes more sense.

  • Caledonian · August 31, 2009 at 7:14 am

    @MSG

    At some point, people look at the balance and decide that the parasite costs exceed the gains from the conventions. These people are called liberals.

    No, those people are called ‘reformers’.

    Most conventions and traditions exist not because of any actual benefit, but because people crave order and ritual. Benefits are generally an accidental side effect that sometimes is used to justify convention after-the-fact.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 31, 2009 at 10:01 am

    The resultant rapid secularisation of these nations, and of Italy, (Orthodox) Greece and even Latin America, can seem surprising to people who read old cultural and demographic books, but with the knowledge I have now it makes more sense.

    they are secularizing, but they’re not very secular. before you bring up generalizations like that you might cite numbers (i have in mind eurobarometer numbers).

    also, american population is far more secular than the indian population (e.g., 15% no religion vs. 1%) and the american political class is far more religious than the swedes (even if many democrats are lying about their religious affiliation, most republicans in power are probably not, at least in the generality).

  • How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us « Around The Sphere · September 8, 2009 at 8:57 am

    [...] Razib Khan at Secular Right: I do not actually personally believe that Christianity stands guilty of the crimes of revolutionaries, because I suspect that particular radicalisms and utopianisms were a natural consequence of human social development so long as cultural complexity and economic growth ascended upward. After all, political and social revolution marched under the banner of Shia Islam, Taoism and Pure Land Buddhism in other civilizations. Religion is I think often less the ultimate driver as opposed to the proximate motive engine; the enabler, not the root of all evil. But Rod Dreher does not agree on this issue, and so I think it is important to bring up the idea that Christianity is not necessarily the anti-revolutionary and conservative cultural vehicle he presupposes it to be. At least no necessarily. For example, Matthew 10 has plenty which might satisfy the propogandistic needs of revolutionaries. [...]

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