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.