Writing in the American Conservative, here’s Gilbert Sewall on the Oxford classicist, E.R. Dodds. Read the whole thing, really, but here is Sewall discussing Dodds’ Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety (1965):
In 380, Theodosius I declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire, proscribing all other religions. Temples were closed, property confiscated, pagan holidays prohibited, and Olympic games ended. Freedom of religion vanished.
Olympic Games ended – not all bad then.
This obnoxious self-confidence made Christians many enemies among ordinary Romans. “Like all creeds which claim the total allegiance of the individual—like communism, for example, in our own day—early Christianity was a powerful divisive force,” Dodds said, using italics to make his point
To educated pagans, blind faith rendered Christianity contemptible. But what had been no more than an administrative nuisance or psychological curiosity in the early Empire became an actual menace to its stability and security: a state within the state, a secret society that disrupted social cohesion…
Why did the Christians win the Roman culture wars? First, the anything-goes ecumenism of late antiquity led to “too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from: you could pile one religious insurance on another yet not feel safe,” Dodds explained. “Christianity made a clean sweep.” The Church cared for widows and orphans, the old, unemployed, and disabled. Most important, the Church created a community that gave self-respect and meaning to lives, provided human warmth, and offered hope.
Since Dodds wrote, the Western world’s educated and powerful have for the most part abandoned Christianity. Multimedia blur fiction and fact, making fantasies appear real and true. In such a world, what rubrics will provide a moral anchor and semblance of community? What voices will give lives meaning and direction?
As I’ve mentioned before, the need for “meaning” remains elusive to me, but it is undeniable that that is something most people appear to want—something, like religion itself, that appears to be hardwired within our species, presumably because it fulfilled and, indeed, fulfills, an evolutionary purpose.
The ‘New Atheists’ who want to get rid of religion are on a hiding to nothing. There will always be religion. The only question is the form or forms it will take.
Washington-based journalist Andrew Sullivan has likened today’s campus activists to a religious sect, one that finds redemption through confession of white guilt and privilege, conversion, adoption of esoteric language, and adherence to a strict moral system. “Liberalism and empiricism have parted company,” warns political philosopher John Gray, an academic leftist and no friend of religion, in the Times Literary Supplement.
In this context, it is worth noting this comment by Gray (‘academic leftist’ is not, incidentally, quite the right label: Where he stands is more complex than that) :
[Mill’s] assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.
But conformity is not comfortable for all, and part of the comfort it does give lies in bestowing a power to enforce that conformity on others, power that is pleasurable in itself, but also as a demonstration of a superior morality.
A rising quasi-religion propagates articles of holy faith through academic and corporate workshops, training sessions, and safe-zone certifications. In deconstructing canonical works, defaming ancient heroes, denouncing thought crimes, destroying icons and symbols, and closing down opposing viewpoints as hateful, it displays humorless fanaticism….
[T]he emerging intersectional priesthood has no intention of ceding secular power or accommodating adversaries. As an elect mindful of the responsibility to crush lies, convinced of its superior moral vision, it demands greater temporal power to redeem and punish recalcitrants.
As Dodds showed, belief systems that seem absurd to non-believers can and do create state-enforced thought monopolies. Once institutionalized, they can remain in power for long periods of time. Those who refuse to embrace sacred mandates and hierarchies are deplorable. They are mad, stupid, or evil, not merely stubborn or freethinking. Heresy contaminates. Nonconformists deserve legal reprisals, stigma, and ruin. To expunge the demonic threat, autos da fé, psychiatric hospitals, labor camps, and confiscations—many possible tools—are available to enforce divinely inspired righteousness.