Reader Barry sent me this link as “the embarrassing essay of the day”, though the “day” was June 29. It is embarrassing, though and barely worth noticing, much less refuting. I intend to say only a few words about it, but I tend to forget myself. Should we just ignore intellectual pabulum like this?
The essay comes from the site Mercatornet, an Australian conservative magazine rated with a moderate to high level of bias to the right, though its “factual reporting” is ranked “high”. The essay below, however, is not factual reporting but pure osculation of religion (specifically Christianity) with a claim that without Christianity our society cannot endure. Christianity, it’s averred, is the source of moral values; and no other religion or ideology, much less humanism, can act as such a social glue or save the West from lapsing into barbarity.
This thesis reminds me of one of Andrew Sullivan’s 2020 columns for New York Magazine, in which he said this (my emphasis):
I have a smidgen more optimism. I see in the long-delayed backlash to the social-justice movement an inkling of a new respect for individual and creative freedom and for the old idea of toleration rather than conformity. I see in the economic and educational success of women since the 1970s a possible cease-fire in the culture wars over sex. I see most homosexuals content to live out our lives without engaging in an eternal Kulturkampf against the cis and the straight. Race? Alas, I see no way forward but a revival of Christianity, of its view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This means such a transcendent view of human equality that it does not require equality of outcomes to see equal dignity and worth.
In August of this year, on Substack, he continued his osculation of Christianity as a necessity for society (again my emphasis):
I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.
I wrote a longish rebuttal of this claim and sent it to Sullivan as a “dissent”, but it wasn’t published. So it goes.
But what this shows, as does the article below by Jonathon Van Maren, is that smart people can be seduced by delusions, and can rationalize their beliefs by saying that without such delusions, society would fall apart.
This baffles me. Surely you can’t force yourself to be a Christian just because it would help society, for the values that supposedly help society (sin, forgiveness, and so on) are based on things for which there is no evidence. It’s like saying that without Dumbo’s magic feather, he’d fall from the sky, so it’s imperative that Dumbo believe in the power of that feather. And can one really force oneself to believe Christian palaver just to improve society? It seems to me that you have to have some belief that the central story of Christianity—original sin from Adam and Eve, our collective guilt, and its expiation by the Crucifixion and Resurrection—must have a grain of truth. Either that, or you have a cynical “belief in belief”, as Dennett calls it. That is, one can be a nonbeliever but say feel religion is still a social good—for other people.
And that’s what Van Maren, who apparently is a believer, argues in his new article. The site identifies him as “a freelance writer and communications director for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. His work has appeared in National Review, The Federalist, National Post, and elsewhere. His book, The Culture War, was published in 2016.”). Another site notes that “Jonathon was raised in a Reformed Christian home and currently attends the Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Norwich, Ontario.”
Van Maren interviews a number of people, including conservative Niall Ferguson (the spouse of Ayaan Hirsi Ali; do they talk about religion?), all of whom say that atheism is a nonstarter when it comes to supporting an “ethical system”. Here’s a quote from Ferguson:
“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” he said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.”
“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”
For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. . .
Now that is belief in belief. I won’t go into detail, but it’s pretty clear that some aspects of our ethical system (fairness, reciprocity, etc.) are the products of evolution, probably evolved when we lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. But that aside, he also claims that atheism is a religious faith, which it’s not (it’s an absence of religious faith). And that aside, where does he get the idea that without Christianity civilization would revert to savagery? Is that the case in nonreligious Scandinavia, or in Iceland, where 0% of people under 25 are religious?
I suppose, in response, that one could argue that, well, Scandinavia and other countries that may give up religion will still inherit an ethical system from their previous Christianity. But that implies that non-Christian societies, like those of Jews or Jains, are also full of “savagery”.
And what does it mean “to base a society on atheism”, anyway? I wouldn’t want some society in which there was an official doctrine of atheism enforced on its adherents. That stifles discussion and thought. An atheistic society seems to be one in which no religious values are enforced and secularism is institutionalized. That is, for example, like France. But you could still argue that France is civilized because it still adheres to moral values derived from Christianity.
Further, if morality absolutely depends on belief in Christianity, one can draw two conclusions.
First, the “ethics of Christianity” don’t come from God, or even from belief in the Christian myth, but from some non-Christian views of what is good and right. That’s because even Christians don’t adhere to a Christian morality because they think God or Jesus told us what is right. No, they adhere to it because they think that God and Jesus were exponents of a good that pre-existed before Christianity, and is independent of what they declare to be good. That, of course, is the basis of Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma, one of the greatest contributions of philosophy to clear thinking.
Second, if you have to adhere to Christianity to be moral, that implies that your morality is somehow enforced or upheld by God: what Hitchens called a “celestial North Korea”. For if that’s not the case, one can reject all of Christianity itself and just keep the preexisting moral sentiments. (Christianity did not originate any new beneficial moral sentiments, though Van Maren says “forgiveness” is uniquely Christian. But surely Christianity created and supports many bad moral sentiments. You can name many yourselves.). If you remove the religious palaver, you wind up with secular humanism.
Now I’m not saying that religious belief never helped anyone do good, but in general I adhere to Steve Weinberg’s famous dictum:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”
Weinberg is an atheist, and there are many of us who have never embraced Christianity, even if some of us once adhered to other faiths. It takes a special kind of blindness to think that a society constituted of people like atheists would fall apart.
Van Maren quotes some other authorities, accumulating a pile of Believers in Belief:
The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.
And Douglas Murray, a good foe of Wokeism, also purses his lips to osculate the rump of Christianity:
Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who was raised in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has occasionally referred to himself as a “Christian atheist.” In a recent discussion with theologian N.T. Wright, he described himself as “an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the virtues and the values the Christian faith has brought,” and noted that he is actually irritated by the way the Church of England is fleeing from its inheritance, “giving up its jewels” such as “the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer” in exchange for progressive pieties.. . .
. . . Murray believes that Christianity is essential because secularists have been thus far totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that matches the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column in The Spectator, he noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to abandon the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.” And if that doesn’t work? “Then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.”
On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation.”
Apparently Scruton is unaware of how atheist and humanists philosophers have constructed moral systems without Christianity: people like Bertrand Russell, John Rawls, and Peter Singer. None of this depends on the “sanctity of human life”, but rather on the value of human life. I looked up “sanctity” in the Oxford English Dictionary and reproduce the only two definitions that are relevant:
Holiness of life, saintliness. odour of sanctity
The quality of being sacred or hallowed; sacredness, claim to (religious) reverence; inviolability.
Both of these have to do with religion. But you have to be a moron to think that one must accept that humans are made in God’s image to behave morally. The observed morality of lifelong atheists absolutely refutes that, as well as the fact that when religion wanes, as in northern Europe, the U.S.,and the U.K., society seems to get better (and certainly, according to statistics, people are happier).
A few more Arguments from Authority by Van Maren:
The American social scientist and agnostic Charles Murray, too, told me in an interview that he believes the American republic is unlikely to survive without a resurgence of Christianity. Echoing John Adams, he noted that the Constitution of the United States and the liberties it upholds can only govern a religious people.
Historian Tom Holland’s magnificent Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published in 2019, makes a similar case. For years, Holland—an agnostic—wrote compelling histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but he observed that their societies were rife with casual, socially-accepted cruelty towards the weak, rape, and sexual abuse towards the massive slave class as an unquestioned way of life, and the mass extermination of enemies as a matter of course. These peoples and their ethics, Holland writes, seemed utterly foreign to him.
It was Christianity, Holland concluded, that changed all that in a revolution so complete that even critiques of Christianity must borrow precepts from Christianity to do so.
As if no “Christian” society ever had slavery, genocide (yes, Hitler was a Christian), sexual abuse, or The Inquisition!
Finally, there’s a bit of atheist-bashing, as if somehow atheists realize the force of Van Maren’s argument:
[Holland] defended this thesis brilliantly in a debate on the subject “Did Christianity give us our human values?” with atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling, who seemed actively irritated by the idea. Not so long ago, unbelievers like the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that “religion poisons everything”—a sentiment that appears to be retreating as we advance further into the post-Christian era.
Hitchens frequently claimed to be not an atheist, but an “anti-theist”—he didn’t believe in God, and he was glad that he did not. It is fascinating to see intellectuals come forward with precisely the opposite sentiment—they do not believe, but they somehow want to believe. The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who speaks about Christianity often, is a good example of this.
Increasingly, some intellectuals from across the disciplines—history, literature, psychology, philosophy—are gazing out of what was once a refuge and wishing that, some how, they could believe it. They have understood that Christianity is both indispensable and beautiful, but their intellectual constraints prevent many of them from embracing it as true.
Increasingly? Does Van Maren have data on the per capita increase among atheists in their desire to believe Christianity? No, of course not: he finds a few anecdotes and then makes up a general thesis. I wonder how many atheists like Grayling and Hitchens would say that they don’t believe but want to. Hitchens is gone, but Grayling is with us, and I’ll ask him.
At the end, Van Maren maintains, without any evidence, that Christianity is our main bulwark against totalitarianism—indeed, is essential for the survival of the West.
“It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.”
The survival of Christianity is essential for the survival of the West.
I have news for Van Maren: religion is declining precipitously in the West, and that means Christianity. What we find is that Nones, atheists, and agnostics are on the rise at the expense of Christians. In America, the party of Christianity is the Republican Party, a party that nearly wrecked America when it got a chance. Such is the “ethical system” of Christianity.