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Friday, August 24, 2007

 

The Politics of God

As the Western world becomes increasingly secular, there is a popular misconception that religion is unnecessary to a good society. In fact, many atheistic intellectuals would argue that religion, specifically Christianity (which is their historical birthright) has been an evil influence in history, citing the Crusades, various religious wars and the Inquisition.

Unfortunately, their belief system is insupportable. Modern society is still infused with Christian dos and don’ts and is mere generations away from a time when the value of religious faith was a universal assumption; an axiom built into popular understanding of the structure of a moral and just society.

The village atheist may reject God and the entire pantheon of biblical characters who inform the lives of ordinary people, but he cannot escape the effects of these beliefs in the real world.

There have been, to be sure, experiments in creating societies that were officially atheist; the Soviet Union and Communist China come to mind, but these are not the sort of examples that atheists wish to emulate in detail. The results were not good.

Wretchard of the Belmont club explores this issue in a very readable and learned essay. The analysis is based on an article in the NY Times Magazine by Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University.

Excerpt:
At first humanity's traditional habituation to God provided assurance that man would never be left wholly alone with his inner temptations. Some guideposts would surely remain. "Religion is simply too entwined with our moral experience ever to be disentangled from it, and morality is inseparable from politics." But that underrated the ambition of the ideologues. Once God had left the room the stakes went too high: and God's vacant throne glittered irresistibly before them. The natural impulse of demagogues was not, as Rousseau might have thought, to retain God as an absent, but beneficent Constitutional Monarch in whose extended absence Parliament ruled. For ambitious men the goal was to supplant the Creator altogether the better to rule on earth as gods.

[…]

A Europe shattered and disillusioned by the Great War turned again to religion; but not to the Christianity they had recently rejected; but instead to the new European world-faiths of the 20th century. Nazism and Communism were the proudest creations of post-Christian Europe. They were faiths whose missionaries would proselytize everywhere and make converts as far afield as Vietnam and China. Faiths under whose banners structures greater than cathedrals would be filled with chanting adherents; faiths whose patriarchs greater than Popes would rule; pitiless religions where not thousands, but hundreds of millions would be burned at the proverbial stake. The shadows of Hobbes' candle had taken form and their names, bright with blood, were written across the pages of the Second World and Cold Wars. In the end, Europe emerged exhausted from the carnage wrought by her intellectual products; faithless, and incredulous to see Islam glaring at it from the Other Shore; full of the very certitudes they had recently forsaken. Lilla says Westerners do not understand Muslims; but only because they have forgotten what it is like to be them: to slay or be slain for one's belief. Lilla does not guess whether Islam will itself undergo its own version of a Great Separation. The question for him is where a faithless West, needing a reason to exist, must go from here:


What is troubling is that a growing faithlessness in the West is now facing a fanatical faithfulness in the form of militant Islam. And the question is whether a society that has no basic religious belief system will be submerged by one that does. Like the Dutch Bishop who proposed that Christians should begin referring to God as “Allah.” After all, if you believe all religion is fantasy, what does it matter if you pretend to believe in other people’s fantasies if the alterative is death?

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