Fighting troll bait with troll bait
O come, all ye faithless
Peter Watson, the author of a new book called Ideas: a History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, was interviewed by the New York Times the other day, and was asked to name 'the single worst idea in history'. He replied:
'Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on Earth determines how we will go into the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.'
And a Merry Christmas to you, too. For a big-ideas guy, Watson is missing the bigger question: something has to be 'responsible for most of the wars and bigotry', and if it wasn't religion, it would surely be something else. In fact, in the 20th century, it was. Europe's post-Christian pathogens of communism and Nazism unleashed horrors on a scale inconceivable even to the most ambitious Pope. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot: you'd look in vain for any of them in the pews each Sunday. Marx has a lot more blood on his hands than Christ - other people's blood, I mean - but the hyper-rationalists are noticeably less keen to stick him with the tab for the party.
So the big thinker would seem to be objectively wrong in what, for a secular rationalist, sounds more like a reflex irrational bigotry all his own. A thinking atheist ought to be able to appreciate the benefits the secular world derives from monotheism - for example, the most glorious achievements in Western art and music. By comparison, militant atheism has given us John Lennon's 'Imagine', that paean to nothingness whose lyric - 'Above us only sky' - is the official slogan of John Lennon International Airport in Liverpool. Two years ago, in America's Weekly Standard, Joel Engel pondered that favourite hymn of sentimental secularists, apparently so anodyne and unobjectionable that, in a world twitchy about the insufficient multiculturalism of 'Jingle Bells', never mind 'Away in a Manger', the holiday concert at my kids' school nevertheless gaily programmed John Lennon's fluffy nihilism as an appropriate sentiment for the season:
Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
'Okay,' wrote Engel, 'let's imagine that; let's imagine six billion people who believe that flesh and blood is all there is; that once you shuffle off this mortal coil, poof, you're history; that Hitler and Mother Teresa, for example, both met the same ultimate fate. Common sense suggests that such a world would produce a lot more Hitlers and a lot fewer Teresas, for the same reason that you get a lot more speeders/murderers/rapists/ embezzlers when you eliminate laws, police and punishment. Sceptics and atheists can say what they like about religion, but it's hard to deny that the fear of an afterlife where one will be judged has likely kept hundreds of millions from committing acts of aggression, if not outright horror. Nothing clears the conscience quite like a belief in eternal nothingness.'
That sounds right. There's an important exception, of course: the challenge of Islam is precisely that it's a religion whose afterlife appears - at least according to many of its more bloodcurdling spokespersons - to reward 'wars and bigotry'. But the question then is what kind of society is best equipped to defend itself against such a challenge? It's not just that a radical secularist present-tense society will produce more Hitlers and Stalins - not all of us want to work that hard - but that millions more will lapse into the fey passivity of Lennon's song.
In the Guardian last week, Polly Toynbee launched a splendid broadside against The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: 'Here in Narnia,' she sneered, 'is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America, that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right.' The first half of that sentence I don't particularly disagree with, the second is just plain sad: no one who trades in language for a living should bandy phrases like 'neo-fascist' so carelessly. But Miss Toynbee went on to cite a more sober objection to Narnia.
Aslan, she writes, 'is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on Earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can.'
Sounds very nice, doesn't it? But in practice the lack of belief in divine presence is just as likely to lead to humans avoiding responsibility: if there's nothing other than the here and now, who needs to settle disputes at all? All you have to do is manage to defer them till after you're dead - which is pretty much the post-Christian European electorates' approach to their unaffordable social programmes. I mentioned in the Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks back the amount of mail I get from British readers commenting with gloomy resignation on various remorseless trends in our island story and ending with, 'Fortunately I won't live to see it.' When you think about it, that's actually the essence of the problem: hyper-rationalist radical secularism reduces the world to one's own life span. Why try to 'settle disputes' when you'll be long gone? Faith is one of those mystic cords that binds us to our past and commits us to a future.
So I'd say Polly's got it all wrong. The meek's chances of inheriting the earth are considerably diminished in a post-Christian society: chances are they'll just get steamrollered by more motivated types. You don't have to look far to get the cut of my jib. And you can't help noticing that since abandoning their faith in the unseen world Europe seems also to have lost faith in the seen one.
Consider this poll taken for the first anniversary of 9/11: 61 per cent of Americans said they were optimistic about the future, as opposed to 43 per cent of Canadians, 42 per cent of Britons, 29 per cent of the French, 23 per cent of Russians and 15 per cent of Germans. Three years on, I'll bet those European numbers have sunk even lower. The Krauts are so slumped in despond that they're running some Teutonic feelgood marketing campaign in which old people are posed against pastoral vistas, fetching gays mooch around the Holocaust memorial, Katarina Witt stands in front of some photogenic moppets, etc., and they all point their fingers at the camera and shout 'Du bist Deutschland!' - 'You are Germany!' - which is meant somehow to pep up glum Hun couch potatoes.
It's hard to persuade an atheist to believe in God. But unless he's the proverbial 'militant atheist' - or, more accurately, fundamentalist atheist - the so-called rationalist ought to be capable of a rational assessment of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of different societies. If he is, he'll find it hard to conclude other than that the most secular societies have the worst prospects.
Rationalism is killing poor childless Europe. But instead of rethinking the irrationalism of rationalism, the rationalists are the ones clinging to blind faith, ever more hysterically. At that ridiculous climate conference in Montreal, Peyton Knight of the National Center for Public Policy Research encountered Richard Ingham, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse: 'He demanded to know the National Center's stance on global warming. I began to explain to him that it is our view that mankind is not causing the planet to get appreciably warmer. Before I could delve into any specifics, he cut me off, shouting: "Why? Because it isn't in the Bible? It isn't in Genesis?"'
The bit I like isn't in Genesis, but Psalms: 'What is man, that thou art mindful of him...? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea....'
Let's suppose that there is no God and that the Psalmist just conjured that up out of thin air.
Nevertheless, it accurately conveys the central feature of our world - our dominion over pretty much everything else out there. A couple of months back, I was asked about creationism and 'intelligent design'. Not my bag, so I kept it short. But I did say that the Psalmist had captured the essence of our reality rather better than your average geneticist. I'd just been told that not only does man share 98.5 per cent of his genetic code with the chimp but he shares 75 per cent of it with the pumpkin. If that's so, it doesn't seem a terribly useful scale for measuring the differences in our respective achievements. As I put it, 'The fact is that this is a planet overwhelmingly dominated and shaped by one species, and our kith and kin - whether gibbons or pumpkins - basically fit in the spaces between.'
This modest thought provoked Paul Z. Myers, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, into paroxysms of scorn: Steyn, he scoffed, 'must not possess a gut populated by intestinal bacteria. We are at their mercy; without them, we suffer horribly for a while and die.... He must not have any wooden furniture in his home, or plastic ...made from the carbon left by ancient forests.... It's a good thing he doesn't eat, or he'd have to excrete - without any bacteria or fungi or nematodes or flatworms, the shit would just pile up (this would explain his written output, though).'
Oh dear. All I was doing was making a simple point about the scale of man's domination, and all Professor Myers's demolition does is confirm it. My intestinal bacteria may indeed be doing a swell job, but living in my gut isn't exactly a beach house at Malibu. Yes, I've got wooden furniture. I live in the Great North Woods and the house and practically everything in it is made from those woods. But I sit on the chair, the chair doesn't sit on me. And as for my excreta and the hard-working nematode, who gets the better end of that deal?
In a way, Professor Myers is only taking transnationalism to its logical conclusion. After all, if one is obliged to pretend that the Americans, Belgians, Greeks and Canadians are all equal members of a military alliance, it's not such a stretch to insist that the Americans, the flatworms, the intestinal bacteria and your Welsh dresser are all equal partners in some grand planetary alliance. Nonetheless, if we are virtually the same as a chimp, the 1.5 per cent of difference counts for more than the 98.5 per cent of similarity. The Psalmist seems to find that easier to understand than the biologist does.
In the same way, assume that there was no baby in the manger, no virgin birth, no resurrection. A rationalist ought still to be able to conclude that, as a societal model, Christianity is more rational than Eutopian secularism. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John cooked the whole racket up, it's nevertheless a stroke of genius to anchor the whole phony-baloney rigmarole in the birth of a child and his triumph over death. Whether or not there is a hereafter, new life is our triumph over death here on Earth. A religiosity centred on eternal life will by definition be a more efficient organising principle for an enduring society than a secularism focused on the here and now, with 'no other place yet to come', as Polly Toynbee puts it. The intestinal bacteria might as well pack up and go home.
What's so rational about putting yourself out of business? On both sides of the Atlantic, the godly will inherit the Earth: in the United States, blue-state birthrates mean that in 20 years America will look a lot less like John Kerry's Massachusetts and a lot more like Texas and Utah; Europe will look a lot less like an Amsterdam sex club and a lot more like Clichy-sous-Bois. Post-Christian Europe will also be post-European. If you're cool with that, fine. If you're not, you might want to rethink the lazy slurs about America's 'neo-fascist' religiosity. Merry Christmas. Happy Eid.
(c) Mark Steyn, 2005