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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Mary Eberstadt





Last Build Date: Fri, 22 Jun 2007 00:01:49 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007
 



How the West Really Lost God

Fri, 22 Jun 2007 00:01:49 -0600

Moreover, practically every other modern titan credited or discredited with shaping the world of ideas as we know it -- Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, and many more -- would have agreed, with whatever fussy qualifications, that Nietzsche's symbolic madman got something fundamentally right. So would their intellectually influential descendents. The so-called modernists and postmodernists may indeed have put forth uniquely "transgressive" models of thought, but none has been so transgressive as to ask whether Nietzsche's madman spoke the truth; whatever their other radical uncertainties, all "know" that he did. So do the popularizers of atheism past and present, from Bertrand Russell (Why I Am Not a Christian) on up to the slew of manifesto writers appearing recently both here and in Western Europe.5 All are heirs to secularization theory and footnotes to Nietzsche even if, as several make clear, "inevitability" is turning out to take a lot longer than any of them would prefer.6 And yet -- and yet. In one of those twists that reveals history herself to be an ironist of the very first order, today Nietzsche's madman seems farther than ever from having the last word on that figurative corpse in the cathedral. For despite one revolution after another these past 120 years, something surprising has happened. Vigorous counterattacks have come to be launched on secularization theory, markedly in the past few years. In fact, "secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history" -- an observation issuing not from the Vatican, but from two leading theorists on the other side.7 What's more, they are right. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the recent charge has been led by Christian intellectuals, primarily Catholics. Both John Paul ii and now Benedict xvi have believed the re-Christianization of Europe to be a pressing priority, and both have pressed it not only with Catholic rhetoric, but also with the language of modern Continental philosophy. Other critics have appeared similarly emboldened and on the offense. As Robert Royal observed recently in The God That Did Not Fail, "three centuries of debunking, skepticism, criticism, revolution, and scorn" by secularists not only have failed to defeat religious belief, but have actually enhanced its self-defense.8 In addition to critiques by unapologetic believers, secularization theory has also turned out to spur second thoughts among some of its own former proponents, notably intellectual apostate Peter L. Berger.9 In short, and despite the axiomatic status that Nietzsche's madman has long enjoyed, there is new blood in the water surrounding this matter of secularization theory, and watchful parties on both sides know it. This essay represents what might be called a radical friendly amendment to the revisionists. It questions the theory of secularization and, by extension, its father Nietzsche, not by citing current facts about religious renewal or historical facts about Christianity's influence, but rather by exploring a hitherto unexamined logical leap in the famous story line. To be fancy about it for a moment, what secularization theory assumes is that religious belief comes ontologically first for people and that it goes on to determine or shape other things they do -- including such elemental personal decisions as whether they marry and have children or not.10 Implied here is a striking, albeit widely assumed, view of how one social phenenomenon powers another: that religious believers are more likely to produce families because religious belief somehow comes first. And therein lies a real defect with the conventional story line about how and why religion collapsed in Western Europe. For what has not been explained, but rather assumed throughout that chain of argument, is why the causal relationship between belief and practice should always run that way instead of the other, at least some of the time. It is as if recent intellectual history had lined up all t[...]



The Scapegoats Among Us

Tue, 19 Dec 2006 00:45:40 -0600

I believe the answer to that question is the obvious one: because in some deep sense, it is true. This is not meant to affirm that every current charge of "denial" now circulating is a valid one. It's rather to suggest that the sheer volume of such charges reflects a deeper, underlying truth about the untethering of some current political ideas from firm reality. This is the deeper territory that the ubiquity of that term "denial" invites us to plumb. One way to begin is to survey the main intellectual and political currents since 9/11, which investigation yields a fact both unexpected and significant. As it turns out, a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain -- many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys. One result of that transposition, the record shows, has been the creation of a world of political scapegoats for the unease and anxiety that are the unwanted companions now of Westerners everywhere. These scapegoats, perverse non-explanations for what really ails us, can be identified by features common to the breed everywhere: The passion invested in them by their antagonists is disproportionate to any real problem the scapegoat represents; they are invoked to explain more about the world than they do; they capture some part of the truth, i.e., have a degree of verisimilitude without which a scapegoat cannot exist; and -- also like scapegoats everywhere -- they pose no threat of retaliation for their overburdening. They are scapegoats in the classic sense: metaphorical beasts seen not in their own right and reality, but rather as communal vessels carrying a political and psychological weight beyond themselves for reasons of communal relief. In sum, to judge by current intellectual trends, many post-9/11 attempts to diagnose the American soul, both here and in Europe, have served less to clarify reality than to gravitate toward safer and more palatable substitutes. It is a fraught, fascinating spectacle worth exploring in detail -- the more so because a parallel outpouring of books, especially from the contemporary European front, makes very clear what today's obvious displacements of political passion are really about. The immigrant scapegoating Begin in the United States with the literature lately generated on the paleoconservative and nativist wing of the right on the red-hot subject of illegal immigration -- now not only a literature, but also a newly minted political movement that has gone on to enjoy populist and national success. Of course many Americans, including some nonconservatives, oppose the idea of uncontrolled immigration per se. But that is a political and practical fact, as opposed to a creedal statement. It is the creed of the theorists that is of interest here, for it's in that creed that today's anti-immigrant ideology appears most clearly. According to those theorists and this movement, the threat to our civilization and way of life -- such are the terms in which the discussion has been framed -- is plain. The foreigners we must focus on most, those who according to some are a dagger aimed at our civilization, those whom we must do everything in our power to keep out of our country because of the harm they intend us, are . . . no, not immigrants from the demographic and cultural risk pool associated worldwide with Islamism, but rather those from somewhere else: specifically those working-class, poor, Spanish-speaking, largely Christian migrants from Mexico and other points south who break U.S. immigration laws by crossing the border in search of work. Consider Patrick Buchanan's new and bestselling manifesto, State of Emergency (Thomas [...]