In the paper the other day there was an item about Pope Benedict’s recent remarks to the people of the Czech Republic. The Pope, speaking to one of the most secular societies on Earth, sought earnestly to persuade them of the dangers of a society without God.
On a superficial level this is easy enough to understand; after all, Benedict is the CEO of a huge, multinational business that has been losing market share at an accelerating pace in recent years. We’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing lately: I recall, for example, the CEO of General Motors admonishing Congress not too long ago about the dangers of a society without Chevy Camaros.
But this is a special case, of course: the Catholic Church has been in business even longer than Ford, GM, and Chrysler put together. More than that, though, the Church markets a product that has, for twenty centuries, inspired some of the fiercest brand loyalty in all of merchandising. Which is, really, the point.
Can societies survive without religion? The question is on everybody’s mind, it seems, and it’s a fair one. Bill Vallicella, for example, asked it a few days ago, in a brief and pungent post entitled Can Belief in Man Substitute for Belief in God? I reproduce it here in its entirety:
The fact and extent of natural and moral evil make belief in a providential power difficult. But they also make belief in man and human progress difficult. There is the opium of religion, but also that of future-oriented utopian naturalisms such as Marxism. Why is utopian opium less narcotic than the religious variety?
And isn’t it more difficult to believe in man than in God? We know man and his wretchedness and that nothing much can be expected of him, but we don’t know God and his powers. Man is impotent to ameliorate his condition in any fundamental way. We have had centuries to experience this truth, have we not? Advances in science and technology have brought undeniable benefits but also unprecedented dangers. The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, their possession by rogue states and their terrorist surrogates, bodes ill for the future of humanity. As I write these lines, the prime minister of a middle eastern state calls brazenly and repeatedly for the destruction of another middle eastern state while the state of which he is the prime minister prepares the nuclear weapons to carry out the unspeakably evil deed. Meanwhile the rest of the world is complacent and appeasing. We know our ilk and what he is capable of, and the bases of rational optimism seem slim indeed.
There is also the scarcely insignificant point that there is no such thing as Man, there are only individual men, men at war with one another and with themselves. We are divided, divisive, and duplicitous creatures. But God is one. You say God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether God exists or not, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn’t and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, and having thrown overboard every moral standard, is ever ready to spill oceans of blood in pursuit of their utopian fantasies.
There may be no source of the help we need. Then the conclusion to draw is that we should get by as best we can until Night falls, rather than making things worse by drinking the Left’s utopian Kool-Aid.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Auster, for whom this is a favorite topic, recently posted at his website a long and articulate email from “Kristor”, one of his readers, making the same point. We’ll get to that one shortly, but in sum the argument is that religion serves at least two vital roles in society. First, it binds the group together into a single community, with shared rituals, beliefs, traditions, and a network of mutual obligations. Second, it provides an absolute, Divine standard upon which moral judgments may rest. Take these away, and a society becomes like a barrel without hoops: bereft of the cohesive force of religion, a community falls apart, and with no absolute moral commandments, anything is possible. Bound no longer to his neighbor by the ties of confession and congregation, it’s every man for himself. Lacking the bonds of religion and any standards for objective judgment, the community drifts, rudderless and unseaworthy, into a careless moral and cultural relativism. The former virtues of loyalty to, and unity with, one’s own people (the very word “community” means “one together”) become parochial atavisms, scorned in favor of a new summum bonum, “diversity”.
How much of this is true?
Before we go any farther, let me get my own cards on the table. First, I am, by any reasonable standard, an atheist. Regarding the principal tenets of the most popular religions — that there is some sort of onmi-propertied God that created the world, and manages its affairs according to a divine Purpose; that we possess immaterial, immortal souls; that our conscious minds, rather than being the product of our physical brains, are somehow splinters of God’s own consciousness; that our moral intuitions arise from our awareness of absolute and pre-existing principles of good and evil laid down by God; that upon our deaths we will be judged according to the fidelity with which we have fulfilled God’s wishes, and rewarded or punished accordingly; that a lack of belief in all the aforementioned is a ticket to eternal damnation; that, despite the growing evidence of the mechanistic action of the brain and mind, we possess, in some incomprehensible way, a power of “free will” that allows us to be uncaused causal agents; that a man, born of a virgin woman, performed miracles on this Earth, then was tortured to death, resurrected after several days, and ascended bodily into Heaven, and that this person was somehow both God and Man; that God is both One and Three; etc., etc. — I consider all of them to be, at the very least, almost certainly false. I am a Darwinist and a secular humanist. But I am also deeply embedded in the Western, Enlightenment culture that I consider to be the high-water mark of our species’s slow ascent from beasthood, and I am concerned for its preservation. I am an unapologetic elitist and no multiculturalist, and I am a conservative, because I think that our Western culture has a great many features, of indisputably superior quality and value, that are well worth conserving.
So: is religion necessary for the preservation of Western culture, or, for that matter, any culture at all?
There is a gathering and persuasive academic consensus that our moral architecture is a cognitive adaptation that increases the fitness of social primates. Just as is the case with our built-in facility for the acquisition and use of language, we come factory-equipped with specialized equipment for setting up, and being guided by, an internalized system of moral rules. And as with human languages, details may vary, but only so far; there appear to be moral universals that constrain the possible range of ethical systems in much the same way that all human languages must work within a finite set of possible grammars. The obvious assumption is that outside these ranges these systems simply don’t work as well; that selection prunes the outliers. An inbuilt moral system that urges us all to assume a place in a social network of mutually supportive obligations to one another strengthens the overall fitness of the group, and a group that hangs together as a team in this way will do better, in the struggle for resources, than a rival group that is less cohesive. We may each have to pay a price in terms of within-group fitness, but if the group as a whole does well, its members will too, on average. If my group is fighting your group for access to a marginal food supply, and we are able to work better as a team that your side can, my group will live, and yours will die.
A simliar case is now being made, at the level of cultural adaptation, for religion. Religions are complexes of memes that, once they have transformed the minds they occupy, can strongly reinforce the cohesion of human groups. The best ones are phenomenally successful not only at propagating themselves — they can leap from host mind to host mind as effectively as the most contagious viruses — but also at conferring significant advantages in terms of group cohesion, and fidelity to the group’s particular moral grammar. A human society that plays host to an elite, highly evolved religion, then, reaps an enormous benefit in terms of group-level fitness.
But even the most effective religions, despite their magnificent defenses, can nevertheless be vulnerable in memetic “arms races” that may give rise to sophisticated threats. Such a threat is the secular, scientific worldview that has arisen in the West over the past several hundred years, but which ultimately has its roots in the habit of unfettered skeptical inquiry that arose in the early flowering of Greece. It too, has conferred powerful benefits upon its hosts — particularly as regards our increasing power over the natural world, the result of which has been, for Western civilization, both immense wealth and dominant military superiority.
But the same process of rational inquiry that got us here does not stop at technology; it was inevitable that we would turn this mighty investigative engine upon ourselves and our origins, and would begin to examine with the same persistent curiosity the very moral and religious scaffolding upon which our culture itself was erected. Under this relentless scrutiny these memetic pillars have been found to rest on less supportive ground than we might have liked: in the case of religion, the foundation was seen by many to be little more than deference to authority, tradition, and “sacred” texts. Our moral intuitions, in turn, having lost their external buttress in God, have more recently come to be understood as fitness-enhancing evolutionary adaptations.
This is unquestionably corrosive; it is far from clear that a secular culture, having renounced the adaptive advantages religion once provided, can continue to compete successfully with cultures in which religious unity is strong. Although prominent secularist philosophers and evolutionary psychologists have tried hard to replace the binding and morally bracing effect of religious memes with various substitutes, it is hard to conceal the fact that religion does spread a veil across a nihilistic abyss that can become all too uncomfortably visible to any atheist who thinks too much about these things.
There have been some good attempts to shore up these foundations in religion’s absence, and our more prominent secularists have, when pressed, called them into service. In Cape Cod this summer I had the opportunity to meet Steven Pinker, and during a very brief chat pressed him about this. Does he find it difficult, I asked, to place all of our moral “oughts” on any sort of solid ground, when they are revealed, it seems, to be not intrinsically good in any way, but merely adaptive?
Dr. Pinker replied that in his view the best foundation for our morality may be found in the symmetry-based moral philosophies of people like Immanuel Kant and John Rawls: the idea, in essence, that an optimal moral system is one that a person would choose if he did not know in advance what his position in the system would be. This is maximally egalitarian from an objective viewpoint, and has the advantage also of beng in nice correspondence with our central moral intuitions of altruism and fairness, as summed up in the Golden Rule — which in turn are presumably the result, in the modern view, of adaptation through natural selection. [Even Rawlsian solutions have their problems, though, as I’ve noted elsewhere. -MP, March ’15]
If we continue to drill relentlessly downward, however, left unanswered is the question of why it is in any way intrinsically good to maximize fairness, or to adopt symmetrical moral systems. This is inevitable, as we are still in the impossible position of wanting an “ought” from Nature’s “is”. It can’t be done, and smart people know it — and like it or not, such knowledge can be, as I said above, corrosive. This is why Daniel Dennett called Darwin’s great insight a “dangerous idea”. It is.
Since I began writing this post a couple of days ago, another item has appeared about the Pope’s visit to the Czechs. We read:
…Czechs said his mission here had been futile. “Catholicism is not going to catch on here where cynicism and ‘What’s the point?’ are the national ideology,” said Dominik Jun, 31, a filmmaker. “More Czechs believe in infomercials on television than they do in religion.”
What’s the point, indeed? A society that can’t answer that question is not well-suited to fight for its survival. And if we look at modern, secular European culture, it is not fighting at all: morale is low, and birth rates are falling; the hoops have come off the barrel. Meanwhile, immigrants to Europe who are strongly bound by one of the most successful religious meme-complexes of all time — Islam — are very motivated indeed, and their numbers and influence are swelling across the Continent. It is hard not to see this as natural selection in action, at a cultural level if nothing else. As Cornelius Troost said in his book Apes or Angels? : “Passive unbelievers with one child are no match for fanatical believers who have three or four.” It is beginning to appear that the memes that have propelled Western secular society to its moment in the sun will next, in the natural course of events, propel it right over a cliff.
So: what is to be done? In the Lawrence Auster post that I mentioned earlier, his reader Kristor wrote (the context here is the intellectual movement known as “human biodiversity”, or HBD, but the point is the same:
The really sad aspect of this situation is that the HBD analysis is really compelling. Evolutionary psychology supports the idea that societies really will do better if they are run on traditional lines. But, being couched in Darwinian terms, evolutionary psychology lacks any compelling argument that societies should do better. Indeed, Darwinist, materialist HBD’ers must forswear any such argument as unfounded and wrongheaded. What Darwinian HBD lacks is an argument that life is really good–good in fact–and that the things humans find most precious are in fact really important in the ultimate scheme of things, and therefore ought to be pursued. Instead, the Darwinian HBD’er is reduced to saying, “This is how things work, but that doesn’t matter.” This makes HBD pointless, a waste of time.
HBD can come to its full flower, as a school of intellectual endeavor, only when it admits as a first principle that there exists an ultimate moral framework under which it is better to exist than not, better to be comprehensive than inadequate, better to be more aware than less aware, and so forth. Only if these and certain other moral precepts are absolutely true, can evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, or HBD–or, for that matter, any domain of inquiry whatsoever–be of any help. But this admission would require the abandonment of Darwinism–of the proposition that change is essentially random–and of materialism.
In fact, it would require theism.
The point being made here is that a conservative, if he is to have any realistic hope of actually conserving Western culture, must accept and encourage theism; that only religion can give a culture the sinews it needs to prevail. In the Darwinian struggle for survival, secular cultures may enjoy an early advantage over religious ones, but in the long run they lose. In other words, secularism reduces a group’s fitness. In Darwinian terms, secularism is unilateral disarmament.
Is this true? I’m afraid it very well may be. Will I then advocate belief in ideas that I consider to be false? No. If the truth is that religion’s claims are false, we are simply never going to get the genie back into the bottle, and I wouldn’t want to even if we could: for me, as a representative product of the Western Enlightenment, the pursuit of truth itself is the greatest good.
[Note, January 2015: My position on this question of advocacy, and on the long-term effect of the radical skepsis that the Enlightenment set in motion, are no longer quite what they were when I wrote this post. — MP]
A lively discussion of all this is underway over at Mangan’s, where Dennis wrote, in response to Auster’s post:
As to the problem of morality, this is another one of those topics which have filled many yards of library bookshelves, so I’ll be brief. Kristor says that, according to Darwinism, “our feeling of wrongness, inherited from our evolutionary past, is just all there is to morality.” In a sense I agree that morality has been “inherited from our evolutionary past”, but not in some simple genetic way. Moral codes must be taught to each generation, and in turn no society can exist without a moral code.
More to our purpose, how does a moral code or lack thereof affect our ability or willingness to defend ourselves? Kristor seems to believe that, unless we view the West or America as the best or as righteous in some kind of cosmic sense, then we have no reasonable basis on which to defend it. Perhaps the idea is that, if we do not possess such a sense of righteousness, we will fall prey to white guilt, or maybe the idea is that if we will feel enervated in the knowledge that our society isn’t the best and will thus not put forth our best efforts in defending it. This is mistaken.
Societies, cultures, or civilizations have no need to feel that they are the best or the most righteous in order to feel that what they have is worth preserving, any more than families need to feel that they are the best or most righteous to defend themselves. They defend themselves because they are their own. Kristor states that “under a Darwinian world view, nothing is a problem”; the question is, a problem for whom? In some sort of cosmic sense, my death is not a problem, the world will quite happily go on its way without me. But it is indeed a problem for me, and I take whatever steps necessary to postpone my death. Similarly, it’s not a problem in some kind of cosmic sense that the West should die – although the world will undoubtedly not be better off for it, it will nevertheless go on its way, just as it did when the Roman Empire died, and the cosmos simply will not care. It will be, however, a big problem for us. So just as I’m able to see my own death as unimportant in the grand scheme of things but very important personally, so the West can look at its own civilization.
Correct. That our instincts for morality, and the particular configurations they assume, are not rooted in Divine command, does not mean that they are empty shells, or that we can ignore them any more than we can ignore our adaptive enjoyment of sex or food. Yes, religion may provide an enormously effective memetic reinforcement of these social instincts, but it is clear that we unbelievers can still behave just as well as the theists do, even without religion’s bridle and spur. And although the atheistic totalitarianisms of the twentieth century are often hauled into the dock by the religious as proxies for all us infidels (unfairly so, for reasons I won’t discuss here), it is also obvious that examples of wicked believers abound. Religion is not the source of morality, it merely gives it a robust post facto codification, and the illusion of supernatural authority at the whim of an imaginary God.
Commenter “Outland” added:
If you’d argue that well-behaved, smart ethnic Europeans should increase their fertility, instead of going the way of the Dodo, I doubt anybody would disagree. There are a few German studies that give proof that most women would have wanted more children. It’s the culture, taxes, career and child-unfriendly environment that made this impossible. There are ways to change that, Sweden and France prove that. Let’s adapt to the post-demographic transition world instead of reverting to our premodern past. Why would I want my people and culture to imitate the ways of Muslims or Africans? Now, that would be Darwinian nihilism! Don’t get me wrong, Muslims and Africans should be free to do so, but it would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. By all means, let us find ways to increase fertility and cultivate family life, but let us not get stuck with monotheism again; been there, done that.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe once wrote that classical liberals can never state their case succesfully, because their system lost out in the battle of ideas. He meant that their case wasn’t ideologically consistent, because, and this can’t be denied, they lost out. If it had been a truly superior system, it would have stayed with us — instead of a distant memory, which is what is today, like monarchism. I believe the same thing holds for Christianity. It held its own for many, many centuries, millennia even, but the fact of the matter is, that it did get displaced by modern liberalism/ egalitarianism/ managerial state.
This isn’t a Christian or monotheist thing, all religions eventually fade away. Sooner or later, sometimes millennia, rationality will defeat spirituality. Christianity, if anything, actually did a good job compared to other religions.
We shouldn’t try to find a new religion to replace the old, we should to find non-religious ways to express our in-born religiosity.
Can it be done? We are going to have to find out.