An Atheist's Defence of Christianity
I seldom read book reviews, and would not have read the one entitled, "Suicide of the West
," if it had been written by anyone other than Theodore Dalrymple. The opening paragraph explains exactly what the three books reviewed are about:
"That Western Europe suffers from a state of general paralysis is a truth too universally acknowledged to require much reiteration. Slow growth and high unemployment; an aging and shrinking population; scientific and cultural irrelevance to the rest of the world; a large, unassimilated alien population much of which is hostile to the very countries into which it has immigrated—these are just a few of the problems that Western Europe not only fails to solve, but even properly to recognize."
America Is Part of The West
The title of the review is a bit misleading because the books are all about Western Europe's rapid decline and its causes, and though mentioned, does not include America in that suicide. It is that neglect I want to address, because many of the symptoms of Western Europe's decline are already apparent in the US, and the causes of Europe's descent are rampant in America, but generally unrecognized. My impression, when I read the review was, "we're next," because America is already sick with the same poison killing Europe and if we keep on in our present direction, the death of Western Civilization will be total, including America, which will certainly succumb to the same toxins.
This paragraph, in particular, directly relates to America:
"... There is a crisis of meaning and purpose in Western European societies .... They are almost entirely post-religious, but they have found no form of transcendence to replace religion, and none is on the horizon. ... Modern Europeans believe in very little, except in as comfortable and safe a life as possible. Indeed, health and safety have altogether replaced faith, hope, and charity as the cardinal desiderata. It is scarcely any wonder that, when faced by people who, quite mistakenly and with a combination of staggering ignorance and arrogance, believe themselves to be in possession of a truth that justifies almost any atrocity committed, if not by them, exactly, then by those whom they have indoctrinated, modern Western Europeans do not know how to react."
Religion, Tolerance and Intolerance
Dalrymple correctly identifies what is missing in Europe and the US, "modern Europeans believe in very little."
In fact, they believe in nothing at all. It's called post-modernism, and pervades the universities, the media, and most of society in the United States in two contradictory forms, multicultural "tolerance", on the one hand, and "zero tolerance," on the other. The multicultural madness (tolerance) is about the destruction of values (anyone's culture or values are as good as anyone else's) while "zero tolerance" is about forcing people, especially children, to conform to the madness. While multiculturalism promotes something called, "diversity," it despises anyone who is truly different, that is, exceptional. Every kind of outrage is "tolerated" as diversity, unless it exhibits exceptional intelligence, decency, or strength of character.
Religious tolerance, for example, is extended to all religions, and the more backward, oppressive, cruel, and savage it is (e.g. Islam) the more it is tolerated. There is one religion that is not tolerated, however, and that is Christianity. This fact is becoming more apparent every day. While little girls are being threatened with punishment for reading the Bible during their lunch recess, the Education Department is promoting the teaching of Islam in public schools.
A Rational Perspective on Religion
While religion has no magic power to confer anything on people, especially character or virtue, there is an aspect of religion, particularly Christianity, that is part of the distinction between America and Western Europe. It is that which I want to identify.
I would gladly take the credit for that identification if it were mine, but it is not. It was Ayn Rand who made that identification, and clarified it in a way that few of those who call themselves by the name of the philosophy she developed, Objectivism, understand. I'm afraid many "Objectivists" find themselves on the wrong side of this issue, siding with those who would tear down all values, that is, on the side of the postmodernists and multiculturalists.
In a Feb. 4, 1963 letter to US Congressman Bruce Alger, she wrote: "In accordance with the principles of America and of capitalism, I recognize your right to hold any beliefs you choose—and, on the same grounds, you have to recognize my right to hold any convictions I choose. I am an intransigent atheist, though not a militant one. This means that I am not fighting against religion—I am fighting for reason. When faith and reason clash, it is up to the religious people to decide how they choose to reconcile the conflict. As far as I am concerned, I have no terms of communication and no means to deal with people, except through reason."
The difference between "not fighting against religion" and "fighting for reason" is profoundly important. She is not just speaking of "freedom of religion" because she has a profound respect for religion, and an equally profound contempt for those who would destroy it. For example, she wrote, in the April 1966 issue of The Objectivist, in the article, "Our Cultural Value-Deprivation," the following:
"From a report on a television discussion in Denver, Colorado, I gather that one member of this movement has made its goal and meaning a little clearer. 'God,' he said, 'is a process of creative social intercourse.'
"This, I submit, is obscene. I, who am an atheist, am shocked by so brazen an attempt to rob religion of whatever dignity and philosophical intention it might once have possessed. I am shocked by so cynically enormous a degree of contempt for the intelligence and the sensibility of people, specifically of those intended to be taken in by the switch.
"Now, if men give up all abstract speculation and turn to the immediate conditions of their existence—to the realm of politics—what values or moral inspiration will they find?"
The answer, of course, is none! Rand is not saying or implying that religion provides men with the right values, only that men embrace religion because they seek values and believe in them. She's not saying religion provides the right inspiration, only that religion is, for those who embrace it, an acknowledgment that principles matter, that there is something to revere, that life is important, and there is an absolute truth. When that is taken from men, they become what all Europeans have become, men who value nothing, reverence nothing, believe in nothing, and live for nothing. Rand described that too:
The Road to Nihilism
"Most people lack [the capacity for] reverence and "'taking things seriously.' They do not hold anything to be very serious or profound. There is nothing that is sacred or immensely important to them. There is nothing—no idea, object, work, or person—that can inspire them with a profound, intense, and all-absorbing passion that reaches to the roots of their souls. They do not know how to value or desire. They cannot give themselves entirely to anything. There is nothing absolute about them. They take all things lightly, easily, pleasantly—almost indifferently, in that they can have it or not, they do not claim it as their absolute necessity. Anything strong and intense, passionate and absolute, anything that can't be taken with a snickering little "sense of humor"—is too big, too hard, too uncomfortable for them. They are too small and weak to feel with all their soul—and they disapprove of such feelings. They are too small and low for a loyal, profound reverence—and they disapprove of all such reverence. They are too small and profane themselves to know what sacredness is—and they disapprove of anything being too sacred." [Journals - Part 1: Early Projects, "The Hollywood Years," circa February 1928, ... her first attempt in English to plan a novel. The working title was "The Little Street."]
The thing that is hated about religion is not what any specific religion teaches so much, but that it is something sacred to men, something worth living for, a source of values and profound reverence. It is that which must be destroyed if men are to be enslaved. Rand puts these words in the mouth of the ultimate collectivist, Ellsworth Toohey:
"Don't set out to raze all shrines—you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed. Then there's another way. Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It's simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humor is an unlimited virtue. Don't let anything remain sacred in a man's soul—and his soul won't be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you've killed the hero in man. One doesn't reverence with a giggle. He'll obey and he'll set no limits to his obedience—anything goes—nothing is too serious...." [For The New Intellectual - The Fountainhead "The Soul Of A Collectivist"]
Notice, it is not the absurdities of specific religious teachings that is laughed at, but religion itself. In my long satire on religion, I laugh at many of those absurdities, but point out that what men seek in religion, and the fact they seek it, is not to be laughed at. It is precisely what is laughed at today. It is not the impossible things some believe, but the fact they do believe in something that is laughed at. It is not the irrationality of what some hold as sacred, but the fact they hold anything sacred that is ridiculed. It is not that some things men revere are absurd, but reverence itself that is sneered at. It is the attempt to steal from men all sense of purpose, meaning, hope, and aspiration.
On the face of it, the almost fanatical hatred of Christianity, especially when compared to other religions, is inexplicable. Certainly, the history of Christianity is filled with some terrible chapters of cruelty and oppression, but no more than other religions, and it doesn't even show on the meter when compared to the horrors associated with modern socialistic ideologies or Islam. In most of its present day forms it is the most innocuous and benign of religions.
From its beginning, the dominant religion in America was Christianity, and in that context, the freest and most prosperous society in history came into existence. It is because of this fact that many, especially the religious, mistakenly attribute the unique nature of this country's government, culture, and society to what is frequently called its Judaeo-Christian heritage. There is a mistake in this, but it is a mistake, not about religion itself, but the exact nature of its role and contribution to what is considered Western Civilization.
The mistake is in attributing religion's contributions to Western civilization to it's actual doctrines or teachings—the"ten commandments" are frequently cited. In fact, if the doctrines of either Judaism or Christianity were really the basis of a political system it would be intolerably oppressive. Examples are The Holy Roman Empire and Geneva under Calvin. It was not any of the specific teachings of Christianity that were the source of its positive influence on first, the enlightenment, and secondly, the enlightenment's highest achievement, the founding of America's free society. The source of the positive influence of Christianity on history and society are three characteristics of the Christian religion that make it unique among religions, and the reason that, of all religions, it is the most hated. These characteristics, ironically, seem to contradict some of the specific teachings of Christianity, and this conflict is not unknown to Christians; it is partly the attempt by Christian theologians to resolve these ironies that is the reason for the many different varieties of Christianity.
Christianity and Reason
Despite it's emphasis on "faith" and "authority," Christianity encourages reason and scholarship, even to questioning its own teachings. In it's original meaning, "faith" did not imply blind acceptance, but a faithful allegiance to what one's best reason showed them was true and was more closely allied to, "faithfulness," than, "belief." Throughout the Bible, "faith" was always predicated on "evidence" and reason. "Come now let us reason together, saith the Lord." [Isaiah 1:18] When Thomas doubted the resurrection of Jesus, he was convinced by, "evidence," [John 20:27] not a demand to simply believe. It is not evidence that you or I can accept, perhaps, but the principle, that only evidence and reason serve as the basis of our knowledge is correct. The highly influential 19th century American theologian and evangelist, Charles Finney expressed the common Christian view, "God has given us minds and expects us to use them."
It was from within the context of Christianity the reformation broke the oppressive and intellectually stultifying influence of Rome, and within the context of society dominated by the "reasoning from evidence" influences of Christianity that the enlightenment and Western Civilization were spawned.
Two of the most important and positively influential philosophers, Thomas Aquinas (13th century) and John Locke (17th century) were Christians and Aristotelians, and it was Aquinas who actually reintroduced Aristotle to philosophy. It is not the doctrines of Christianity that influenced these philosophers, the content of their philosophies came from Aristotle, but the character of their philosophies and what all right philosophy ought to be came from Christianity.
"Philosophy," Ayn Rand wrote, "is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy." [The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, "The Chickens' Homecoming"]
It was this sense of grandeur, reverence, exalted purity, and dedication to the pursuit of truth that was necessary to a correct philosophy and one of the most important of Christianity's contributions to Western Civilization.
Christianity, Purpose and Values
Those who would destroy religion out of hand, like Christopher Hitchens who can say, "My hope is that literature can replace religion as the source of our ethics," thus admitting religion is a source of ethics for those who have a religion, but in the space of two paragraphs can describe his "hatred and contempt for religion" demonstrates it is not what is wrong in religion they hate, but the fact that men have any basis for values, and what they wish to destroy is mans belief in any source of ethics. It is instructive that he would replace religion with literature, of all things, as that source, and not philosophy.
It is not any particular teaching of religion that is hated by the likes of Hitchens (although they appropriately hate that too). What they hate and want to destroy is that spirit of man that needs the, "grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth," without which the spirit withers and dies. So they kill religion itself, and replace it with literature or something worse, and are then bewildered by the fact that men have no values, revere nothing, and are contemptuous of all meaning, and all virtue.
When nothing is sacred, when nothing is revered, when there is no absolute truth, there is nothing to live for beyond the moment, nothing to inspire one to do or be more than they can get away with, nothing to believe in beyond what one sees and feels, "right now," and what they see is bewildering and what they feel is fear. When it is not the particular things that people believe that are addressed, but the fact they believe in something that is held in contempt, all that's left is nihilism in philosophy, and hedonism in ethics—the dominate philosophy and ethics of today's Western society, a society without purpose or values, ripe to be taken over by the first man who or ideology which claims to have values or purpose, such as Islam.
The specific teachings may be wrong, but in today's world, about the only people who still have that sense of personal dignity, integrity, self-respect, and (though they would never call it that) personal pride appropriate to the truly civilized are Christians. For that, they are hated, hated even by those whose own sense of personal dignity and integrity ought to be the highest, but in fact, is frequently the lowest. It is Christian women, for example, who still have a sense of modesty and privacy, that sense of self-worth that means my person and my body are mine, private, and to be shared only with the one I have judged to be worthy of it. It is Christian men, for example, who still have a respect for women that will not only not let them treat women in a low or crude manner, but not even have low thoughts about them. For that crime they're laughed at, frequently by those who believe they hold the moral high ground—but who would not survive in a truly civilized society.
Christianity and Individualism
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Christianity is its inspiration toward individualism. The early American pioneers and most Americans until the middle of the twentieth century were, above all, self-sufficient, competent, honest, and proud of their ability to live on their own merits—without anyone's help, especially the government's. Most of them were Christians.
Christianity is a highly personal religion concerned with man's relationship with God. Though not true of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, all other Christians believe there is no human mediator between them and their God and that their relationship with God is determined by the individual, and they are judged or rewarded by their God for their own choices and actions. (This contradicts the Reformed view of original sin, of course, and some other specific teachings—which of course is problematic only for the specific religions themselves.)
Except for the mystic content, this view is not far from the view of the objectively rational. It is not God, but Reality for the rational individual, but in the same way the Christian is responsible to no one but God, the Rational individual is responsible to nothing but Reality.
Reality is as ruthless and unforgiving, even less forgiving than the Christian's God. The Christian believes he cannot do wrong and get away with it, because God knows everything he does, even his thoughts, and will judge him based on what he thinks and does. The difference is, the Christians God will forgive them, reality never forgives. The rational individual knows he cannot do wrong and get away with it, because the final arbiter is reality itself—he cannot defy reality (which is what doing wrong is). He cannot defy the nature and requirements of his own mind, the necessity of knowledge, of choosing and acting in accordance with the truth that describes that reality. He cannot evade the truth and get away with it. He can hide what he thinks from the world, and there is no God reading his mind, but he knows what he thinks, and it is his own mind that will judge him.
While the rational individualist cannot accept or condone any of the superstitious notions of Christianity, and must, when faced with them, plainly identify both the irrationality and harm such beliefs entail, he must stand with the Christian on two things—the freedom of every individual to come to their own conclusions about the truth of reality and the freedom to live according to those conclusions, and the knowledge that reality and truth are absolute and that there is something sacred, something eternal, an ideal to be revered, and those make life worth living.
The Danger is Government, Not Christianity
Now there is a great mistake about Christianity and politics that is frequently made that must be made clear. The Christian view in the United States has always been clearly a separation of state and religion. That, in fact, is a specific teaching of Christianity, exemplified in the words of the Christian's Jesus, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." [Mark 12:17]
It is true today, that certain aspects of the religious community are influencing some government policies, which is a violation of both the US Constitution and Christian doctrine. The danger here, however, is not Christianity, but that fact there is a government which not only some religious factions, but any other groups that wishes to put over an agenda, can manipulate to their own ends.
Despite the altruistic aspects of Christianity, it is Christians who have understood better than any of the secular philosophers and teachers, the necessity of all charity being voluntary, and the evil of, so-called, government charity or welfare. The very American hero, David Crocket, is the perfect example of a devout Christian and anti-government welfare proponent.
Christians have always been political activists, but only as private citizens. The abolition movement was almost entirely a Christain movement, for example. That movement would no doubt have successfully wiped out slavery in this country without the politically motivated and horrible Civil War. The civil war was not initiated by Christians, but by politicians.
The Virtue of Christianity
I, like Rand, "am an intransigent atheist, though not a militant one." Like she, "I am not fighting against religion—I am fighting for reason." There is a difference between Rand and me, however. I would never call myself and athiest because I believe it is silly to identify oneself in terms of what one does not believe; and I also am not, "fighting," for anything. Though I hold the truth and reason above all things, what others value and choose is none of my business.
Christianity, in its doctrines is no doubt, "a helplessly blind groping," for that which philosophy, not just any philosophy, but a rationally objective philosophy, is the only means of discovering. It is not Christianity, the religion itself I am defending, but its character in the abstract, as both a symbol of that which is man's highest purpose, seeking the truth and living according to it; and man's highest virtue, achieving his own moral perfection. Rand identified that too:
"Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man's values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself." [Atlas Shrugged, Part Three / Chapter VII, "This Is John Galt Speaking"]
This is what the religion destroyers would take from men, because however mistaken it is, Christianity is a form of "abstract speculation" and when that is taken from men, they have only "the immediate conditions of their existence" to turn to, and you end up with a society of men with nothing to value, nothing to revere, nothing to believe, and nothing to live for beyond fulfilling their immediate desires—and the dominant desires of that society are for security, comfort, and immediate gratification. As Dalrymple observed, "health and safety" are now "the cardinal desiderata," only I'd make it "health, safety, and pleasure," and call them "cardinal rights."
If you want to know why no woman is safe alone on any American city street at night, why parents don't care that their children are having sex before 13.", if you want to know why our society is a moral cesspool rivaling the decadence of Pompeii, it's because there is no philosophical basis for values in this country, and those who at least have values and know why they're needed, however wrong they are about the source of those values, are ridiculed and oppressed, not for their mistakes, but for their virtues.
With the exception of the libertarians, it is mostly Christians who are actively opposed to big government, welfarism, government schools, and government interference in the economy. It is mostly Christians speaking out against post-modernism and the entire PC, multi-cultural, hedonistic anti-philosophy rot pervading every aspect of American society. It is Christians who are leading and carrying out the home-school movement, for example. They are wrong about some political issues, (abortion, for example, which in this country should not be a political issue), but they are right about what is going on in the schools, and the total decadence in the media, and they are the only one's speaking out about it; certainly the Libertarians are not, nor are most so-called Objectivists.
In any community, the most honest, decent, dependable, independent, responsible, individuals are usually the Christians. I'm not saying there are no Christian hypocrites, but those Christians who are true to what they believe hold the principles of integrity, decency, respect for others (and their property), honesty, and purity, that ought to be the virtues of the rationally objective, but frequently are not, at least not in the staunch and uncompromising way it is for Christians. The moral courage to live according to one's values and principles in the face of all opposition, even to the death, which they have demonstrated throughout history and in some places, even today, is a distinctly Christian virtue. It is also a singularly individualistic virtue.
Those who call themselves Libertarians, Objectivists, or individualists wonder why people are so resistant to their philosophy of objective reason. Most men are not philosophers, but they know the kind of men a right philosophy would produce—men of character, decency, and integrity—that's the kind of philosophy they want. They look around and see the kinds of things men stand for, or stand against, the kind of language they use, the entertainment they enjoy, and how they live their lives, and after they look, they can see no difference between those who call themselves libertarians, Objectivists, or individualists, and the rest of corrupt society. Then they look at Christians and find in them all the attributes of character and moral rectitude they expect to find in those whose philosophy is the correct one—and the Christians win.
Before we choose to rid the world of the horrors of religion, especially Christianity, and convert it to our cherished philosophy, we must first tend to our own characters, to ensure we truly seek the "best in all things, in values of matter and spirit," that ours is, "a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection." It does not matter what our arguments are, what we are and what we truly value shows in all we do, and all men can see it. However clear our reason, however vaunted our ethical views, if how we live is no different than how the rest of the world lives, then we are no different from the rest of the world and have no business telling other men what they ought to believe.