Here there is more to echo the last couple of posts on this topic. Here we see that what I’m saying is hardly a strictly “Christian” perspective but most certainly a transcendental one. I think we can also note another category here as far as evaluating differing narratives as to their truthfulness and, as we noted in the last posts on this subject, something being “true” has several aspects. And please keep in mind the entire thread of comments noting that none of this “proves” that God exists—no need to rehash that again.
But another evaluating factor is this: How well does a narrative provide the cultural resources to oppose evil? From the essay:
But not for more attuned readers, because religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.
Time and again in his later writings, Nietzsche tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more “Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more “Thou shalt not”; instead, people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. “An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be ‘unjust’ as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.”
Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust. This had nothing to do with him personally and everything to do with the logic of Europe losing its Christian ethic. Already in 1843, a year before Nietzsche was born, Heinrich Heine wrote:
“A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardour of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again … the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak.”
Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.
In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the twenty-first century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief.
Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls “nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.” The barbarians win. They always do.
The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”
I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other.
A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.