I came across some interesting comments today – about the history and future of western civilisation. I thought they were worth sharing.
The writer discusses the German philosopher Nietzsche, and says:
Time and again in his later writings he 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.
He then quotes a far-sighted German poet, Heinrich Heine, as saying almost a century before Hitler (and even before Nietzsche):
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.
The writer then comments: “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.”
Then comes some interesting analysis:
The history of Europe since the 18th century has been the story of successive attempts to find alternatives to God as an object of worship, among them the nation state, race and the Communist Manifesto. After this cost humanity two world wars, a Cold War and a hundred million lives, we have turned to more pacific forms of idolatry, among them the market, the liberal democratic state and the consumer society, all of which are ways of saying that there is no morality beyond personal choice so long as you do no harm to others.
Even so, the costs are beginning to mount up. Levels of trust have plummeted throughout the West as one group after another — bankers, CEOs, media personalities, parliamentarians, the press — has been hit by scandal. Marriage has all but collapsed as an institution, with 40 per cent of children born outside it and 50 per cent of marriages ending in divorce. Rates of depressive illness and stress-related syndromes have rocketed especially among the young…..
None of this should surprise us. This is what a society built on materialism, individualism and moral relativism looks like. It maximises personal freedom but at a cost. As Michael Walzer puts it: ‘This freedom, energising and exciting as it is, is also profoundly disintegrative, making it very difficult for individuals to find any stable communal support, very difficult for any community to count on the responsible participation of its individual members. It opens solitary men and women to the impact of a lowest common denominator, commercial culture.’
The writer believes, along with historian Will Durant, that “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion”, and that modern atheism lacks the rigour and realism of Nietzsche: “if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it.”
He thinks much modern atheism can be described by this put-down: “On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.”
Who is this writer?
The writer is senior UK Rabbi, Jonathon Sacks, writing in The Spectator. I think the full article is worth reading, although I don’t agree with everything he says.
Religion and truth
Sacks seems to treat religious belief as a social phenomenon, without reference to its truth. But can a religion be practiced without belief in its truth? Some modern Jews maintain some of their traditional religious practices without belief in their God, but are outward practices sufficient for what Sacks sees as necessary without inner belief?
And should somebody practice a religion they don’t believe in, even if they could? Modern atheists would say they shouldn’t be dishonest to the truth as they see it, and I would agree.
So where to from here?