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Thursday, April 21, 2011  

The Central Message of Buddhism is not "Every Man for Himself"

A provocative but sharply limited mathematical model has predicted the 'extinction' of religion in nine Western countries. This should be interesting news to New Atheists, ideologues of skepticism, and anyone else scurrying to find a place in the Triumph of Secularism. I wonder how they'll take the suggestion that atheism will grow dominant through network effects--that is, through social convention and peer pressure. These forces are the most odious things in the world when they bolster religion. One wonders if they'll be so objectionable when they are wielded against the faithful. In any case, it rarely occurs to ideologues of any stripe that the unconscious and unnamed dynamics they critique in other people are usually just as much at work in their own arguments.

Whether the model has any merit to it or not, I do not doubt that secularism in some form is becoming a social, cultural, and ideological bond that is every bit as powerful as Christianity ever was. Many Christian conservatives have indulged the "free-thinkers" until now by arguing that religion of some kind, especially the kind your grandparents practiced, is necessary to society's good order. Secularism will lead to moral, philosophical, and political chaos, this story goes. Leaving aside the dire difficulties this argument causes for Christianity in particular, it also happens to just be false. Secularism, rationalism, Enlightenment, and (my favorite) "science" are fast becoming totemic figures in thoroughly de-churched cultures. They are handy tools for promoting chauvinism and even racism over retrograde peoples and places. And anyone who thinks that Christianity and Christians have been the main stumbling block to a new and more humane social order is bound to be very disappointed once we're gone or totally marginalized. Secular ideologies will prove entirely adequate to the task of upholding the warfare state and staggering economic inequality. If anything, they'll be better at this than any religion. The war-and-capitalism idol created and worshiped by the likes of David Barton has always been dogged by the real Christ. I wish the utilitarian consequentialists all the luck in the world, because they'll need it.

To a considerable degree we can see this process at work in our own public discourse. Watch a brilliant, Harvard-educated guy like Matt Yglesias completely beclown himself while trying to talk about something he has persuaded himself is Christian moral philosophy (or the "Bible-obsessed Puritans," whose radical endeavor of school-founding took place simply "so kids could learn to read the word of God.") Or Andrew Stuttaford chuckle over the Bible's tolerable moments. Even James Wood can't wade into the early modern period's religious disputes without mangling them beyond all recognition. These people write from an ignorance that would be embarrassing, even scandalous, if it concerned different people than European Christians (or Jews, or Muslims) before the modern age. Think about it for a moment: a curious, smart, non-specialist reader can pick up a nice-looking book like The Broken Estate, graced by the imprimatur of The New Yorker, and can read as factual truth the incisive judgments of someone who has apparently never read a word by one of his main subjects.

Now (I hope) this is more than the venting of someone resentful at seeing his life's work turned into fodder for a bad parody of Victorian anthropology. This is consequential ignorance because each false memory of our cultural past hides a critique of our own time and our own thought. The Puritans would scorn Yglesias's pallid technocratic ideals. The prophets would rage against Stuttaford's tax-cuts-and-godlessness "secular right" politics. Which is not to say that the old God-haunted voices of our past are right and Yglesias is wrong, but only that we lose the ability to think about ourselves when we lose the thoughts of the past.

So perhaps Christianity, where it is in decline, will a fortiori shift into a subversive role in modern society. If we're going to be thought of by decent folk as stupid, obsessed, and retrograde, after all, why not engage in a little deep social critique? This will take generations to happen fully; there's no point expecting people who've grown up thinking of themselves as bulwarks of civilization to realize that they are now the scum of the earth. But it's an intriguing possibility all the same.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:31 AM
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