[Paleopsych] SF Chronicle: Decrying the West's sins of secularism

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Decrying the West's sins of secularism / Theologian argues a return to
Christian roots will cure U.S. and European ills

    Reviewed by John Brady

    Sunday, April 17, 2005

    The Cube and the Cathedral
    Europe, America and Politics Without God
    By George Weigel
    BASIC BOOKS; 202 Pages; $23

    In his latest book, "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and
    Politics Without God," Catholic theologian and social critic George
    Weigel examines the religious underpinnings of modern politics. Noting
    how deeply imbued secularism is in European and American politics, he
    worries about the future of Western democracies. Can they sustain
    themselves, he asks, "absent the transcendent moral reference points
    for ordering public life that Christianity offers?"

    This is a burning question. It is at the center of a rancorous debate
    across the democratic West. Islamic versions of the question are being
    asked in the emerging democracies of Afghanistan and Iraq. In all of
    these cases, the discussions are highly charged and increasingly
    polarized, and there is an urgent need for calm and sober reflection
    regarding religion's proper role in democratic life.

    Sadly, Weigel is not up to this task. He has written a shrill
    sectarian polemic marked by a simplistic analysis. Throughout his
    book, Weigel, elevating assertion over argument, takes considerable
    and highly dubious liberties with the historical record and, in the
    end, exhibits no small amount of moral bad faith.

    Weigel begins with a political diagnosis: Europe faces a crisis of
    "civilizational morale." The continent's citizens are cutting
    themselves off from the culture and traditions that have nurtured
    their democratic societies and capitalist economies. As a result, they
    are no longer up to the arduous task of maintaining their

    Searching to explain this crisis, Weigel takes an eclectic (or, less
    generously, scattershot) approach to the evidence. He references
    everything from Spain's election of a socialist opposed to the Iraq
    War to Europe's seemingly blind faith in the United Nations to falling
    rates of economic productivity as clear indicators of Europeans'
    unwillingness to protect their unique political and cultural heritage.

    But of the many factors he cites, Weigel concentrates on one he feels
    is most indicative of Europe's present and future troubles: the
    region's falling birthrates.

    There are certainly many explanations for European demographic trends,
    as Weigel freely admits. But brushing this complexity aside, he
    concentrates on one factor, namely secularism. As more and more
    Europeans lose their faith, they lack the motivation provided by
    Christianity to start and maintain families. Hence, the decline in

    As it turns out, what can be said about secularism and family life can
    be said about most everything else. In the course of his book, Weigel
    traces all of the continent's past and present ills: the Terror of the
    French Revolution, communism, fascism, the appeasement of radical
    Islam to secularism. By contrast, all that is good in Europe, human
    rights, representative democracy, respect for human dignity, the
    democratic revolutions of 1989, Weigel assigns to the ledger of
    Christianity, by which he often seems to mean Catholicism.

    Secularism, it appears, has much to answer for.

    But this is an old argument and a staple of conservative Christian
    critics of modernity. Take T.S. Eliot for example. Writing in 1939
    shortly before World War II, when European democracy faced a much
    graver threat, Eliot famously argued in "The Idea of a Christian
    Society" that Great Britain would only survive if it rediscovered its
    Christian roots. Without this rediscovery, the country would lack the
    moral fortitude to withstand either Stalinism or Nazism. As he
    pointedly concluded, "If you will not have God ... you should pay your
    respects to Hitler or Stalin." Eliot was wrong, of course, in no small
    part because he did not understand that people valued and were willing
    to fight for the principles of democracy independently of their
    religious faith. A lack of piety does not imply a lack of patriotism.

    Weigel makes a similar mistake. He overstates the Christian influence
    on modern democracy and refuses to acknowledge the way in which core
    democratic principles such as toleration and consent had to be
    articulated in opposition to Christian doctrine. As a result, he fails
    to recognize the independent moral content of democracy and
    secularism. Democrats and secularists support values such as state
    neutrality, toleration and the freedom to have or not have children
    not because they are unprincipled atheists but because they are
    convinced moralists who believe that such principles are proper and

    European and American societies are indelibly marked by such a
    pluralism of values. If citizens nonetheless want to reach agreement
    about matters of common concern, they will have to deal with people
    with whom they fundamentally disagree. Under these conditions,
    politics is best thought of as a process of trying to convince people
    of a point of view on an issue, not a process of converting them to a
    comprehensive view of the world.

    At times, Weigel seems to understand this. At the start, he writes
    approvingly of toleration and pluralism. Yet after pages and pages of
    strident denunciations of his philosophical opponents, one begins to
    doubt the author's initial generosity and to suspect bad faith. And
    indeed in the end, Weigel conflates Christianity and morality and
    argues that only the "reconversion" of Europe to Christianity will
    avert its demographic and moral crisis. Europe faces many political
    and social problems; they certainly will not be solved by a new

    John Brady is a writer and scholar living in Santa Monica. He
    currently teaches political theory and the ethics of citizenship at
    Pomona College.

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