Saturday, May 30, 2009

With Small Men

Dennis Prager challenges us to name a single contemporary European who has achieved greatness in some field other than politics, sports, or popular entertainment. The challenge may not be quite fair because greatness often takes a generation of two to become apparent, but Prager's point is that Europe has declined to the point where it's no longer turning out men and women of high accomplishment:

Even well-informed people who love art and literature and who follow developments in science and medicine would be hard pressed to come up with many, more often any, names. In terms of greatness in literature, art, music, the sciences, philosophy, and medical breakthroughs, Europe has virtually fallen off the radar screen.

What has happened is that Europe, with a few exceptions, has lost its creativity, intellectual excitement, industrial innovation, and risk taking. Europe's creative energy has been sapped. There are many lovely Europeans; but there aren't many creative, dynamic, or entrepreneurial ones.

So, if this is true to what shall we attribute the blame for this tragic state of affairs? Prager gives us an answer:

There are two reasons: secularism and socialism (aka the welfare state). Either one alone sucks much of the life out of society. Together they are likely to be lethal.

His argument in defense of this claim deserves to be presented in full:

Even if one holds that religion is false, only a dogmatic and irrational secularist can deny that it was religion in the Western world that provided the impetus or backdrop for nearly all the uniquely great art, literature, economic and even scientific advances of the West. Even the irreligious were forced to deal with religious themes -- if only in expressing rebellion against them.

Religion in the West raised all the great questions of life: Why are we here? Is there purpose to existence? Were we deliberately made? Is there something after death? Are morals objective or only a matter of personal preference? Do rights come from the state or from the Creator?

And religion gave positive responses: We are here because a benevolent God made us. There is, therefore, ultimate purpose to life. Good and evil are real. Death is not the end. Human rights are inherent since they come from God. And so on.

Secularism drains all this out of life. No one made us. Death is the end. We are no more significant than any other creatures. We are all the results of mere coincidence. Make up your own meaning (existentialism) because life has none. Good and evil are merely euphemisms for "I like" and "I dislike."

Thus, when religion dies in a country, creativity wanes. For example, while Christian Russia was backward in many ways, it still gave the world Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky. Once Christianity was suppressed, if not killed, in Russia, that country became a cultural wasteland (with a few exceptions like Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn, the latter a devout Christian). It is true that this was largely the result of Lenin, Stalin and Communism; but even where Communism did not take over, the decline of religion in Europe meant a decline in human creativity -- except for nihilistic and/or absurd isms, which have greatly increased.

As G. K. Chesterton noted at the end of the 19th century, when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. One not only thinks of the violent isms: Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Fascism, Maoism, and Nazism, but of all the non-violent isms that have become substitute religions - e.g., feminism, environmentalism, and socialism.

The state sucks out creativity and dynamism just as much as secularism does. Why do anything for yourself when the state will do it for you? Why take care of others when the state will do it for you? Why have ambition when the state is there to ensure that few or no individuals are rewarded more than others?

America has been the center of energy and creativity in almost every area of life because it has remained far more religious than any other industrialized Western democracy and because it has rejected the welfare state social model.

Which is why so many are so worried about President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's desire to transform -- in their apt wording -- America into a secular welfare state. The greatest engine of moral, religious, economic, scientific, and industrial dynamism is being starved of its fuel. The bigger the state, the smaller its people.

Indeed. I'm reminded by Prager's essay of the closing words of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty:

A State which dwarf's its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands -even for beneficial purposes - will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.


Atheistic Ethics

David Harsanyi of the Denver Post writes an odd column explaining how he was driven by moral considerations to abandon his pro-choice views in favor of a pro-life ethic. This is all very well but the odd part is that he seems completely unaware that his new-found sense of moral obligation toward the unborn is completely incompatible with the first two sentences of his essay:

As an atheist and a secular kinda guy, I practice moral relativism regularly. Still, I've always struggled mightily with the ethics and politics of abortion.

This statement simply negates all that comes after. If Harsanyi is correct that there is no God, then there's simply no reason why anyone should think that abortion is wrong or that one has any obligation to respect human life. Harsanyi says, for example, that:

After a life of being pro-choice, I began to seriously ponder the question. I oppose the death penalty because there is a slim chance that an innocent person might be executed and I don't believe the state should have the authority to take a citizen's life. So don't I owe an nascent human life at least the same deference? Just in case?

Well, no, not if atheism is true, you don't. As Dostoyevsky put it, "If God is dead then everything is permitted." There are no obligations, no moral debts that we owe anyone. How could there be? What is it, precisely, that imposes the obligation that Harsanyi thinks he has to nascent human life?

What happens when we can use abortion to weed out the blind, mentally ill, the ugly, or any other "undesirable" human being?

What happens is that we go ahead and do it if we can get enough influential people to feel the same way we do. In a Godless world, might makes right. If a group of people have the power to practice the kind of eugenics Harsanyi's talking about here, there's no reason why they shouldn't do it.

Now, I happen to believe (as the civil libertarian and pro-life activist Nat Hentoff once noted) that the right to life and liberty is the foundation of a moral society.

Actually, the foundation of a moral society, indeed the foundation of the right to life and liberty, is the existence of God. Take that away and there are no rights and there's certainly no "moral society." This is not to say that one must believe in God to live by the values Harsanyi esteems. That's not the point at all. The point is that, given atheism, one can live by any values one chooses. The choice to live by this value rather than that is completely subjective and arbitrary. Harsanyi's preference for protecting the unborn is simply a matter of his own taste, like his preference for one flavor of ice cream rather than another. He could, were he inclined, support the murder of toddlers and it would not be any more or less wrong, in a moral sense, than his desire to protect them.

Charles Darwin writes in his autobiography that "One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life ... only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest and which seem to him to be the best." Darwin is correct in thinking that for the atheist morality is simply a matter of personal preference and subjectivity, but such thinking leads us to the edge of the abyss. If one man's impulses and instincts incline him to be a child molester and another's predispose him to be a great humanitarian what basis does Darwin, or Harsanyi, have for saying that one is any better, or worse, than the other?