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How did Western society arrive at its present “Christophobic” state? The trail is long but clearly marked. The Scientific Revolution succeeded in providing convincing explanations for what had once seemed the sacred mysteries of nature. Inspired by the achievements of science, the Enlightenment taught that all truth claims had to be subjected to rational scrutiny; those that failed the test of rationality had to be rejected. Naturally, then, doubt began to creep in concerning supernatural claims. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold could write that “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar.”
Soon thereafter, Darwin published The Origin of Species, which advanced the theory—as a historical reconstruction, it could not be other than a theory—of natural selection. The theory ruled out any teleological understanding of nature. As a result, many spiritual holdouts lost their faith and began to question the status of traditional moral principles. Some managed to cling to the essentials of Judeo-Christian morality, citing common sense rather than divine revelation. Others looked to Kant, who argued that reason prescribed the moral law. But toward the end of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche posed the question directly: if Christianity is untrue, why should one be bound by Judeo-Christian morality?
Nietzsche knew that his question carried with it radical implications. “What I relate,” he wrote in 1887, “is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.”2 Those words were prophetic; the specter of nihilism3 has haunted not only the modern mind, but the politics and societies of the modern world. And as it turned out, not many have been able to share Nietzsche’s view that nihilism could be overcome by the analytically simple but existentially difficult expedient of affirming a world without meaning and a life beyond good and evil.
Nietzsche’s contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, agreed that nihilism—a word coined by his liberal rival, Ivan Turgenev—was the greatest threat confronting a world in which “God is dead.” If God was indeed dead, Dostoevsky reasoned, “everything is permitted.” In his novel The Devils, he has Nikolai Stavrogin, perhaps the most demonic figure in all of world literature, say this: “I formulated what appeared to be the rule of my life, namely, that I neither know nor feel good and evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil (which pleased me), and that it is just a prejudice.” After violating a young girl, he stands by while she hangs herself. For most people, Dostoevsky recognized, the removal of Christianity as the foundation for morality could only mean that ideas of good and evil were merely conventional.
It does not follow, of course, that Christianity is the true religion, and atheist crusaders such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Michel Onfray insist that they can articulate a world view based solely upon science and reason. What is at first somewhat surprising, many who presently identify themselves as conservatives—must we include Hitchens, whose work the Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard now welcome?—seem to agree. One of the most intelligent of them, Jerry Z. Muller of the Catholic University of America, has presented a scholarly argument for a secular conservatism in Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present.4
|Last Updated on Thursday, 12 January 2012 20:49|