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“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion” - Today’s World: Islam and Secular Europe
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Article Index
“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion”
The Church and the New Barbarism
The Theory and Practice of Political Religion
Burleigh’s Project
The Totalitarian Political Religions
The Church Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism
Today’s World: Islam and Secular Europe
Paying Tribute to Those Who Understood
Aron’s Faith Without Illusions
All Pages

Today’s World: Islam and Secular Europe

In the tenth and final chapter of Sacred Causes (“Cubes, Domes and Death Cults: Europe after 9/11”) Burleigh recounts the events leading up to “the day that changed the world,” September 11, 2001. He is undoubtedly right that it is necessary to read Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Dostoevsky’s Demons in order to truly fathom the minds and hearts of those contemporary “nihilists” who, like their nineteenth-century predecessors, are intoxicated with conspiratorial violence and their own set of deadly ideological abstractions. But Burleigh unfortunately overstates the case when he reduces Islamist terrorism to “a cover version of ideas and movements that have occurred in modern Western societies.” As a result he concedes too much to terms like “Islamo-fascism” that in my view obscure more than they clarify. Burleigh is on firmer ground when he criticizes contemporary European elites for their lack of self-confidence and for their willful restriction of European memory. He rightly criticizes those elites who want to reduce the European inheritance to a set of “humanitarian” abstractions as if “democratic” Europe is intelligible without some substantial reference to its Christian past.

But like many conservative- minded defenders of the Western tradition,
Burleigh makes too many claims for the Christian roots of “modern liberty.” Modern “autonomy,” the quest to create individuals shorn of attachments to every external or “heteronomous” domination, has profound roots in anti-Christian philosophical thought. Those associated with the radical Enlightenment self-consciously aimed to create a radically new civilization that owed nothing to the moral inheritance of classical Christianity.

These important reservations aside, Burleigh is right to stress the necessarily Christian component of any substantive or morally serious antitotalitarian defense of human dignity. Christianity’s “transcendental focus has set bounds to what the powerful could not, or more importantly, should not do by providing moral exemplars of good kingship and evil tyranny” (as Bertrand de Jouvenel has argued modern doctrines of sovereignty—of human self-sovereignty— point in a much more “monistic” or totalitarian direction). One conclusion is clear: the liberal “separation” of state and society depends upon individuals who are fully more “Christian” than “autonomous” in their self–conception and moral bearing.

Sacred Causes
has the additional merit of confirming one of the deepest insights of the best “dissident” thought of our time. In light of the profoundly antihuman experiments to live in a world beyond good and evil, it is necessary to rethink our understanding of the moral foundations of liberty. As the Czech Catholic dissident Vaclav Benda strikingly put it in a remark quoted by Burleigh, in order to overcome totalitarianism, it was necessary “to shake that evil off, escape its power, and to seek the truth.” That invitation to open ourselves to truth has immense implications for the responsible exercise of freedom in our all-too-jaded liberal societies.

Last Updated on Friday, 09 October 2009 13:00