I enjoyed this Yule blog for the past couple of weeks. This post in particular is important since we live in a environment that does not understand that the larger the government, the less moral we become as a society. Morality comes from the home, not from bureaucracy.
“Our national culture is not going entirely downhill. The wide and deep hatred of racism that exists in our culture, for example, is a real improvement over the past. There are some other ways in which we seem to be a less brutal, more caring society than we once were. But the signs overall are not good. The social tolerance for greed and self-indulgence that we’ve developed, the prevalence of materialism, the debasement of popular culture, the unscrupulous exploitation of human sexuality for commercial purposes: these are not making us happier, more free, or, as a society, more just.” (Walter Russell Mead)
This just isn’t true; the signs overall are good!
Society in general and Western society in particular is becoming dramatically less violent, less intolerant, less angry, less poor, less corrupt and less indifferent to the plight of the disabled than at any point in human history.
What’s particularly revelatory is the fact that human morality seems to marching in a healthier and more humane direction in societies that have eschewed religion much more than in societies that have adopted “hot” religious beliefs with gusto.
Compare how physically and intellectually disabled children are treated in the United States and Europe today with how they were treated a mere 50 years ago; then compare how these children are treated in the contemporary West with how they are treated in the Muslim world, in Africa and in rural India.
Count the number of human beings being maimed or killed in the secular West today with the number of people maimed and killed in the more religious West of one, two or three centuries ago. Compare the number of Westerners killed by violence or crime in our largely secular culture with the numbers killed or maimed in the more religious societies of the Middle East, Africa or Asia.
Examine the prevalence of violence against women in Western societies today with violence against women in Western societies in the past. Then compare rates of violence against women in the increasingly secular United States and Europe with rates of violence against women in more religious societies in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Steven Pinker’s new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” documents this significant improvement in moral tenor in both a quantitative and qualitative way. Pinker’s book refutes much, if not all, of the argument that Professor Mead is making in this post.
For more on Pinker’s critically acclaimed book go here,
and here (forget for the moment that the review was authored by the moronic Peter Singer of Princeton),
One inevitable conclusion from Pinker’s exhaustively researched book is that the more secular a society becomes the less violent and intolerant it is and the more peaceful, prosperous and just it becomes.
Unless I am misinterpreting him, Professor Mead also seems to be arguing (in part) for the merits of religion based on the argument of the “noble lie.” Does he believe that religion is valuable to society regardless of whether its tenets are true because it is useful in maintaining social harmony?
It’s no crime to believe that; the argument was first made by Plato in the “Republic.” More recently it’s been argued forcefully by Leo Strauss. If Professor Mead thinks that the “noble lie” is a sufficient justification for religion, that’s fine. Personally, it leaves me a little cold.
One last thing; Professor Mead said,
“But it’s also true that writing about religion has its perils. One, which should be evident to anyone who has followed the comments to my Christmas posts, is that religious writing stirs up powerful and sometimes angry feelings.”
I’ve read all of his fascinating “Yule” posts and all of the equally interesting comments posted in reply. None of them seemed particularly “angry” to me.
“Count the number of human beings being maimed or killed in the secular West today with the number of people maimed and killed in the more religious West of one, two or three centuries ago.”
I believe that over 30 million people were killed only sixty years ago by a secular regime in the Eastern Front in the path of Hitler’s legions whose task it was to exterminate those considered by the Third Reich to be racially inferior to make way for the racially pure “Aryan” settlers. The killing was often carried out in ways so cruel and barbarous it is sickening to read about them. And this horror was perpetrated by a culture which produced most of the seminal thinkers,musicians, scientists and writers of the nineteenth and early 20th century.Many of the bloodiest hands in the SS were attached to the most highly educated brains.
In recent times,the West avoided world war by the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction and or the displacing conflict with the communist world to places like Korea and Vietnam.
So this is progress?
First-rate conclusion – assuming it is a conclusion? – to a unique and, on the whole, outstanding series of essays.
“The weaker the hold of virtue on a people, the stronger the state needs to be. If people don’t voluntarily comply with, for example, the tax codes, the enforcement mechanisms of the government need to be that much stronger. If more people lose their moral inhibitions against theft, and against using violence against the weak, then society has to provide a stronger, tougher police force — and give them more authority under less restraint.”
For me this is the crux of your whole argument. The first sentence alone might to posted to good effect on the office (or bedroom?) walls of every economist, CEO, NGO administrator, or lobbyist (including that peculiar breed of lobbyist, manager, policymaker, etc, which frantically measures our every US economic practice by what is possible – read imPOSable – in mainland China). In truth, I was going to START the list with every member of Congress and Federal Govt bureaucrat, but I fear far too many of them might embrace your maxim less less as a warning and more as an exhortation. Come to think of it, I can imagine not a few economists, and even CEOs, finding some profitable uses for that interpretation . . .
“There is a line, I think, that separates the posturing hypocrite from the honest (but flawed) advocate for morals and faith. There is a difference between the honest advocacy of hope and the self-glorification of a moral poseur.”
IMO, masterful instance of navigating between two thoroughly unhealthy – and in the long run, I think, dangerous and impracticable – extremes of our present culture. If in every society the alternatives have always been either rampant tyranny OR unbridled license (or else the most coldly ritualistic hypocrisy), then we are at a loss to explain the larger, and better, part of American history. Not to mention modern Britain’s, Canada’s, much of Scandinavia’s, etc. And not least during those periods when our social, political and economic systems withstood – and OTW successfully – the onslaughts of a depression and two world wars. Was all THAT merely the product of going through the motions, or of stepping on or backstabbing one’s neighbor? (But then I forget, in the view of some of our more business-enlightened, 20-century-sucks revisionists, what made possible the Allied defense was in fact the most craftily insidious socialism coupled with incipient military dictatorship. And all for the EXPRESS purpose of ensuring Communist domination of eastern Europe and China).
“In any case, developing a sensible, honest and penetrating discourse about corrosive human failings and their social consequence is a job that simply has to be done, particularly in a society like ours where the cultures of desire and indulgence run so rampant.”
True enough as far as it goes. But you might also have mentioned something that may even be getting the better of the other two trends: a culture glorifying power and “self”-aggrandizement (the latter of which usually, in my experience and observation, ends up aggrandizing only a very narrow, impoverished, unsatisfying CONCEPT of our selves, not the real thing.) The further problem, so far as I can tell, with such devil’s bargains with Power is that they tend to be implicitly dehumanizing. I.e., whiz kid that I am, there’s always something I can CREATE – be it organic, technological or institutional – which will vastly exceed my puny individual human powers, and so whose productive (perhaps eventually even personal?) value and worth will in time reduce to insignificance and redundancy those of any mere individual human CREATURE, myself included. (And why should I care? I’m just a rung on a ladder that will eventually be kicked away . . .)
As I understand it, the lust for power is not merely the facilitator of our other desires and indulgences but can just as easily become their enemy. And where mere power, together with its concomitant of greater productivity, becomes the ULTIMATE criterion for judging the worth of any intelligent or sentient being, I can imagine it not just crowding out our other desires. I can also envision it eroding the whole legitimacy, within our culture, of even any NOTION of healthy human desire, much less normal or merciful human indulgence.
“I believe that over 30 million people were killed only sixty years ago by a secular regime in the Eastern Front in the path of Hitler’s legions whose task it was to exterminate those considered by the Third Reich to be racially inferior to make way for the racially pure “Aryan” settlers.” (John Barker)
You are right, John Barker; I am all too familiar with the story you tell having lost family members in the Shoah. I make no claim that secular people are incapable of barbarism or that barbaric instincts are limited to devout people.
To be fair, though, I think you are telling only part of the story. Hitler turned Nazism into what was, at the least, a pseudo-religion. To make matters worse, legions of devout Roman Catholics and Protestants gladly turned their Jewish neighbors over to the Nazis so that they could be transported to the death camps. Of course, some devout Roman Catholics and Protestants protected their Jewish neighbors at great personal risk. At just the moment when the current Pope was serving (it is said reluctantly) in the “Hitler Youth” the man who became Pope John XXIII was putting his life on the line to save Jews. Mention Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli’s name to Jews of a certain age and you will be amazed at the tearful reaction you get. Roncalli is a hero to the Jewish people; unfortunately he appears to be less of a hero to the current Vatican hierarchy.
My argument is simply that Professor Mead is way too pessimistic; from an ethical point of view the West, at least, is moving decisively in a positive direction not a negative direction. Pinker’s book proves it.
It is also true that looked at prospectively, this improvement in values is occurring at precisely the same moment that religious fervor in the West is waning and secularism is flourishing. I think it is impossible to argue that those parts of the world where “hot” religion is on the rise are not the same parts of the world where barbarism is reaching new heights.
Of course association doesn’t prove causation and it may be simple coincidence that more humanistic values seem to flourish where belief in the sacred recedes.
Professor Mead is an American treasure; he writes book reviews all the time. It would be very interesting to get his take someday on Pinker’s book. It relevant to some of what he has been writing about in his Yule blogs.
I for one found your Yule Blog enlightening and informative. My deep thanks for making the effort.
“If people don’t behave right, nothing can protect us from the consequences.”
“Clean up your own yard first, then join the neighborhood improvement committe.”
“Virtue has to be civilized and developed.”
Now, are the above essentially aphorisms underlaid with religious attributes (Christian in this case) or societal conventions facilitating moral human interactions? Is Dwelling in Darkness, Seeing A Light addressing centrality of faith/religion or its social effect on cultural attitudes as companion to state?
Nevertheless, as WRM says “developing a sensible, honest and penetrating discourse about corrosive human failings and their social consequences is a job that has to be done”…and sincere religious belief and its role certainly has to be part of the ongoing discourse.
WigWag, NYT’s review on Steven Pinker’s book appetizing read; I plan to read book – thanks.
“For some people, reason, commonsense and a strong innate moral constitution makes it possible to live a decent and useful life without the comforts and restraints of religion.”
What are the chances that these people, too, do not have feet of clay, or dumpsters full of yard waste to clear away?
You’re flattering people who are just as human as you are.
On the Twelve Days of Christmas my Yule Blog gave to me… lots of food for thought. Great job as a lay preacher.
I have gotten quite a lot out of of WMR’s writings on Christianity, both now and over the past several months. Thanks!
WigWag, I am interested in Pinker’s book, too. I saw him talking about it on this video at Reason:
From the con side, Mike Flynn (Catholic polymath) has an interesting critique of Pinker’s book here:
Xpat; thank’s I will check out both links.
“I make no claim that secular people are incapable of barbarism or that barbaric instincts are limited to devout people.”
Yes, you do. Any time a society develops directly from atheistic principles (National Socialism in Germany, Soviet Socialism in Russia, presumably the Reign of Terror in France) in a way that you do not like, you say, “But that’s not secular, that’s actually a religion.” Your fig leaf disclaimer simply doesn’t work.
As for Pinker’s book — does he do anything to determine whether the treatment of marginal economic producers is caused by our secularism, or caused by our prosperity? I would argue the latter. And our prosperity is caused in no small part by our morality.
The fact that Eugenics was trumpeted by the most urbane and “enlightened” proponents of Reason and only opposed by the most Scripturally-grounded people is an indelible black mark against the “secularization = all for the good” argument.
I’m not saying that WigWag is a Eugenicist. But I am insisting that 100 years ago, *he would have been*.
Secularism has to learn from bloody and catastrophic history. Christianity needs only to look back to the teachings of Christ. The fact is that only by anchoring ourselves firmly enough in Scripture can we save ourselves from making these sorts of hideous mistakes in the first place.
Further, calling it a “noble lie” is nothing short of libel. The Gospels are the truth — an extraordinary record of extraordinary events, which were witnessed by tens of thousands. In the 40 days after Christ’s resurrection He was witnessed by hundreds more. This is far better documented by historical standards as anything else that happened 2000 years ago.
This record is true. It starts with the Christmas story. WRM, I hope you don’t end there; your thoughts on each Sunday (or Wednesday) of Lent, and each day of Holy Week, would be much appreciated.
WigWag since you inferred interest @11, Ross Douthat on both Oct. 11th&27th provided insightful evaluation on Pinker’s book: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/our-better-angels
Thanks so much, Anthony. Unfortunately the link doesn’t seem to work.
Sorry WigWag. I encountered similar problem; try this: http://www.nytimes.com/ross douthat/steven pinker. Steven Pinker’s History of Violence (Oct. 17th) and One More Word on Pinker (Oct. 27th) are titles to his NYT evaluations.