What’s Wrong with the World

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Civilization without Religion?

Here at What’s Wrong with the World, we have recently endured the spectacle, not without its amusements, of conventional freethinking arguments. We have not neglected to laugh at the absurdities into which these poor men have cast their minds. But we have sometimes neglected, perhaps, to pray that they would be freed from this bondage. And we should not make light of the oppression of this bondage, yoked upon both the minds of individual men, and through them upon the public life of the Republic. As our won Daniel Larison sharply puts it, Freethinking ruins all things.

Old Russell Kirk was a man who bent is supple and penetrating mind over this oppression, especially in the latter part of his career, after he returned to the Church of Rome.

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So it has come to pass, here in the closing years of the twentieth century. With the weakening of the moral order, “Things fall apart; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .” The Hellenic and the Roman cultures went down to dusty death after this fashion. What may be done to achieve reinvigoration?

Some well-meaning folk talk of a “civil religion,” a kind of cult of patriotism, founded upon a myth of national virtue and upon veneration of certain historic documents, together with a utilitarian morality. But such experiments of a secular character never have functioned satisfactorily; . . . nor can attempts at persuading people that religion is “useful” meet with much genuine success. No man sincerely goes down on his knees to the divine because he has been told that such rituals lead to the beneficial consequences of tolerably honest behavior in commerce. People will conform their actions to the precepts of religion only when they earnestly believe the doctrines of that religion to be true. [. . .]

In short, the culture can be renewed only if the cult is renewed; and faith in divine power cannot be summoned up merely when that is found expedient. Faith no longer works wonders among us: one has but to glance at the typical church built nowadays, ugly and shoddy, to discern how architecture no longer is nurtured by the religious imagination. It is so in nearly all the works of twentieth century civilization: the modern mind has been secularized so thoroughly that “culture” is assumed by most people to have no connection with the love of God.

How are we to account for this widespread decay of the religious impulse? It appears that the principal cause of the loss of the idea of the holy is the attitude called “scientism” — that is, the popular notion that the revelations of natural science, over the past century and a half or two centuries, somehow have proved that men and women are naked apes; that the ends of existence are production and consumption; that happiness is the gratification of sensual impulses; and that concepts of the resurrection of the flesh and the life everlasting are mere exploded superstitions. Upon these scientistic assumptions, public schooling in America is founded nowadays, implicitly.

This view of the human condition has been called — by C. S. Lewis, in particular — reductionism: it reduces human beings almost to mindlessness; it denies the existence of the soul. Reductionism has become almost an ideology. It is scientistic, but not scientific: for it is a far cry from the understanding of matter and energy that one finds in the addresses of Nobel prize winners in physics, say. Popular notions of “what science says” are archaic, reflecting the assertions of the scientists of the middle of the nineteenth century.

— Kirk, “Civilization without Religion?” Modern Age, Summer 1990.

Comments (7)

And we should not make light of the oppression of this bondage

No, you shouldn't. Especially because many of these peoples' turn to atheism is probably due in part to half truths of religion that they were exposed to. If someone turns from following L. Ron Hubbard to atheism, I would suspect that most of your contributors would agree that they've made a good move. But if someone has detected one or more of the logical fallacies is, for example, sola scriptora Protestantism, gets really crummy answers from his pastor and finds that Richard Dawkins presents a more plausible argument, he has been done a disservice by believers equally as much as by non-believers.

Either way, he's not really "free-thinking", he's weighing the plausibility of world-views presented by various authorities. And when his former world-view wasn't complete, he will willingly swap it for one that is more complete.

Without getting into the meaning and/or merits of some version of sola scriptura, I actually want to second heartily the statement that some people go directly into this "mental bondage" because of a brittle form of Christianity which they think is the only alternative to it. In fact, all too many people. I know of one person who was moved to atheism in part because he was previously told that keeping a record of his prayers and their answers would provide evidence for God's existence. When he wasn't getting a good "score" on this, he began to think atheism true. I know of a man who believes that if one evangelist names only two women at the empty tomb, this means that they were definitely the only women. Hence, if a different evangelist names more women or a slightly different set, this means that one of them must be making a false statement, which means the Bible isn't inerrant, which means Christianity is false. The illegitimate leaps here should be apparent. Brittle Christianity is Christianity nearly doomed to be knocked down like a house of cards. It is possible to be strongly evidentially minded while having a Christianity that doesn't fall over at such feeble blows.

But Lydia, is what you call "brittle Christianity" really Christianity at all? I think not. In fact, it has been my experience not that Christians believe these things and thus drive others into atheism, but that atheists wish to believe that Christians believe these things so that they can have some frail logic on which to hang their own tenets. My husband and I once had an atheist friend who told us, and another Christian friend, who read us a verse of the Bible and told us, with a perfectly straight face, that if one of use could not immediately name the book from which it came, Christianity could not be true.
It isn't Christians who set up these straw men.

I apologize for the way I phrased the last comment. I meant to delete part of one sentence.

No, when I say this, I mean that these were people who were professing Christians and really believed these things. They were at one time (unless they are simply making up the stories out of whole cloth now, which I don't think is the case, particularly with one person) sincere and earnest young men who held to a particularly rigid form of (for example) inerrancy and literalism of the Bible. When it got knocked down, they lost their faith. There are "deconversion" stories all over the place like this, some of which can be checked out by further interaction with the people in question. I'm sorry to say, too, that the business about a "prayer diary" is apparently being promulgated by some pretty well-known Christian apologists. I can't imagine what they are thinking.

keeping a record of his prayers and their answers would provide evidence for God's existence.

If I'd had to do this, or even believed that it was capable of demonstrating anything, I'd have lost it long ago.

Especially after seeing how many of the recent visitors talked about how they were raised Christian and 'saw the light', I'm thinking that weak Christianity is the cause for the wide-spread Atheism in the modern West.

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