One of my favorite Brits, Theodore Dalrymple, has made the leap from City Journal to the WSJ, where he pens an opinion piece on a recent study that finds all sorts of badness associated with religious faith. Among the evidence, naturally, is the religious faith of Americans, who experience “a much higher degree of societal distress” than, say, the Europeans.
Anything by Dalrymple is worth reading, and this is no exception. Here, though, I will comment on the subject he raised, rather than his piece (which, I venture, needs no comment from me).
Two thoughts come to mind. The first is that religion has existed in some form in every society: political systems that attempted to wipe it out were themselves cults of faith, voracious for human sacrifice. Anything that universal surely must have great survival value. I find it beyond bizarre that the neo-Darwinists, some of whom are quite unhinged in their loathing of religion, have failed to make this connection: religion passes the Darwin test with flying colors. Individual believers outstruggled, and possibly outwitted, individual nonbelievers during the long, grim ages when our species was born.
It may be argued (and often is) that this line of thinking simply proves the primitive, mindless quality of religious belief. I often hear the question asked by secularists, “How can anyone believe in X, Y, or Z (fill in the blank: a personal God, intelligent design, the immaculate conception, etc. etc. etc.)?” But this again ignores neo-Darwinist theory, for which belief is only important as it affects behavior.
For all I know, the dodos believed in string theory, and laughed at the superstitious savages moving into their territory – but they were too stupid to get out of the way of a mallet, and they went extinct. The effect of religion on behavior today is no different than it was at the dawn of our kind: for the individual, largely wholesome; for group, a social glue; for both, an understanding, essential to morality, that there are values higher than pleasure.
My second thought concerns the intense fanaticism of anti-religious secularists. I know as many believers as unbelievers, and I can say with absolute confidence that I have never known one of the former to mock or insult the latter. But I often hear secularists deriding their religious fellow-citizens.
That strikes me as peculiar, for a number of reasons. First, just a generation ago religion dominated the landscape even in the “developed” world. This isn’t an alien invasion: only a continuation of what we have always been. Second, secularism should be allied to toleration, to mildness in judgment. By what absolute standard, I wonder, can a nonbeliever condemn a reliance on faith – that of “societal distress”? Third, and related to the last point: voluntary secularism for an entire society is a new experiment, and there’s no telling how it will turn out. It’s easy to talk about inevitability and the tide of history, but secular predestination is a nonstarter.
Europe, the stage for the secularist experiment, presents a discouraging picture. Those who criticize Western religion – Christianity in its multiple forms – should consider the possibility that the latter might be superseded, not by enlightened indifference, but by violent zealotry from the East.