Note: This post is still in draft form
We are nearing the end of the Post-Christian Era.
A process that began with the Enlightenment, had, by the 1961 publication of The Death of God, well and truly reached fruition. For the last several decades, we have lived in a society that cannot be called Christian in any sense of the word.
This is not to mean, of course, that Christianity does not exist, nor that it does not have significant adherents (although the decline of self-affirming Christians in the national census, not to mention falling church attendance numbers tell only part of the story; many “Churches” that remain are little more than Sunday Social Clubs, with a theology that can only be described as Gnostic at best). Rather, Christianity, as a sense imbuing the national consciousness and from which our moral, ethical, and legal frameworks stem, is well and truly over. Of course, a valiant band of Trad Catholics (The Church of Rome in many ways having hoisted the white flag of surrender in 1965), Evangelical Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox continue to flight a brave rearguard action, but our culture, our national consciousness as a whole, for good or ill, well and truly succumbed – many years ago. What we are now witnessing in the so-called “culture wars” is little more than the dying throes of a Christian culture as secular institutions and the all-powerful State have taken over all: Socialists may have failed in “dragging heaven down to Earth”, but they have created their own replacement. Christianity has once again returned to its roots at the margins of society.
This presents unique challenges not just to Christians, but atheists and libertarians also. For there is one area where Christianity undoubtedly still lingers – its legacy on modern Western concepts of morality and virtue ethics: the dignity of the person, equality and individual rights. And, as these influences are gradually eroded, as the foundation upon which they are based becomes unmoored, the post-post-Christian era presents new challenges to all interested in ensuring a beneficial body politic.
Yet the uniquely Christian concepts of dignity, equality, and charity, so radical when first presented by Christian in the Roman Empire that they were mocked and derided for weakness by the then popular culture, have become the bedrock upon which our contemporary society is based: we have abandoned our belief in Christianity, yet its values live on. Only the most wilfully-blind atheist, brazenly ignoring the evidence of history would deny that the values which contemporary society holds dear – these were uniquely Christian values in the west: values of individual rights, of the equal dignity of all, and of charity, pity, and mercy were all uniquely and distinctly Christian in origin.
No serious historian can deny that central place of Christianity in shaping Western culture and its moral framework. The dignity that Christianity conferred upon the human person, its demystification of political power, its stress upon societal pluralism where all are created in God’s image and worthy of humane treatment and its elevation of the virtues of charity, mercy, and forgiveness are at the core of our present conception of morality. Economic justice – that we ought not abandon our fellow man to poverty, tyranny or exploitation – is the direct result of a Christian social justice based on God’s universal love. Most critically, these were uniquely Christian value, not just unheard of, but derided at the time they were introduced.
Naturally, morality existed in the pre-Christian era, yet the morality of Homer’s Oddessy where vengeance and honour is prized above all is one far removed from the Christian ethos encapsulated in the Golden Rule and the notion of forgiveness and mercy. The ethics of a Rome that encouraged infanticide is not an ethical framework we would applaud today, the doctrine of “Might Makes Right” which was so dominant throughout history, we find so repugnant today for the sole reason that we remain captured in the lingering remains of Christian social teaching. Once that teaching is gone forever, a solid philosophical framework is needed to check actions, and that is what is presently sadly lacking.
This new era makes it essential for those of us who advocate small government to once again recognise the importance of virtue ethics in society, the indisputable Christian legacy of our current ethos, and how to ensure a civil society grounded in respect for Christian principles without Christianity, for a libertarian state where all citizens are unconstrained by any notion of the ‘good’ will not just be a dark place indeed, but a society that shall rapidly collapse.
For those of us who are Christian, the challenge involves recognising that this new paradigm demands a recognition firstly of the vital importance of propagating the Word through a theology based not just on faith, but critical reasoning that encapsulates and demonstrates morality: it is insufficient to argue for a societal morality on the grounds that “The Bible Said So” – it must be explained why. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Christians must reach an understanding that the only – the only way for Christianity’s survival shall be a governmental framework of a small state. For with practicing Christians in the minority, it is impossible to expect a big-government shall ever protect their rights without an ethical and moral framework of governance necessitating it.
Yet perhaps the greatest challenge befalls the atheist community, who, rather than resting on their laurels after their triumph in the public sphere, need to replace the current moral underpinnings of society with a coherent, systematic philosophy of secular humanism, for it ought go without saying that without underpinning morality, all things become possible, and the pursuit of many a monstrosity can become legitimised. When the Augustinian underpinnings taken out from beneath the Geneva Convention , how shall we support human rights and the rules of war Such a morality does not have to be Christian or even religious in nature, but it must, at the least, exist.
Without these foundations, once Christian beliefs have been finally purged from the public sphere, unless replaced by others, these values will slowly, gradually dissolve… and be replaced – by what?
The Challenge for Libertarians.
It is an incontrovertible fact that over the last few decades the State has deliberately and mendaciously attacked and chipped away at every civil society institution in place to promote moral virtue, replacing it with a simultaneous system of moral relativism and indeed quasi-moral-nihilism, combined with a steadfast technocratic belief in the infallibility of what they term “science”. The end result being total dependence on The State, and the steep erosion of any form of virtue or moral ethics emanating from the private sphere: A rules-based culture of laws, rather than a norms-based one of ethics and morals.
To date, in the West at least, the values that the state has attempted to instil seem to have broadly mimicked those of Christianity. This is, however, by no means a universal fact, and an even cursory look at the secular states based on rationalism propagated by the Jacobins, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union, would indicate it may well be a historical aberration. For in these states where rational atheism triumphed totally, the pursuit of worldly goals unchecked by a belief in a transcendent being, led to unprecedented suffering. And why should it not? If the goal is a state designed to maximise overall utility, there is little preventing the trampling of minority rights. Without an ethical underpinning in the inherent, inalienable rights of all human kind, the justification of trampling some becomes even moral.
Yet, even under a framework of a less aggressive state, problems arise. For the libertarian premise relies upon civil society and voluntary action to ensure charity and the assistance of the downtrodden. Yet why do we assume that such a thing would occur? Charity outside of one’s tribe is a historical aberration, unseen in the West outside a Christian Society. The Good Samaritan was such a revolutionary ethos that Roman Emperors railed against it: The Roman Emperor Julian bemoaned: It is a disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.“ The vast majority of the worlds charities are Christian in nature – this is no accident indeed.
Once Christian charitable aid, which sustains so many, is no longer present in a world where the gospel has been banished, how else shall so many millions be fed? Once the core foundations of western liberalism, that of rights being granted to us from our Creator, as articulated by Locke and spelled out in the US Declaration of Independence, lose that footing – from where shall our rights flow?
For any libertarian to hope that if we remove the state tomorrow, a flourishing civil society shall rise up and assist those in need, depends upon a framework of virtue ethics that values charity, a framework that may well be absent in the post-post-Christian era. To blithely ignore this is naivety at best.
The actions of the state – both in promoting a form of relative nihilism and “anything goes”, whilst simultaneously imposing a form of rigorous codes of conduct (the nanny state, discrimination legislation &c) may seem schizophrenic at first glance. But closer inspection would reveal that the restrictions the state places upon individual liberties is deeply rooted in the post-Christian tradition, for in a society where there are no transcendent values, personal preferences come to the fore. It would have been impossible to try to “reshape” man into something “greater” in the Christian era – we are all fallen beings for starters, yet all created in God’s image, meaning making us into something else is impossible – yet in the secular state, all bets are off, and this is exactly what has been attempted, with dire consequences.
It is vital for the success of small government ideas for libertarians to reacquaint themselves with not just Locke and Mills, but also with Bourke. We must recognise that as undesirable as political power and the use of force is, that true freedom can only be attained in the context of a plurality of social authorities, moral codes, and traditions which seek to restrain and guide human action. This, indeed, is the great folly of the libertines: in seeking to advocate and advance a dogma of absolute, unshackled individuality, they lay the groundwork for a society that, while perhaps free of government action, shall be a dar place indeed….and ultimately one that is unfree. The only way a libertarian society will flourish and lead to positive outcomes is with a strong civil society, with cultural norms of behaviour that promote virtue. Without that framework coming from Christianity, a replacement needs to be found… and fast.
The Challenge for Christians
With the Christian ethical framework upon which Western society is based slowly eroding, and Christianity itself under attack, two thoughts come to mind.
Firstly, Christians must move beyond simply preaching their values through appeals to Authority, and supplement this with a rediscovery of the underlying theological principles upon which these are based. It is an impossibility to convince a rational secularist of an ethical framework by pointing to a verse in the Bible. Rather, Christians must rediscover their metaphysical framework of soteriology, and engage in the critical thinking necessary to demonstrate the rationality of their beliefs.
More challenging still, however, shall be adapting to a post-post-Christian world in terms of interactions with the body politic. Christians at present maintain the best way forward is to ally themselves with secular governments, not only ignoring the theological warnings against such a course, but the pragmatic evidence of its history. For indeed in all cases where Christians have allied themselves with the powers of the state, it has come back to haunt them, a Faustian bargain that never goes well. In every case where Christians argue to increasing the size of the state to solve a perceived problem, they are literally giving the secular left the rope with which to hang them.
With the predominant power of secularism, the only way to ensure Christianity is allowed to flourish – even at the margins – is to advocate for a system of government that permits Christians to exist, a system where government is so small as to not affect such things. Thus it is imperative that Christians cease advocating to the use of the State to achieve their ends – for while they may win a short term battle in doing so, they shall, inevitably, lose the war. It is only through allowing Christian communities to flourish independently of the state, a form of agorism if you will, that they shall be allowed to continue.
In the post-post-Christian Society, these Christian ‘silos’ of activity can once again revert to being the key drivers of charity that they once were, not only providing the opportunity for Christians to act on the Biblical commandments, and Testify to the grace of God, but be the key drivers of a flourishing civil society. The state has taken over many functions traditionally undertaken by Church’s, to the detriment of the Church. A truly independent Church shall therefore bring benefit to all sides.
The Challenge for Atheists
The challenge for atheists is perhaps the hardest of all three I present, for it is incumbent upon them to replace the ethical framework that they displace.
Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest anti-Christian philosopher, recognised the inevitable consequences of a society without the Christian ethos. Despising Christian charity as enabling weakness and its devotion to an ethics of compassion as enfeebling humanity, he reveled in a new era of the “super man”, where individual “will” triumphs, he nevertheless understood that humanity could not do away with the Christian faith while retaining Christian morality. Sadly, many of today’s New Atheists seem more interested in lengthy and historically inaccurate polemics rather than in any sort of intellectual grappling with the consequences of a post-Christian world. This is not only intellectually lazy, it deprives society of what it needs most.
It is a truism to state that the greatest atrocities in human history have been caused by secular regimes, unattached to any religious grounding, dedicated to enforcing their vision upon society at large. Similarly, it is becoming rapidly clear that that state of nature, where humans are unchecked other than by the coercive laws of the State, is not one of benevolence, but one of entitlement. No one can seriously believe that an unchecked secular society without some constraining hand will be more just, more humane, and more rational, but the opposite is easily to conceive. Without the Christian understanding of equality before God, it becomes easy to demonise those of another race – the ‘other’ – and to subjugate them. For what rational reason is there for the equality of all mankind? Slavery, so long fought by Christians, whether it be the passionate homilies of St Gregory of Nyssa, or the unceasing efforts of William Wilberforce, was only ended through their efforts and due to their unflinching dedication to a principle which was alien to the state of nature.
Many immoral actions – let us use eugenics as one example – may be rational, and indeed, in the case of eugenics in the early 20th century, supported almost universally by the intellectual elite. This, obviously, does not make them right – but why? This is the question that the atheist movement must answer, and the current crop generally fail to.
This is not, of course, to say that atheistic societies hold no morals, nor that Christianity is essential for an ethical society to flourish. Rather, it is demonstrating that atheism must be supplemented with a replacement framework which roots Christian ideals in secular teachings. This, sadly, has been ignored by most of the New Atheist movement, yet it is so vital to our society continuing. A coherent secular humanist framework must be accepted by the majority-atheist community for society to continue its liberal course of action.
As such, atheists must just serious historians and reject the diatribes of Dwarkins, Hitchins et al, and accept the undisputable positives that Christianity has brought. Secondly, and more critically, in arguing against Christianity, it is imperative that they provide an alternative in its place.
None of the arguments I have made in this blogpost are particularly new or innovative. They are a rehash of Bourke, of Meyer, and of others. Indeed, it was Meyer who created the notion of conservative-libertarian fusionism which, rather than spouting the politically pragmatic Reagan Coalition alliance as it is oft-interpreted today, argued that the only way for virtue-ethics to flourish was for a society built upon tradition, institutions, and values, and the only way for such a society to flourish is through a libertarian government. I would have thought this a rather self-evident point to make, yet it is a philosophy that is now misunderstood and its true tenants shrouded in obscurity.
No one can seriously argue that throughout most of Western history, the institution that provided the bulk of morality outside the State was the Church, or that it was the Christian concept that “we are all created in God’s image” from which that the dignity of the individual emerged as a major force in political philosophy, and similarly, that there was something greater than self-interest. Irrespective of people’s thoughts on religion, this is simply a matter of fact that must be addressed today, for, with God removed from the question as the ultimate grounding of non-state morality, it matters how He is replaced, and from whence we derive a systematic framework of moral and ethical behavior that will allow people to act according to principles above and beyond simply wanting more for themselves.
While morality without religion is obviously possible, our society needs a much more coherent philosophy to fill the void than presently exists.
The post-Christian era in which we presently find ourselves is the direct product of Christianity itself. The challenge to us all – libertarian, Christian, and atheist, is to create a post-post-Christian society not too far from it.