Democracy without God?

7 September 2007

by Marcello Pera

1. Europe’s moral crisis

I will look at the issue at hand by raising a question: what is happening in Europe? My answer is the same as George Weigel’s: a crisis in civilizational morale. Let’s look at the situation. 

Europe today is trying another of those experiments against its own history that it started with the Enlightenment: that is to build up a society without God. The old experiment attempted to replace the Judeo-Christian God of the European tradition with the “God of Reason”. According to the new experiment, God is to be replaced by such new different deities as “Democracy”, “Liberalism”, “Individual Freedom”, “Secular State”, and so on. Although the goal pursued by both experiments is the same, the tools are different.
The old Enlightenment used the language of universalism: it maintained that there is only one, true and universal reason, science, morality, polity, and so on. Today the “New Enlightenment” speaks in terms of pluralism: according to it, there are, and there must be, many different, cultures, traditions, lifestyles, conceptual frameworks, etc., each of which with its own rules, standards, criteria, and so on, each with its own dignity and value, and each deserving respect like any other. 
However, the underlying idea has not changed: for both experiments God is dead, anyway. For there can be no place for God whether religion is to be confined “within the boundaries of mere reason” or if religion is just a language game to be left to those who still wish to play it. And the outcome of the two experiments is also the same: a tension between religion and politics, a conflict between state and church, a gap between what tradition says and what the Newspeak states, an alienation effect on people’s lives. In a nutshell, the spiritual and moral crisis Weigel has written about.
Political Europe and the Europe of the intellectual elites today are neither simply secular, agnostic nor indifferent to religious phenomena. Europe today is anti-Christian. The evidence is overwhelming and speaks for itself. 
When Europe attempted to give itself a constitution and listed the principles and values which it intended to use a base, it refused to mention the Christian roots that inspired those values.
When Europe examined an Italian candidate to the European Commission it blocked his nomination because he dared state that his Christian morality did not allow him to approve of homosexual marriage. 
When Europe was attacked by Islamic fundamentalism because a Danish newspaper had published satirical cartoons aimed at Islam, Europe said sorry, though it never does when it is Christianity at the receiving end of satire.
When Europe became the target of aggression because in his lecture at Regensburg Pope Benedict XVI had maintained that Christianity is the religion of the Logos and not the sword, it did not react and left the Pope isolated.
When Europe exhibits or shows its classics related to its Christian culture, from paintings to theater to music, it censors these works in an effort to avoid offending non-Christians. 
It is no surprise that this Europe pulls its troops out of Iraq, offers to dialogue with States that want to destroy Israel and considers terrorist groups democratic it separates itself from America. 
Not only is Christianity no longer the glue that binds Europe, it is considered an obstacle to co-habitation, a symbol to keep hidden at home for the sake of tolerance, a culture comparable to any other. In France, wearing a crucifix is still allowed, as long as it’s a small one as if it were a semi-worthless bit of jewelry. 
Many people react to this but the Illuminist experiment aimed at constructing a Godless society goes on. Europe thinks that once religious distinctions are eliminated or hidden, it will be easier to build a super-national democratic community that is open and tolerant. Personally, I believe the exact opposite. I believe that democracy is at risk in a society without religion. I also believe that in a Godless society, democracy itself is at risk. I will attempt to prove these two statements and to conclude by advancing a proposal. 

2. Democracy at risk

Let’s consider once more the illuminist experiment. There is an important difference between the old one and the new one.
The old Illuminism though without doubt anti-clerical, especially anti- Vatican, was mostly deist and rarely anti-religious. It was a movement for the liberation and emancipation of man based on an optimistic and expansive conception of reason, which should have triumphed everywhere, including the field of religion. Kant did not write “Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone” by accident. But neither for Kant nor for the other important Illuminists does this mean that reason should substitute religion, rather that it would have “moved beyond” it, or simultaneously absorb it and preserve it within a wider framework. For Illuminism, reason is anti-dogmatic but not profane or pagan. The best proof of this lies in the fact that when Illuminism set its fundamental moral and political values freedom, equality, fraternity, tolerance, and so on and when these values were incorporated in various Bills of Rights and Declarations of Independence, they are nothing less than the secular and rational photocopies of Christian values. Kant’s categorical imperative is a Christian precept. And the famous sentence in the US Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal….” also expresses a Christian truth. 
The new Illuminism thinks differently and betrays the old by taking two steps forward. The first step is the transformation of reason into a style of thought. The first step excludes the religious dimension from the ambit of reason. The second reduces religion to the status of relic of the history of the evolution of the human species. 
The first step is a move from rationalism to scientism. When thinkers like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennet, consider religion bypassed or confuted by science, they are not advancing a scientific claim. If one takes Darwin’s theory, transforms it into Darwinism, tries to explain any human behavior in naturalistic terms and reduces any human disposition to useful reactions to some pressure from the external environment, then one leaves the terrain of experimental science that is physics, and enters into a different one, that is meta-physics. Both games, of course, are free, and one can play them both, but one cannot mix them up, let alone transfer the rules of the one into the domain of the other. Following Darwin, one can say that human faculties, inclinations, feelings, emotions, or whatever they are called resulted from certain advantages of the brain as useful responses to the pressure from the environment. This may be the end of the scientific story but it is not the end of the whole story. Because to explain how these behaviors came out is not the same as to explain what their sense is.
The second step forward that new Illuminism takes is from universal rationalism to ethnocentrism and from moral realism to relativism. 
This second step in particular is a race towards the abyss. Modern Illuminists would like to be liberal, democratic, egalitarian, as tolerant as their fathers were, and would never consider giving up European and Western political advancements, but they lack the conceptual tools. The point is: if reason is universal and if it is practical, which is to say not only instrumental but substantial, like the old Illuminism sustained, then it can be hoped that it will lead to universal (pertaining to all) and fundamental (definitive and non-negotiable) rights; if instead reason is fragmented, like the new Illuminism sustains, then even rights end up being broken up and reordered according to geography, groups of people and communities. The same concept can be described in different terms. If the quintessence of man as far as he is man does not exist, not even as our final objective for moral development, any more than a final reality intrinsic to nature that scientific development can gradually discover, then moral truth about mankind just like scientific truth about nature will be lost. That which was once rational natural rights dissolves into a thousand pieces of cultural community rights. Multi-culturalism is a typical consequence of this fragmentation of reason. Just as the distinct Rights Charters that depend on different religious confessions, like the Islamic Charter for example.
And the second democracy? Since according to the new Illuminism there is no longer universal reason, a value unto itself, it simply becomes a particular regime amongst many other particular ones, good for one culture but not for another. Which is to say that it becomes a “life style”, something to be enjoyed where it exists but not to be promoted or exported where it does not. This is the risk. In a society where it is cultivated as if it were a gift from God, democracy is a non negotiable value. In a Godless society it becomes an exchangeable consumer good. 
This risk has two facets. The first is that once detached from man’s nature, democracy loses its solid foundation and we no longer know how to justify it, except through references to general usefulness. The second is that no longer knowing how to justify it, we are no longer able to defend it when and if called on to do so. Today, the new European Illuminist culture finds itself in exactly this position. This is the profound reason for Europe’s non reaction when attacked and why it opposes any policy aimed at exporting democracy. 

3. Democracy as a risk

The other point that I would like to raise is that not only today democracy is at risk, but that it is in and of itself a risk. Pope John Paul II identified this risk in the encyclical Centesimus annus when he spoke about the pernicious consequences of the alliance between democracy and relativism. 
In principle, this alliance is unnatural and conceptually impossible because democracy is the opposite of relativism. What makes it possible is precisely the separation of democracy from its religious foundation. Due to this separation, democracy has become mere procedure in working terms, the rule of the majority in a deliberative assembly. Being democratic means participating, debating, voting and accepting the prevailing decisions. From this point of view, even terrorist groups can be democratic, and it is not incidental that some European politicians maintain that it is necessary to maintain a “dialogue” even with armed parties, including those whose objective is the destruction of other peoples or states: after all, weren’t they elected according to a legal and correct procedure? And so aren’t they democratic too?
Obviously, this isn’t so, and obviously not everything that emerges from a majority in an assembly can be considered democratic. Democratic is he who respects the rights of all. Democratic is he who recognizes that each individual is endowed with an intrinsic value. Democratic is he who holds that the dignity of man is his essential quality. This is why democracy believes in the universal values of mankind. And this is why democracy was born in Christian Europe, just as modern science is the offspring of the same Christian Europe: because the best way to discover a scientific truth about nature is the belief in the Judeo-Christian God who created and gave order to the universe, and the best way to discover a moral truth is to believe in the Judeo-Christian God who fathered man. 
When this God is denied, democracy is both at risk and becomes a risk. The risk is that democracy will become its opposite. Deprived of the faith that nourishes it, democracy could disregard the fact that it is based on fundamental and non negotiable values and so could decide to consider everything that a majority, piece by piece decides as equivalent to being a value. This is exactly what Pope John Paul II feared and what unfortunately is taking place.
Let’s give the situation a glance. The European office rubber stamps everything: abortion, embryonic experimentation, clonation, eugenics, euthanasia, polygamy, and pedophilia. Every day a violation of Christian principles takes place, through a correct democratic procedure, and is presented as “societal progress” or as a “new freedom”. And this happens because in the absence of a religious sense of what is not negotiable in moral terms, a limit to what is politically acceptable is also missing. Is it any wonder that those countries who maintain a strong religious sense consider Europe a new dictatorship? 
We are surrounded by contradictions. We look for more freedom and get more license. We desire more tolerance and produce more conflict. We want to be more autonomous and we become slaves of a single form of thought.
Is there any solution to the state of things?

4. The protection of the Logos

I would like to conclude this presentation with a few words on the issue. I believe that Pope Benedict XVI offered everyone, believers and non, a good way out. 
The Pope agrees that the moral crisis of modern man is widespread but it takes place in particular in the West and most of all in Europe. “Europe the Pope writes in his book Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2006) has developed a culture that, in a manner hitherto unknown to mankind, excludes God from public awareness.” (p.30) or: “a culture has developed in Europe that is the most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but of all the religious and moral traditions of humanity.” (p.31). This is so because, according to the Pope, the very European culture that since the onstart had allied the Judeo-Christian faith with Greek reason, and on which much of Western civilization depends, is now attempting to replace God with science and religious life with a secularist view and practice. 
The general outcome is the “absolutization of a way of thinking and living that is radically opposed to all the other historical cultures of humanity.” (p.44) To those who are afraid of a clash of civilizations the Pope reminds that “the real antagonism typical of today’s world is not that between diverse religious cultures; rather, it is the antagonism between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on the one hand, and the great religious cultures, on the other.” (p.44) In other words, according to the Pope, the risky game today is not merely between Christianity and Islam, but between secularism, on the one hand, and Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and any other religious faith, on the other. And if there will ever be a clash of civilizations, then the main responsibility will be of our scientism, which makes us blind to the spiritual dimension of our life, and secularism, which makes us insensitive to the religious foundations of our freedom.
What we should not do is take a step back. The old alliance between reason and religion, as well as the dreams of the old Enlightenment, are over. What we need instead is a step forward. “In the age of Enlightenment the Pope writes the attempt was made to understand and define the essential norms of morality by saying that these would be valid etsi Deus non daretur, even if God did not exist Even the person who does not succeed in finding the path to accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try to live and to direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God did indeed exist” (pp.50-51).
In my view, this is possible because there is no need, apart from a historical tradition, neither to confine human reason within the borders of scientific reason alone nor to fragment it into a myriad of incommensurable lifestyles. In my view, this is also feasible, because reason can admit, and open itself to, other dimensions than the scientific ones. The God hypothesis more specifically the hypothesis of the Christian God requires us to broaden the scientific concept of reason, not to shrink it. It demands that we live in accordance with certain moral values such as respect for the dignity of the person, the commitment to human life, the affirmation of equality among men not to abandon the best moral standards modernity has achieved. “Does this amount to a simple rejection of the Enlightenment and modernity? the Pope asks Certainly not! From the very beginning, Christianity has understood itself to be the religion of the Logos, to be a religion in keeping with reason.” (p.47)
I do agree. A religion of the Logos or, for those who are not prepared yet, a Logos taken, professed and practiced as a religion is the best protection against the risks freedom and democracy are facing today.

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