Weigelly Woo

Religion commentator George Weigel (who sits on the board of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy) has a new book out on the evils of secular Europe, The Cube and the Cathedral. Brian Carney at the Wall Street Journal offers a largely uncritical appraisal, in which all the typical neo-con anti-European obsessions are laid out as if they passed for common sense. Over to Carney, who begins with a visit to Amiens Cathedral:

At Mass last Sunday, Amiens’s gothic cathedral, the largest in France, was virtually empty…Europe’s largest churches are often unused these days, reduced to monuments for tourists to admire.

Nice to see the whole of Europe extrapolated from France. And how different is this from the decline of mainline Christianity in the USA?

In “The Cube and the Cathedral,” George Weigel describes a European culture that has become not only increasingly secular but in many cases downright hostile to Christianity. The cathedral in his title is Notre Dame, now overshadowed in cultural importance by the Arc de la Defense, the ultramodernist “cube” that dominates an office complex outside Paris.

Well, it’s certainly physically overshadowed. But is this sort of thing unique to France or Europe? Big business likes big buildings – I didn’t think this was unknown in the USA. All a bit vulgar, perhaps, but is the Arc really culturally more important? Are state funerals held at the Arc? Has someone published The Hunchback of the Arc de la Defense? And how do either the Arc or Notre Dame compare with Paris’s EuroDisney (famously termed “cultural Chernobyl” by Ariane Mnouchkine in 1992)? But to mention EuroDisney might imply criticism of American pop-culture and consumerism; far easier to invoke some mysterious and sinister “ultramodernism”.

“European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular,” Mr. Weigel writes. “That conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe’s contemporary crisis of civilizational morale.”

“European man” means “France”. And “contemporary crisis of civilizational morale” means “not as religious as the USA”, apparently.

Carney/Weigel then turns to the European Constitution:

“By the time the draft constitution was completed in June 2004, a grudging reference to ‘the cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe’ had been shoehorned into the preamble’s first clause,” Mr. Weigel notes derisively. This was about as much religion as Europe could stand in a constitution that runs, by Mr. Weigel’s count, to 70,000 words.

Well, seeing as the constitution is really a rather dull managerial document (that’s modernisation and bureaucratisation for you) I wouldn’t expect to see much religion in it. I know that the American Christian Right finds it offensive when official documents are not used as a bully pulpit for their imagined “Judeo-Christian tradition”, but that’s their problem, not Europeans’.

What is the deeper source of European antipathy to religion? For Mr. Weigel, the problem goes all the way back to the 14th century, when scholastics like William of Ockham argued for “nominalism.” According to their philosophy, universals–concepts such as “justice” or “freedom” and qualities such as “white” or “good”–do not exist in the abstract but are merely words that denote instances of what they describe. A current of thought was set into motion, Mr. Weigel believes, that pulled European man away from transcendent truths. One casualty was a fixed idea of human nature.

“If there is no such thing as human nature,” Mr. Weigel argues, “then there are no universal moral principles that can be read from human nature.” If there are no universal moral truths, then religion, positing them, is merely a form of oppression or myth, one from which Europe’s elites see themselves as liberated.

There always has to be a villain whose malign influence can explain in one easy sentence why it is that Europe detests all that is true and good (and disagrees with the USA on various matters, which amounts to the same thing). Rocco Buttiglione recently blamed Jacques Derrida; now we have William of Ockham, of all people, cast in the Faustian role. Why is religion less popular in Europe than it was? Don’t blame consumerism. Don’t blame modernisation. Don’t even blame the history of religious conflict in Europe. And, although attacking liberal religious figures is probably OK, don’t blame the possible shortcomings of religion itself when faced with science or critical deconstruction. And never concede the possibility that secular European values (such as, say, support for gay rights) might also be the result of moral reasoning, rather than its absence.

This is a big argument for a small book, and much more could be said to make it wholly convincing. One place to go for a fuller discussion is Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences,” which Mr. Weigel slyly alludes to but does not cite. “The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a course of truth higher than, and independent of, man,” Weaver explained a half-century ago, “and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.”

This actually exposes the hollow utilitarian heart of the neo-con defence of religion. Religion is useful because it gets people to behave well; criticisms of (“Judeo-Christian”) religion, or alternative ways of organising human affairs, should therefore be dismissed as “immoral” rather than engaged with intellectually. Weigel then turns lurid:

Mr. Weigel is on firmer ground when he analyzes Europe’s present condition, with its low birth rates, heavy debts, Muslim immigration worries and tendency to carp from the sidelines when the fate of nations is at stake. In what is certainly the most attention-grabbing passage in an engagingly written book, Mr. Weigel sketches the worst-case scenario–the “bitter end”–for a Europe that is religiously bereft, demographically moribund and morally without a compass: “The muezzin summons the faithful to prayer from the central loggia of St. Peter’s in Rome, while Notre-Dame has been transformed into Hagia Sophia on the Seine–a great Christian church become an Islamic museum.”

“Heavy debts”? Unlike the USA? And does secularisation have no effect on immigrant minorities? But even Carney thinks Weigel is laying it on a bit thick here:

One need not find this scenario especially plausible to feel persuaded by Mr. Weigel’s more measured arguments about Europe’s atheistic humanism. Without a religious dimension, Mr. Weigel notes, a commitment to human freedom is likely to be attenuated, too weak to make sacrifices in its name. Europe’s political elites especially, but its citizens as well, believe in freedom and democracy of course, but they are reluctant to put the “good life” on hold and put lives on the line when freedom is in need of a champion–say, in the Balkans or, especially, in Iraq. (Mr. Weigel is at pains to emphasize, however, that his analysis is not born of disenchantment over European popular opposition to the Iraq war.)

So, Europe is “too weak” to make sacrifices for freedom. But has the USA rejected mass consumerism in the name of the war effort? Are Americans demanding higher fuel prices and alternative energy sources in order to lessen dependence on Middle Eastern oil? Is there a massive revulsion against the very idea of using torture in the “war on terror”? Why is the USA open to criticism on those accounts, when American religion is supposed to be a sign that the USA is so much morally stronger than Europe?

I’m not arguing that a secular Europe has to be the glorious end point of history; and I have particular problems with the way secularisation plays out in France. But it would be nice to see American commentators discussing the phenomenon of European secularisation rationally, considering both the pros and cons. Hysterical and self-righteous screeds such as Weigel’s may make American conservatives feel good, but they do little to increase understanding.

UPDATE: Commentator David notes that Weigel’s book has also been reviewed by George Wills in the Washington Post. Wills includes a question mark in his headline as a substitute for any effort at critical thinking.

UPDATE 2: More Weigel today.