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God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann
This is not the first time I have used this quote. The last time it came up, I was quick to point out that the horrible nihilism predicted by Nietzsche had not come to pass. That despite the predictions of not only Nietzsche, but many others, it is possible to be an atheist and still be good. But I was also quick to point out that this “goodness” was still largely derived from a religious foundation, and it’s unclear how long that foundation would last in the absence of a belief in God. Or to pull in another quote from Nietzsche:
When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.
Again, most atheists and even most intellectuals will argue that Nietzsche was once again proven wrong, that the “whole” of morality has not been broken. But it’s worth asking, as I did the last time around, is it possible that he was just premature in his pessimism? Is it possible that as we look at the fights over morality we’re having today, or the culture wars as they’re often called, that we’re finally seeing the realization of Nietzsche's predictions.
To be clear, we have obviously been able to hang on to large parts of Christian morality, even without faith in God, the question Nietzsche asks and which deserves to be asked again, is have we been able to hang on to the necessary parts? For a while it appears we did, in part because genuine secularization at the level Nietzsche foresaw actually didn’t start happening until fairly recently. As an example, the percent of people who identified as religiously unaffiliated was flat at between 5 and 10 percent in the 20 years between 1972 and 1992 (it was 6% in 1991) before beginning a steady climb to 29% in 2018. It’s easy to maintain Christian morality if you still have a lot of Christians, but around 1992 (end of the Cold War?) it starts suddenly draining away, and it’s hard to imagine this will only affect the unnecessary bits. Christianity is leaving the stage, or being altered so completely that it can no longer fulfill its historical role, whatever that might be.
From here I could go off on a jeremiad about the wickedness of the modern world, and certainly someone with the pen name Jeremiah should never shy away from that sort of thing, but in this post I want to go in a different direction. I don’t think there’s any question that Christian morality has been draining away, and many jeremiads could indeed be written on that topic, but the objective of this post is to point out the lesser known side effects of this decline, in particular how it affects the logistics of governing and of holding nations together.
To begin with, there’s the idea that all civilizations are inextricably intertwined with a specific religion. You may recall my post on the ideas of Samuel Huntington, in particular his book The Clash of Civilizations. At the time, one of the things that stood out to me about his thesis was the idea that you can’t have a civilization without having a religion to define that civilization. Or as he said:
Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent. [emphasis mine]
Hearing of this idea you may have several reactions:
You may think Huntington is right and that by losing our link to religion we’re in a lot of trouble.
You may think that Huntington is right about the importance of a religion, but that Christianity is no longer the religion of Western Civilization, and that therefore we don’t have to worry about its disappearance. We have a new religion, that of social justice or something similar, and that new religion might even come with a new, global civilization.
You may think Huntington was right, but that he isn’t any longer. That something has changed recently either at a political, social, or technological level which makes his assertions about religion no longer valid, even if they were at some point.
You may think Huntington is right, but only in a very weak, almost tautological sense. Maybe what he’s saying is something akin to, “A culture needs a culture.” In other words, how does this argument apply in a place like China? Is Confucianism really a religion? And if it is, are the Chinese actually believers in it in the same sense that people in America are believers in Christianity?
You may think Huntington is just plain wrong. This is certainly possible, but he’s got a lot of evidence on his side and the point of this post is to martial yet more evidence in his favor.
Let’s take each of these reactions in order. The first is fairly straightforward. If you believe this then you’re on the same page with Nietzsche and Huntington and for that matter, me, and any further discussion of this would just be preaching to the choir.
As far as the second possibility, a replacement religion, I’ve already discussed it at some length, and there’s a lot of evidence that this might in fact be what’s happening. For one thing it also mostly follows the thinking of Huntington and Nietzsche. The key problem here is that I don’t think it avoids the “we’re in a lot of trouble” part from possibility one. You can read my previous post for a deeper dissection of this, but I’ve seen zero historical evidence that transitioning a civilization from one religion to another has ever been a peaceful or straightforward process.
For this possibility, the most charitable reading of history is that Western Civilization already abandoned Christianity around when Nietzsche said they would and successfully replaced it with enlightenment values. But as you may recall that transition was anything but smooth. And even optimists like Steven Pinker believe that enlightenment values are under serious attack.
Possibility three is perhaps the most interesting, that we needed religion, but we don’t any longer. Despite being interesting it has several things working against it. To begin with if you acknowledge that this is how things used to work, you have to come up with a credible mechanism for why things no longer work this way. Why politics and technology have somehow removed culture as a factor in maintaining a civilization. This becomes particularly difficult in light of the culture war we’re currently experiencing which has arguably been made worse by technology. To put it all together, you’re arguing that technology has made culture less contentious when the evidence all points in the opposite direction, and furthermore, in this argument the burden of proof would all be on your side of the argument.
In discussing possibility number four I offered up China as a counterexample, and I take it seriously. No one would describe China as a particularly religious country even if you grant that Confucianism is a religion, and at first glance this seems to seriously weaken Huntington’s argument (and by extension my own) but I believe there are some additional things to consider here. First and most obviously, no one would say, as protests in Hong Kong enter their 20th week that China is a model of cultural cohesion in the absence of a religion. Second, one would assume that if you have the all-encompassing top down dictatorship like China does, having a strong religion on top of that to fall back on becomes far less important. Or to put it another way, the fight over something like abortion looks a lot different in China. Something we’ll return to in a moment.
This takes us to the final possibility, that Huntington is wrong, and refuting this possibility is where I plan to spend the remainder of the post.
As a foundation to that, I’d like to talk about Power Games vs. Value Games, I’m borrowing this labeling from the current series Tim Urban is doing on Wait but Why (which I’ve mentioned before in this space). Though you can find references to the overarching concept all through my work. But Urban’s definitions are more succinct.
The Power Games basically goes like this: everyone acts fully selfish, and whenever there’s a conflict, whoever has the power to get their way, gets their way. Or, more succinctly:
Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to pull it off.
There are no principles in the Power Games—only the cudgel. And whoever holds it makes the rules.
The animal world almost always does business this way. The bear and the bunny from the beginning… found themselves in a conflict over the same resource—the bunny’s body. The bunny wanted to keep having his body to use for being alive and the bear wanted to eat his body to score a few energy points from his environment. A power struggle ensued between the two, which the bear won. A bear’s power comes in the form of being a big strong dick. But power isn’t the same as strength. A bunny’s power comes in the form of sensitive ears, quick reflexes, and running (bouncing?) speed—and if the bunny had been a little better at being a bunny, he might have escaped the bear and retained the important resource. [emphasis original]
As Urban points out this is how things are in a state of nature, and it’s mostly how things were historically. People and nations did whatever they wanted as long as they had the power to pull it off. But there is another way to resolve disputes, Value Games:
In the Power Games, people who have cudgels use them to forcefully take the resources they want. In the Value Games, people use carrots to win resources over from others.
The Value Games are driven by human nature, just like the Power Games are. The difference is the Power Games is what humans do when there are no rules—the Value Games is what humans do when a key limitation is added into the environment:
You can’t use a cudgel to get what you want.
If I want something you have, but I’m not allowed to get it by bullying you, then the only option I’m left with is to get you to give it to me voluntarily. And since you’re selfish too, the only way you’ll do that is if I can come up with a “carrot”—a piece of value I can offer—that you’d rather have than the resource I want from you.
I will add that one aspect of Value Games that Urban doesn’t pay a lot of attention to is that such games are a lot easier to engage in if people have many values in common. It’s one thing to offer people carrots if everyone loves carrots. It’s quite another if they don’t. Or to put it another way, imagine that instead of offering carrots you’re offering pork. Your ability to trade for things you want is going to be very different depending on whether the person you’re dealing with is Catholic or Muslim. Value Games depend a great deal on having common values. This becomes even more important when you’re talking about sacred values, i.e. a religion.
Furthermore, Urban didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked explaining why you wouldn’t be able to use a cudgel to get what you want. In truth the cudgel is always an option. It always hangs in the background. All Value Games have a bit of a Power Game in them. It’s just that you’re unlikely to bring out the cudgel if the carrot is going to be more effective. Also, the more sacred the value the more likely you are to use force to defend it, making shared religious values the most important shared values of all. But once religion goes away, once people no longer have faith that there’s some supernatural source of sacred values, that foundation of morality Nietzsche talked about, then inevitably (though not immediately) Value Games become harder, and Power Games become more likely.
Let’s look at some examples of this dynamic in action. You have almost certainly heard about the tweet Daryl Morey, owner of the Houston Rockets, sent in support of the Hong Kong protesters and the controversy it caused between China and the NBA. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this is a Power Game. The Chinese can talk about their hurt feelings till they’re blue in the face, but in the end China wants something and they have the power to get it (withholding billions of dollars) so that’s what’s happening.
This part is straightforward enough. But dig a little bit deeper and a few other interesting points emerge. First, China is still playing Value Games with the protests in Hong Kong, they haven’t yet resorted to the cudgel. One Value Game is with the actual people protesting and another is with the international community. In contrast the way they manage their citizens who live outside of Hong Kong largely takes the form of a Power Game. On the other side of things while the NBA is playing (and apparently losing) a Power Game with China, what was it doing when it boycotted North Carolina in 2016 for the state law which was perceived to be biased against the LGBT community? And is it hypocritical as so many people have accused?
Now I suppose that you could argue that North Carolina’s law was so much worse than what China is doing in Hong Kong that in the one case a boycott was appropriate, but in the other a groveling apology was called for, but I don’t think anyone seriously buys that. No the difference is that in the case of North Carolina, we’re still playing Value Games. The NBA was hoping that by boycotting North Carolina that their values would shift in the direction of the NBAs values. (Or what they saw as the center of gravity for the whole country. The NBA is a business after all). When the NBA caved in to China it wasn’t because of their deeply held values. (Other than their deeply held avarice.) It was because China had the power to compel them to submit. Would the controversy have played out differently if China (or for that matter the US) was Christian? One would certainly hope so.
Let’s look at another example. I just finished reading the book Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age by Arthur Herman. I’ll do a more detailed review of it at the end of the month, but right now I want to focus on the independence negotiations between the United Kingdom and India. Certainly power played a large part in these negotiations, British military power and the power of the Indian masses which Gandhi was able to effectively marshall, but it’s remarkable to what extent Christian and Hindu values played a part as well. Gandhi was a huge admirer of Christianity and of the British in general. If he hadn’t he wouldn’t have attempted his campaign of passive resistance. If you doubt this just imagine how his campaign would have gone if he had tried it with the Nazis rather than the British.
But set aside all of that for the moment, the really interesting thing is that the two sides could sit down together. They could negotiate and reach an agreement, and this, in spite of ongoing atrocities that today are barely imaginable. When you imagine politics today, who do you imagine sitting down together? (Certainly not Pelosi and Trump.) It seems that the most alarming sign that Value Games are over and we’re in the realm of Power Games is the fact that the two sides of the current conflict can’t have those negotiations, in fact they can barely watch football together, if the recent dust-up over Ellen and Bush is any indication.
For my final example I want to revisit abortion where we appear to be on the cusp of transitioning from Value Games to Power Games. Let’s begin that examination by looking at how abortion is handled by some of the systems we’ve already touched on.
Religion- I’m not an expert on how various religions view abortions, but I’m reasonably certain that they all take a stand on it. In other words, to return to my primary point, Value Games work better in the presence of a religion because there is an agreed upon value baseline.
China- Given that China generally operates in a Power Game space with its population, they can basically dictate whatever abortion policy they want. At the moment it’s legal, but if tomorrow they decided to make it illegal would anyone be surprised? Would you expect massive demonstrations? I wouldn’t.
Switching to Enlightenment Values from Christian Values- What does The Enlightenment say about abortion? Is it pro-choice? I know that many people would argue that it is, but if so, it took a long time to get there. In fact, pro-choice organizations argue that abortion was basically legal everywhere until the enlightenment. After that initial rush of anti-abortion laws, it appears that the first place to make it legal in all cases was the Soviet Union in 1920 under Lenin. I don’t know about you, but I generally avoid using examples from the Soviet Union to buttress my case. After that the next place for it to be made legal was Mexico in 1931 and then only in cases of rape. It didn’t arrive in the US until 1967 when Colorado legalized it in cases of rape, incest and health of the mother. Needless to say it doesn’t sound like it was a big part of the core Enlightenment values.
All of this takes us to the battles over abortion we see today. As I said, up until recently these debates seemed to revolve around a discussion of values, but more and more they’ve moved into the realm of power. Who can do what. So far the Power Games are operating within the framework of laws, which are a form of values, but when you pay more attention to fighting over who can interpret those laws than the laws themself I think some important rubicon has been crossed on the power/value continuum.
As further evidence that we have crossed over from arguing about values to exercising power I offer up the venom present in the current debate, where even repeating Bill Clinton’s assertion that abortions should be safe, legal and rare provokes enormous blowback from the pro-choice side of things. Or to frame it another way. Gandhi and the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin were able to sit down and negotiate despite excessive violence on the side of the British and mass uprisings among the Indians. Who can we imagine doing the same today?
It’s important to note that to the extent that the West is “post-christian” it hasn’t been post-christian for very long, and it’s still unclear what system will come along and replace religion as a civilizational bedrock. Even if you don’t agree that it has to be another religion, I think we can agree that it has to be something, if we’re going to avoid slipping back into power games. And thus far the options do not appear promising:
To complete the circle, it should be noted that Nietzsche had a solution to this problem. It was the Übermensch, but it’s hard to imagine anything less likely to fill in as a core civilizational value in this day and age.
To continue with Nietzsche, people took a watered down version of his ideas, combined it with the ideas of progress more generally and came up with eugenics. And it’s hard to find a major figure who didn’t support it in the first half of the 20th century. Also, it should be noted, abortion was a major component of that movement.
It’d be nice to say that Christianity was still powerful enough that it put a stop to eugenics. It was not, it had much more to do with the evils of Nazism, but it is interesting to note that when the Supreme Court ruled that state laws requiring compulsory sterilization of the unfit were constitutional, that a Catholic judge was the only one to dissent, and he did so because of his religious beliefs.
For those celebrating the decline of Christianity. This has to provide a cautionary tale, and, further, a strong piece of evidence that abandoning religion is more difficult and error-prone than people think. In any case it is no longer a candidate as an alternative to religion.
Moving on, other people such as Steven Pinker put a lot of stock in Enlightenment values, but they’re not holding up so well either. (Which is part of the reason Pinker had to write a whole book defending those same values.) Certainly, as I pointed out above, they seem unequal to the task of solving the current crisis.
Still other people hold out hope that some entirely new civic religion will come along, and magically solve everything. And perhaps it will, but large failures like eugenics and smaller failures like the blind spots of the enlightenment should make us cautious about the effectiveness of reasoning our way into a cohesive set of effective values. And even if that’s something we can do, the transition might be brutal.
It would appear that a return to Christianity is the only thing that’s left, but of course that’s much easier said than done and I suspect the process is past the point of no return. It part it’s because they were right, all those people who claimed that it was possible for an individual to abandon religion and still be good. The part I think they and everyone else missed is how difficult it is for a civilization to abandon religion and still be unified.
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