This first appeared on Instead of a Blog, on September 11, 2002, at this address:
Open Letter: Of Dueling Civilizations
Greetings, Mr. Moore:
I read your LowEndMac article…
… and have a few comments. But first, if you are interested, you might consider my most recent article on the same subject.
I agree with you that current
politically correct attitudes about Islam are incorrect. I believe they are, well, deceitful — usually a result of self-deception, as you imply, but sometimes the result of
noble lying, and sometimes lying not so noble: politic chicanery.
When I read a history of the Arab world a few years ago, one quotation stuck with me, a quotation from the legendary accounts of the last words of “the great Prophet”: “Do not cease fighting until all proclaim that God is God.” It, in addition to the evidence you provide, shows the belligerent origin of Islamic civilization.
I was disappointed, however, that you did not emphasize how internally peaceful the Caliphate was, how better it treated its non-conforming subjects than did the governments of Christendom of the day. If I had lived after the Roman Empire, but before the Renaissance, the only place I would likely have been safe to write my philosophy and share my opinions would have been in the Islamic empire under the Caliphate. I would have been executed, and my writings burned, had I lived in Christian Europe.
And this gives me pause. Does it give you pause?
I addressed the peculiar nature of Islamic tolerance briefly in my column. I could have elaborated. Though it is true that Islam is a fighting religion, and intolerant at the core, Muslims once had (and today, in some places, do have) a kind of tolerance. They accommodate differences, sometimes almost liberally. But they do so only after they have gained sovereignty. Hegemony is, for them, a proof of the efficacy of their religion. Thankfully, what germs there have been of this in Christianity have been mostly bred out.
And here is where your picture of our civilization strikes me as very partisan and highly unreliable.
One of your most insistent points is that Western civilization is
essentially Christian-based but corrupted by the influences of two of the traditional three modern devils in modern evangelical Christian ideological demonology: Freud and Marx — you’ve left out Darwin, the only one of the three I’d care to defend. But forget these devils for a moment: this idea that our liberal civilization — based on a rule of law and a fair amount of individual liberty — rests mostly on Christianity strikes me as wildly inaccurate.
Here are just a few points to counterbalance your mostly unsubstantiated assertions:
- Christianity did not start out as a family-values religion with a fine, upstanding civilian-based ethics. In its early days, under the influence of a self-conscious Messiah-figure (Yeshua) and an eschatological cultist (Paul), it preached against sex, against wealth, and for some kind of revolutionary utopianism (precisely what is vague in the extant accounts). The early Christians used classic cult techniques (especially the severing of familial relationships: Yeshua is quite clear on this) to spread their ideas. As such, Christianity is no source for Western civilization. Instead, Christianity itself became civilized only as it progressed.
- Many of the good things we think of in Western civilization are found easily in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, and others. The Roman Empire, though fantastically corrupt, was corrupt by ancient standards as well as modern. And it had a few good elements above and beyond the philosophers. One such notion was the Republican concept of the rule of law. Europeans, much later, and after long internecine warfare, attempted to revive this when trying to secure peace after years of religious dispute.
- The major source for Christian peacefulness (which you rightly note) was almost certainly the fear of reprisal by the Roman Empire. Christians quickly disassociated themselves from the Jewish rebels and from
the Jewish [Judean] problemin general. They did this with a whole grab bag of gambits, including the stressing of a few politic notions such as
render unto Caesar.This led to a great deal of revision of the message of their central figure, Yeshua. The gospel stories changed (this is pretty obvious, especially if you read the non-canonical accounts) and we are left with horribly unreliable stories of the founding period of the Christian movement. Did Yeshua preach peace or war? Using the remaining documents one could argue either way, or both. Are these contradictions fatal to sense, or can they be reconciled? Since the gospels don’t even agree on what happened on the day of Yeshua’s execution, I not unreasonably conclude that the contradictions remain true contradictions, not apparent ones for which prayerful interpretation could find reasonable conciliations. Given the ambiguities and contradictions, it should be no surprise that the growth of Christianity went along with a great deal of violence.
- It is traditional in some Protestant circles to ascribe Christian violence to the extra-Christian idea of a unity of church and state. An interesting notion, and one that I long held. But there seems to be historical evidence for extensive Christian rioting, particularly of
orthodoxChristians against various
heresies,particularly the Gnostics, without any help or direction from the state. Estimates of the carnage produced by Christian rioting prior to Constantine’s conversion start in the low thousands and reach quite high. (Disagreements on the figures are understandable, given the long span of time since then; besides, there are many disagreements over how many Jews, heretics and witches were killed in more recent times. We shouldn’t expect agreement on estimates. But on the nature of the events, yes, we should expect agreement.) Christians often speak of martyrs, and martyrs there were; but what of those other self-proclaimed Christians that the orthodox themselves martyred?
- Many of the niftier communal ideas in early Christianity were prefigured in other Roman Empire social movements. I’m not talking about vile things like blood-and-body rituals among Mithraists, which Paul deliberately copied; I’m talking about something quite a bit more wholesome, the Epicurean way of life. Epicurus’s following was, like early Christianity, also separatist, combining extremely individualistic ideas with more communal concepts of friendship and sharing. It is interesting to compare Epicurus’s few surviving letters with Paul’s. There are fascinating stylistic similarities, but Epicurus exhibits none of the violence of language you find in Paul’s ravings. Epicurus conforms better than does Paul to most Westerners’ ideas of a peaceful sage. Yeshua also was amazingly violent in his language. You can see why later Christians did horrendously violent things in his name.
- Above I used the phrase
bred outto describe the learning process that Christianity has gone through. Its nastiest elements grew into full flower during the Dark Ages and then again in the wars of the Protestant Reformation. And these wars became the primary spark that led to Enlightenment political ideology. Now, contrary to much argumentation by contemporary Christians, these Enlightenment ideas were not particularly Christian. They partially harked back to ancient times (poorly understood, of course) and partially amounted to creative responses to the dangers of what Hobbes called
religious enthusiasm.Though most English, Scots, and Americans during the Enlightenment and the liberal-era founding period were Christian, the political ideas were not revivals of a Christian or even Judeo-Christian political ideas. They were something new and very different.
But you, Mr. Moore, following nearly every other Christian writer on this subject, bestow upon Christianity the honor of the liberal social order, despite the fact that it was certainly not a result of Biblical exegesis. The actual roots of this order are very complex.
I’m not one of those secularists who, in your words, is
ignorant of religion. I was raised a Christian, and have read no small amount of history. Do I want, as you say secularists do want, to
do away with religion? No. I’d like it to wither, I suppose, as better alternatives to it are found. Do I deny man’s essential
spirituality? Almost never does a Christian ask me what my spiritual notions might be. Christians instead prefer to lash out and say that by denying the existence of a deity I deny an essential element of human nature, etc etc. This rhetoric is predictable and unimpressive.
We do have one surprising area of agreement. Like you, I admit that there is a great deal of
decadence in society.
Unlike you, however, I don’t ascribe this to any one cause — and certainly not to original sin, which I consider a rather twisted and incoherent interpretation of humanity’s psychological and spiritual capacities.
I prefer to think about decadence in terms of the virtues — a notion that precedes (and at its best owes nothing to) Christianity.
The language of virtue and vice has regrettably fallen from the vernacular. I do not ascribe this to secularization as such but in part to scientism (the medicalization of ethics has been mostly, though not completely, a waste of intellectual energy), in part to politicization (undue reliance upon the state to solve individual problems), and even in part to Christianity (its language of sin and righteousness, and an obsession with modesty-based sexual ethics, undermined the balanced and civilized perspective of virtue and vice).
But how should we counter decadence? Not with hysterical and denunciatory rhetoric. You actually praise modern Muslims for their wholesale revulsion at the West’s decadence. Well, I’ll leave such revulsion to others. I prefer reason. When I see folly or perversity — in myself or others — I’ll call it such, and then try to figure reasonable ways of reforming. But revulsion tends to obscure any possibility of dialogue. Relying on the rhetoric of repugnance is often indecorous and usually self-defeating.
And I certainly won’t do what Muslims do too often: I will not take up arms against what they see as decadence. I note that many Christians today seem envious of Islamic repression of sin. (I can name names. Respected names.) Virtue shines best when uncoerced.
When to use coercion? This should be decided on secular grounds. We have at hand principles that reasonably guide us on such issues. I note that Christians are often a major source, in the West, of violating these principles. And so I do not see a simple division of the world between Islam and the quasi-post-Christian West. There are divisions everywhere.
So what about peace? You say, precipitously, and without much sense of fair play, that Westerners exhibit a failure of perception when they think that
Islam can be reasoned with. It is naive and foolhardy wishfully to proceed as if Islam operates on the same sort of foundational moral and philosophical assumptions as we do.
But can you and I reason together? We do not share that many assumptions, either.
And of course, diplomacy is not just about reason unadorned. There is always a sword. And a carrot. To pretend that Muslims can’t be counted on to figure out their advantages is not something I will praise.
You assume that the Islamic terrorist attacks on America came out of the blue, without a pretext, without a context of previous dealings between America and the Near East.
That’s simply not so. In my short article, I tried to explain some of why America is so hated in the East. And I could go on.
I will, at some other time.
For now, I simply note that civilization is not just a matter of which religion you choose. It is, in part, a matter of how we have trained ourselves to react in times of crisis. In part it is simply instinctual, in the right circumstances. (See my most recent column for more on this.) There’s a great deal involved, and we haven’t figured out everything yet. Humanity is a work in progress.
Here are two things we do know for sure:
- Human beings almost universally want peace.
- We also want to coerce.
How do we encourage the former inclination over the latter? All religions, even Islam, have a few good ideas on the subject. I prefer drawing from more reasonable sources — such as philosophy and science, and even my own sensibility — to relying on religions tied to despicable notions and warped views of reality.
Your article, though interesting, casts a skewed perspective on the present danger. You assume that the West is basically in the right and the East basically in the wrong. Since America is tied, ideologically, to so many good ideas (in the Constitution, in our common law, in many of our traditions) I wish you were right.
But I see a long history of blundering, criminally negligent, and even malign intent and action in America’s military interventions in the Islamic world.
I was appalled a year ago, after the atrocities committed by terrorists, to see Palestinians dancing with joy in the streets. Still, I quickly realized why this was the case. It was not a sign of their virtue, to be sure. But it was understandable. And it should be forgivable, if they mend their ways — which, I note, will likely only happen when we mend ours.
We have much to atone for, you write. But you warn against
capitulating to Islam. I’d be curious what you think we have to atone for. I agree with you that we should never pretend that Muslims are just like us. But I also insist that our differences do not mean that reason, persuasion, and diplomacy are utterly without effect.
Your suggestion to the contrary is appalling.