Erstwhile blogger and Touchstone contributor Bill Luse has begun what looks to be a superb new journal, The Christendom Review (I originally wrote "weblog" here, addled as I am, but it is a journal!). Its first edition features an article by Lydia McGrew, on the call by Robert Audi to remove theological argument from the public square. If you have never been witness to step by step surgical dismemberment, you will want to don the scrubs to watch Miss McGrew; it is a masterly performance. She shows, time and again, that Audi and his like simply cannot make up their minds, or cannot avoid the most sophomoric of fallacies. My favorite sentence in the piece, some form of which appears several times, is "But this is obviously wrong," followed by a calm, rhetorically deadpan exposition of why it is obviously wrong. One feels as if one were in the presence of an English teacher of the old school, instructing a student who thinks he is brighter than he really is on what constitutes a logical argument.
For example, McGrew notes that the very reason we have public policy debates is that we seek the truth -- or, in terms of practical policy, we seek the best exercise of our practical moral reason. Since that is the case, the provenance of a man's argument makes no difference. If Audi should counter by arguing that any statement based on a sacred text not universally accepted will be ineffective in the public square, well, that is the arguer's lookout, not Audi's. In fact, Audi cannot decide, and perhaps does not know whether he wants to decide, whether arguments that have a theological color to them are to be avoided because people won't accept them, or because they will accept them for what Audi considers the wrong reasons. In other words, he seems simultaneously to despise the powerlessness of such arguments, and, as I rather believe, to fear their power. With a charming historical naivete, says McGrew, he looks forward to a regime wherein only secular reason would be recognized; that fond hope, reminding one of the silliest song that John Lennon ever wrote in a career noted for many a foray into the silly, is based upon the foundational tenet of the secularist fear, that Religion Is Divisive, while, as we all know, secularism is all about the peaceful growing of nasturtiums, or babies in glass dishes, or whatever it is you want to grow. So was it peaceful in the Ukraine, when Stalin persuaded many millions of peasants to help grow nasturtiums, mainly by providing the nutrients from underneath. So was it peaceful in China, when Chairman Mao persuaded some fifty or sixty million of his own people to irrigate the new order with their own blood. It was peaceful under Bismarck, peaceful under Napoleon, peaceful under Kaiser Wilhelm, peaceful under Hirohito's generals. It is quite peaceful now in Europe, where it presides over the cultural collapse of an entire continent; peaceful mainly because it has rendered European man incapable of fighting. The grave's a fine and peaceful place.
I've been thinking about these things lately, too, because of a faculty seminar on freedom that I'm going to participate in this spring, as I've mentioned here at Mere Comments. Perhaps I should provide a running meditation on what transpires in the seminar; I don't know. It seems at the outset that the eight of us share very little, if anything at all. I'll be assigning the others Paradise Lost to read, but at our preliminary meeting it became clear that most of the others don't own a copy of Milton. They for their part are probably wondering why I don't own a copy of, who knows, Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. For two of the professors suggested that we invite Mr. Dennett to campus, to speak. About what? The proposers were not entirely forthcoming. Dennett, who is not a microbiologist or a neurophysicist, but a language philosopher, has written about consciousness, and that bears upon the question of the freedom of the will. And yet our discussion had nothing to do with consciousness. Dennett would be a good person to have on campus, although admittedly "controversial," because he aims to "detoxify" religion with the new tools of analysis provided by evolutionary sociology. I refrained from remarking that when it comes to castration, the old tool of a sharp knifworks just fine.
But it occurs to me that again we have a combination of boundless arrogance and a simplicity or simplemindedness that we would find charming, or perhaps forgivable, in an intelligent child, but really bizarre in a grown man. For this same Dennett apparently believes that parents have no right to train their children in their faith, but that government ought to intrude -- a simply astonishing suggestion, after a century of secular totalitarian states. I mean, coming from H. G. Wells, a suggestion of this sort has the panache of the bad boy about it. At least Wells had not had quite so thorough an historical record behind him, of secularism's embarrassing failures. What must one be like to conceive of a government that would have the power to do what Dennett suggests it should do? What must one be like to desire it?
One answer, of course, is that one must see oneself, or people like oneself, as profiting by such a government. Audi would like to clear the public square of religious argument, one might say, because that is exactly the sort of argument he is least prepared to meet. I suspect in Dennett, anyhow, a potent strain of what Augustine famously called the libido dominandi, the lust for rule. Actually, Augustine's phrase is more striking still: people in the city of man are dominati libidine dominandi, dominated by the lust to dominate. He was thinking in the first instance of men like Alexander and Caesar, and even the noble Scipio Africanus; but also of all men caught in that city, regardless of their status. The connection between modern secularism and this good old fashioned lust, a lust which is responsible for almost every war man has ever fought, is not difficult to trace. If there is no such thing as an objective moral order -- and talk of such an order raises for both Audi and Dennett the dreadful specter of Religion -- then our discussions of public policy are essentially attempts to employ a utilitarian reasoning in the service of appetite. The belly rules, or a region further south. Indeed it must; there is nothing left to assume the throne. Now if one is committed to the rule of appetite, any suggestion that there might be a transcendent order by which the objects of one's appetite must be judged will strike one with fear and trembling. The more so, as one suspects, though one doesn't want to admit it, that the rule of appetite is finally no rule at all. It is worse than divisive. It is essentially atomistic. It ends by leaving men nothing to divide: my appetite is set against yours, and if we happen to agree, that's fine, and if we don't, then all is fair in lust and war.
Faith is feared not because it is divisive, but because it is unitive. It brings men together in a common cause. It directs their energies to the attainment of something beyond the belly. It causes them to sing together, to work together, to pray together, to form a genuine community, a little more resistant than their faithless compeers against the stupidities of the day. And yes, once united, such people can fight. Do men of faith sometimes fight? It is true that not even Christianity has managed to leach from the human soul all the ancient lusts for land, money, glory, and power. But what happens when Christian man loses his faith, the last century amply shows. Most likely, he will bow to the nearest totem. Then he will fight with all the rage of a frustrated idolator. Or he will lose the strength to fight at all, content to be enslaved by petty lusts, so long as these are satisfied by mass entertainment. That will leave things in the hands of the self-styled enlightened. For though Mr. Dennett proposes to detoxify religion, he shows that he has not bothered first to detoxify himself, of pride and the lust to rule. His "reforms" of religion would but make his own lust easier to satisfy.
In any case, by all means read McGrew's article. And link up to The Christendom Review!