Jason Kuznicki of Positive Liberty today writes on the heritage we have of the Enlightenment. He writes (in part):
It’s been a constant theme of my blogging: The eighteenth century may have ended chronologically, but it’s never really gone away. And as the controversies of the nineteenth and twentieth fade into the background (Free silver anyone? Or Marxism?), those of the eighteenth come back with a vengeance: Religion and atheism. Religion and public life. The nature-nurture and mind-body debates. Free will and determinism. Politicized sex scandals and sexualized politics. And the great enemy — again — is religious intolerance, which has no place in civilized life.
Read Voltaire, or Diderot, or Hume. It’s all there. Every bit of it. Alexis de Tocqueville may still be interesting and valuable — but unlike Tocqueville, La Mettrie could easily top today’s bestseller lists — as one of the “new” atheists. Everything old is new again. That’s why it’s so important that we get the Enlightenment right.
Now the point I’m going to investigate is the one about religious tolerance. I’d argue that this notion is essentially axiomatic to our American and democratic heritage. However, I think it deserves a little investigation, which I’m going to try to do below the fold.
Solzhenistsyn in his sojourn in the West, while acknowledging the help and assistence the West gave to the dissedent cause in combatting the Soviet regime felt that criticism by a friend was of more help than a series of mild “attaboys.” One of his criticisms was of the backbone of liberal democracy. Our squeamishness over the miniscule casualties in Iraq perhaps overshadow the same squeamish-ness we felt over casualties in Vietnam. Solzhenitsyn reiterated the surprise that the Soviets felt in our withdrawal from Vietnam grounding in that same squeamishness. They felt, that we were effectivly countering them in their attempt at the global spread of Marxism and that our withdrawal was a boon to their cause. Similarly in countering Hitler, the totalitarian Soviet regime bore the brunt of the struggle yeilding a inhuman toll in men and material. He raises the question, and I think a valid one, whether or not the democratic nations could have countered Hitler and shed necessary blood to acheive victory without a totalitarian ally. Solzhenitsyn said:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.
Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?
One might wonder, is religious toleration being sometimes used as a mask for a failure of courage?
The Enlightenment depended for its existence on the earlier revolution of mind and society known as the Renaissance … which in turn got its start from Byzantium. Two things, at the very least we owe to the Byzantine. It has been argued quite persuasively recently that the culture heritage brought back from the Crusades was not new practices and culture and the classical Greek philosophy from rubbing up with Arabian Islam, but insetead with the living Greek heritage of Byzantium. The (fourth?) crusade’s sack of Byzantium and their rule there for a century or so, brought sculpture, books, and scholars in quantity back to an Italy which was on a resurgance. Where did the Renaissance begin? Italy? Not perhaps so coincendental. Additionally, and somewhat earlier the Byzantine contribution to stemming the Islamic tide should not be ignored. While the West remembers Charles Martel and the victory of the the Hammer at Tours, the earlier two major battles with the Byzantine empire just a few decades before mark three significant conflicts in which, for the first time, the Islamic tide was stemmed.
The idea of relgious tolerance is a foundation stone of modern Babylon, de Jouvenel’s term for the modern multi-cutural society in which we dwell in Western Europe. Mr Kuznicki holds it as axiomatic that our religious toleration is a cornerstone of our civilization and that it can resist a unrepentant non-religiously tolerant one. Islam is quickly (in a historical perspective) becoming the dominant religion and population in Western Europe. There is little, if any, evidence (see Dhimmi Watch/Jihad Watch for example) that the supposed Reformation/Enlightenment will or is likely to occur to Islam as it happened to Christianity. It seems that much of our current intelligentsia think this is a thing which has already occurred. This willing belief of a thing patently not true, quite likely is being belived because the alternative requires essentially a rejection of religious toleration. A thing which may be yet required of us … at least for a time.
Until Islam does reform (if it can), the question remains whether the unfocused notion of “toleration” will suffice to resist an essentially unified unyeilding foe. As it is likely that democracy couldn’t stand against a totalitarian regime without relying on a second totalitarian regime to assist it … and it appears that there is at hand no relgiously intolerant dog to fight in the ring against Islam for (or alongside) our dog.
Mr Kuznicki and many others hold as aximatic that religious intolerance leads to religious wars and other such violence. However, it might be noted that a recent (modern) study counters this notion. In The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, Mr Collier contends (and has data to back it up) that religious and class divisions within society is not a statistically relevant factor when considering the likelihood of a country engaging in civil war. In my recent reading of Byzantine history, religious conflicts over heresy and religious differences certainly did occur. However, there was never a case that I saw in which that was the only factor. Somehow those religious differences also came along with other significant differences, class, region, and so on seemed to always come along for a ride. Religion in Byzantine as well as in the West may well have been a rallying cry and a means of inflaming to help pen the slogans to fuel the frenzy. But it is less clear if it was a root cause, or in Mr. Collier’s term “a statistical significant indicator” of whether war or other conflict did indeed arise.
Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, cries “You shall not pass!” to the Balrog in the halls of the mines of Moria. In the coming decades, if/when Western Europe becomes a bastion of a non-secular, non-Christian, non-tolerant people … America likely will have to utter those words of Gandalf to Islam just as Charles Martel and those Byzantines did almost (and over) 1000 years ago. Can we say this with the necessary emphasis and conviction while remaning both democratic and religiously tolerant. I have my doubts.
It should be noted: that this is speculative. I’m thinking out loud here. I’m not making a stand against religious toleration or democracy. On the former, I’m glad I live in a culture which practices especially as I’m newly a member of a non-mainstream religion, inasmuch as I’m no longer either Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. On the latter, as the demographic changes in Europe will likely take a generation or so … and by that time America will quite likely be not very recognizable as a democracy given the rate at which power and authority is being centralized.