Suicide of the West: Ideas Are Not Enough

 

Jonah Goldberg summarizes the argument of his recent book this way:

It is my argument that capitalism and liberal democracy are unnatural. We stumbled into them in a process of trial and error but also blind luck, contingency, and happenstance a blink of an eye ago. The market system depends on bourgeois values, i.e. principles, ideas, habits, and sentiments that it did not create and cannot restore once lost. These values can only be transmitted two ways: showing and telling… Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude – and the effort that gratitude demands — all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. (p. 277)

Jonah wants to stay away from arguments about God — the very first sentence of the book is “There is no God in this book.” But he does spend considerable time acknowledging the extent to which Christianity is responsible for putting the circumstances in place that allowed the Miracle to occur. (“The Miracle” for Jonah is our modern systems of constitutional democracy and capitalism that have unleashed prosperity since the 18th century.) He even allows that Christianity was a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the Miracle to happen:

Despite all this, the case is often made that Christianity gets the credit for the Miracle. And, in broad strokes, I am open to the idea that without Christianity, the Miracle may never have happened. But that is not quite the same argument as Christianity caused the Miracle (and it certainly did not intend it). However, the lesser claim, that Christianity was a necessary ingredient, certainly seems likely. (p. 109)

For Jonah, it is far more important that the Miracle happened than why it happened. But this inclination to avoid drawing conclusions concerning the causal origins of the Miracle has implications for his prescription for sustaining the Miracle. For then the only thing we can do is maintain those circumstances as best we can, as we have no way of knowing what other circumstances might also support the Miracle. That is the price of an ignorance of causal origins. (There is irony here insofar as the hallmark of Western civilization, and perhaps necessary to the Miracle itself, is the Western determination to not remain satisfied with material circumstance but seek and find the causal origins of those circumstances.)

Jonah’s solution for what ails us is:

Just as any civilization that was created by ideas can be destroyed by ideas, so can the conservative movement. That is why the cure for what ails us is dogma. The only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment. (p. 344)

The problem is that, unlike our forebears, Jonah is a fideist with respect to liberal principles:

We tell ourselves that humans have natural or God-given rights. Where is the proof — the physical, tangible, visible proof? Don’t tell me a story; show me the evidence. The fact is we have rights because some believe they are in fact God-given, but far more people believe we should act as if they are God-given or in some other way “real.” (p. 83)

and

The simple fact is that the existence of natural rights, like the existence of God Himself, requires a leap of faith. (p. 142)

The Founders did not hold the existence of rights as a matter of faith. They either offered arguments for their existence (that’s the whole point of Locke’s exploration of the state of nature), or took those rights to be self-evidently true (as in the Declaration of Independence). To hold something self-evidently is not to hold it on faith; quite the opposite. It is to hold it as so obviously true that it is in no need of argumentation.

Jonah misunderstands the role of dogma. The object of dogma is not ideas but facts. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” are not proposed as useful ideas to support a liberal dispensation, but as significant facts about the world that must be respected – and from which various ideas about the proper relationship of man to his government may be drawn, among other ideas.

The point is that Jonah’s prescription does not recreate the circumstances under which the Miracle was born: Those circumstances involved holding things like natural rights as facts, not as the useful fictions Jonah proposes. Since Jonah denies knowledge of the causal origins of the Miracle, he owes us an explanation of why the circumstances he proposes will support the Miracle as well as did the original circumstances under which it occurred.

This question extends to the cultural background of the Miracle. Jonah lists many of the cultural legacies of Christianity that contributed to the Miracle:

I have tried to keep God out of this book, but, as a sociological entity, God can’t be removed from it. I start the story of the Miracle in the 1700s, because that is where prosperity started to take off like a rocket. But a rocket doesn’t materialize from thin air on a launchpad. The liftoff is actually the climax of a very long story. (p. 331)

Christianity, in other words, introduced the idea that we are born into a state of natural equality (p. 332)

Christianity performed another vital service. It created the idea of the secular. (p. 332)

But Christians do not hold natural equality and the division of the sacred from the secular on the grounds that they are really good ideas. They hold them because God Himself walked this Earth and showed that He is no respecter of persons, and this same God ordered us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. How will those ideas be sustained absent the convictions that made them historically relevant? Jonah recounts the famous account of Henry IV and his penitential trek to Canossa, but would Henry have submitted if he thought the secular/sacred division merely an historically useful fiction rather than the command of the living God? Jonah calls on us to close our eyes, grit our teeth, and simply believe really hard in liberal principles. It’s unlikely such a will to believe can successfully replace historic Christian faith (or the Deistic faith of the Founders).

There is evidence of this in Suicide of the West itself. Jonah recognizes the benefits of the traditional family:

Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude – and the effort that gratitude demands – all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. Few actually hate the traditional nuclear family or the role it plays. But many are indifferent to it. And indifference alone is enough to invite the rust of human nature back in. (p. 277)

But of what use is Jonah’s gratitude for the traditional nuclear family? His support for gay marriage — “marriage equality” — is well known. But if two mommies are as good as a mommy and a daddy, then fathers are dispensable to the family. And if they are, indifference to the traditional family structure seems entirely appropriate. Jonah’s gratitude for the traditional family offers no resistance to the most basic attacks on that family. How different it is for those who hold that the family, composed of a mother, father, and children, is an institution ordained by God, one that is prior to the state and that does not depend on the fickle will to believe of man for its existence.

Jonah ends the book with a declaration of the choice before us:

Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore. p. 351

I prefer: Principles die when no one believes anymore in the God who sustains them.

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There are 320 comments.

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  1. Western Chauvinist Member

    Amen!

    J Climacus: Jonah wants to stay away from arguments about God – the very first sentence of the book is “There is no God in this book.”

    I knew I wasn’t going to read Jonah’s book when I read that quote. It’s like saying, “there is no truth in this book.” Or, “there is no wisdom in this book.” And, I suspect it won’t appeal much to the godless who aren’t already conservative/libertarian in outlook either. What a shame.

    • #1
    • May 19, 2018, at 5:33 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. Saint Augustine Member

    Only on Discworld do gods live and die by belief.

    Good post!

    • #2
    • May 19, 2018, at 5:46 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus Post author

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    Amen!

    J Climacus: Jonah wants to stay away from arguments about God – the very first sentence of the book is “There is no God in this book.”

    I knew I wasn’t going to read Jonah’s book when I read that quote. It’s like saying, “there is no truth in this book.” Or, “there is no wisdom in this book.” And, I suspect it won’t appeal much to the godless who aren’t already conservative/libertarian in outlook either. What a shame.

    I think Jonah found himself in a pit of a pickle has he researched/wrote this book. His research revealed to him the debt to which our modern institutions owe to historical Christianity, and he’s honest enough to deal with the facts as he finds them. He actually spends a lot of words recounting this debt. At the same time, he was intent on writing a book from a secular perspective that would appeal to non-believers as well as believers.

    The challenge then, for him, was to find a secular foundation to a Miracle that, ultimately, drew on cultural capital generated by historic Christianity. I don’t think there is a solution to this problem, which is why he has to fall back on a form of secular fideism with respect to liberal principles.

    • #3
    • May 19, 2018, at 5:47 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. A-Squared Inactive

    I understand the concern, but I have two responses.

    1) A book that says “God did it” would be really short and not that useful.

    2) As Jonah details in the book, organized religion spent much of its history suppressing innovation, so organized religion cannot be the explanation for the miracle. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and the Protestant reformation was 500 year ago (and was a revolt against the Catholic Church being too open to innovation.) So, when trying to explain why the miracle started 300 years ago, “God did it” simply isn’t the answer.

    • #4
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:02 AM PDT
    • 16 likes
  5. Cato Rand Reagan

    Let me present this from a different perspective. What if there is no god? Or even, what if you’re just a person (as I am) who doesn’t believe in god? I don’t have available to me a supernatural command to respect the equality of persons or the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (and all the subsidiary rights those entail). What would you have me do? Choose to respect them anyway (perhaps for entirely instrumental reasons – in my experience they make for a better world)? Or choose not respect them?

    • #5
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:03 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  6. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus Post author

    Cato Rand (View Comment):

    Let me present this from a different perspective. What if there is no god? Or even, what if you’re just a person (as I am) who doesn’t believe in god? I don’t have available to me a supernatural command to respect the equality of persons or the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (and all the subsidiary rights those entail). What would you have me do? Choose to respect them anyway (perhaps for entirely instrumental reasons – in my experience they make for a better world)? Or choose not respect them?

    I would have you choose to respect them. But the real question Jonah doesn’t answer is how this answer will have cultural weight. It took authentic religious faith to overcome the inclinations of human nature that resulted in the Miracle in the first place. Can a mere will to believe in liberal principles substitute for that faith? Maybe it can. But that conclusion requires some argumentative support rather than being simply assumed.

    My own suspicion is that it can’t, but I am open to being persuaded otherwise. The problem is that Jonah doesn’t offer any persuasion on this point.

    • #6
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:10 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  7. Saint Augustine Member

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    I understand the concern, but I have two responses.

    1) A book that says “God did it” would be really short and not that useful.

    2) As Jonah details in the book, organized religion spent much of its history suppressing innovation, so organized religion cannot be the explanation for the miracle. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and the Protestant reformation was 500 year ago (and was a revolt against the Catholic Church being too open to innovation.) So, when trying to explain why the miracle started 300 years ago, “God did it” simply isn’t the answer.

    I don’t think Climacus said G-d did it. I think he said that people who believe in G-d did it.

    • #7
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:17 AM PDT
    • 13 likes
  8. A-Squared Inactive

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    I would have you choose to respect them. But the real question Jonah doesn’t answer is how this answer will have cultural weight. It took authentic religious faith to overcome the inclinations of human nature that resulted in the Miracle in the first place. Can a mere will to believe in liberal principles substitute for that faith? Maybe it can. But that conclusion requires some argumentative support rather than being simply assumed.

    So, why was the miracle so successful in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other non-Christian nations?

    • #8
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:17 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  9. Vectorman Thatcher

    A recent post over at the Federalist also discussed Jonah’s book. One comment from the handle “Harry Callahan” described where we are now:

    The foundational event of this Western Cultural epoch is not the Enlightenment, but rather the Protestant Reformation, which Martin Luther initiated 500 years ago in October of 1517. Of course Luther would not have had any success had it not been for the recent invention of the printing press.

    Without Luther, and the events his reforms enabled, the Enlightenment could not have occurred. Of course, Luther was informed by Greek philosophies, but was also very much a man of the middle ages.

    Our Western cultural history can be neatly sliced and diced into roughly 500 year segments….The Roman period (0-476), early middle ages 477-1053, late middle ages/Renaissance (1054-1517), and our current Reformation epoch. That the Reformation culture is collapsing is both obvious and on-schedule, but is gradual. Only our great grandchildren will understand the nature of what is coming next.

    Taking the role of Luther’s printing press is our internet of course, and I have no doubt that it will be just as disruptive.

    I don’t wish to offend anyone, but I have a working theory that the Jewish religion gave us about 80% of the answer to what is our purpose on earth, Christianity (Catholicism) added to it, and without the Protestant reformation we would not have the freedoms we enjoy today.

    • #9
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:20 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  10. A-Squared Inactive

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    I understand the concern, but I have two responses.

    1) A book that says “God did it” would be really short and not that useful.

    2) As Jonah details in the book, organized religion spent much of its history suppressing innovation, so organized religion cannot be the explanation for the miracle. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and the Protestant reformation was 500 year ago (and was a revolt against the Catholic Church being too open to innovation.) So, when trying to explain why the miracle started 300 years ago, “God did it” simply isn’t the answer.

    I don’t think Climacus said G-d did it. I think he said that people who believe in G-d did it.

    There is no conflict with saying people who believe in God did it and “There is no God in this book.” 

    • #10
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:20 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  11. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus Post author

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    I understand the concern, but I have two responses.

    1) A book that says “God did it” would be really short and not that useful.

    2) As Jonah details in the book, organized religion spent much of its history suppressing innovation, so organized religion cannot be the explanation for the miracle. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and the Protestant reformation was 500 year ago (and was a revolt against the Catholic Church being too open to innovation.) So, when trying to explain why the miracle started 300 years ago, “God did it” simply isn’t the answer.

    To keep my post short, I didn’t go into the fact that Jonah buys into an outdated understanding of pre-modern Europe as a time of stifling oppression and stagnation. This is a calumny propagated by Enlightenment apologists starting in the 18th century.

    That view has changed in recent decades and historians now recognize that the Middle Ages was in fact an age of extraordinary innovation – including everything from agricultural innovations like the horse harness, three field crop rotation, wheeled plow, and horseshoes to technical achievements including eyeglasses, clocks, the compass, and chimneys among others. They also included financial innovations including sophisticated banking developed by the great monasteries and religious orders.

    The population of Europe exploded during the Middle Ages because of these innovations (and unfortunately was later devastated by the Black Plague).

    And my point wasn’t that “God did it.” My point was that “People who believed in God did it.” Jonah needs to show how people who don’t believe in God can do it, when he admits that most of the crucial social and cultural conditions necessary for the Miracle to occur had a religious origin.

    • #11
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:24 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  12. Saint Augustine Member

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    I understand the concern, but I have two responses.

    1) A book that says “God did it” would be really short and not that useful.

    2) As Jonah details in the book, organized religion spent much of its history suppressing innovation, so organized religion cannot be the explanation for the miracle. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and the Protestant reformation was 500 year ago (and was a revolt against the Catholic Church being too open to innovation.) So, when trying to explain why the miracle started 300 years ago, “God did it” simply isn’t the answer.

    I don’t think Climacus said G-d did it. I think he said that people who believe in G-d did it.

    There is no conflict with saying people who believe in God did it and “There is no God in this book.”

    Ok, so I wasn’t precise. Climacus is saying that people who believe in G-d did it because they believe in G-d.

    That doesn’t answer the question why they didn’t figure it out many centuries earlier. One possible answer is that it took a long time for them to work through their own ideas.

    Another answer is that the ideas weren’t quite right until the Reformation.

    A good case can be made in this respect for at least one classical liberal principle–separation of church and state.

    • #12
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:26 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Saint Augustine Member

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    I would have you choose to respect them. But the real question Jonah doesn’t answer is how this answer will have cultural weight. It took authentic religious faith to overcome the inclinations of human nature that resulted in the Miracle in the first place. Can a mere will to believe in liberal principles substitute for that faith? Maybe it can. But that conclusion requires some argumentative support rather than being simply assumed.

    So, why was the miracle so successful in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other non-Christian nations?

    A good question. One possible answer is that it took Christian belief to discover those great ideas. But, once discovered, others can accept them on other grounds, such as their immense practicality.

    • #13
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:29 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  14. A-Squared Inactive

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    A recent post over at the Federalist also discussed Jonah’s book. One comment from the handle “Harry Callahan” described where we are now:

    Of course Luther would not have had any success had it not been for the recent invention of the printing press.

    Taking the role of Luther’s printing press is our internet of course, and I have no doubt that it will be just as disruptive.

    I don’t wish to offend anyone, but I have a working theory that the Jewish religion gave us about 80% of the answer to what is our purpose on earth, Christianity (Catholicism) added to it, and without the Protestant reformation we would not have the freedoms we enjoy today.

    A couple of quotes from the book.

    ”Even if you grant that Protestantism “created” capitalism, you must also acknowledge that this isn’t what Protestants, starting with Luther, had in mind. Martin Luther despised usury in all its forms (no doubt in part because of his virulent anti-Semitism). No seventeenth-century Puritan preacher said, “If you get rich you’ll get into Heaven.” They said, “Behave this way, and it’s more likely that God will find you worthy.” The changes in behavior elicited by this stern and pious instruction were never intended to be a get-rich-quick scheme.”

    “For centuries, Christian—and Protestant!—rulers alike were hostile to innovation for the same reason. For instance, in 1548, Edward VI, Henry VIII’s successor, issued A proclamation against those that doeth innovate… In her paper “ ‘Meddle Not with Them That Are Given to Change’: Innovation as Evil,” Benoît Godin recounts the story of Henry Burton, a Puritan Church of England minister. Burton accused the Church of innovating doctrine against the king’s wishes in two pamphlets in 1636. He was called before the court to defend himself. The court found that Burton, not the Church, was guilty of innovation. They sentenced Burton to prison for life—after cutting off his ears. And this was Protestant England, the supposed ancestral homeland of liberty.”

    I think you are on to something with the idea of the movable type printing press. That probably had more to do with the miracle than the protestant reformation.

    • #14
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:30 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. A-Squared Inactive

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    I don’t think Climacus said G-d did it. I think he said that people who believe in G-d did it.

    There is no conflict with saying people who believe in God did it and “There is no God in this book.”

    Ok, so I wasn’t precise. Climacus is saying that people who believe in G-d did it because they believe in G-d.

    A good case can be made in this respect for at least one classical liberal principle–separation of church and state.

    There is no conflict with saying people who believe in God because they believe in God did it and “There is no God in this book.”

    I do think the separation of church and state is in integral step, but that diminishes religion’s role, not increases it.

    • #15
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:36 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. A-Squared Inactive

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

     

    A good question. One possible answer is that it took Christian belief to discover those great ideas. But, once discovered, others can accept them on other grounds, such as their immense practicality.

    Which would imply belief in God is not necessary to understand and continue the miracle. 

    • #16
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:38 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  17. Mitchell Messom Inactive

    Being obsessed with what Christianity contribution is like being obsessed with what went into the original mix of the primordial soup. It’s not that it won’t be fascinating to know or even useful, but it’s not necessary to maintaining what we have.

    As A-Squared noted the Miracle only happened in the last 300 years. I take a page from Francis Fukuyama, I also think Jonah does to in that the Christian contribution is how it formed civil society and laws. It’s not so much the belief itself but it’s how the churches got people to believe.

     

     

     

    • #17
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:41 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus Post author

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    I would have you choose to respect them. But the real question Jonah doesn’t answer is how this answer will have cultural weight. It took authentic religious faith to overcome the inclinations of human nature that resulted in the Miracle in the first place. Can a mere will to believe in liberal principles substitute for that faith? Maybe it can. But that conclusion requires some argumentative support rather than being simply assumed.

    So, why was the miracle so successful in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other non-Christian nations?

    That’s a question for those making the case that a thoroughgoing secularism can sustain the Miracle to argue. That case hasn’t been made – at least by Jonah.

    The jury is still out on the nations you list. Japan’s experiment is only 70 years old and was imposed by us. And they are trying the same foolish money-printing as a way to prosperity that is destroying us, not to mention a demographic collapse. So I’m not sure I would count them as a success story yet. Singapore is hardly a bastion of political liberty. Hong Kong is now part of a Communist nation.

    The point at issue isn’t whether secular nations can support liberal institutions like republican government and free markets for a time. It’s whether they can sustain them over the long-term. Jonah’s point is that we are slowly committing suicide because those institutions are rotting out. The trajectory of the nations you cite is not encouraging.

    • #18
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:42 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  19. Cato Rand Reagan

    J Climacus (View Comment):

    Cato Rand (View Comment):

    Let me present this from a different perspective. What if there is no god? Or even, what if you’re just a person (as I am) who doesn’t believe in god? I don’t have available to me a supernatural command to respect the equality of persons or the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (and all the subsidiary rights those entail). What would you have me do? Choose to respect them anyway (perhaps for entirely instrumental reasons – in my experience they make for a better world)? Or choose not respect them?

    I would have you choose to respect them. But the real question Jonah doesn’t answer is how this answer will have cultural weight. It took authentic religious faith to overcome the inclinations of human nature that resulted in the Miracle in the first place. Can a mere will to believe in liberal principles substitute for that faith? Maybe it can. But that conclusion requires some argumentative support rather than being simply assumed.

    My own suspicion is that it can’t, but I am open to being persuaded otherwise. The problem is that Jonah doesn’t offer any persuasion on this point.

    I will tell you that I believe in them. And I believe in them for the same reasons that I think many people have religious faith – simply because it’s part of the culture and the upbringing that I’ve been immersed in my whole life. I know some people have a more rigorous connection to their faiths than that, but I think most don’t. Most people absorb ideas about right and wrong, god and government from their parents and the cultural air they breathe, and most people never examine most of those beliefs all that closely.

    So yes, I believe cultural reinforcement of our founding national creed can have a powerful effect, even absent a Christian faith.

    • #19
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:46 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  20. Cato Rand Reagan

    J Climacus (View Comment):

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    I understand the concern, but I have two responses.

    1) A book that says “God did it” would be really short and not that useful.

    2) As Jonah details in the book, organized religion spent much of its history suppressing innovation, so organized religion cannot be the explanation for the miracle. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and the Protestant reformation was 500 year ago (and was a revolt against the Catholic Church being too open to innovation.) So, when trying to explain why the miracle started 300 years ago, “God did it” simply isn’t the answer.

    To keep my post short, I didn’t go into the fact that Jonah buys into an outdated understanding of pre-modern Europe as a time of stifling oppression and stagnation. This is a calumny propagated by Enlightenment apologists starting in the 18th century.

    That view has changed in recent decades and historians now recognize that the Middle Ages was in fact an age of extraordinary innovation – including everything from agricultural innovations like the horse harness, three field crop rotation, wheeled plow, and horseshoes to technical achievements including eyeglasses, clocks, the compass, and chimneys among others. They also included financial innovations including sophisticated banking developed by the great monasteries and religious orders.

    The population of Europe exploded during the Middle Ages because of these innovations (and unfortunately was later devastated by the Black Plague).

    And my point wasn’t that “God did it.” My point was that “People who believed in God did it.” Jonah needs to show how people who don’t believe in God can do it, when he admits that most of the crucial social and cultural conditions necessary for the Miracle to occur had a religious origin.

    I think you’re doing the correlation/causation thing. Yes, people who believe in god did it. But nearly all people believe in god, so that’s a little like saying “people did it.” If you think the belief in god, or renaissance Europe’s belief in a particular god, was the cause, or even a necessary condition, for the Miracle, I think if first falls to you to justify that belief.

    • #20
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:52 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  21. Cato Rand Reagan

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    I understand the concern, but I have two responses.

    1) A book that says “God did it” would be really short and not that useful.

    2) As Jonah details in the book, organized religion spent much of its history suppressing innovation, so organized religion cannot be the explanation for the miracle. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and the Protestant reformation was 500 year ago (and was a revolt against the Catholic Church being too open to innovation.) So, when trying to explain why the miracle started 300 years ago, “God did it” simply isn’t the answer.

    I don’t think Climacus said G-d did it. I think he said that people who believe in G-d did it.

    There is no conflict with saying people who believe in God did it and “There is no God in this book.”

    Ok, so I wasn’t precise. Climacus is saying that people who believe in G-d did it because they believe in G-d.

    That doesn’t answer the question why they didn’t figure it out many centuries earlier. One possible answer is that it took a long time for them to work through their own ideas.

    Another answer is that the ideas weren’t quite right until the Reformation.

    A good case can be made in this respect for at least one classical liberal principle–separation of church and state.

    And it wasn’t the reformation itself that gave us separation of church and state. It was the religious bloodbath that the reformation resulted in which eventually exhausted the people of Europe to the point where they were willing to finally consider religious tolerance simply as a necessity to make the violence and chaos stop. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the reformation.

    • #21
    • May 19, 2018, at 6:55 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  22. A-Squared Inactive

    FWIW, I think this quote from the book most directly addresses the question.

    “Similarly, the pluralism that made capitalism possible wasn’t a product of some high-minded ideal about how to structure society. The religious tolerance that starts to emerge in Europe after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was far less a product of theological changes than it was of political and military exhaustion. The Treaty of Westphalia ended the “wars of religion” in Europe. Those wars, running off and on for more than a century, took an enormous toll on Protestants and Catholics alike. In their wake, as historian C. V. Wedgwood put it, the West began to understand “the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword.” In other words, Protestants and Catholics alike settled on a modicum of tolerance as “the last policy that remained when it had proved impossible to go on fighting any longer,” in the words of Herbert Butterfield. The social space created was an advance in liberty, but that was nobody’s first choice. Rather, it was an accidental by-product of military futility.”

    It wasn’t the protestant reformation that created the conditions for the miracle (see my quote above about protestant countries being wholly opposed to innovation) it was that people got tired of killing each other over religion. The Founding Fathers of this country realized that we couldn’t have an established religion because there were too many religions extant, and to pick one as an established religion would have caused a huge fight.

    In other words, religious plurality (plurality being a major theme of Jonah’s book) had more to do with making the ground fertile for the miracle than God or any one religion. The miracle didn’t happen because some people believed in God, it happened because it became acceptable (through exhaustion) to interact with people that didn’t believe in God the same way you did, and that both allowed and stimulated innovation.

    • #22
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:02 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  23. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus Post author

    Cato Rand (View Comment):

    J Climacus (View Comment):

    Cato Rand (View Comment):

    I will tell you that I believe in them. And I believe in them for the same reasons that I think many people have religious faith – simply because it’s part of the culture and the upbringing that I’ve been immersed in my whole life. I know some people have a more rigorous connection to their faiths than that, but I think most don’t. Most people absorb ideas about right and wrong, god and government from their parents and the cultural air they breathe, and most people never examine most of those beliefs all that closely.

    That is all true – most people believe what they do because of a sort of “cultural momentum.” But the direction of that momentum isn’t determined by the masses – it’s determined by a much smaller set of people explicitly and self-consciously trying to change the direction of culture. Over time, those culture makers change the “cultural air” and the masses over time (and sometimes not a long time) believe things they would have rejected out of hand a few years ago. Thirty years ago the idea that a gay marriage is the equivalent of a straight marriage would have struck most everyone as absurd. Today to even entertain the idea that they are not strikes the majority of people as hopelessly bigoted. The same thing is happening with ideas concerning free speech, the free market, and other liberal principles.

    It seems clear that relying on cultural momentum to sustain liberal institutions won’t work. Jonah certainly thinks so. That is why he wrote his book. We are slowly committing suicide. I agree with the diagnosis, I’m just not convinced of his prescription. Can conservatives really change the direction of our culture merely by insisting that we really, really try hard to believe liberal principles?

    • #23
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:07 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  24. A-Squared Inactive

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    Can conservatives really change the direction of our culture merely by insisting that we believe really, really hard in liberal principles?

    Do you think conservatives can change the direction of our culture by forcing people to believe in God?

     

    • #24
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:10 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  25. I Walton Member

    “It is my argument that capitalism and liberal democracy are unnatural. We stumbled into them in a process of trial and error but also blind luck, contingency, and happenstance a blink of an eye ago. The market system depends on bourgeois values, i.e. principles, ideas, habits, and sentiments that it did not create and cannot restore once lost. These values can only be transmitted two ways: showing and telling… Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude – and the effort that gratitude demands – all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. “

    He has made his argument’s using secular liberal territory because he is trying to reach secular liberals. Like Hayek he is discerning principles that guide an emergent system by looking back. That is how we learn our principles, discern reality; the right principles emerge and work and therefore endure in successful civilizations and die in unsuccessful ones. The distinction between this approach and revelation is not an important one, and if anything will lead modern secular liberals toward belief in fundamentals, it will be by understanding how laws, rules, principles, that lead to human flourishing are universal, embedded in the human condition and that they were brought to us through the Jewish bible by Christianity and will ultimately endure because of that.

    • #25
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:11 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  26. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus Post author

    Cato Rand (View Comment):

    J Climacus (View Comment):

     

    And my point wasn’t that “God did it.” My point was that “People who believed in God did it.” Jonah needs to show how people who don’t believe in God can do it, when he admits that most of the crucial social and cultural conditions necessary for the Miracle to occur had a religious origin.

    I think you’re doing the correlation/causation thing. Yes, people who believe in god did it. But nearly all people believe in god, so that’s a little like saying “people did it.” If you think the belief in god, or renaissance Europe’s belief in a particular god, was the cause, or even a necessary condition, for the Miracle, I think if first falls to you to justify that belief.

    Jonah has already done a lot of this work for us. People who believed in God did it because their belief in God lead them to believe in things that were necessary to the foundation of modern liberal institutions. Jonah lists the separation of the sacred and the secular, and the equality of all people as among these beliefs.

    There are others as well. I would point out the dignity of labor as one that is particularly important. Virtually all cultures have viewed labor (especially manual labor) as in its nature degrading. The West was unique in holding that even the most menial of work had its own dignity; in fact, such work could be a spiritual path to salvation. They believed this because God Himself worked on this Earth as a manual laborer.

    Absent belief in the God who labors, what is to prevent culture from returning to its natural state in which labor is considered degrading? Jonah’s point is that nature comes rushing in when it is not actively kept at bay. What will sustain the dignity of labor absent the historical belief that gave it dignity in the first place? Is it enough to simply believe in the idea of the dignity of labor as a good abstract idea absent any broader philosophical or religious context?

    • #26
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:25 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  27. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus Post author

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    Can conservatives really change the direction of our culture merely by insisting that we believe really, really hard in liberal principles?

    Do you think conservatives can change the direction of our culture by forcing people to believe in God?

    No. But the first step is to recognize the true cause of the problem and what is necessary for cultural rejuvenation. I don’t think Jonah’s prescription will work – simply trying real hard to believe in liberal principles absent the cultural conditions that made them powerful in the first place. The second step is a re-evangelization of the culture.

    Anticipating your next comment, I would agree a re-evangelization doesn’t look too likely to succeed. But it doesn’t change the fact (as far as I’m concerned) that it is the only thing that can stop the rot.

     

    • #27
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:32 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  28. Jim Beck Member

    Morning Climacus,

    Our conservative writers and thinkers often say that politics is down stream of culture and yet they seem to have little interest in culture. In the past anthropologists have studied and inventoried the components of cultures, in current times evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, cognitive anthropologists, and sociolinguists study the transmission of knowledge, language, and the culturally acquired ideas, values and skills. This study of culture attempts to understand which behaviors will be successfully adopted by the next generation and which cultures are more successful than others, that is which cultures have more children who live to adulthood. Culture can change rapidly, American Indians went from forages and farmers to horse riding hunters in less than 12 generations. The work of all these cultural scientists to understand the nature of culture is not hard to find, yet our conservative pundits are oblivious to it, and as a result their observations become merely academic works on political philosophy.

    It is important to note the miracle, but unless we work harder to understand what are the essential ideas, values, traditions, we will have little chance to sustain this miracle and our culture will fracture and fade. The elements of the Western tradition leading to a type of personal and civic responsibility, and our Western beliefs about the material world and personal property are singular; it would be good to try to understand why the blend of personal liberty and property ownership only arose in a culture where Athens and Jerusalem were is pillars upon which the West was built.

    • #28
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:33 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  29. Unsk Member

    Saint Augustine :.”Ok, so I wasn’t precise. Climacus is saying that people who believe in G-d did it because they believe in G-d.

    That doesn’t answer the question why they didn’t figure it out many centuries earlier. One possible answer is that it took a long time for them to work through their own ideas.

    Another answer is that the ideas weren’t quite right until the Reformation.

    A good case can be made in this respect for at least one classical liberal principle–separation of church and state.”

    Christ was a political revolutionary. The idea that “all men are equal in the eyes of the lord” was unbelievably threatening and quite a shock to the ruling order of his time and ever since has been a thorn in the side of all dictators and Autocrats. Christ’s gospels laid the foundation for what we now think of as classical liberalism and indeed were the generating force behind the development of western civilization. 

    But classical liberalism did not spring to life overnight. It was a process. A very long process. Saint Aug is right – it took a long time for them (Christians and in part Jews) to work through their own ideas. There were many contributors long before the reformation and one of the real biggies was Charlemagne whose Holy Roman Empire laid the foundation for much of our ideas of democracy. 

    One little quibble with the Saint though, the separation of Church and State did not have an affect. What did was “freedom of religion” brought forth almost by accident by the religious Quaker William Penn who conned Charles I to give him Pennsylvania as a way of ridding the crown of all those religious kooks and troublemakers in jolly Ol’ England. The Kingdom of England at that time was a theocratic state; all were to obey the religious commands of the King. We were kinda taught that it was entirely a Catholic/Protestant conflict, but it really wasn’t. One of the reasons for the Scotch Irish flight to America was that in 1713 after being lured to godforsaken norther Ireland, the Presbyterians and other Protestants , like the Catholics before them, were forbidden by the Crown to engage in their own religious services. 

    The entrepreneurial spirit was definitely arousing during the 1600’s and 1700’s in places like England, Scotland and Holland. However, it was Freedom that lit the torch, sparked by the ideas of the America Revolution that really got free enterprise generating a quantum leap in productivity and general well being. If you read Charles Dickens, it is surprising how quickly the ideas of the American Constitution boomeranged back to England, and were embraced almost immediately by people like Edmund Burke. 

    • #29
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:49 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  30. A-Squared Inactive

    J Climacus (View Comment):

    A-Squared (View Comment):

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    Can conservatives really change the direction of our culture merely by insisting that we believe really, really hard in liberal principles?

    Do you think conservatives can change the direction of our culture by forcing people to believe in God?

    No. But the first step is to recognize the true cause of the problem and what is necessary for cultural rejuvenation. I don’t think Jonah’s prescription will work – simply trying real hard to believe in liberal principles absent the cultural conditions that made them powerful in the first place. The second step is a re-evangelization of the culture.

    Anticipating your next comment, I would agree a re-evangelization doesn’t look too likely to succeed. But it doesn’t change the fact (as far as I’m concerned) that it is the only thing that can stop the rot.

     

    As an agnostic who believes in the miracle, I’m not convinced. 

    I don’t think supporting gratitude for the miracle requires faith in any given religion, but I accept I will not convince you of that if you can accept that you will not convince me it does.

    • #30
    • May 19, 2018, at 7:50 AM PDT
    • Like
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