Fighting Words

God’s Still Dead

Mark Lilla doesn’t give us enough credit for shaking off the divine.

Those of us in the fast-growing atheist community who have long suspected that there is a change in the zeitgeist concerning “faith” can take some encouragement from the decision of the New York Times Magazine to feature professor Mark Lilla on the cover of the Aug. 19 edition. But we also, on reading the extremely lucid extract from his new book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, are expected to take some harsh punishment. Briefly stated, the Lilla thesis is as follows:

  • The notion of a “separation” of church and state comes from a unique historical contingency of desperate and destructive warfare between discrepant Christian sects, which led Thomas Hobbes to propose a historical compromise in the pages of his 17th-century masterpiece, Leviathan. There is no general reason why Hobbes’ proposal will work at all times or in all places.
  • Human beings are pattern-seeking animals who will prefer even a bad theory or a conspiracy theory to no theory at all, and they are thus (in an excellent term derived by Lilla from Jean-Jacques Rousseau) by nature “theotropic,” or inclined toward religion.
  • That instinct being stronger than any discrete historical moment, it is idle to imagine that mere scientific or material progress will abolish the worshipping impulse.
  • Liberalism is especially implicated in this problem, because the desire for a better world very often takes a religious form, and thus it is wishful to identify “belief” with the old forces of reaction, because it will also underpin utopian or messianic or other social-engineering fantasies.

Taken separately, all these points are valid in and of themselves. Examined more closely, they do not cohere as well as all that. In the first place, it is not correct to say that modernism relied on a conviction about the steady disappearance of religious belief. Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, to take two very salient examples, looked upon religion as virtually ineradicable—the former precisely because he did identify it with secular yearnings that would be hard to satisfy, and the latter because he thought it originated in our oldest mistake, which was (and is) wishful thinking.

In the second place, it is interesting to find Lilla conceding—though not in so many words—that religion is closely related to the totalitarian. As he phrases it when writing about Orthodox Jewish and Islamic law (and as was no less the case for Christianity in its pre-Hobbesian heyday), divine or revealed teaching is “meant to cover the whole of life, not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere, and its legal system has few theological resources for establishing the independence of politics from detailed divine commands.” How true. Now, there is one thing one can say with relative certainty about the totalitarian principle, which is that it has been repeatedly tried and has repeatedly failed. Try and run a society out of the teachings of one holy book, and you will end with every kind of ignominy and collapse. There is no reason at all to confine this grim lesson to the Christians who were butchering each other between the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War; even the Jews who established the state of Israel and the Muslims who set up Pakistan understood the importance of some considerable secular latitude (as did the Hindus who were the majority in independent India). In other words, while it may be innate in people to be “theotropic,” it is also quite easy for them to understand that religion is a very potent and dangerous toxin. Never mind for now what Islamist fundamentalism might want to do to us; take a look at what it did to the Muslims of Afghanistan.

So, when Lilla says that the American experiment (in confessional pluralism and constitutional secularism) is “utterly exceptional,” he forgets that there had to be many dress rehearsals for this and that only a uniquely favorable opportunity was the really “exceptional” condition. Men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine had been eagerly studying the secular and agnostic and atheist thinkers of the past and present, from Democritus to Hume, and hoping only for a chance to put their principles into action. There are many minds in today’s Muslim world who have, by equally scrupulous and hazardous inquiry, come to the same conclusion. It is repression as much as circumambient culture that prevents the expression of the idea (as it did for many, many, Christian and Western centuries).

Lilla’s most brilliant point concerns the awful pitfalls of what he does not call “liberation theology.” Leaving this stupid and oxymoronic term to one side, and calling it by its true name of “liberal theology” instead, he reminds us that the eager reformist Jews and Protestants of 19th-century Germany mutated into the cheerleaders of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Reich, which they identified—as had Max Weber—with history incarnate. Lilla might have added, for an ecumenical touch, that Kaiser Wilhelm, in launching the calamitous World War I, was also the ally and patron of the great jihad proclaimed by his Ottoman Turkish subordinates. So, could we hear a little less from the apologists of religion about how “secular” regimes can be just as bad as theocratic ones? Of course they can—if they indulge in acts of faith and see themselves as possessing supernatural authority.

Lilla goes on to cite the many liberal religious figures who became apologists for Nazism and Stalinism, and I think he is again correct to stress the Jewish and Protestant element here, if only because most of the odium has rightly fallen until now on the repulsive role played by the Vatican. So, what is he really saying? That religion is no more than a projection of man’s wish to be a slave and a fool and of his related fear of too much knowledge or too much freedom. Well, we didn’t even need Hobbes (who wanted to replace a divine with a man-made dictator) to tell us that. To regret that we cannot be done with superstition is no more than to regret that we have a common ancestry with apes and plants and fish. But millimetrical progress has been made even so, and it is measurable precisely to the degree that we cease to believe ourselves the objects of a divine (and here’s the totalitarian element again) “plan.” Shaking off the fantastic illusion that we are the objective of the Big Bang or the process of evolution is something that any educated human can now do. This was not quite the case in previous centuries or even decades, and I do not think that Lilla has credited us with such slight advances as we have been able to make.