The Decline of the Best

This morning I saw on the news that a British politician bemoaned multiculturalism and its poisonous fruits as a result of Britain (and, by extension, America) having abandoned God. Usually this kind of statement exasperates me, but the more I listened, the more I saw his point. And, though I am not a theist, I suspect he is right in his diagnosis, though not in his implied prescription. You’re not going to like this.

I believe the politician was talking about what the great sociologist-theologian Peter L. Berger called “the Sacred Canopy.” Traditional societies were insular. The Sacred Canopy is the system, the hierarchy of values and beliefs of such a society. Each more, each law, each custom, each belief, each assumption is another brick in the vault ceiling. They all support one another; the practices are legitimatized by the values, which in turn are legitimatized by the beliefs. The ultimate punch line is that the gods gave the laws to Moses, Hammurabi, Muhammad, etc. Of course the laws were the invention of entirely human elders and ancestors, not of gods. Like the framers of our Constitution, the elders knew the laws were their own ad hoc invention. But they passed them on to the next generation who did not create them but merely received them. Invention magically becomes tradition. The human elders who bestow the laws upon the next generation are the real-life analogues to the mythic deities who are imagined to have issued the laws and to guarantee not only their validity but also the punishment of those who transgress (at least that’s the threat). It’s called priestcraft when you are the ones who set the system up in the name of the gods. But when that second generation inherits their elders’ position and authority, they do so with sincere belief in the gods and in their own god-given mandate.

When the pre-Socratic Sophists, having traveled outside of Athens, returned, they told people what they had learned, namely, that the way they do things in Athens isn’t necessarily the way they do things over in Sparta, much less in Egypt or Babylon. And what makes us think the Athenian way is “the” right one? Don’t they think the same in those other places? The erosion began.

Did you ever see the TV miniseries/DVD Pillars of the Earth? In it, much effort goes into the building of a medieval cathedral. Finally ready, the structure opens its doors to the public. Worshippers pour in, gazing up to the hemispherical ceiling. And then the bricks start descending, and everyone who is not beaned by the liberated stones makes a beeline for the exits. It was to prevent such collapses that architects used to insert the keystone at the very top of the dome. Pull that out, and gravity seizes the day. Look out below!

God is the keystone. Pull it out and everything else will collapse. That was the British politician’s point, I think. But is that collapse inevitable? Well, at least not immediately. We might adopt the stance of the Sophists. Perceived as subversives, they did not actually attack Athenian tradition, lock, stock, and barrel. They were pragmatic: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just because “our” system is not uniquely valid, no better than others, that doesn’t make it invalid. Sure, there is room for improvement, but why be so disillusioned with the old claims of divine sanctions that you throw out the baby with the bathwater? This chastened stance allows you to accept the ways of others if they don’t impinge upon yours.

But suppose societies begin to interpenetrate, e.g., via trade and immigration? Pluralism eventually morphs into fragmentation. It represents the taking into the very heart of one’s society the tolerance of the Other, so that everyone is the Other. No more social identity, no more coherent worldview. No transcendent sanction or reason for our ways. No more “our” ways. In our case, look at the polarization on matters like abortion, healthcare, euthanasia. There seems no longer to be a common ground from which to settle these issues.

We were able to delay the shattering of the American Sacred Canopy by the clever expedient of creating a second, secular religion, the so-called Civil Religion that united us as Americans with a common heritage and value system. This was the model of the Social Compact or Social Contract. Again, purely pragmatic: maximize freedom for all, limiting freedom only when it would impinge upon another’s. No revelation claimed or needed. But now that, too, has broken down. Our society harbors fundamentally different values and interests, our populations making their American identity secondary to their ethnic identities, no longer willing to assimilate into the Melting Pot. Someone said the Melting Pot has become the Salad Bowl, but I think it has become the Compost Heap.

Why are Jihadists such a threat to the rest of us? Because they still have a Sacred Canopy, Sharia Law based (they think) upon divine revelation. We have none. We cannot agree even to defend our way of life and culture, since powerful interests within our country reject key aspects of it. Socialism, environmentalism, isolationism, multiculturalism, Political Correctness all make fundamental agreement on urgent matters nearly impossible.

Of course our enemy need not be Islamic (or Christian) theocracy. One can propound a totalitarian agenda without God. Political Correctness, with its speech codes, its constant ad hominem attacks on dissenters, its ludicrous charges of racism, the corruption of the press as the government’s propaganda bureau, the government’s mandated menus, the militant atheist jihad against public expressions of religion—or even of patriotism: all this is the intolerant Sharia of the Left.

Leftists protest that they are not anti-American, but anyone who advocates being a “citizen of the world,” “thinking globally and acting locally,” is admitting that he is opposed to putting his own country’s interests first. It is all right with him if other countries to put their people’s interests first. The same principle underlies the double standard of “diversity.” It is the blindness of the freshman anthropology student who, impressed with the variety of world cultures, concludes that all are valid—except ours. Multiculturalism is “World Citizenship” writ small: the replacement for patriotism. Everybody but us.

Of all the labels I might choose, I prefer “freethinker” to “atheist” or “humanist.” And I recognize that the very trends dissolving the American community are the result of individualism and free thinking. People are unwilling to be told they owe allegiance to anything anymore. The greatest axiom is “Question authority.” This is why church attendance is rapidly shrinking. Not that I mind. In fact, I have always urged people to think for themselves, to question authority, to be individuals. I love seeing a herd of cats, as they say. I take people as individuals, and so I can sympathize with liberals who want to show compassion for illegal immigrants, even imprisoned terrorists. They are people, individuals, no matter what category we place them in, and people per se deserve respect and compassion. But I am aware that this concentration on the trees obscures the forest. There is a Bigger Picture that we ignore at our peril.

I am afraid that the truth may not work. I think there is no God. It may well be that, for the sake of maintaining the Sacred Canopy, we do need a God, but that doesn’t mean there is one. But even if, for the sake of social, moral, and political consistency, you wanted all Americans to return to God, it’s way too late for that.

Secularists and Progressives do not see things this way. I have loved and lived by radical individualism ever since I watched Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner back in 1968. Let a hundred flowers bloom. In fact, let six billion flowers bloom. But what if we face an existential threat? Is it really an invasion of privacy to require AIDS or Ebola testing? To profile Arab airline passengers?

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Some needs kick in only once the basic needs for health and safety are squared away. Joining an orchestra to play the violin is not the best idea if we need people to join an army to defend a society that appreciates orchestras. Otherwise, one is fiddling while Rome burns.

I think there is a natural cycle: the more enlightened and sensitive a people becomes, the greater its danger, the sooner it will fall before the assaults of barbarians. Sophistication breeds self-absorbed decadence. When a society becomes little more than a debating society, it becomes paralyzed. That’s us. When we are too good (or too preoccupied) to fight our enemies, we invite evil to prevail. And it is our very virtues that will have made us impotent.

When a civilization allows itself to become too civilized, taking advantage of its leisure to amuse itself with hyperbolic morality and theoretical, ivory tower ideological fantasies far removed from reality, it is living in a bubble that is asking to be popped. And soon the Klingons will arrive to pop it. It is an eternal pendulum swing, for the triumphant barbarians will eventually kick back and enjoy the opium dreams of over-sophistication—until some younger, more virulent group of savages shows up to dump them out of their padded wheelchairs.

So says Zarathustra.

 

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13 Responses to The Decline of the Best

  1. djkrause says:

    Robert: After a lifetime of moving left theologically with a sense of mission to spread that word, I now increasingly think you have it quite right here: there is no stopping the fragmentation of the west. Perhaps, a few centuries from now, after nuclear disasters and a Muslim dark age, perhaps, somewhere, another enlightenment may occur. And so it goes.

  2. Bob Brockett says:

    Reading this, yet another excellent provocative piece from the redoubtable Mr. Price, I was reminded throughout of Karl Popper’s groundbreaking “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945). Without going into all that, I’d just direct those interested who have not read it to do so. You won’t regret it. Having said that, I think seeing the forest beyond the trees is just not enough now. It’s not as simple as any of that and that’s nowhere near a long enough view. And we sure don’t want to trade any of the real social advances we’ve made after the awful cost of centuries and rivers of blood for any reversions to barbarisms just because someone is philosophizing that it takes a barbarian to whip a barbarian. I sure as hell will never be caught campaigning for the invention of new gods just because it’s thought by some that we may function better as a society with one (or many) than without. We invented them; we can uninvent them. And we can find ways to be better without them. That seems a far better alternative to all that darkness, fire, and blood we left back there.
    I would argue that we are still a very religious society here in America and becoming increasingly so as the threat of fundamentalist Islam is seen to spread. I would also argue that none of that really gets to the root of any of our problems, social, political, religious, or otherwise. The real systemic problem we have is overpopulation. Too many suckling and not enough teats. There can be no sane argument for overpopulation and the only folks I ever find who think we are not currently in a state of overpopulation are the religious, all of whom want to propagate more of themselves according to whatever crusty scripture they worship. Even as I write this we are running out of potable water all over the place. It starts there. We already see refugees driven from one place to another in search, mainly, of water. All that is ever reported is political strife and war seen as the prime driving forces. These are complete failures of observation. Too often, we see what we want to see, are told only what someone else thinks we can bear to hear and no more. Global climate has been affected, sea levels are rising, new deserts are forming, and sweet water will soon be the most premium commodity on the planet. Forget oil. All hell will break loose. It’s a sure bet.
    We may choose to reduce and control (through gradual, humane methods) human populations ourselves through some collective action(s) or we can wait and let Mother Nature reel us in or maybe out. Trust me, our old Mother is up to the task. She’s an old hand at this sort of thing.
    This arguing for a return to some semi-barbaric state to prepare us for a full-barbaric onslaught strikes me as strange and half-blind to what is really going on. Follow the money, as they say. Step back. Way back. There. That pale blue dot? Now you’re seeing. The Cosmic Perspective is the only true perspective and the only one that has any chance of saving us from ourselves. However, it may also be true that we are all more or less permanent biological barbarians, killer apes who just know how to dress well. Evolution is a very slow process and we really are the new kid on the block. In that case, forget everything I’ve just said and go read Robert Ardrey’s “The Territorial Imperative”. Hell, read it anyway.

  3. randy says:

    “…militant atheist jihad…”

    No such thing. Ridiculous rhetoric.

  4. randy says:

    “… intolerant Sharia of the Left.”

    More inflammatory, absurd and false rhetoric.

  5. randy says:

    “…but anyone who advocates being a “citizen of the world,” “thinking globally and acting locally,” is admitting that he is opposed to putting his own country’s interests first.”

    Not so. One can be a citizen of the world and a supporter of one’s national interests. But those interests should be rational and take into consideration the fact that we all inhabit the same world. Earth does not belong solely to America nor any other nation. Nationalism for the sake of nationalism is not a good thing. We’ve seen where such thinking has led. Nationalism, unchecked by reason, can, and often does, lead to fascism, nazism and other brands of totalitarianism.

  6. randy says:

    “It may well be that, for the sake of maintaining the Sacred Canopy, we do need a God, but that doesn’t mean there is one.”

    Don’t agree. Belief in God not necessary to the functioning of a society. I know it feels to the believer, and even on occasion to some non-believers, that societies cannot survive without such belief. But it is, I am convinced, a delusional belief brought on by the frailties, weaknesses and flaws inherent in how the brain works and thus how we humans think. You seem to fall victim to these yourself on occasion, as do all of us. I think this is one of those times for you.

  7. randy says:

    “Is it really an invasion of privacy to require AIDS or Ebola testing?”

    Depends on the circumstances. Certainly the question of privacy is a legitimate one to raise whenever someone is suggesting or demanding that such tests be administered. Under some circumstances, requiring such testing most certainly is an invasion of privacy. May be an invasion of privacy under all circumstances. Perhaps the more relevant and important question is “When, if at all, is it permissible to violate that right?

  8. randy says:

    “I think there is a natural cycle: the more enlightened and sensitive a people becomes, the greater its danger, the sooner it will fall before the assaults of barbarians. Sophistication breeds self-absorbed decadence. When a society becomes little more than a debating society, it becomes paralyzed. That’s us. When we are too good (or too preoccupied) to fight our enemies, we invite evil to prevail. And it is our very virtues that will have made us impotent.”

    You are free to think this. But you thinking it does not make it true. I think you simply wrong. First of all, you wrongly characterize our society as “little more than a debating society.” I suggest you do not have a full grasp on reality here. All is not as gloom-and-doom as your remarks seem to imply you think things to be. I think our virtues are the very thing that will triumph in the end, not lead to our downfall. Of course there is a culture war in America today over exactly what are or ought be America’s virtues. I suspect that you and I don’t agree on exactly the same list.

  9. randy says:

    “When a civilization allows itself to become too civilized, taking advantage of its leisure to amuse itself with hyperbolic morality and theoretical, ivory tower ideological fantasies far removed from reality, it is living in a bubble that is asking to be popped. And soon the Klingons will arrive to pop it. It is an eternal pendulum swing, for the triumphant barbarians will eventually kick back and enjoy the opium dreams of over-sophistication—until some younger, more virulent group of savages shows up to dump them out of their padded wheelchairs.”

    I simply think your read on the situation is in error. I think that at least a part of how you view the world and what is transpiring in it is “far removed from reality.”

  10. Dr. Stormbringer says:

    I fear you’re right. You might find Morris Bergman’s recent works on America interesting:

    Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline
    The Twilight of American Culture
    Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire

  11. Tony says:

    Being one of those “progressives” that Robert so uncomplimentary refers to, I find his essay interesting as it provides insights into the conservative mindset.

    First on the labels. I see no evidence for a God and I am therefore an “atheist”. Not a “freethinker” or “secular humanist”, or any other vague term that some atheists may like to call themselves. I always wonder whether this is done to avoid the scorn by those who have been taught to associate atheism with immorality and possibly Satan himself. Religion has done a great job vilifying and misrepresenting the term “atheist” and this is one of the reasons why, in American polls, atheism is likely greatly under-represented.

    I had not come across a link between multiculturalism and (the lack of) God. But that is not surprising. The conservative mind longs for the “sacred canopy”. It is based on a belief that once upon a time there was there was unity, order, common values and beliefs and a strong sense of patriotism and belonging. God, Country and Family are the ideological slogans from the conservative corner.

    This conservative notion of a better past is a fallacy. It is a dream – a belief, that constantly conflicts with reality. The conservative response to this mismatch is to identify and attack the culprits who, they think, are attacking and destroying their fallacious dream. Robert list some out of the conservative playbook with colorful effect: “political correctness”, the “militant atheist jihad” and the “intolerant sharia of the left”.

    The association of atheists and “the left” with radical Islam is a good indication of the deep seated anger residing within conservatism. The radical, or new, atheists are, of course, no different than the old atheists. The difference is that the new atheists have the audacity to speak up.

    The American “left” is another fabricated phantom created as a reaction against those who do not to jump in line with conservative ideology. American conservatives would not know a socialist if it fell on them. Conservatives can sleep soundly; the Peoples Republic of America is not imminent. Ultraconservatives have complete control of government and they are using voting district gerrymandering and voter suppression as effective tools to hold on to the reigns. The far right Tea Party did not hesitate to shut down the American Government and threatened to default the Nation in order to stop a weak attempt at implementing universal health care.

    Compare that to the feeble efforts of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. That rag tag bunch was easily swept of the street and has not been heard of since. The dangerous intolerant left exists only in the conservative mind.

    The complaints about the abuses of political correctness smell of rank hypocrisy. Conservatives love to use politically incorrect observations on ideological opponents. However, there is a lot of howling when the tables are turned, and conservatively held ideological values and beliefs are under attack. Conservatives speak scornfully about the evils of political correctness, but they have created a whole TV news network whose sole purpose is to protect conservatism by means of repetitive misrepresentations and constant accusations of political correctness.

    The failed philosophy of multiculturalism is a political invention by politicians of all stripes. The driving forces leading up to this grotesque concept are globalization and the insatiable need for cheap labor. The origins of multiculturalism cannot be laid with any specific political group, but conservative governments are known to be strong supporters of multiculturalism since conservatives want the immigrant vote – with whom often share conservative social values.

  12. Ragnarok says:

    Zarathustra,
    Good points made, however I think there may be something you’re overlooking. I’d like to call your attention to Dr. Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle’s work “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag,” in which they present that the god of society is society itself, and this god’s totem is the nation’s flag. The totem god is supreme because it has killing power, something that no other religious system can claim, thus reducing all churches/denominations to simple “affiliative groups.” The picture headlining this blog post captures this well. We see various people proclaiming allegiance to their “god,” which are actually only affiliative groups. But what they’re standing in obedience to (presumably) is the American flag, which is the god of gods. The civil religion that we all share is the keystone that keeps the dome together, traditional Christianity being but another brick in the wall (if you will), alongside other faith/belief traditions.

    As the totemic god reigns supreme, and has always – at least in our lifetimes – then you can’t necessarily make a call to return to god when in actuality, no one ever left. We’ve simply departed from an affiliative group, but we remain in allegiance to the grand totem. While those under the tent can empathize and admire foreign cultures and systems, and even import others from these other worlds, they are accepted only so far as they humble themselves and defer to the same totem.

    I fear I’m doing a bad job explaining this, and really do recommend Drs. Marvin & Ingles’ book for a better perspective on this line of thought. Hopefully this makes at least a little sense, if nothing else…

  13. Everhandy says:

    I thought our Sacred Canopy was liberty.

    Me thinks the fact that Americans came together after the nine eleven attacks would punch a huge whole in your assessment.

    Again, more right wing (Fox News) thinking. “One nation under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance during the cold war’s godless commies scare. Before than, it was “One nation, indivisible” (watch Once Upon a Honeymoon with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers). Do we need God as a canopy? I don’t think so and I don’t think it every really was. You’re arguing for sectarian pragmatism, a theocracy or what?

    When “E Pluribus Unum” was supplanted by “In God We Trust”, who made that call? I submit to you that point in time is when the canopy was weakened, not when liberalism became more popular.

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