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Back at the Dorm …


I have no defense against the charge of sophomorism. But one possible additional reason why JPod hasn’t heard these discussions since college — beyond the fact that they are irresolvable (as we are demonstrating) and have already been hashed over — is the unwritten rule that the religious, including politicians, may publicly invoke God as justification or explanation , while those of us who demur are supposed to keep quiet. There may be a perfectly sensible reason for this rule, but I don’t quite understand why it is structured as it is.

We can all agree that Western culture is superior to any other that we know of. But might it be possible that society gives rise to the religion as much as religion gives rise to the society — taking into account, of course, the difficulty of separating the ingredients of what Jonah calls the “civilizational soufflé?” As Jonah’s reader points out, our concepts of limited representational government stem far more from the Greco-Roman tradition than they do from the Old Testament. It is impossible to know what how Christianity would have evolved had it stayed in the Middle East, but my guess is a purely Middle Eastern Christianity would look a lot more like the tribal societies we still see there today than it would the individualistic world of Europe and America.

Jonah claims that the damage from pulling the “religious bricks” out of our culture is “pretty obvious.” I presume that he is referring to our hedonistic society, where the desires of the individual trump all other concerns. I agree that we are pushing the concept of individual autonomy to ever more extreme lengths, for better or worse (a dynamist like Virginia Postrel would argue that on balance more individual choice is always preferable to less, and I am increasingly inclined to agree, despite the negative repercussions for the family). But it seems to me that there is perhaps a tension in arguing simultaneously that Western individualism is a legacy of Judeo-Christianity while blaming our turn away from that religious tradition for our excess of individualism.

It may be the case that what prevents most people from running red lights at 5 A.M. or stealing from their neighbor is the fear of hell. That is an empirical question. But I bet that another reason why most people in Western cultures obey the law is that they fear anarchy and realize that if they start taking the law into their own hands, everyone else might as well. We all operate with an innate broken windows theory. Most of the cultures where anarchy reigns are even more religious than ours. What they lack is not the fear of God but the many traditions of civil society, including a respect for rule of the law, a stigma against corruption, and a conception of society beyond tribe and family.

I agree with Jonah that the truth claims of religion are “slippery.” Yet I hear them made all the time. A recent article on The Da Vinci Code in The American Spectator stated that it was a matter of “historical fact” that Jesus was born of a virgin and ascended to heaven after the crucifixion. I simply don’t know what to make of that statement or its appearance in a powerful, justly respected journal of conservative opinion. It does not conform to what I thought was a common understanding of “historical facts.” Ditto when the president claims that freedom is God’s gift to humanity. He is not talking here about free will. I see little evidence in the Bible that God advocated the democratic government that we are bringing to (or imposing on) Iraq, not to mention the gender quotas that we fixed for the Iraqi National Assembly. The Bible seems to be relatively easy about slavery, patriarchy, and despotic tribal leadership; its concerns lie elsewhere. And if the freedom that we have created in the West is indeed God’s gift, it sure took a long time for us to open it. If it turns out that our conception of political freedom is in fact a human creation growing out of very specific cultural soil, that may explain why it is not blossoming forth as we expected it to following the invasion of Iraq.