I fear we are losing the capacity for proportionate response to misbehaviour, to temper justice with mercy, to forgive the penitent and to remember that we are all sinners living to some degree in moral glass houses. We are slipping into the practice of consigning moral, ethical and even legal questions to a sort of Manichaean lottery, where those who are not legally convicted of egregious offences, but are tripped up, caught out in naughty or tawdry behaviour – however sincerely the misconduct is regretted for moral as well as tactical reasons – don’t make the cut, are ruthlessly reclassified as bad and cast out like Old Testament lepers.
In treating those who seriously misbehave but are not criminals in this arbitrary and severe way, the majority is dispensing with the system of moral gradations that is inherent to all serious religious and moral and penal theory. We are all good and bad to varying extents at different times. If we draw a line before which all is permitted and after which everything leads to chastisement and damnation, we unjustly divide people into the good and the bad.
This is not only unjust to the losers; it is also an unearned psychic enrichment to the winners. Instead of striving to behave ourselves generally as well as we can, people are effectively encouraged to game the system: to get away with what they can and to join in the group self-delusion that in throwing the book at those who cross the double line, we are dispensing condign punishment to them and affirming the virtue of the unpunished.
I had sensed for a long time, but learned when I was in prison in the United States, that many who are convicted are not guilty, many who are guilty just made a mistake, from weakness before temptation, not inherent wickedness, and had paid heavily for it; and that many who had consciously decided to base their livelihood on illegal conduct had been over-sentenced vastly beyond what was necessary to punish them and show them the error of their ways.
This conducts me to the broader question of the systematic dehumanisation of our civilisation. This is a largely unsuspected and unnoticed, and generally unsought, result of excessive secularisation. Because the Enlightenment gradually became essentially atheistic and anti-theistic, reason was gradually construed as being incompatible with religion. The great majority of people, whether they practise or even acknowledge a religion (though most people throughout the West do), believe in some sort of supernatural intelligence. Most people recognise that there are some spiritual forces in our lives, there was some sort of creation at the start of things, and the human mind can’t grasp the infinite – what there was before there was anything, or what there is beyond the outer limits of everything. So people have always, until relatively recently, in a general collective sense, recognised their limitations.
But now academia, the media and the governing elites are almost entirely atheistic. Under the spurious cover of separation of church and state, as if there were the slightest possibility of commingling them or that anyone would stand for it here, there is a war of extermination being waged by government, academia and the media against the philosophical origins of our civilisation.
Our state religion is effectively atheism, and the same atheistic mind that believes in the perfectibility of man starts by separating people into the good and the bad. The Middle Ages were generally an age of faith, which ended with a combination of the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and, broadly, the Enlightenment. For a time ecclesiastical and secular authority collaborated, as between Henry VIII and his great chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, and Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, founder of the modern French state and of that continuing monument of the Enlightenment, the French Academy. While the Enlightenment did not begin as being atheistic, the concept of reason was quickly subsumed into scepticism, and the Enlightenment has generally evolved over five centuries towards the complete dismissal of religion as contrary to reason.
The schism is that the great majority of people in the West believe that there is some sort of supernatural spiritual force or intelligence, whether they translate this into religious practice or not, but the academic communities, the media and the higher levels of government are all almost in the hands of atheists and, in many cases, aggressive atheists. In the salons of the publicly influential, any reference to religion, other than as an antiquarian superstition, causes anyone who raises the subject to be stared at as if he or she had two heads.
Intellectually, the problem is that religion is essentially reasonable and atheism is unreasonable, and the consequences of the militancy of contemporary atheism are not only unreasonable but offensive to reason. Atheism incites the inflammation of the human ego. Man becomes perfectible and takes the place of God; knowledge is deemed to be finite and every day we are progressing towards a plenitude of knowledge. And all shortcomings in this dangerously egocentric system are made up by naïvety or cynicism, Kerensky or Stalin.
I am not touting religious practice (though I am a practitioner, having long ago lost faith in the non-existence of God, but respect all even semi-rational religious views, including atheism). It need hardly be said that horrible acts have been committed in the name of religion. That is the problem when mere people interpose themselves between the terrestrial life we all know and the spiritual life, which is elusive, personal, largely inexpressible and the subject of much doubt, some of it informed and intellectually respectable doubt.
Yet, in Marxist parlance, the commanding heights of society have been seized and occupied by militant atheists, with the complicity of the usual sodden camp-following of those who have no convictions and are easily moved by a tide of fashionable unquestioned wisdom, no matter how mindless and unrigorous.
The inheritors of the crusade for reason have largely become crusaders for intolerance and for the repudiation of the Judaeo-Christian roots of our civilisation. This force which inspired Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and illuminated the works of Shakespeare and even Descartes, much of it subsidised by the Christian Church, is now effectively led by those who despise Christianity as superstitious and shaming bunk.
Any attempts to insert tenets of our Judaeo-Christian tradition anywhere in public comment or policy are unctuously rejected as violations of the immaculate separation of church and state, which is in fact the liberty the state accords itself to suppress and ridicule the practice of rendering anything to God, or subtracting anything from entire deference to our pallid inheritors of Caesar.
Many religious leaders have facilitated this process by the obtuseness and prurient pettifogging with which they have often attempted to circumscribe the lives of those disposed to take their opinions seriously. The present pope, Francis, has earned the gratitude of his co-religionists by applying the question “Who am I to judge?” to a sexual matter, which has made it much more difficult for the enemies of the Catholic Church to dismiss it as a cabal of septuagenarian celibates and closeted gays that harangues the people of the world about their sex lives. It perhaps makes the Pope’s dalliance with the Latin American Left, including the decayed Leninist despotism of the Castros, more excusable.
Hedonism and pagan spectacles, enjoyable as they often are, predominate. We are creating a society in which gestures to morality and the rule of law increasingly have become arbitrary and unjust separations between those mouse-trapped by events and condemned as guilty and even sociopathic, and those who successfully navigate between the shoals of official misconduct, however immoral or amoral or just circumstantially fortunate they may be.
And yet, the great majority of people, even if furtively and intermittently, lift up their eyes to something more inspiriting than our secular rulers and those who entertain us (rarely the same people). In the absence of such an alternative, man rushes to fill the vacuum of the fallible, and relativism fills the moral vacuum. Most people will embrace some variant of a golden rule. But there creeps in, at first tentatively, but soon assertively, the relativistic argument. Yes, it is good to treat others as one would wish to be treated. But the alternative, of doing anything to advance one’s interest and being unscrupulous, becomes arguable and legitimate, especially for an unusually able person in pursuit of ostensibly desirable goals.
Of course our legislators and judges, like most people, are relatively decent most of the time. In the same measure that we are all sinners, we all also have the potential to do good, and would generally rather do good than not. Of course our society would be resistant to the temptations of extreme evil and wickedness. It is hard to imagine in most Western societies that such an appeal would be accepted, as it once was in the culture of Goethe and Beethoven and in the culture of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. But we plod on, over-punishing those who fail insignificantly and excessively rewarding those who game the system by pandering to mass tastes and sensibilities. It is the triumph of the shabbiest placemen, the decayed servitors, the obsequious careerists.
This is what the Enlightenment has become. In its mutated condition it afflicts and threatens our civilisation. Much of the present leftist deference to Muslims is implicitly a ridiculing and defaming of all religions, in the guise of exaggerated tolerance. At some point, there will be a confrontation between on the one hand, falsely righteous and devious atheism, and on the other, when it has acceptable evocators and leaders, the majority who are suspicious of the facile trucklers and propagators of a conventional wisdom that is increasingly simplistic, trendy and, in the sense of having no ethical basis, empty. The believers will have to assert themselves calmly and democratically over the non-believers.
This is the schism our civilisation faces. It will be resolved when the silent and over-indulgent majority speaks and the lumpen followership changes sides to join it. The elitist sniggering of the self-hating philistines who infest our media and education systems must be moderated by the voice of collective belief and evolved, tolerant civilisation. We are traduced and betrayed by a largely unwitting fifth column in our midst.
This an edited version of articles first published by the National Post (nationalpost.com)
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