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A Western Blueprint

An atheist defends the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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A movement is growing among atheists to demand honesty about their own intellectual convictions. Sooner or later, one by one, some face the fact that the deepest secular ideals are rooted in the soil of Jewish and Christian conceptions, nowhere else. Honesty commands some of them to state openly that key principles of liberalism—for instance, the reasons behind fraternity and equality—are not to be found in ancient philosophers, nor even in modern liberal philosophers. They were, in fact, introduced into the world by Judaism and Christianity, where they could be taken as givens by their secular successors. Some years ago, in a book review, Richard Rorty was one of the first to make this point; more recently, Jürgen Habermas has done so.

Photo of Professor Pera

Even the centermost principle of liberalism, the liberty that belongs to every woman and man, was deeply implanted in the world by a prior Jewish and Christian conception: namely, that all humans, without exception, are born in the image of God—that is, free and self-determining. Founding liberals such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Wilhelm von Humboldt simply took these principles for granted: Liberté, egalité, fraternité! Some are today admitting to this intellectual debt, in part to renew such fundamental principles.

Now Marcello Pera, another self-described atheist and former president of the Italian senate, has taken this argument three notches deeper. A number of Americans I know tell me that Pera is one of the most civilized, urbane, and intellectually sophisticated humans they have met. He is both exquisitely clear about his own exact standpoint, and exactingly fair regarding the propositions of others that he finds inadequate.

One of the most honored citizens of Lucca, old-time rival to Florence, Pera is a man with a long sense of history: He is a philosopher of science by training and in his scholarly writing; but deploying his extensive experience at the pinnacle of politics as the head of the senate (the oldest senate in the world), he is recently retired as professor of philosophy of science at the University of Pisa.

Pera is dismayed by the intellectual incapacity of Europe to defend its basic convictions against Islamic radicalism and other aggressive rivals. This debility he attributes to the multiculturalism, postmodernism, and downright relativism into which secularism’s own faulty logic has led it. The driving force behind Pera’s current invitation to argument is that the house of Europe is on fire, and all speed is needed in putting out that fire. So are intellectual coherence, the will to self-assertion, and the confidence that comes from thinking things through all the way down. Widening the coalition of those who love liberty and will die for it is also necessary.

Like Caesar’s Gaul, this volume is divided into three parts. The first examines liberalism, “the secular equation,” and the unresolved “question of Christianity.” It is in this section that some of Pera’s most probing and deepest questions (which we will come to later) are succinctly raised. Part Two, “Europe, Christianity, and the Question of Identity,” opens with the most lively question in Europe today: What is Europe? What is its soul? To his initial surprise, Pera uncovers the intellectual poverty of secularism even in giving an account of itself to itself. Pera has no intention of becoming Christian in belief and practice, but he cannot evade the inadequacy of secular theories to explain Europe coherently. Europe, he writes, dooms itself to impotence if it does not call itself Christian. Europe must at least admit that certain fundamental Jewish and Christian conceptions are the ground of its own liberty, equality, and fraternity. Part Three confronts “Relativism, Fundamentalism, and the Question of Morals” by asking in its opening lines whether, in comparing one world culture with another, we are allowed to use for one (or more) of them the term “better.” He notes harsh penalties for doing so and thinks this self-censorship mentally stultifying, obtuse, and fatal.

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