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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.

Pera does not believe that inter-religious dialogue is possible between Islam and Christianity (or Judaism): There is too little common ground, and these religions are separated by intellectual chasms. But he sees plenty of room, and need, for inter-cultural dialogue about the new democratic movements in the Middle East, the long suffering of Muslim populations under both state and religious secret police, and the repression of many normal liberties. On these matters, a new common ground may be emerging. Here Pera treats also “The Descending Trajectory of Public Liberal Ethics”—that is, the descent from Kant’s two ethical principles, the categorical imperative (which Kant admitted was also Christian) and respect for the human person (an end, and never a means). Compare these sturdy principles with the two dominant moral schools that come after Kant.

First, unlike Kant, John Stuart Mill wanted urgently to separate his morality from Christianity. Therefore, the descent from Kant’s two principles to Mill’s: There is no universal moral law of reason or of religion, and the value-choices of individuals trump everything.

This descent continues in our own time, down to the principle that the public realm must be wholly secular. Religion must survive only in its multiplicity of private worlds. Further, when conflicts arise in the public realm, appeal must be made to the vote of citizens; that is, to the state. The final arbiter of the good, then, is the democratic state. In brief, the secular state trumps the consciences of autonomous persons; what began as liberal principles thus end up radically illiberal.

These four ages of moral and political descent are schematized by Pera in this way:

It is prohibited to violate the moral commandments.

It is prohibited to violate the personal autonomy of the individual.

It is prohibited to set moral limits.

Then, finally, the state decides.Throughout, Pera offers many passages of brilliant brevity and clarity. I liked best his close analysis of key moments in Locke, Kant, Humboldt, and other shapers of what “liberal” means today in the world of political philosophy. Another jewel is his contrast of the liberal state (circa 1930), which made demands on economic activities, to the paternalistic state that has recently begun to expropriate morality.

To say that the paternalistic state is unlimited in its sweep is too weak. It is, in a crucial sense, total in its sweep or (as Christopher Dawson foresaw long ago) silkily “totalitarian.” This is perhaps the new “soft tyranny” that Tocqueville feared, but moral tyranny it is. Human rights conceived of as moral and cultural are infinitely expansible, and a state resolved to protect these rights is essentially limitless in its powers.

One fault bothered me throughout. All of Pera’s essential claims about the intellectual work of “Christianity” giving birth to the basic premises of secular liberalism are applicable, in the first place, to Judaism. It is from Judaism, indeed, that Christianity was formed in the axiom, right at the top of the Torah, that each woman and man is “made in the image of God.” Further, Christianity was formed in Judaism’s substantive definition of the good: that the good consists in actions to please God, who commands most of all that we prove that we love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is, of course, a European convention to think of Europe as, at first, a “Christian Europe” but without stressing sufficiently that, on most matters of polity, Judaism is the teacher of Christianity. Natan Sharansky has pointed out that Christianity notably adds “the anti-totalitarian principle” to the Jewish patrimony: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what belongs to God.” In other words, not everything belongs to Caesar; in fact, by far the smaller part. Most other principles that Pera calls “Christian” are Jewish in origin. In any case, according to Pera, a liberal polity has better defended itself under the protection of a Jewish and Christian ethic, whatever its historical deficiencies, than under the present incoherence and intellectual defenselessness of liberal secularism.

It may seem odd that this book, written by an atheist and secular liberal, should be commended in its preface for its importance by a pope of Rome, Benedict XVI, no mean professor himself. Recall, though, that this same Joseph Ratzinger, as cardinal, once challenged Jürgen Habermas to a public debate, sponsored by the Académie Française. To everyone’s surprise, Habermas publicly admitted liberalism’s intellectual debts to Christianity, and for his part, Ratzinger emphasized the dangers that religion poses when it is not protected by reason. This is the same point Ratzinger as pope later made in his controversial Regensburg Lecture—met in Muslim countries by violence—in which he invited Muslim cultures to see that true religion turns toward reason and away from violence.

Obviously, Senator/Professor Pera means this book to open an energetic, perhaps emotional, but fair-minded conversation. He knows that “civilization is constituted by reasoned conversation.” Civilized persons persuade one another through mutual respect in conversation. Barbarians club one another.

Michael Novak is the author, most recently, of a book of verse, All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire, and, with William E. Simon Jr., of Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation.

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