The response of the Western European governments, and of a substantial portion of what is called the European elite—roughly speaking, the upper-middle classes—to the invasion of the Continent from the east and south must be among the most unusual and perverse spectacles in human history. For nearly a year now, the world has looked on with astounding lack of surprise and seeming uninterest as the leaders of one of history’s great civilizations have abdicated their constitutional responsibilities by refusing to defend their territories, their citizens, and their cultures against raw foreign aggression and have even, in the case of Germany, invited the aggressors in to do their worst. What is happening in Europe today seems unbelievable. By early spring 2016, plain signs of popular resistance to the various national governments, the federal government in Brussels, and the “migrants” themselves were appearing across Europe—Eastern Europe, especially—incited by the often disruptive, demanding, and arrogant arrivals; by the Muslim suicide bombings in Paris and Brussels; and by the fear of future bombings elsewhere on the Continent, and in the British Isles. This reaction, though expectable, natural, and necessary, will be of little interest to historians, simply because it is readily explainable, whereas the continental elites’ refusal to recognize the existential peril is difficult to account for, save in terms of a form of psychosis afflicting the ruling class.
The Western world has been lacerating and mutilating itself from the time of Napoleon, and since 1945 it has been committing slow suicide. While acts of self-destruction of the first sort are the chronological story of every civilization from the beginning of recorded time, the second, so far as I know, is unprecedented in history. Why is it happening now? And why is the would-be suicide the most successful and powerful civilization the world has ever known? The explanation is certain to be related in some degree to the common motives for suicide among individual people: unbearable pain, the desire to punish others, self-loathing, despair. Yet while personal self-hatred and suicide are common enough, self-loathing on a civilizational scale has hitherto been unheard of, and mass suicide almost so—and then in terms of groups of hundreds only, such as the Peoples Temple in Guyana in 1978, rather than of scores of millions of successful and affluent people in scores of nations. Granted, we are speaking of cultural, not physical, suicide here, but the first is certain to result eventually in the second, facilitated by the enemies of the West who arrive in time to assist. Anyhow, the question remains: Why is what is happening in the West today happening?
The catastrophe has to do with the fact that Western society is the sole civilization to have renounced voluntarily its formative religious beliefs and abandoned its sustaining religious traditions—unlike, say, the Chinese in the 20th century, when the country’s ruling class first did away with Confucianism and less than a half-century later replaced it with Maoism; or the Russians after 1917, when the revolutionary government outlawed the Russian Orthodox Church (and every other branch of Christianity) and replaced her with a murderous Marxist-Leninism. In the nations of the West, by contrast, secularization, prolonged over centuries, was not imposed and enforced by government fiat but promoted by the majority of the citizens themselves. Totalitarian governments imposed official public atheism on their countries, yet aggressively enforced secularism could not extirpate private worship, as believing Christians (and Muslims, and others) took their faith underground. In the postmodern West, where post-Christian secularism is a popular phenomenon, no place remains for the Christian remnant save the churches themselves, and they are increasingly beleaguered by secular government, supported in their punitive and exclusionary actions by secular activists. In the West, then, it is a case of religious all, or religious nothing: Churchgoing by committed Christians is still permitted, but beyond the churches there is no force to encourage in committed secularists the dimmest or most visceral flicker of Christianity, and everything to discourage and smother it. In the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, there was always a broad Christian resistance stirring in the catacombs beneath the political and social surface of society. In the West today, no such thing exists. Religious faith stands in full public view but in shrinking numbers of the faithful, oppressed already at the present time and very likely to be persecuted actively in the future.
But the situation is more complicated than militant secularists and the churches militant think, and for reasons a good Darwinist should find easy to comprehend, since the laws of mental and social evolution are at work here. As Chesterton said, no return to paganism is possible for the post-Christian world: Having learned so much from its experience of two millennia of Christianity, it cannot re-approach the pagan cosmology in the state of innocence and ignorance in which it came to it the first time. A corollary of Chesterton’s argument is that Western atheists, agnostics, and religiously indifferent people generally have been shaped a great deal more by Christian belief, intellectual traditions, and social mores than they know, and certainly more than they would care to admit. It is, as I say, a matter of moral, intellectual, and social evolution that they can no more resist than fishes that have grown legs over countless generations can rid themselves of them in the coming ones. Christianity quite simply became a part of their evolutionary nature over hundreds or thousands of years, without their agreeing to the fact, or even recognizing it. Their self-understanding, like their knowledge of their own species, has been formed in a complex Christian context, and their deliberate rejection of it has made them confused, unsure, and intellectually and philosophically untethered, unable to recognize themselves, other people, and society for what they really are.
The post-Christian West owes Christianity its concepts of personhood, the value of the individual, stewardship, charity, self-sacrifice, and self-transcendence, and the symbols that represent them in largely secularized feast days and other observances, and in poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, where they retain their subliminal power despite the waning awareness of their origins and the realities they point to. Darwinian scientism explains, if only analogically, how these symbols have become an integral part of the Western makeup; modern psychology, their latent, involuntary, and often unconscious accessibility. Post-Christians may refuse all they like to believe and worship as Christians, but they cannot stop thinking and feeling in the cultural terms in which their ancestors thought and felt—nor can they avoid feelings of emptiness, incompleteness, and even a vague sense of guilt when they resist such thoughts and feelings.
Having repudiated their identity as Christians, post-Christians in the West have been casting about for the past two centuries for some satisfying and supposedly valid form of self-identity other than the Christian one, the most obvious and easily accessible of them “liberal,” given liberalism’s own identity as a secularized form of Christianity. Postliberalism offers alternate identities including sexual, economic, educational, and careerist ones, but these are too narrow and recognizably self-centered to be ultimately satisfying. Writing in First Things recently Pierre Manent, the French political philosopher, argued that liberals’ present attitude toward Islam and Muslims has nothing to do with Islam and Mohammedans as they actually are, but is rather all about the liberal attitude toward them. Liberals have no real interest in “the Other,” either as a religious culture or as a threat to the survival of the West, only in maintaining the ideological purity of the liberal ideals in conflict with that threat. The contrast between Europe’s response to Muslim aggression in Germany and the Greek islands in the 21st century and the resistance it offered the sultan’s navy at Lepanto in the 16th century, when the Europeans recognized the Moors’ aggression as the religiously motivated geopolitical challenge it really was, and not as an opportunity to indulge in disembodied idealism, demonstrates the clear difference between phony religion—modern ideology—and the real thing.
Men find self-recognition and self-meaning through self-identity, and here only the most fundamental and significant identity will do for them: as Homo sapiens first of all, and after that as Homo sapiens venerens within the context of a particular and developed religion. Deprived of religion, men resort to subordinate forms of identity, ranging from the secondary (nationality) through the trivial (political affiliation) to the absurd (sexual “orientation,” or “preference”). To be a religious person is to follow the teachings of a certain religion, to honor its spiritual ideals, and to try one’s best to live up to them. Secular liberals honor what they call “ethical” ideals, and many do attempt to realize them in their lives. Their problem is that they are unable to codify these ideals in a morally and intellectually comprehensive system as complete and humanly satisfying as the Christian religion, being divinely inspired and not an invention of men, is satisfying. Liberals want a religion without religion, what Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes calls the “Church of Christ Without Christ.” And they want a People of God without either a god or a people, and a people with neither a nation nor a broader civilization behind it, since liberals see religious, cultural, and national particularities as exclusive—and therefore illiberal.
The secular liberal West today is undergoing the lingering experience of its lost Christian self—a phantom thing, like an amputee’s leg, but in this instance a self-mutilated amputee. It senses that some critical part is missing but, being self-blinded also, it cannot tell which part, while casting about for some artificial part that might somehow substitute for the lost one. It vaguely senses the phantom body hovering round, like the soul the ancient Jews believed remained in the presence of the corpse four days after death, but its willed inability to apprehend spiritual reality leaves it profoundly unhappy, despairing, and filled with futile anger and self-loathing. The fatal logic of the illogic of liberalism has led it to this point.
“After such knowledge, what . . . ?” asked Mr. Eliot. Where does the post-Christian West go from here? After Christianity—the ne plus ultra of all religions, as Chesterton said—what religion? After Christian civilization, what civilization? Finally, separated from the religious concept of the soul, what self? Self-evidently despair, and the despairing self: the same black, self-hating, self-destructive, and blasphemous despair that drove Judas to go hang himself—the despair that comes only from guilt, recognized or simply sensed, that for a century now has been tempting what once was Christendom to mass spiritual suicide. Better, perhaps, for the soul of the West, had communism won the Cold War and imposed by force, for a chastising salubrious period, the official atheism the West has recently determined to impose on itself, before dying at last by its own hand.