British and European atheism: The coldness unto death
(Further down in this thread, a reader from the Netherlands writes
an especially strong e-mail backing up my thoughts about the soul-dead atheism of the European elites.)
Melanie Phillips writes words that touch the pain in the human soul:
It was said by Holocaust survivors that what provoked in them the most intense despair, to the point where some attempted suicide, was not the infernal depredations to which they had been subject by their Nazi exterminators but the subsequent indifference and rank disbelief of a world which refused to face up to the enormity of what had happened and, in varying ways, sought to deny it. The survivors bore witness to a terrible truth, but no-one believed them. They spoke, but no-one heard.
She continues to a consideration of how “Britain’s lazy, ignorant, prejudiced intelligentsia yawns and flicks some more poison [against Israel] across the pages of the newspapers.” Do you think it’s a coincidence that Britain is one of the Western countries in which atheism is most advanced? I don’t.
* * *
Readers have written to me wondering about and objecting to my above criticism of atheism. It’s a fair question, as I do not normally criticize non-believers or atheists as such. There are many non-believers who love the West, and they are our friends and allies. The comment came from a spontaneous leap of insight rather than a fully worked-out thought. So let me now try to explain what I meant.
There is weak or indifferent religious belief, then there is agnosticism, then there is an atheism which still loves things, and then there is an atheism so cold it chills the soul. Melanie Phillips’s description of Britain’s intellectually lazy intelligentsia, so satisfied with themselves and so indifferent to factual and moral truth that they can with complete complacency automatically side with Muslim savages against the civilized Jewish state they are seeking to destroy, triggered in me the thought of something I have sensed more and more for the last ten years about many British: a conscious atheism and a cold hostility to God and religion. But this hostility doesn’t stop at God and Christianity; as its sway grows over the soul, it extends to one’s own culture and country, and thence even to existence itself. This is a subjective intuition and I cannot prove it through argument. But I think it is a major factor in why the British have become so indifferent to their own country and their own existence as a people, and why they are so willing to surrender their society to the Muslims. It is also a key to why they have become particularly hostile to Israel and the Jews, who have always been and still are the number one hated object for Muslims; who still carry, though they are largely a secular leftist people themselves, the original charge, distorted and attenuated though it may be, of God’s first revelation of himself to mankind; and who are also—another major mark against them—the allies of the Americans, who are associated with the kind of popular, unsophisticated religiosity that the British elites despise with whatever emotion is still left in their hearts.
If you want to see the deeply atheistic, anti-existence mentality I’m talking about, watch the BBC news programs that are shown on American cable television. Listen to the presenters’ voices and watch their facial expressions and body language. Watch them especially when they are talking about Israel. That is what I’m talking about.
Kierkegaard spoke of a sickness unto death. What I sense in today’s British elites is a coldness unto death.
- end of initial entry—
Here are e-mails from readers.
Jeff in England writes:
I’m in a rush again so this may be jumbled. The notion that Britain is an atheistic country is something I am very skeptical of. Non-churchgoing, yes. However, compared to mainland Europe, Britain has the biggest New Age Movement around. In both a local cafe messageboard and bookshop window near here all you can see are New Age adverts and messages.
Not a single one of my “alternative culture” friends would call him/herself an atheist. I don’t know an atheist…. In addition there are huge amounts of evangelical Christians. And let us not forget Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc. And there are still some traditionally religious people too. Tony Blair is serious Catholic. Maybe all the atheists are sent to work at the BBC!
Melanie specifically talks about the intelligentsia and I can name many intellectuals who are religious from all shades of the traditional political spectrum. While I would agree that many left wing socialists replaced God with socialism, that 20th century movement is fading. The siding of much of the so called intelligentsia (I am talking the liberal/ left wing kind) with Muslims and Muslim causes has little to do with their supposed lack of religious belief: why wouldn’t they side with Christian or Jewish or Hindu fundamentalists as much as Muslim ones to fill up the void. No, that is simplistic thinking. It’s much more to do with the perception of Muslims as victim. As for the mainstream (which has distinctive internal differences) giving up their country to Muslims and multi-culturalism, I don’t feel atheism or agnosticism is a dominant factor in that scenario, especially as that atheism or agnosticism is much less prevalent than you think. Many Christian groups are the biggest supporters of Muslims and multi-culturalism. Ditto for Jewish groups. While many BNP type people who oppose Muslims and multi-culturalism are generally LESS religious than most of society. I’m glad you’ve got into body language, but to presume that is an indication of the religiousity of the BBC presenters is absurd. As for coldness, people often mistake the stiff upper lip detached manner (which is disappearing rapidly) of traditional middle class Brits for an uncaring unloving unspiritual attitude. As I found out myself, the Brits are a very warm people (if you doubt me go live in France!) with a deep spiritual bent, even now. Their love of dogs and cats and other animals is part of that spiritual bent (I know the immediate response by some will be that Hitler was a dog lover well everyone has one good point). Sorry if I haven’t answered every point but off to spiritual multi-cultural London I go. I think that you’ve been watching cable TV too much! Sorry for the slightly chaotic feel of this e-mail but I’ve rushed it.
An Indian living in the West writes:
The left needs new “causes.” In our post-colonial world, direct implication of a Western power for “colonisation” of the Other is not possible except in two cases—the U.S. in Iraq and Israel in its relation to the Palestinians and other Arabs.
The left will always pontificate on high brow morality from its ivory tower when the opportunity presents itself. And for them, this is a perfect opportunity to establish their humanitarian credentials and their deep concern for the Other. This is what motivates them rather than hatred of Israel (as Melanie implies) or of Jews. I am not sure if the British left is unique in this respect. The European left is viscerally anti-Israel too.
But this goes beyond moral vanity. In the liberal universe, conflict is completely avoidable. So, at the moment if there is conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah, that is only because the Israelis are unwilling to negotiate (there is a strange contradiction here in that their conflict-free fantasy land cannot contemplate a situation in which the Other may be completely unwilling to negotiate). Therefore, conflict is currently occurring because the Israelis won’t talk and won’t make concessions. If they were willing to make concessions, we could have peace—perpetual peace.
The same mindset makes them incapable of seeing that Islam is incompatible with the West and that conflict will inevitably occur. In their conflict-free fantasy land, conflict only occurs because the West is “racist” or “discriminatory” or some such.
Mark N. writes:
You have nothing to apologize for when addressing the connection between atheism and the decline of Great Britain. You call your perceptions intuitive, and say your intuitions cannot be rationally proven. I beg to disagree.
I’ve been following your writing for about two years now, and to my knowledge you have never mentioned the name of the great English Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson. Perhaps you never read his work. His ideas very much parallel your own, but are presented in a more rational and systematic way. That’s no insult to you, but rather an acknowledgment of Dawson as a trained historian and scholar. Unlike the materialist historians of our era, he viewed religion, and not economics or class warfare, as the lynch pin holding all civilizations together. He saw civilization as a complex expression of a core religious idea. He also drove home the point that when any civilization loses contact with its religious roots, it loses its life force and dies. As you repeatedly point out, the West is presently in such a state, having largely jettisoned Christianity. The fact that the West presently exhibits unprecedented material prosperity, military might, and technological prowess, only serves to camouflage what is hiding underneath. Spain and Britain are prime examples of once great countries that have lost their faith and civilizational confidence. How else could they apologize to the Muslims trying to blow them up, while making snide remarks about the Jews and Israel.
In our present crisis with the Muslim world, Dawson’s historical paradigm is the only rational one. It’s strange, but our so called elites never factor in religion as the primary source of terrorist violence. Their thinking is too narcissistic and self-centered. Religion is laughable to these people, so they smugly assume that it can’t really be important to other people. If the Muslims are overrepresented in the ranks of world terrorism, it must be because they are envious of our wealth or are lacking in self-esteem ( both of which may be true.) However, the possibility that their insane violence and hatred actually stems from their core religious beliefs never really enters their minds.
Christopher Dawson would say we are not fighting Islamo-fascism, but rather Islam period. In addition he would not view Islam as simply as another monotheistic faith, but rather a competing religious civilization committed to the destruction of what’s left of the Christian West.
I have read Dawson’s The Making of Europe. I’m not aware of any specific ideas of his playing a role in my analysis, or my intuitions. But generally I have been influenced by and share the Dawson/Belloc view of Christianity, or rather of Roman Catholicism, as the original matrix of European culture and civilization.
Kevin O. writes from London:
Your latest posting about the black-hearted British elite encapsulates exactly what I perceive to be the essence of liberalism. Elsewhere in your postings, you describe liberalism as a rational, if suicidal, ideology predicated on a loathing of inequality.
Insofar as anyone believes that, I think it is only the useful idiots of liberalism who do. The liberal elites, I contend—and this is my own subjective intuition—are fully aware that this ideology is merely another manifestation of a continuing historical attempt to rebel against God and His creation.
The language of equality is merely a collection of rhetorical slogans that these rebels discovered, through a process of trial and error, had an uncanny ability to disarm the resolve of those who would instinctively oppose them. I have noticed in American politics, for example, a tendency among the Democratic Party leadership to employ even Christian rhetoric to promote a liberal agenda because, at the present time in America, that is the kind of language they perceive to be influencing many people. I do not for a moment believe that these pronouncements are sincere, and that the Democrats are not using such rhetoric to crush Christianity itself in the U.S. in exactly the same way that it has been virtually wiped out by the liberal elites here in Britain.
An example of such liberal-Christian rhetoric is Howard Dean’s exhortation that we should love our neighbours—regardless of how we find them. This easily translates to, “We liberals want to commit and/or encourage sodomy because we are rebelling against the Divine order and we do not care who gets hurt or destroyed in the process.” The appeal to Christian charity, like the appeal to equality, is specifically designed to create a frisson of doubt in an opponent’s mind sufficient to undermine any attempt to organise collective resistance to the liberal agenda.
One test of my hypothesis about equality merely being the semi-belief system of the useful idiot is to look for statements by liberals calling for them to get their own unequal house in order first. How many, if any, liberals actually condemn the obvious inequality in wealth and possessions that is actively sought, and in many cases achieved, by liberals themselves? If liberals truly believe in equality, why is it so credible to coin the term “liberal elite”?
Tom M. writes:
I concur with you that England’s atheism has become an institutionalized factor in her culture.
When I was at university, I was surprised to see that the English critics were universally hailing the writer Samuel Beckett (the ultimate nihilist) before any other country did so. England’s foremost dramatist in those years—Harold Pinter—in fact stated that Beckett was his prime influence. Beckett is the atheist par-excellence, an author who developed an ontology and epistemology of non-being based on the cosmic absence of God. The BBC loved playing Beckett’s and Pinter’s plays.
This type of literature soon led to a theology of atheism, i.e. the whole “death of God” phenomenon. While this may seem like an oxymoron, British theologians posited that humanity would only be complete when “God died to himself” and vacated the universe so that the human species could evolve without restrictions or limitations (which is why Darwinism becomes important to these theologians). The Christian church soon became in the main an “agnostic” church with respect to the Holy Scriptures.
So yes, atheism has pervaded the British culture and intelligentsia. We are now seeing the consequences of this …
From your expression, “When I was at university,” I gather that you’re originally from Britain, and I’m glad to have someone who knows the country confirm my (intuitive, rather than informed) insights about the pervasiveness of atheism in Britain.
The following exchange began before I added my explanation of my criticism of atheism.
[Melanie Phillips] continues to a consideration of how “Britain’s lazy, ignorant, prejudiced intelligentsia yawns and flicks some more poison [against Israel] across the pages of the newspapers.” Do you think it’s a coincidence that Britain is one of the Western countries in which atheism is most advanced? I don’t.
This is a cheap shot. It exemplifies perfectly the points I made previously about the gratuitously condescending arrogance of religious conservatives, who think that they can just run roughshod over secularists and push them around like dhimmis.
Furthermore, your conclusion is rather silly and illogical, as if the best thing it might take to jolt Britain’s intelligentsia out of its moribund stupor is a bit of good old time religion.
How is it a cheap shot? If that is a cheap shot, then there is no criticism of atheism which to you is not a cheap shot.
The British elites’ souls are cold and dead. Just watch the BBC.
The difference between Christianity and atheism is not a minor disagreement but a fundamental one. Naturally therefore the two sides are going to be criticizing each other strongly. For you to characterize this unavoidable conflict as a matter of “cheap shots” shows a total lack of recognition of the reality of this conflict and the stakes involved.
Tell me of a single successful civilization all of history that was atheist. If you can’t, then stop complaining about my criticisms of atheism.
“Furthermore, your conclusion is rather silly and illogical, as if the best thing it might take to jolt Britain’s intelligentsia out of its moribund stupor is a bit of good old time religion.”
Leaving aside your belittling phrase, “a bit of old-time religion,” which, by the way, is far more of a cheap shot than anything I said, the very thing the intelligentsia of England and Europe most need is God. They have turned away from God, they worship themselves and their dhimmi government and their National Health, and their souls are dead, and they believe in nothing but vacations and surrendering to Islam.
Since you dismiss the very idea that there is a higher truth than man which man needs, what do YOU think Britain’s intelligentsia needs to jolt it out of its stupor?
In answer to “tell me of a single successful civilization … that was atheist”, you apparently presume that civilizational success is attributable primarily and specifically with theology and creed. I tend to reject that supposition.
Secondly, you strain the scope of your critique on Britain with your gratuitous slap at National Health and vacations.
You’re no longer talking just about loss of spiritual orientation but the whole red-state American world view.
As for what I think it takes to jolt the intelligentsia out of its stupor, I’d say much of the otherwise shrewd and intelligent insight on critical civilizational issues that you routinely provide. Most of what you say about Islam and Third World immigration is rational, practical, real-world sense. You generally make convincing arguments without appealing to religion at all.
Your first paragraph is no answer at all. Every civilization that has existed in all of history was based on religion. The modern liberal West is the first civilization that defines itself as secular, and it is rapidly committing suicide. How can any rational observer avoid seeing the connection between those two facts?
As for the idea that most of my criticisms of the Western surrender to Islam are based on evidence and rational arguments and do not make recourse to religious explanations, that is true. But I also believe, or rather intuit (that is, it’s something I directly apprehend rather than something I can lay out evidence and arguments for), that the Europeans have rejected God and that this is the real source of their loss of morality (including their utter immorality toward Israel) and their loss of spirit and their dead materialism and their worship of the monstrous EU (a replacement God) and their surrender to Islam. Never in history has there been a more clear case of a people turning away from God and heading into extinction as a direct result of that. I truly believe that just as an individual when he has separated himself from God, and his life has gotten messed up, must repent and turn back to God, and such repentance restores both his relationship to God and his life, in the same way all of Europe needs to get down on its knees and repent and turn back to God, and that such repentance would reverse its suicidal course.
Europe (and all of us) needs something like the General Confession from the Book of Common Prayer, with its divinely transformative and healing words:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy on us, miserable offenders. Spare thou, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
Jan G. writes from the Netherlands:
Dear Mr Auster,
I can confirm that your intuition of deep and pervasive atheism in Europe is quite correct. I have seen this cancer grow during the last 25 years during which I watched and read predominantly the Dutch, British, German and Flemish media. It is in the media, the universities, the arts, even in the churches … And it proceeded along the stages you describe: from deep religious faith, to weak belief, to agnosticism, to atheism and finally to the cold hostility towards God and especially towards Christianity, which is the present default situation.
The insane hatred of many Europeans against Bush goes back to this. In his overt religiosity and belief in Christian morality they see what they betrayed themselves: the heart of the old faith. Apostates hate nothing so much as the faith they abandoned. They hate his talk about God, they hate his talk about good and evil, they hate his going to church, they hate all this far more than his policies about which many frankly don’t give a damn. Even (Dutch) Christian Democratic politicians speak with more warmth of the Muslim world than of the American administration and the Vatican, of which they speak with cold hostility. Christians and Christianity are routinely slandered in the European media, and of course nothing is more slandered and maligned than the American religious right.
This process got going full speed after the fall of the Communist Wall in 1989. Till then the Europeans felt they needed America. And of course the dangerous Communists themselves were atheists. After the fall these brakes fell away. Freedom was not first and foremost not getting invaded by the Red atheists but first and foremost getting rid of the oppressive God and the Church. The only thing good out of the U.S. was the anti-Christian poison the American Left and Hollywood produced. From then on also the hostility against Israel became stronger and stronger. Social Democrat spokesmen began to make the most outrageous comments. After 9-11 not a few said the attacks were further proof that Israel had to go, was a mistake, etc. Comments that would have been unthinkable before the fall of the Wall now became normal. To me these comments were chillingly immoral, but almost nobody felt it in public as I did: as deeply immoral. It was “just another way of seeing.”
Furthermore, the most important TV broadcasters in Britain, Holland, Germany and Belgium are state-funded. For the last 25 years they were more and more taken over by the left, as were the universities. These state broadcasters pretend to be ideologically and politically neutral but in fact are not neutral at all. I could give you the most shameful examples. This viciousness really took off during the nineties along with the anti-Americanism, attacks on Christianity, Israel etc.
Before the 1989 I was often angry at the media, but I had not this feeling of Soviet-like viciousness about them, which I have now. [LA adds: That is what I have seen, too.] When I (as many others here) came to distrust the media completely the Internet came just in time, to offer me a strongly needed alternative source.
Many people I know, and almost all Christians, feel this way. But they don’t see, as you do and I agree with, that at the heart of this confusing viciousness is the hatred against God, the hatred against everything larger than the self, etc. As I see it: the vicious have their field day and the good-hearted are confused, even by the vicious media.
It is exactly as you describe: the media elites are chillingly cold. Cold and soul-dead are fitting words to describe them. What I have seen, read and heard about the French media is the same, even worse.
Indeed, as you say, the only solution for the Europeans is to repent and turn back to God and away from their vile elites. But these media elites keep them firmly under their sway, with 24 hours a day media brainwashing. Meanwhile the Islamic disaster is growing more imminent every year. When the obvious is said, “A continent that betrays its own soul will be taken over by strangers,” the people who say this risk social suicide.
So the odds are bad. But as you say, “People in a democratic state need to feel before they will see.”
Thank you for your penetrating and consistent thinking that has helped me a lot.
Michael Jose writes:
Your posting on anti-existence atheism reminded me of an email I sent awhile back about the idea that “consciousness is an illusion.” I blogged about the idea here. This sort of materialist nihilism is apparently most associated with British writer and lecturer Dr. Susan Blackmore. Here is her website and a Wikipedia article on her.
In a recent column on global warming, she seems to have absolutely no problem with the idea that man might decide to save the planet and other species by exterminating (or at least “letting die” as much of the population as possible to reduce our ecological impact.
Perhaps if people want to know what you are talking about, you should direct them to her website?
Laura W. writes:
Regarding the discussion on atheism, I would like to comment on Jeff’s point that Britain has not rejected God because New Age spirituality is everywhere. This observation should only bolster your argument. New Age spirituality is not religion and is the exact opposite of Christian spirituality. It exalts the self and emotion. It is an anti-rational search for transcendence that ultimately leads to despair, confusion and rejection of God. It is a close cousin of the sort of corrosive atheism you describe. Christianity has a rational and historic basis. It does not ask the believer simply to feel. It asserts that God has communicated in actual language and real events to human beings. It claims to offer rational truths. As Francis Schaeffer would say, not “exhaustive” truths, but truths nevertheless.
By the way, in reading your posts, I have found the points at which you tangle with those who say you take Christianity too seriously the most, let’s say, suspense-filled. I keep expecting you to back down. Then you’d become just another journalist. I’m allergic to journalism, so I’m happy you haven’t.
Yes, you’re expecting me to say something like what I heard Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition say on tv in the mid-’90s, that society is a “level playing field” for the competition of different beliefs. When I heard him say that, I thought, what’s the point of having a Christian advocacy organization, if what you primarily believe in is a liberal society, rather than a Christian society?
Of course, VFR is not a Christian site per se. It is a traditionalist site, seeking to articulate and defend the essential aspects of the West as a whole. As such, it recognizes the truth of Christianity and its centrality in our civilization.
VFR is not a Christian site in the sense that it has much of interest to non-Christians, does not seek to proselytize, and recognizes that the Christian and non-Christian agree on many public issues, must respect each other (except when the non-Christian is calling for annihilation of Christianity) and live amicably side-by-side. It does not advocate Christianity. But it is Christian in the way that the Pentagon is American.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 22, 2006 07:18 PM | Send