Manicheanism à la Mode

From The New Criterion

Lately, I have been between spam filters and found that deleting junk e-mail one item at a time can sometimes be instructive.”You can get the watches you’ve dreamed about,” reads the subject line of one of them, prompting the thought: Who the hell dreams about watches? I know that the amount of advertising brainpower that goes into these things is not great. The economics of spam depends entirely upon the assumption of a tiny response rate, which means that the appeals must be frequent, broadcast and blatant. But you’d think that anyone aware enough of the world around him to know what Breitling or Tag Heuer were would also be aware enough of himself to laugh at a come-on so crude. Or take the one for something called “Hydroderm” whose subject line reads: “Because you deserve to look ten years younger.” Philosophically that one is a mind-bender. How, exactly, do you get the notion of desert and looking ten years younger into the same sentence? I could understand it if the idea were to promise us something better than we deserve. Orwell said that “at 50, everyone has the face he deserves,” and I don’t suppose that sounds of promise to most people. But how can anyone deserve to look better, let alone younger, than he does?

I suppose the answer is that in the consumer paradise we find ourselves inhabiting, built on psychotherapeutic assumptions, we have grown used to thinking of desert as something that can only be positive. It’s easy to confuse with dessert. In the Washington Post last August, an account of a report by James McVay, the principal legal adviser in the Office of Special Counsel in Washington, criticizing the Smithsonian Institution and the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, contained the following line, attributed to a spokesman for the NCSE: “I must say that Mr. McVay flatters us beyond our desserts.” The spelling mistake, which is presumably owing to a transcription error by the Post’s reporter, Michael Powell, makes the irony fall a little flat, but the self-righteousness still shines through. The spokesman, Eugenie Scott, was defending her organization against charges that it had conducted a smear campaign against a Smithsonian scientist, Richard Sternberg, who had been responsible for the publication of an article making the case for “Intelligent Design” in a journal he edited called Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Though a highly regarded evolutionary biologist himself, Dr Sternberg had effectively been driven from his post by the virulence of the reaction from “the scientific community.” Dr Scott, denying any wrong-doing, was essentially saying that Dr Sternberg only got his own just desserts. “If this was a corporation, and an employee did something that really embarrassed the administration, really blew it, how long do you think that person would be employed?”

About Intelligent Design — which basically acknowledges the existence of evolutionary processes in their broad outlines while questioning the Darwinian account of them and purporting to find in them evidence of divine ordering and direction — I confess that I am rather a skeptic myself. I have been an unthinking, blind-faith Darwinist since 10th grade biology and always inclined, like many other expensively- if not necessarily well-educated people, to look down my nose at socially unevolved anti-Darwinists as at best monomaniac autodidacts and at worst what Al Gore once called “the extra-chromosome right.” More importantly, perhaps, I have found the whole subject of the evolution of life on earth stupefyingly boring. There are so many things one has to know in order to have even a minimally informed opinion on the subject, and most of them are not only things that I don’t know but things that I passionately do not want to know. The older I get the more I realize how large is the number of things I do want to know and, now, never shall. How I resent the thought of having to spend any of the precious time left to me informing myself about fossils just so as to be able to add my own pointless speculations about human phylogeny to the already towering heap of them available for purchase at very reasonable prices (I seem to remember an e-mail about it) — and all of them bound to be obsolete in a few years anyway!

But, contrarian that I am, I don’t seem to be able to keep myself from sympathy for those who find themselves in the bull’s eye of the media culture, no matter how unsympathetic I might otherwise find them — and from growing more and more sympathetic to them the more they are hated and reviled. The Intelligent Design people are thus beginning to look to me a bit like President George W. Bush, who has been so viciously and so unfairly execrated for so long by the sort of right-thinking media-and-entertainment types who consider Maureen Dowd a wit that I now regularly have to stifle the urge to cry him up as the greatest president since Lincoln. And he, I started out thinking, was at least a decent sort of guy. Lately I have had to clasp to my bosom such relatively unlovely media-butts as Karl Rove and Tom DeLay, men of whom I might in other circumstances be inclined to be rather critical. But I tell myself that I can’t go so very wrong by continuing to love those whom the media hate and hate those whom the media love. At the time of writing, I’m waiting to see which way the liberal herd turns when it comes to Harriet Miers, President Bush’s latest choice to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Like other conservatives, I feel disappointed by her nomination — a feeling so widespread, in fact, that it has thrown off the media and so far made them hesitate over what is doubtless the reflexive urge to attack her. If and when the attack finally comes, I hope I can repress the urge to hail Miss Miers as another Holmes or Brandeis.

The best guess is that it will come, if only because an evangelical Christian presents too tempting a target to the media consensus, which for the moment is quite happy to stand back and let the Republicans attack each other. As we noticed in the media’s coverage of Pope John Paul II’s funeral and the election of his successor last spring (see “Marketplace Morality” in The New Criterion of May, 2005), what the Church has believed for centuries — sometimes even what has been believed semper, ubique, ab omnibus — is now regularly regarded as “extremist” in the media. Thus, too, I find my rash urge to leap to the defense of the Intelligent Design people unembarrassed by the necessity to read up on evolutionary biology on account of the vitriol of the Darwinian attacks. It is quite enough, it seems, for me to say that I wish to keep an open mind on the matter in order to get myself branded as “anti-science” along with Dr. Sternberg and the author of the offending article, Stephen C. Meyer, who is director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Funny, but almost the only thing besides veneration for Darwin that I remember from 10th grade biology is that open-mindedness was once thought to be the quintessence of science and precisely what distinguished it from religion. Presumably the ever-onward march of progress and liberalization has rendered that notion obsolete as well. The next thing you know, they will be promulgating a Darwinian version of the Nicene Creed to be recited by young scientists every day as they don their lab coats and fire up their Bunsen burners.

In a sense, of course, they are right. Religion is anti-science insofar as its raison d’être is to answer a quite different set of questions from the scientific ones. Science looks at the world and asks: how does it work? Religion looks at the world and asks, what is it for? Confusion arises because, historically, religion has dabbled in answers to the scientific question as well as its own, just as science has occasionally dabbled in attempts to answer the religious one. Though each seems to me to be outside its own area of competence when it does so, going out of area is to some extent inevitable. On the one side, the idea of a Creator God is central to religion, and it is not always easy to keep questions of what we were created for separate from those concerning the mechanisms by which we came to be. It is almost impossible, in fact, for tool-making animals not to think of Creation without some such mental pictures as Genesis provides of the Creator at work, setting things in motion. On the other side, once religion and religious assumptions have been cast aside, what succeeds them is almost invariably some form of sentimentality — desert gives way to dessert — which finds it equally impossible not to suppose that the purpose of human life is to be nice and helpful to everybody. Or at any rate everybody who is not self-condemned to contumely and derision (or worse) by his stubborn adherence to an obsolete system of belief in a Creator God.

Hence the odium theologicum of the scientific attacks on religious belief even where it doesn’t seek to trespass on scientific territory. When the New York Times did a surprisingly — though obviously not whole-heartedly — sympathetic series of articles on Intelligent Design in August, you couldn’t help noticing this in the comments of some of the scientists quoted. Professor Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the University of Texas, said that “I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That’s a good thing.” Another Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson, says that “one of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural.” Why are such scientists enthusiastic cheerleaders for the pointlessness of the natural machine that so fascinates them, and for the non-existence of anything outside it which might give it meaning? Well, it’s hard to believe, but I think it’s because, brainiacs though they obviously are in every other way, theologically they are on the level of the late John Lennon. “Imagine there’s no heaven,” wrote the ex-Beatle,

It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace… etc.

It’s really the most basic logical mistake, um, imaginable. Because people have quite often cited religion as a reason for killing other people — and the other people for killing them — if you take religion away from them they won’t kill each other anymore. Put so baldly, the proposition could only be believed by a child, but scientists very often are child-like — as, of course, Lennon was. They are also often deficient in historical knowledge and may have missed the last century when the great atheistic faiths of Communism and Naziism killed far more people than religion had ever managed to do in a comparable period of time. It’s not religion which leads to violence but violence which leads to religion — as well as to honor and glory and hopes of a better world, among other attempts to explain to ourselves why we do the brutal things we so often do. Violence and brutality are constants of the human condition, and the more violent and brutal they are the more powerfully are we driven to magnificence in the sorts of pretexts we use to justify them. But the fact that religion, or anything else, may be used to excuse violence tells us nothing at all about the validity of the religion concerned. Truly is it written that “by their fruits ye shall know them,” for throughout Christian history, at any rate, those most conspicuous for their beliefs have been not the violent ones but the holy ones.

If, as I imagine, the popular culture is in thrall to Lennonism, it is surely as significant a datum as the assumption of an entitlement to look younger than we are. And if highly-educated scientists are suckers for atheistic promises of utopian pie in the godless sky, how much more likely is it that they will prove fatally attractive to journalists, who make up the élite of the popular culture itself. Hence the excitement in the press over the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which is being heard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the time of writing. The forces of goodness and enlightenment could hardly be any more clearly engaged in battle with the forces of darkness and religion than they are in this case, in which progressive-minded parents from Dover, Pennsylvania, are attempting to have the teaching of Intelligent Design as mandated by their local school-board banned on constitutional grounds. Though the constitutional question, based on the hoary old principle of “separation of church and state,” is obviously quite different from that of the validity or otherwise of Intelligent Design, the media are clearly geared up for another Scopes trial. And though a continuing concern to prevent a religious establishment in this country might seem rather quaint — surely if there were one it would be as innocuous and innocently pop cultural as the Church of England has become in its dotage — it provides a good enough excuse for yet another attack on what media hysterics consider the Bush administration’s attempt to impose a “theocracy” on the country.

One of the latest bits of evidence seized upon by the anti-theocratic crusaders has been the claim by a former Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, in a BBC documentary that he heard President Bush say God told him to attack Iraq. Though denied by Bush’s spokesmen and by the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who was also present on the occasion when the remark was allegedly made, that didn’t prevent it from being catnip to the likes of Mark Lawson of The Guardian, who wrote:

Throughout his five years in office, Bush has sustained a simple old Sunday- school world view in which external evil threatens American interests and is then met by force which believes it has God on its side. The fact that the perceived aggressors (Bin Laden, Saddam) also feel divinely justified is no more of an obstacle to this belief system than it has been for the religious throughout history. Hurricane Katrina, though, severely challenges this exegesis. What can a president of such simple religious faith have made of the devastation of America by what insurance policies call an act of God? Whereas even an event as terrible as 9/11 could be sustaining and confirmational for someone of Bush’s apparent Manichean convictions, a sudden drowning of the chosen invites only agonised study of the Book of Job. This affront to Bush’s relationship with God may explain his public bewilderment during the weather crisis.

Well, maybe. Maybe. But it is just worth pointing out the historical illiteracy involved in referring to Christian belief of any kind as amounting to “Manichean convictions.” Manicheanism, it will be remembered, was a heresy the discrediting of which in the early Christian centuries was one of the defining moments in the evolution — you should pardon the expression — of Christian belief, though it has never been entirely vanquished. Among its tenets, the principal and long-remembered one (half-remembered even by Mr Lawson) divided all creation [sic] into light and dark, good and evil, a division which, in turn, pre-supposed the existence of not one but two gods, one having created the good while the other created the evil. If that’s Manicheanism, does it sound to you more like Christianity as we know it today, even in some hypothetically “theocratic” version, or the media consensus that all the world’s ills derive from George W. Bush?

Meanwhile, in the land of The Guardian, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding has called for the banning of the English national flag, which is the cross of St. George, on the grounds that its having been carried into battle by Crusaders in the 11th century made it offensive to Muslims. As our own Mark Steyn wrote in the Daily Telegraph

Why is George W. Bush’s utterly unremarkable evangelical Christianity so self-evidently risible but complaints from British Muslims hung up over the 11th century are perfectly reasonable and something we should seek to accommodate? Where is the secular Left’s “insensitivity” when you need it? No doubt the bien pensants will still be hooting at born-again Texans on the day the House of Lords gives a second reading to the Sharia Bill.

More thoughtful anti-theocrats may allow that Muslim fanatics are at least no better than their Christian counterparts, if there are any, but very rare indeed is the Guardian columnist who can be got to see that religious enthusiasm which expresses itself in the form of suicide bombing is actually worse than the kind that advocates the teaching of Intelligent Design. The absurdity reminds me of a cartoon that once ran in Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, which showed a typical Church of England vicar in his vestments making his announcements from the pulpit after Sunday services. “And in the vestry, you will find a sign-up sheet for volunteers for the suicide car-bombing of the Mormons this Saturday.” Even Frank Rich or Garry Wills ought to be able to see the humor in that take on the notion of moral equivalence.

Oddly enough, just as all the fuss about evolution and religious belief was blowing up again, a British Labour peer, speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October, speculated that recent research suggesting the existence of a “God gene” might mean that religious belief was itself the product of evolution. “There may be a selective reason why we have become religious,” said Lord Winston, a professor of fertility studies at Imperial College, London, and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “Evolutionary pressure may have meant it was an advantage to us. My premise is that man was a deeply threatened species from the savannah. I think that having a feeling there’s something above you may have been a powerful help to survival.” Just fancy that! Of course the God gene, if it exists, would tell rather against the existence of God as anything more than an evolutionary construct, as the roles of Creator and created would be reversed. But either way, the God-theory would predict what in fact the evidence is suggesting now, namely, an inverse correlation between a decline in religious belief and the growth of a civilizational death-wish.

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