Today

Today is Sunday, the Christian day of rest, and I’ve been thinking about the role of Christianity in western civilisation.

And my principal thought has been that there is an enormous divide between those people who regard themselves as being Christians, and those people who don’t. The further thought has been (and this is an enormous generalisation) that the political Right generally consists of Christians, and the political Left consists of non-Christians, or rather post-Christians. The two parties quite literally inhabit separate universes.

This is most apparent in America, where people on the Right will very often openly articulate their Christian beliefs. For example, when running for the presidency, Donald Trump came out openly in support of Christian beliefs which he probably received from his Scottish mother. By contrast the American Left is almost entirely secular in outlook. The American left regards itself as “progressive” precisely because it has progressed beyond Christianity into a godless, secular world view. They have moved on, and they regard American Christians as deluded fantasists, clinging to a dying worldview. In fact, they have utter contempt for them. And they reserve their uttermost contempt for a Donald Trump who has the gall to stand up for American Christianity, even if only in small ways.

By contrast, in Europe people mostly keep quiet about what they do and don’t believe. But very largely Europe is far more “progressive” than America in this respect. There are far fewer Christians in Europe than progressive secularists.

But if the secular progressives pride themselves in having moved on past Christianity, and left it behind, they have singularly failed to put together a cohesive, consistent worldview to replace that of Christianity. They have demolished Christianity, but have not built anything new in its place. The progressive secularists are living in a ruined world, in which they have torn down more or less everything that used to be held sacred, but erected nothing new. And, having dispensed with Christian morality, they now have no morality at all. And in fact, having demolished Christianity, they are now set on demolishing (or ‘deconstructing’, as they prefer to call it) everything else as well. And so now everything is under attack. Marriage. Family. Nation. Maleness. Whiteness. Everything.

Seen from this perspective, the American Christian Right is actually far stronger than the American secular progressive Left. The Christian Right actually have a set of strong beliefs, and the secular Left do not.  Furthermore, the secular Left is made up of people who, having dispensed with a Christian worldview, are quite likely to next come to believe almost anything at all, and to furthermore become fanatical believers in whatever it is. Examples: Antismoking and Global Warming. So the secular Left is highly fragmented, and always likely to become more fragmented and fractured.

The decline of Christianity is in large part a consequence of the rise of Science. For there is (apparently) no place for God in the scientific vision of a universe made up of particles and waves. In this respect, the scientific worldview suffers from the same problem as the progressive secular Left: it has no morality. The scientists dispensed with God, but did not replace Christian morality with a new scientific morality. They left a vacuum.

This isn’t a problem just for western civilisation. It’s a problem for the whole world. Because all the many religions in the world are under attack from scientific secularism. Islam is also under attack. And so is Judaism. And Hinduism. And everything else.

It was probably even a problem that the Romans faced, 2000 years ago, as their old Roman religion, of Jupiter and Mars, came under siege from all sorts of new religions, Christianity being just one of many. The fall of the Roman empire may well have been much less a military collapse than a moral collapse. For maybe what had really held the Roman empire together was not the Roman army, but an austere, stoic Roman morality which was the real glue that held it together, and which no army could replace once it had dribbled away. Rome probably fell when it ceased to believe in itself, and came to believe in almost anything at all.

We’re in the same place today. We’re facing the same moral crisis, as old belief systems lose their grip, and in the ensuing vacuum people are beginning to believe in nothing, or in almost anything.

Many years ago, while on holiday in Luxor, Egypt, I spent hours talking to a very earnest young Muslim who spoke of his despair at the loss of Christian faith in Europe. He had no wish for Christians to become Muslims: he simply wanted them to believe in something, rather than in nothing. He was talking about a moral vacuum. At the time, I couldn’t really see why he was so concerned. But I think I understand him much better today.

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14 Responses to Today

  1. Clicky says:

  2. Sackerson says:

    I think you’re right. Aside from everything else, the vacuum implies that there is no objective morality, and the implications are anarchic.

  3. Algernon Struthers says:

    God and religion have been subjects decisive: ‘my God is the true God, but yours isn’t, it’s a false God.’ There are Catholics, Protestants, Islam types, and other religion believing types, and the no-God type, and also, the believe-in Science, types.
    All are true believers, in what they believe, all of which are subjective; their means to an end, because none are yet proven in the overall scheme of things, to give the world what it wants.
    And what does the ‘world want?’
    It wants what is real and true, and probably also, a few thousand a week.
    All of the above believe that their belief is the belief to believe in, that it is ‘real and true.’
    Probably, who know, all their Gods are all real and true, whether they name them ‘Gods’ or they name them something else.
    Why then do people do what they do: up and down and left and right? They’re doing it because they believe it’s what they should do, or because they must. Wherever you go around the world, it’s the same; up and down, left and right. All of them doing what you’re doing – if you asked them, why they’re doing what they do.
    They all believe in something, even if they claim that there’s nothing to believe in, well then, they believe in that.
    The true belief of real and true? Well, that’s the question, whilst in truth, everyone continues to do what they’re doing, which we can witness as real and true.
    Therefore what we all do daily is real and true, but belief in Gods? That’s another matter. Our Gods must seem real and true, or else we won’t believe. The consequences of which, Frank above soberly ponders, whilst probably he has a smoke. Ah, great idea!

  4. Roobeedoo2 says:

    The head of the largest religion in Europe (41% according to the EU) is proposing an 11th Commandment. Presumably that makes God infallible, thus destroying the authority of the religion he leads, but, “Hey! Climate Change!”…

    https://www.zerohedge.com/political/pope-proposes-new-sin-thou-shalt-not-destroy-harmony-environment

  5. smokingscot says:

    Quite coincidentally Blomberg used a predominantly Black Church to say he was wrong about stop and frisk, which he now washes his hands by saying he’s “sorry” to the thousands who were belittled and humiliated when it was law.

    https://www.sott.net/article/424104-Bloomberg-apologizes-for-stop-and-frisk-police-practice

    He’s going to find his baggage will assist in making him virtually unelectable, even if he’s very obviously had some form of treatment to smooth out the wrinkles in his face. Still got the age spots and claw like hands though.

  6. Pingback: Little Support for a Nasty Little Man | Frank Davis

  7. Charles Burns says:

    We shouldn’t be writing Gloomberg off so fast. Everyone said Trump had no chance too. Bloomberg just might appeal strongly to moderate Democrats who don’t like the radical Warren and Sanders, or the wishy washy Biden. I think we have reason to fear that Bloomberg could be the next President.

    • Barry Homan says:

      One thing is maybe worth considering. Bloomberg is Jewish, and there has never been a Jewish president. Make of that whatever you will, it may or may not affect the amount of votes he’d get.

  8. Fumo ergo sum says:

    First of all, my warmest and smokiest regards from Belgium to all of you. I have been following Frank’s blog for a couple of months, as it is a rare but relieving oasis of civilisation amidst a wild and toxic desert of lies, bullies and (antismoking) zealotry. Since religion, and the rapid decline of it, is topic that has drawn my attention for a long time, I would like to add some rejoinders to Frank’s thesis about the rise of scientism in the wake of religion’s demise in the Western hemisphere.

    Whereas I endorse the thesis that the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries made it possible for progressivism to emerge – that is, the substitution of moral categories like the good and the right by mere quantifiable notions such as the useful or the welfare-maximising – the real roots of the current spiritual and moral crisis of the West should actually be traced one or two centuries earlier, I think. Even more than the rise of positive science, I think that it was the emergence of Protestantism that wretched much havoc and moral across the European continent. At first sight, it might seem that Protestantism – as espoused by famous theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin – liberated man from the idolatry espoused by the Catholic Church through the worship of a pantheon of different saints and the Catholic corruption with regard to the trade of indulgences. It was Luther who made Holy Scripture available to common man by translating the whole document in German. At last, man could do away with the whole corrupted and redundant caste of clergymen that, despite their holy appearance, actually stand in the way between God and man instead of mediating between the mundane and the transcendent.

    Protestantism might seem a liberating force at first sight. It proposes a direct relation between God and man, who has to rely on his private inner life in order to find the divine light to shine. It ought not to accept any authority – most definitely not any authority which may come from Rome – but Scripture itself. But what if Scripture does not provide an unequivocal answer to some particular moral or even personal question? In that case, it is up to God to reveal His will through conscience which came to mean ‘knowledge shared only between oneself and God’. This is also a fundamental tenet of Protestantism, namely that it conceives of God as a willing power, whose will is so powerful that He may change the course of His will at any moment and that what we ought to love, hate or acknowledge could be changed instantaneously. Now, it suffices to be aware of the following question: is something good because God wills it, or does God will it so, because it is good? This question, which has already been asked by Plato about 2,500 years ago, would spur heated controversy in the centuries to come. The late Roman and medieval Catholic tradition would solve the dilemma by endorsing the second horn of it: God, being the ultimate standard of excellence, goodness and truth, is ultimately bound by the nature of reason, the standard of which is God Himself. There could be no other standard besides God Himself, for otherwise God – being singular and indivisible – would cease to be God. Moreover, if God were to change His will at all times, he would be subject to change and actually lessen his greatness, as God is thought of to be unchanging and impassible. It is against this theological background that Saint Thomas Aquinas would state that even God cannot change the content of the Ten Commandments. Protestantism, on the other hand, would ride the first horn: it would say that whatever is good, is good because God wills it so. In the words of John Calvin: “everything which God wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of His willing it.” And even the famous philosopher René Descartes would hold the completely ridiculous belief that God freely created necessary truths of logic and mathematics, thereby making it possible for God to change, for instance, the validity of the law of non-contradiction or the fact that the sum of the angles of a triangle measures 180 degrees.

    Of course, for God to be an all-pervading willing subject is actually mysterious. For how can we know when God wills a certain thing to be done? Strictly speaking, we cannot “know” this at all, since “knowing” refers to an intellectual process of dialectical argumentation by the use of standards of reason and logic. These were indeed the virtues inherent to scholasticism: it would seek after truth by the means of reasoning in an open, public argumentation (the so-called ‘disputatio’). Just read a random passage from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and simply focus on the structure of the text. You will notice that Aquinas always writes by employing the same template: posing a question, giving a prima facie answer to the question, putting forward possible objections against the answer, introducing the commentaries of earlier scholars such as Aristotle, Saint Augustine or even Muslim writers like Averroes – and then, finally offering a conclusive answer through careful distillation of all the possible arguments and objections taken into consideration. It is this against this scholastic background that European culture, religion, law and philosophy attained its zenith. Not so for Martin Luther, who denounced reason (and scholastic philosophy in particular) to be “the Devil’s whore”. God is a willing subject, not a knowing subject. By the same token, man – being created in His image – can only rely on his own will of he wants to peer into the divine. God being privatised to the inner realm of the human psyche, different conceptions about who God is and what God really wants also soon arose. The universal faith (fides) of the Catholic Church (“Catholic” actually stems from the Greek adjective “katholikos”, meaning “universal”) came to be downgraded to the level of individual belief. As a result, Protestantism – originally initiated by Luther and Calvin (perhaps John Wycliff should also be mentioned as originator of Protestantism in the Anglo-Saxon world) would soon dissolve into a plethora of different ‘protestantisms’ served in a variety of flavours (Anglican, baptist, methodist, Arminian, Jansenist,…). To be sure, this was an almost inevitable outcome: in a world no longer inhabited by objective values and accessible reality, discussing the nature of the ‘true’ Protestantism seemed to be futile. Instead of reaching out for a fundamental consensus on the nature of God, universals and justice, as the Church has attempted to do so for over 1,000 years, a clash of opinions would soon follow. All those different kinds of Protestantism shared one core pseudo-virtue with which we are all too familiar nowadays which is the vice of self-righteousness. If it is accepted that God is all-powerful, then it must mean that whatever my conviction or personal action consists of, it ought to be self-sufficient through the brute fact that it is backed up by an all-powerful God.

    But what could the notion of an all-powerful God still confer within an intersubjective framework, as God’s all-powerfulness only becomes manifest before an individual’s mind? It could actually mean anything at all: everything that happens, does so happen since God wills it. This could indeed justify anything, evil events and acts included, since they are all tokens of God’s will manifesting itself. But if anything can be justified by whatever means employed, then actually nothing can be justified whatsoever: ex falso sequitur quod libet. It is in this regard that Protestantism, in its different forms, is actually at risk of dissolving into atheism. But before it would take this step, two important events would take place in order to save Protestantism’s disintegration due to its inner contradictions and flaws. One event, to which Frank already alluded, has indeed been the development of modern natural science. If God’s essence cannot be known, then at least God’s efficacy can be known: the natural world as ruled by quantifiable and mathematical laws. Laws that can be discovered through empirical indiction and hypothetical reasoning, and that God has set in motion by an act of His all-powerful will. From this, the concept of God as watchman – endorsed by thinkers such as Newton and Voltaire – would come to the surface. But it would not take long before modern natural science could downgrade God to an auxiliary assumption within the theoretical framework and, in a later stage, abandon the concept of a Divinity altogether. Why still need God if well-founded empirical laws, the discovery of which is an utmost human affair, already produce the required amount of knowledge both to understand and manipulate nature to a degree of sufficient usefulness: “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed”, as Francis Bacon, one of the protagonists of the Scientific Revolution, aptly noted. Of course, empiricism is definitely not a self-justifying doctrine but a self-righteous one, as is demonstrated by the problem of induction. How could empiricism validate its claim that a sequence of events in the future will occur in the same way as in the past? With God being ruled out of the explanatory hierarchy, empiricism would indeed reveal itself to be the ‘glory of science, and the scandal of philosophy’ (C.D. Broad).

    But let’s move to the other event that took place somewhere between the 16th and 17th century which was meant to avoid Protestantism, and religion in general, from degenerating into a powerhouse for atheism. This is an event more hazardous and far-reaching than the Scientific Revolution, since it would take place on the political scene: it is the gradual development of a ‘religious politics’ towards a ‘political religion’. The amplification of religious diversity due to Protestantism’s failure to grasp the ‘oneness’ of reality, truth and goodness ultimately did result in a devaluation of truth into personal conviction, yet at the same time backed by an allegedly all-powerful God. “God’s with us!”, the Lutherans would shout; “No, He’s not!”, Anglican Reformists would soon respond. It is a highly explosive situation that could only lead to a war of one, or even many, against all. If this sounds like a Hobbesian state of nature, it surely is. Thomas Hobbes’s political theory is often explained in purely secular terms, that is, by taking the purely physical properties and characteristics of people – the equality of man’s faculties of mind and body, as Hobbes notes at the beginning of Chapter 13 of Leviathan – as a starting point, from which the emergence of a social contract – the reciprocal transfer of natural rights to one sole Sovereign – could be axiomatically deduced. Unfortunately, most people reading Leviathan may mistakingly think that they understand the quintessence of Hobbes’ theory when reading the book’s first two notorious parts ‘On Man’ and ‘On Commonwealth’. But is only beginning with the third part of the book that Hobbes also aims his philosophical armour against traditional religion. And where things start to get interesting for our story. In chapter 33, Hobbes boldly states:

    “He, therefore, to whom God hath not supernaturally revealed that they are his, nor that those that published them were sent by him, is not obliged to obey them by any authority but his whose commands have already the force of laws (that is to say, by any other authority than that of the commonwealth, residing in the sovereign, who only has the legislative power).”

    According to Hobbes, it is indeed the pivotal task of a Christian King to elucidate and lay down the specific contents of Revealed Religion, in order for rampant pseudo-theological disputes and tribalist wars to cease. A little bit further in the same chapter, Hobbes simply identifies the church with the commonwealth: “But the church, if it be one person, is the same thing with a commonwealth of Christians, called a commonwealth because it consisteth in Christian men united in one Christian sovereign.”

    I think it may be fruitful to read Hobbes on this point, since his Leviathan, published in 1651, is the first and perhaps most thorough work providing the intellectual – or should I say, ideological? – justifications for the state to actively intervene and promote a particular religion. Or, to put it even more aptly, to grant the king the right to use religion as an ideological smokescreen to expand and enhance his own realm. Granted, this was not an exclusive prerogative of Protestant leaders. I think that the most obvious example appealing to the imagination might have been France’s king Louis XIV, who actively promoted and even forced the Catholic faith in order to secure unity in his own kingdom and to bolster an ideological weapon of propaganda to wage war against, for instance, calvinist Holland. Indeed, in continental Europe the Hobbesian doctrine of political religion had already been put in place in the wake of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), granting the German princes and electors the right which religion should be declared official doctrine within the boundaries of their respective realms. This Westphalian model would soon be copied in many other European countries as well, most notably France, where powerful cardinals such as Richelieu and Mazarin (who were only ‘Catholics’ in name, but in fact ruthless power-drunk potentates) would act as the king’s ventriloquists (even though some historians may argue that it was actually the other way round…) and be formal part of the royal government.

    Isn’t it ironic that whereas Protestantism is often heralded as a milestone in the development of individual consciousness and freedom ultimately lead to its very opposite? By subjugating itself to the often capricious will of the duke, king or state-holder in the limits of whose jurisdiction it would see itself confined, Protestantism no longer had any moral power of its own to praise certain acts as right or to denounce other acts as wrong. “Whatever is good, is good because God wills so” ultimately came to mean “whatever is good, is good because the sovereign wills so”. It entails the full endorsement of legal positivism, that dangerous doctrine according to which there are no standards of right or wrong apart from what the ruler legislates. Protestantism prides itself for having done away with the hierarchies of clergymen and the dustiness of Scholasticism, just to get the unbearable lightness of a bureaucracy of ministers, secretaries of state and so-called ‘experts’ in its place. But could it be otherwise? True morality – as opposed to all perverted forms of contemporary ‘moralism’ of which Protestantism is its ultimate originator – presupposes a strong notion of free will. It is only (metaphysically) free people that could be praised or blamed for their actions. But Protestantism flatly denied this fundamental presupposition. It said, in the words of Luther: “sola gratia”. By divine grace alone one were to be saved. It saw no room whatsoever for the development of virtuous attitudes by means of which even fallen man could become a person pleasing to God. This stands in stark contradistinction with the Catholic outlook, which indeed saw grace as necessary for salvation as well, but not sufficient on its own. Morality presupposes human freedom, and the Catholic Church had good theological reasons for endorsing this claim: without real human freedom, the origins of sin and evil should be attributed to God, which would be a heresy.

    Whereas Hobbesian political theology was meant to give a substantial and unequivocal (albeit arbitrary) body to ecclesiastical doctrine, its project was of course bound to fail. Protestantism would ultimately boil down to atheism and political theology, on its turn, would evolve into ‘civil religion’ – aha, there come the guillotines marching in! – the saddening and dark aftermath of which we are still experiencing up to now. From now on, the state could simply legitimate itself on its own, without needing any appeal whatsoever on an external force such as God. The state simply is God.

    Even though rampant atheism nowadays is a universal phenomenon pervading predominantly Catholic territories as well, I come to think that an ‘imprint’ of the salient features of Protestantism and Catholicism respectively can still be observed in many contemporary countries and cultures – even though without those nations still being fully aware of it. Consider for instance the different stances toward tobacco (control). Now, for a start, and as Frank has already repeatedly and correctly stated on this blog: tobacco control is a globalist (and atheist) empire of evil taking hold of every nation around the world. But whereas every European country nowadays has implemented a definite set of strategies to curb smoking (well, or to simply curb smokers plain and simple…), the ‘harshness’ of the measures might still vary from country to country. Now take a map of Europe, and draw a frontier between its Protestant (mainly Northern) half, and its Catholic (mainly Southern) half. What do you notice? Countries that have been heavily influenced by Protestantism – such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland (I will leave out Germany, where the situation might differ along the different Bundesländer) – tend to take the harshest, bullying measures against smokers. Those were the countries ‘pioneering’ with smoking bans in restaurants, bars and cafés and where taxes on tobacco are by far the steepest. These are also the countries where ‘the nanny state’ has maximised its attempts in creeping in in everyone’s personal life. In ‘Southern’ countries that used to be ruled by Catholic denominations of Christianity, such as my own home country Belgium, Spain, Italy, Austria and Portugal, smoking bans in different guises have been introduced as well – sadly, of course. However, once outside of what we nowadays call ‘public spaces’, you are still allowed to light up almost immediately after closing the door behind you. Here in Belgium, for instance, nearly all office buildings, supermarkets, universities and restaurants would still warmly welcome you with a large (albeit outside…) ashtray right next to the entrance. It’s a real delight, and one of the reasons I still like my country, despite all its shortcomings. I assume that this would be unfathomable in the UK, where you would have to walk a couple of metres (or yards?) before even taking out one’s lighter, isn’t? Also, tobacco in those Catholicism-moulded countries tend to be available at relatively affordable prices.

    So generally speaking, Europe tends to be divided by a downright bullying Protestant half vis-à-vis a (slightly) more tolerant Catholic part. Could this not be due to the fact that (medieval) Catholicism always had a more profound and deeper understanding of what it is to be a freely acting human agent? To be a real person, capable of reasoning and making deliberate choices according to objective standards of goodness and rightfulness that could only be acknowledged by him? Quite a contradistinction with the Protestant outlook which, once it had allied itself with scientism, could hardly draw an intelligible distinction between man and beast. An automaton to be ‘programmed’ by the clever understanding of the ‘experts’. Now, there definitely are a couple of obvious lacunae in my theory for which I have no decent explanation. It must be noted, for instance, that it was and still is a Catholic country that, on a European scale, went furthest in its crusade against smokers: Ireland. On the other hand, Lutheran Denmark seems to falsify my negative views about the intimate relationship between Protestantism and antismoking. Finally, there is France, which is no easy fit either. I still tend to put France on the ‘Southern, Catholic’ list, albeit with a Protestant flavour (e.g., taxes on tobacco are pretty high in France) – just as Louis XIV’s imperialistic and bellicose politics earlier before was a form of Protestantism with a Catholic coating.

    These are the thoughts I wanted to share. I hope that I did not go into too much details, and I apologise for any possible infraction to the English vocabulary and grammar, which is not my mother tongue. By the way, even though I admire the Catholic tradition for many of its intellectual contributions, I am not a practising Catholic myself. I am already a practising smoker, which as a spiritual and metaphysical religion is even more rewarding than the heavenly city of Christ.

    • Frank Davis says:

      You write very well.

      the real roots of the current spiritual and moral crisis of the West should actually be traced one or two centuries earlier, I think.

      You might look even further back – to the Roman Empire.

      Is it at all surprising that what are now the Catholic areas of western Europe very largely fall within the confines of the Roman Empire, whose northern border roughly followed the rivers Rhine and Danube?

      Seen this way, England (where I live) was for much of its history a Catholic country (and is still littered with the ruins of many of its former monasteries). But Scotland and Ireland never fell inside the Roman Empire. This may explain why nominally Catholic Ireland has adopted “Protestant” antismoking legislation.

      And although Holland and Denmark never seem to have been part of the Roman Empire, they both seem to have enjoyed friendly relations with it. Perhaps that’s why both countries (and of course Belgium as well) have a “Catholic” tolerance for smoking (and everything else as well)

      One might say that the Roman Catholic Church was the continuation of the Roman Empire, minus its legions. It was, after all, centred in Rome, and was the source of absolute spiritual authority, with the Pope a sort of spiritual emperor.

      It seems plausible to suppose that the Roman Empire (and its subsequent Roman Church) created a shared culture, and left an indelible mark upon the people who lived within it, and also their descendants. This would not have applied to those lands beyond the empire’s borders, who instead refused (e.g. Arminius in Germany) to bow to Rome. Seen in this light, the Protestantism of northern Europe, which refused to bow to the spiritual authority of the Pope in Rome, was simply the continuation of the “protestantism” of Arminius a thousand years earlier, refusing to submit to the Emperor Augustus.

      As a matter of interest, I was raised as (but did not continue to be) a Roman Catholic in England, and taught by Benedictine monks who had come from Douai, just south of the French border with Belgium.

      • Fumo ergo sum says:

        Dear Frank,

        Many thanks for your elaborate reply. The Roman Empire has indeed been an excellent conductor in transmitting the Christian faith across its provinces, and Roman law, for instance, on its turn exerted a great influence on canon law during the Middle Ages. But I have some reservations about your theory as it applied to the British Isles.

        For a start, Roman colonisation of England did not begin until the 1st century AD under emperor Claudius, meaning that the influence exerted by the Romans has not been as as long-standing as it was on the European mainland. For a start, the English language would not Latinise during the Roman period (1st century – early 5th century AD) – this is a process that would actually have to wait until the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. By contrast, the Celtic languages on the European continent always have been greatly influenced by Latin, or would even have been replaced by a ‘popular’, simplified form of Latin (‘sermo vulgaris’) out of which for instance French would eventually evolve. The town where I live, which is near to Antwerp, may be Dutch-speaking nowadays, but if it wasn’t for the Germanic Salian Franks to emigrate to the South in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire, I am pretty sure that my current mother tongue would have been French, since a Romanised predecessor of it would have been probably spoken here at the times of Nero, Vespasian and Constantine.

        So England somehow seems to have been the ‘rebel’ within the Roman Empire, first withstanding the first colonisation attempts by Julius Caesar, then, once it was ultimately brought under the Roman jacksandal, refusing to adopt its language. So it has always been at odds with Rome, which might explain why its relationship with the papacy would ultimately dramatically fizzle out, with king Henry VIII declaring himself to be the head of the Church of England. For isn’t it peculiar that despite its century-old Catholic tradition, England is the only former Roman province that would rather soon turn formally Protestant? As with regard to Ireland in particular, I think that something might have been said in favour of your theory that Ireland is only a Catholic country in name only, that has adopted many Protestant heresies in its practice.

        So I have been thinking whether it could be possible to formulate one single theory that may explain the development of religious life in both England and Ireland (and by extension, all of the British Isles) as well as the emergence of different forms of behaviour control c.q. the nanny state in the immediate wake of the rise of atheism and agnosticism. But in order to have such one theory, I would have to thwart the Roman/Non-Roman frontier which ran across Britain as well as to set aside the Catholic/Protestant dichotomy. In this light, I think that such a theory may be provided if we focus on the teachings of a pivotal figure for both British and Irish Christianity: Pelagius.

        Pelagius was a monk living in the late 4th century – according to Saint Jerome, he would have been “stuffed with Irish porridge”, which leaves no doubt about Pelagius’ origins – who taught that despite the fall of Adam and Eve, man’s free will remained preserved in such a way that he conceived of man’s freedom to be sufficient to attain salvation. According to Pelagius, everything that has been created by God is good. So how could God then have created a fallen creature? Freedom, therefore, is something intrinsically good. Pelagius thus advocated the thesis that man’s salvation starts with his own good works. There is no need for man to be aided by divine grace in order for him to attain the highest end: indeed, divine grace, according to Pelagius, is none other than God’s gift of free will (supplemented with the teachings of Jesus and the Ten Commandments).

        Opposed to Pelagius stood Saint Augustine, who dismissed Pelagius’ views downright: man with Adam fell so deep down the well that only divine grace – conceived to be both necessary and irresistible – could pull man back on his feet. In Dutch, the word for ‘original sin’ is ‘erfzonde’, which could be literally translated as ‘hereditary sin’. But I think that the notion of a hereditary sin actually captures Augustine’s theory very well: Adam was the testator of the sin, whereas his brethren – you and I included – are the heirs of the sin which we cannot relinquish. There is nothing that man could do to ‘merit’ his place in heaven. In fact, it does not matter at all what one does, since everything is predestined by God.

        Despite Saint Augustine being heralded as one of the most prominent of the Church Fathers and Pelagius declared a heretic in 418 AD, ‘orthodox’ Augustinianism actually never became an official part of the Catholic doctrine as Augustine too much downplayed the role of man’s created freedom. A century after the Pelagian controversy took place, Caesarius of Arles would try, for the first time, to develop a doctrine of grace and free will known as semi-Augustinianism: Caesarius rejected the idea that God would have predestined someone at birth to become sinful and/or to go to either hell or heaven after death. Yet, he did reckon that God made it possible for man to either believe or not believe in him, and that it is therefore up to the believer to receive divine grace. The act of accepting or rejecting God’s offer is ultimately dependent on man’s free will. In this respect, I think that Caesarius distilled a nice synthesis out of the positions endorsed by both Pelagius and Augustine. Caesarius’ theory would indeed be confirmed at the second Council of Orange in 529 AD, which would form the basis of subsequent theories of grace and free will developed by later Catholic thinkers.

        Nevertheless, Pelagius and Pelagianism – official synods and condemnations notwithstanding – would exert a considerable influence on the early Catholic Church in both Britain and Ireland until the 7th century AD when it finally ‘complied’ with the official doctrines from Rome. Now, it is seductive to conceive of Augustine and Pelagius as defending opposite view – grace versus free will; predestination versus open options; child baptism as necessary versus a mere voluntary act; etc. Yet, I think that both positions are actually two sides of the same coin. It may be obvious to see how Protestantism (especially Lutheranism and Calvinism) emerged out of Augustine’s conception of predestination. But Pelagius’ doctrine, too, actually does more harm than good to the concept of freedom. We might describe Pelagius’ position as a forerunner of the autonomy view. According to this view, freedom exists in the exercise of the agent’s autonomy: his actions ought to be guided by things internal to the agent himself (e.g., his own beliefs or standard of values). If the actions are governed by things external to their selves or if their selves are themselves governed by things external to them, then they are not responsible for the actions that ensue. Plausible as the autonomy view might seem, it engenders two problems. First of all, if responsibility requires autonomy, it is questionable whether any of us is ever responsible for anything. Autonomy requires that our actions be governed by our selves and that these selves, on their turn, are not governed by anything beyond our control. Yet, our choices or decisions never arise spontaneously out of nothing. They are, in a certain sense, always ‘determined’ by desires, deliberations, judgements, etc. about how the world is, what one ought to do and one’s beliefs about the causal nexus between a certain action and the effect it will bring forth. Secondly, even if choices were to emerge out of nothing, how could I ever be aware that it is actually “myself” that wants me to do this or that? Worse even, how could I ever be praised or blamed for what I did of my choice emerged ‘out of nothing’: “Sorry for having badly injured you, sir, but it was just the doing of my real autonomous self emerging out of nothing with a knife in its hand…”

        In any case, the invalidity and dangerousness of Pelagianism could be perfectly illustrated with an illustrative example. You mentioned already its name: Holland. Well, I actually have to bring you very bad news from my Northern neighbours, which has recently drawn my attention through a small yet important article in the Flemish press. As for now, the Dutch relatively tolerant attitude toward smokers has gone up, eh, well, into smoke.

        What kind of atrocity has recently happened? Well, the Netherlands – just as Belgium – had opted for a relatively “liberal” smoking ban, granting restaurant and café owners the possibility to provide an indoor smoking room within their premises (of course, all this could only be done within the narrow confinements of the law and extensive regulations, which is the reason why many of those establishments do not have a smoking room at all). Of course, even the mere possibility that smoking indoors could still be allowed anywhere infuriated some antismoking nanny-do-good-organisation which – reluctant and coward to face its opponents in a face-to-face discussion – launched a litigation before the Dutch supreme court in order to have those ‘evil’ smoking rooms banned as well. Last September, the supreme court rendered its verdict. It will confirm the zealots’ agenda.

        The Dutch attorney-general’s argumentation really abided the standards of kindergarten logic, but we are now collectively being seen and treated as disempowered chiiiiildren, aren’t we? For what as the attorney-general’s argument? Well, he said that non-smokers would still face “social pressure” to join their smoking friends and table mates into those nasty smoke-filled rooms, where they would still be exposed to secondhand smoke (and probably die almost instantaneously a horrible death, or at least get deadly lung cancer, right the day after the restaurant visit!).

        Now, in the light of the ‘Pelagian controversy’ there are two ways of looking at this kind of (pseudo-)argumentation. The most obvious would be to look at this case through an Augustinian-Calvinist glass: human agents (in this case, non-smokers) cannot rely on themselves in order to merit grace. No, it is God who will do so, and the divine creatures only have to rely and obey. And since God has taken a very long vacation leave in the atheist 21st century, His duty is now being observed by the state. A state that now dictates that grace can only be merited without indoor smoking rooms. But one could also look at the whole affair from a Pelagian perspective. After all, “social pressure” is a thing external to one’s real autonomous self. Being dragged into a smoking room as a non-smoker is therefore most definitely not a free decision. So the state has to step in, and relieve its non-smoking subjects from any non-voluntary external force. As a result, it is the state that has to suppress anything that it might conceive as an external force or alleged social pressure. And it is thus the state that will make sure that the ‘real autonomous self’ will emerge ‘out of nothing’. That the agent thereby has been robbed of his possibility to discern for his own whether or not it would be good to join in for a drink in a smoke-filled room or not, is of no concern to the bully state. These deliberations must definitely have been fuelled through all kinds of ‘social pressure’ – perhaps even intimidations and/or threats – that would have certainly put our semi- or non-autonomous non-smoker into jeopardy. But as I said, the notion of an autonomous, Pelagian self is just a myth: it does not exist, and cannot exist, since it is simply futile to define freedom along the ‘determinism’ vs. ‘indeterminism’ square of opposition. In both cases, one ultimately ends up with a human being void of any meaning, let alone freedom. Our actions, both free and caused, always take place in a world that is pre-given to us and out of which our actions and experiences gain their meaning. Just to give an example: suppose you are gazing at a masterful, colourful painting such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Your experience of the painting might fill you with awe, and even make you aware of the Idea of Beauty in the Platonic sense. But in what sense does the ‘awe’ or the ‘beauty’ reside “in” the painting – that is, in its particular physical extension, in the dots of paint brushed over the canvas or in the light waves that beam out of the painting and that have a causal input on the human eye? An affirmative answer would be nonsensical, since beauty – like goodness and truth – definitely needs an ‘observer’ for it to respond to its beauty. And in what sense would the beauty reside “in” the human person who observes the painting? Again, this would be a futile strategy since the painting does nowhere exist ‘inside’ the mind. Let alone the Idea of Beauty, which we can only acknowledge, but which we do not make up ourselves. So indeed, in order to have an adequate grasp of what it is to have an experience of a beautiful object, the age-old distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ need to be overcome. And the same counts, I think, with free actions in general where it is in nearly all cases rather impossible to distinguish those features that are “mine” and those aspects that are “due to others” (e.g., to other persons or circumstances). In any case, I hope that these considerations are able to show that Pelagianism will actually lead to the same level unfreedom as Calvinism, since in the absence of a ‘real autonomous self’ it will never be up to oneself to conceive of such as real self. “Define, or be defined”, as the saying goes.

        In any case, it does not really matter whether it is the Calvinist or Pelagian interpretation of freedom that might have inspired the Dutch attorney-general and ultimately, the judge as well. Whatever the rationale behind, it is based on faulty premisses and shady metaphysics, and I have therefore added – with great sorrow – the Netherlands on my ever-expanding blacklist of countries to avoid in the (near) future. It is really becoming wonderful to be a citizen of this ever-closer European Union of ever freer movement of goods, services and persons… just to realise myself that I am being all the more taken hostage within the inner confinements of my own house. Such fun!

        I am happy to read that you received a Catholic eduction provided by Benedictine monks from Douai. Actually, Douai used to be part of the Southern (Spanish) Netherlands until the 17th century, until it got invaded by France (just like other cities like Lille, Dunkirk and Calais). But I definitely understand that you ceased to be practicing Roman Catholic after a while. I actually evolved ‘the other way round’, so the speak. I did not receive any formal religious education, as my parents were, and still are, atheists (or ‘apatheists’; people for whom the question regarding God and the divine actually have no meaning). So when I was at secondary school about 15 years ago, I did not get any ‘religions’ class. Instead, I was put in the collection bag of all those pupils not abiding any particular religion. They would receive ‘compulsory’ classes in ‘non-confessional moral education’ as it is call. And what did that imply? In short: civil religion. For nearly 6 years, I would have bene blindfolded into believing that society is some circular flow to be dragged and pulled at will into the direction of ‘progress’ or the awakening of ‘humanity’. The great evils to be combatted were ‘global poverty’ and ‘racism’, and I suppose that by now environmentalism will be put on the menu as well. Even then, between the ages of 12 and 17, I had always been skeptical about this whole plan of man’s ‘engeneerability’: poverty in the third world could best be alleviated through free trade, which is ultimately the best form of fair trade, whereas allegedly blatant ‘racism’ and ‘discrimination’ had always appeared to me as pseudo-problems that exist only in the beholder’s eye. But more important for me was that once I finally managed to escape secondary school in 2006, I may have been officially declared an adult (also a good joke, that one…), yet after 6 years of regimentation at the hands of the state’s education system, I was left more questions than answers: is man really that unfree that he needs the state’s protection at all time and all costs for him to be flourishing? Are there no standards of what is right and wright besides that which the state dictates? What do ‘reason’ and ‘Enlightenment’ still mean when man is the slave of the passions? Is man really better off without God? These kinds of questions, perhaps unsurprisingly, led me to enrol at the faculty of philosophy where I would ultimately end up with even more questions than answers which is, admittedly, actually part and parcel of the philosophical enterprise.

        But it was also during my studies that I discovered the Catholic tradition – like some richly filled treasure chest gaining dust on the attic, waiting to be discovered. After all, there is over 1,000 years of Western philosophy – starting with the Greek Church Fathers and ending with the Renaissance humanists – that has been thoroughly shaped by the Catholic faith. I ultimately admired, and still continue to admire, one theologian in particular, namely Saint Anselm of Canterbury. But it was Anselm himself who wrote: “I believe so that I may understand” (‘credo ut intelligam’). Faith that is not buttressed by reason’s search to move beyond itself, ultimately turns into mere dogmatic belief. It is exactly this consideration that ultimately refrained me from heading to the baptismal font, since all institutionalised religions ultimately cary a certain element of ‘dogmatism’ in themselves. Catholicism, despite all its merits and marvels, is no exception to this.

      • Frank Davis says:

        For a start, the English language would not Latinise during the Roman period (1st century – early 5th century AD)

        Really? I thought that quite a lot of Latin found its way into speech, if only place names like London (Londinium) and York (Iboracum). All town names that end in -caster or -chester are Roman names (e.g. Colchester or Lancaster). I suppose we spoke Celtic back then, but now we’ve acquired additions from Norway, Denmark, Germany (Saxon) and France.

        You might be interested in Idle Theory. This was my own personal journey into economics and ethics, and much else. I saw people as being part-time free agents, and only as free as they were idle or leisured. I even attempted something of a theological extension of it. It was an enterprise I never completed. After the smoking ban I never really ever had the tranquility of mind that was needed,

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