First posted in 2003
Civilizations whose leaders and members are not rooted in the sterner part of the moral order cannot summon the will to defend themselves when challenged by a more cohesive, more fervently motivated adversary. There is a Darwinian logic at work here that favors the triumph of the religious society over the complacently hedonist culture, the “blood sweat and tears” rally over the “make flowers not war” withdrawal, and the committed, brave heart over the timid, ambivalent soul.
This does not mean that our Europacifist neighbors can quickly be taken down by a few suicide bombers. The gradual accumulation of high technology weapons by the highly developed economies in the West has allowed a sort of pacifist-warrior détente. In many wealthy, secular countries, small armies and security forces, “properly” constrained of course, are permitted to do the distasteful work of making the world safe for pleasure and comfort.
But when the scale of the challenge approaches that of general war, these societies either recover their deeper, more robust moral foundations, or they become chapters in the book, Failed Civilizations of Our Time. We are at that place.
In an important column, “Only believers can defeat believers,” ( http://dennisprager.townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2003/10/07/only_those_with_beliefs_can_defeat_those_with_beliefs ), Dr. Dennis Prager made the trenchant and disturbing point that “we cannot defeat the Islamist threat without the same degree of faith fanatical Muslims have.” [Assuming an intelligent, discerning readership, he didn’t have to make the PC disclaimer that he was talking about the Islamo-facisists, here, not the non-aggressive, tolerant faithful.]
I am a theist, a moral universalist, firmly centered in Judeo-Christian tradition (this is just my shorthand self-description, not a denomination). As one whose views tend to bridge the secular humanist-religion divide, I have spent some years working out the bridge between secularism and that “sterner part” of the moral order I referred to above.
There are three essential parts to this bridge:
(1) the conviction, whether based in theistic faith or not, that the moral order really does exist apart from culture, whim, and preference;
(2) that it contains the basis for accountability and honor as well as love and the softer virtues;
(3) that we, as mortal individuals, whether through a fierce integrity-commitment in this life, a sense of accountability to ultimate authority post-mortem, or some combination of these elements, feel authentically bound by the moral imperative to oppose evil.
Those who are so caught up in the current secular and spiritual hedonism that the whole notion of evil is demoted to a mere “cultural construct” are disarmed from the outset. And those “fundamentalists” whose view of evil is overbroad tend to exclude needed allies. They, too, have unilaterally disarmed.
I’ve written much more on the topic of evil elsewhere (see my essays about Evil and the Modern Mind posted at http://www.jaygaskill.com/explainingevil.htm and http://www.jaygaskill.com/evil2l.htm ).
Let me condense that whole discussion to a few core insights:
Human morality is not invented but discovered. It flows from the convergence of three meta-affirmations, easily found within the normative infrastructure of all major moral systems worthy of the name: respect for and affirmation of life, conscious intelligence, and creation (seen both as process in the world and as human endeavor.) Evil in it largest and most dangerous form represents the opposite alignment, consciously pursued. Civilization in its developed, modern, robust, liberty-friendly form, represents Homo Sapiens’ most important social technology because these three meta-affirmations (and the special conditions that allow them to flourish) are best protected within its enclaves, and are gravely at risk everywhere else.
Albert Schweitzer once wrote that the world presents the ghastly spectacle of a universal will to live divided against itself. This was a humanist’s reaction to the predator prey relationships of the natural world. But we are no longer prey. We humans are the world’s dominant predator species; and we have chosen to live in self-managed zones of peace; these are our (sometimes fragile) states of civilization. Therefore, for us, it makes much more sense to understand that the world presents the dramatic spectacle of the brave honorable and innocent allied in the primal struggle against that omnipresent social pathogen we call evil. This is a struggle that can challenge and ennoble us; it is one we dare not ever lose.
In the current moment we don’t face a “clash of civilizations” so much as an overt, concerted, ruthless attempt through terrorist destabilization to destroy creative civilization altogether.
Jay B. Gaskill
October 7, 2003 and June 6, 2008
Copyright © 2003, 2008 Jay B. Gaskill. For permission to post, print, or reproduce, contact Jay B Gaskill, attorney at law, via email: email@example.com.