Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

02/05/2010 (9:46 am)

It's a Religious War

avatarnoblesavagesOne of my readers posted several reviews of Avatar in response to my posting RedLetterMedia’s slasher review yesterday (thanks, dullhammer), and one of them struck me as crucial to the cultural debate. In it, Jonah Goldberg finally, finally articulates something that I knew but could not prove — that at its core, what we incorrectly call “liberalism” in America is actually anti-Christianity. The culture war is a religious war.

The central thesis of Goldberg’s review was the starkly religious tone of the culturally-normal “noble savage” message of the film:

…the most relevant point was raised by John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard. Cameron wrote “Avatar,” says Podhoretz, “not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”

What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.

Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.

I’m certainly one of those cranky right-wingers, though I probably enjoyed the movie as cinematic escapism as much as the next guy.

But what I find interesting about the film is how what is “pleasing to the most people” is so unapologetically religious.

He then proceeds, unfortunately, to base his opinion on a recent book by one Nicholas Wade entitled The Faith Instinct, in which the author posits that human beings are hard-wired to believe religiously, because believing confers real survival value to a social group that natural selection preserves. I find Wade’s thesis half-right, but silly and insulting. Yes, religion is universal human behavior, and yes, it confers survival value, but approaching religion as a purely sociological thing implies that it’s not truly important, merely a social characteristic of the animal. Furthermore, it seems singularly unlikely that real survival value might be conferred by an imaginary belief; if religion does confer survival value (and it clearly does,) that would suggest that its core assertions conform better than atheism’s to the universe that is. Reviews of the book over at Amazon.com confirm that it’s mostly cultural socio-babble not really rooted in any sort of genuine research.

However, Wade’s half-baked explanation is peripheral to Goldberg’s core argument. The point is that the core of the culture war is a centuries-long wrestling match between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Martin Luther. This explains the clearly religious nature of so much of what leftists say as well as their stubborn refusal to allow facts to sway their preconceptions; they behave like True Believers because they are True Believers. It also explains why it is that so many leftist initiatives seem aimed at the heart of some core, Christian concept, like the modern effort to unmake the nuclear family, to regard human beings as something far less than the Crown of Creation, to make Caucasian, Christian Europe into The Devil, or to selectively sequester Christianity from the public square.

This point sits at the core of Goldberg’s interesting book, Liberal Fascism. It’s not the greatest book ever written, but it does lay out the religious roots and branches of American progressivism pretty clearly. Liberal Fascism actually accomplishes what I had hoped that Ann Coulter’s Godless would do — explore the religion of progressivism. I recommend the book, not as a means of calling leftists Hitlerian (Goldberg becomes almost tiresome in the book in his repeated efforts to prevent people from doing this,) but as a means to understanding how modern liberalism is the direct descendant of religious social meddling like Prohibition. His history is robust and sound.

It’s true that many conservatives are not religious, and that some liberals are. That’s incidental; the ideas that lie at the root of both conservatism and liberalism are religious ideas, whether the current adherents recognize them or not. Modern conservatism represents the historical stream of Protestant thought. Modern progressivism represents the historical stream of Rousseauian thought, which is why we’re still watching films touting the myth of the Noble Savage.

It’s also true that Rousseau and his stepchildren mostly don’t believe in God, and many of them would insist that that means they’re not religious, but rather anti-religious. That’s like saying that when they say it’s sunny outside, they’re not talking about the weather, but about the absence of weather. Progressives hold deeply-felt presumptions about the nature of the universe in a dogmatic manner, and those notions inform their reasoning in systematic ways regarding how humans should live. If it waddles like religion, and quacks like religion, it’s religion.

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3 Comments »

February 5, 2010 @ 12:17 pm #

I’m glad you picked up on that, Phil.

“Anti-Christianity” is indeed alive and well in our culture today. I would more accurately describe it as the spirit of antichrist (though I realize how that sounds to modern ears), for it is not merely people expressing a discomfort with certain religious practices, but people rejecting the very spirit of Christ– an almost unthinkable thing in our culture a generation ago.

And, as such a spirit of antichrist grows, our culture is not being replaced with an alternative. It is simply dying. People are becoming less civil, less human, less capable of integrity and godly character. The very idea of being godly or Christlike is truly alien to our ears today. And when it is encountered it is mocked. Eventually, of course, our Christian culture will be crucified. For that is what the spirit of antichrist does.

But we know there’s more to the story than that, don’t we.

February 5, 2010 @ 12:32 pm #

You use the terms “spiritual” and “religious”. I’ve noticed those being used as exclusionary alternatives, but I don’t understand how or why. Can you explain it?

re religion as a survival tool…

Maybe. If there is a culture that limits behavior in some way – forbids behavior that is desired in some way – then isn’t that religion? If the absence of behavioral prohibition is the absence of religion, then there is no discipline within the social group, and a higher probability of violence or simply lack of ability to do what needs to be done to stay alive.

I kind of think that what people _really_ mean when they talk about religion is a philosophy that limits sexual behavior. That’s man’s most powerful drive, and the one that causes so much difficulty. People leave religion usually due to some sexual behavior they see as forbidden by their religion – either before or after marriage. They want what they want and don’t want to be told they may not. Of course, then you get into the submission thing which is a different issue, but related in the sense of not being able to accept being told “no”.
I suspect a “spiritual” person is one who meditates on a higher being but without all that nasty forbidden stuff. You know…rules. I guess we’re all just supposed to know what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to act in a society without any dos or don’ts.

February 6, 2010 @ 7:28 am #

ECHO ECHO Echo echo
CHAMBER CHAMBER Chamber chamber

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