Commentary

Religion: Atheistic humanism in The Cube and the Cathedral

Have you heard about the ‘European problem’?  To your likely surprise, the problem has nothing to do with debt, sovereignty, Brussels, or the devaluing euro.

As George Weigel posits in The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America and Politics Without God, the ‘European problem’ is atheistic humanism or, as he often calls it in more academic terms, secularism.  The solution to the ‘European problem’ for Weigel is to return to what made ‘European civilization’ so great in the first place.  This is Christianity.

Weigel suggests that atheistic humanists are involved in a ‘deliberate act of historical amnesia, in which a millennium and a half of Christianity’s contributions to European understanding of human rights and democracy are deliberately ignored by contemporary Europeans’.  Rather than adhering to another transcendent allegiance, contemporary Europeans, as Weigel argues, now belong ‘nowhere’.  In citing Christopher Dawson, Weigel writes that this ‘spiritual no-man’s-land’ is ‘inherently unstable and ultimately self-destructive’.  Secularism is nothing more than ‘a monstrosity – a cancerous growth which will ultimately destroy itself’ (Dawson).  To further support his argument here, Weigel turns to Solzhenitsy:

The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.  The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it.  That war… took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever.  The only possible explanation for this is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them…. Only the loss of that higher intuition which comes from God could have allowed the West to accept calmly, after World War I, the protracted agony of Russia as she was being torn apart by a band of cannibals… The West did not perceive that this was in fact the beginning of a lengthy process that spells disaster for the whole world.

Perhaps unknowingly, Weigel and Solzhenitsyn touch upon a Weberian analysis in the idea of ‘worldly disenfranchisement’, in which human beings become increasingly rationale, like mindless robots, and less inclined or curious with the supernatural and spiritual dimensions of the human experience.

Another valuable piece of Weigler’s book is his introducing of the international legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler’s notion of ‘Christophobia’; a very real concept and not just a theory.  Weiler’s ‘Christophobia’ has eight key features, as outlined by Weigler, which include (in no particular order):

1.  The notion that the Holocaust and other 20th-century European genocides are the logical outcome of Christianity’s inherent racism.

2.  The ‘1968 mind-set’ – the youthful rebellion against traditional authority and Europe’s traditional Christian identity and consciousness.

3.  The psychological and ideological denial of the non-violent revolution of 1989, which, according to Weiler, was deeply and decisively influenced by Christians in central and eastern Europe, preeminently by Pope John Paul II.

4.  The continuing resentment of the dominant role once played by Christian Democratic parties in post-World War II Europe.

5.  The habit of associating Christianity with right-wing political parties, which are the parties of xenophobia, racism, intolerance, etc.

6.  The resentment towards Pope John Paul II among secularists and anti-Catholics.

7.  The distorted teaching about European history which stresses the Enlightenment roots of the democratic project to the virtual exclusion of democracy’s historical cultural roots in the Christian soil of pre-Enlightenment Europe.

8.  The resentment of the ‘1968 mind-set’ generation that their children have become Christian believers.

Weigel’s analysis of Pope John Paul II is also intellectually and spiritually invigorating.  Using John Paul II’s exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe), Weigel contends that Europe can witness a new burst of hope and confidence to end its current state of ambiguity, which has led to a ‘loss of faith in the future’.  Europe’s most urgent need, for John Paul Il, is ‘not a common currency, a transnational parliament, a unified set of fiscal and budgetary norms, or a Continent-wide regulatory regime’, but rather ‘the growing need for hope, a hope which will enable us to give meaning to life and history and to continue in our way together’.  John Paul II’s insinuation, however, in Ecclesia in Europa – that returning to Christianity can cure Europe of all her ills – is a bit of a stretch on the imagination.  In my opinion, Europeans could, however, use a bit more from Christian teachings to overcome the following dilemmas:

1.  ‘A kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history’.

2.  ‘Fear of the future’.

3.  ‘Inner emptiness that grips many people’.

4.  ‘Widespread existential fragmentation’ in which ‘a feeling of loneliness is prevalent’.

5.  ‘Weakening of the very concept of the family’.

6.  Selfishness that close individuals and groups in upon themselves’.

7.  A growing lack of concern for ethics and an obsessive concern for personal interests and privileges’ leading to ‘the diminished number of births’.

While he offers useful insight into the life of John Paul II, and how we can benefit from his philosophy, some of Weigel’s points are misleading and, to be honest, downright inaccurate, especially those which pertain to Muslims and Islam in Europe.  These problems include:

1.  Not including Islam in the Abrahamic tradition; ‘God’, for Weigel, is the God of the Prophet’s Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.  The Prophet Muhammad is not mentioned in this context.

2.  Warning Europeans that Europe will be increasingly influenced, and perhaps even dominated by, ‘militant Islamic populations’, even though the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe denounce violence and acts of terrorism as antithetical to Islam.

3.  Contending that Europeans are becoming ‘Islamicized… in the sense of being drawn into the civilizational orbit of the Arab Islamic world’.

And yet in a bizarre twist from his comments towards Muslims and Islam, Weigel concludes his book by hoping Europeans reconvert and find in Christianity ‘the spiritual, intellectual, and moral resources to sustain and defend its commitments to toleration, civility, democracy, and human rights’.

In following sociologist Andrew Greeley, Weigel is guilty of ‘using secularization as an all-purpose brush with which to paint a portrait of contemporary Europe’.  Many Muslims in Europe, for instance, have an interpretation of Islam that calls for belief in God, tolerance, respect, humility and integrity, all principles which Weigel seems so desperate for Europeans to recapture.  Sadly, however, Weigel appears to think that only a return to Christianity can recapture these principles.

Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral is basically an exercise with a massive contradiction.  He argues for Europeans to return to Christianity to defend ‘European principles’ like toleration, civility, democracy, and human rights, and yet demonstrates intolerance and ethnocentrism when speaking about Muslims in Europe and Islam.  More attention should have been paid to the many Muslims in Europe who have successfully balanced their religious and national/regional identities and a peaceful and progressive ‘European manner’.  Weigel’s ‘European civilization’ term, moreover, is problematic when it is used in the singular form.  Is there really such a thing as a ‘European civilization’?  Was Europe ever a homogenous entity?  Could we not argue that there have been different ‘European civilizations‘ throughout history?  These are theoretical propositions which are never adequately addressed by Weigel.

Weigel does offer some interesting insight into the philosophy of Pope John Paul II and the very real and increasingly important concept of ‘Christophobia’.  This easily readable book is worth flipping through if you can stomach blatant Westerncentrism and Eurocentrism, an unapologetic ‘Christian supremacy’ perspective, as well as a tint of anti-Islam rhetoric.

Weigel, George.  The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God.  Basic Book: New York, 2005.

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