Three authors have proposed a way to think about current and coming conflicts. Conrad Black sees the conflict as between the religious instincts of the people and the secular worldview of the elite. William Deresiewicz thinks that lurking behind today’s elite secularism is a new kind of religion, setting up the conditions for a kind of religious conflict. And David Goodhart sees the conflict in largely secular terms. Let’s look at each.
Conrad Black writes here that Enlightenment values have mutated and the newly mutated values constitute a threat. He has written in the past mostly about politics, and so I expected a political interpretation of the issue. But he comes at the question from a religious point of view.
(W)hile the Enlightenment did not begin as being atheistic, the concept of reason was quickly subsumed into skepticism, and the Enlightenment has generally evolved over five centuries toward the complete dismissal of religion as contrary to reason.
The schism is that the great majority of people in the West, and certainly in Canada, believe that there is some sort of supernatural spiritual force or intelligence, whether they translate this into religious practice or not, but that the academic communities, the media, and the higher levels of government are all almost entirely in the hands of atheists, and in many cases, aggressive atheists.
He thinks this will lead to a crash.
This is what the Enlightenment has become. In its mutated condition it afflicts and threatens our civilization. Much of the present leftist deference to Muslims is really implicitly a ridiculing and defaming of all religions, in the guise of exaggerated tolerance. At some point, there will be a confrontation between falsely righteous and devious atheism and, when it has acceptable evocators and leaders, the majority who are suspicious of the facile trucklers and propagators of a conventional wisdom that is increasingly simplistic, trendy, and in the sense of having no ethical basis, empty. The believers will have to assert themselves calmly and democratically over the nonbelievers.
I am not quite sure I would go as far as he does in contrasting the People, who are believers, and the Elite, who are atheists to a man. I doubt the division is quite so stark. I think there are agnostics, light believers and some truly religious in our elites. And the people are more varied than he makes out. But yes for sure the polarity exists, and is the cause of some of our political tensions.
I also do think that our Enlightenment values have mutated, as he writes. Not being particularly religious myself in terms of basic make-up, instincts and habits, I had not noticed the mutation of Enlightenment values so much from the religious POV that Black develops. Rather, I see it more in things like the ultra-progressive notions now germinating on college campuses
For instance, free speech is a child of the Enlightenment but the idea is under siege, and in some of the country’s tonier and best educated precincts. Relatively large chunks of what will become our intelligentsia have been driven by what they see as “reason” to intolerant places.
Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters comes to mind too.
In Spanish the word “sleep” can be interchangeable with “dream”. So when Goya shows himself asleep and beset by animal hobgoblins is he saying that monsters come when we dream about reason or when we fall asleep and forget it? Apparently he intended some ambiguity, and this double-sided view is reinforced by the caption he uses for the print: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”
On its own reason is, well, kind of cybernetic. Just as a computer programmed to make paper clips can destroy humanity reason unshackled can take hideous forms.
I recall this step-by-step phenomenon from the Sixties, as SDS morphed from espousing humanistic values to angry protest to (among some) Weather violence and bombing. At each step of the way the voyagers maintained they were guided by reason. The logic was impeccable: if we believe in the Port Huron Statement values we must take action to secure a world that reflects them. America’s government stands in the way of that and so we must protest. But if America is holding down our values all around the world we must recognize that America’s people are also complicit. America becomes Amerika. Amerika is out enemy. We are at war with Amerika.
To a certain way of thinking the sequence made perfect sense. A similar logic, if you will, can be observed among the current day smartie pants who bully in the name of the oppressed.
people, whether religious or not, need to sacralize…something. If it’s not framed within an established religion with its centuries of trial and error and codified beliefs and rituals, then people will find something else; the environment, personal identity, victimhood, whatever, and imbue these with the same righteousness and inherent goodness that the religious do their gods. The result is, well, our present.
That burning need to sacralize . . . something on today’s campuses is described very well by William Deresiewicz in the current American Scholar.
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
Deresiewicz does more than castigate the young and their privileged enablers. He neatly ties the all-too-visible PC escapades into the much less visible world of class and class perpetuation, which is to the elite colleges the impulse that dare not speak its name. But the connection between the newfangled religion on display and the class system it is part of seems undeniable.
As Deresiewicz writes, this new religion thing is driven by the elite privates. Public colleges (like Hunter College, which he cites) are authentically diverse. Students there know full well that they are likely to run into a wide spectrum of humanity, including the white working class where public colleges serve such populations. True, the Large Gods of the Ivies are honored in public institutions too but according to Dereciewicz it is a different thing. At publics there is often a recognition that difference exists and must be dealt with. By contrast the subtle job of the elite privates is to manufacture sameness.
This view is in some contrast with Black’s. Black suggests elites are secular and that their secular ways will eventually clash with the religious views of the people. Dereciewicz argues that the elites are in fact developing their own religious dogmas.
This may not be too hard a circle to square. As JC suggests, the emerging religious views may not be tied to the divine but rather to “the environment, personal identity, victimhood, whatever”. But they nonetheless appear as a kind of religion. The clash Black foresees may still happen, but it may be also understood as a coming religious war and not simply as a conflict between belief and non-belief.
Or maybe you just want to leave religion out of it. That conflict is described in David Goodhart’s upcoming book, The Road to Somewhere. Goodhart’s view is that the conflict, at least as it is being played out in England, is between the Anywheres and the Somewheres.
Goodhart renames the new tribes the “Anywheres” (roughly 20 to 25 per cent of the population) and the “Somewheres” (about half), with the rest in between. And it broadly works. Those who see the world from anywhere are, he points out, the ones who dominate our culture and society, doing well at school and moving to a residential university, and then into a professional career, often in London or abroad. “Such people have portable ‘achieved’ identities,” he says, “based on educational and career success which makes them . . . comfortable and confident with new places and people.”
The rebels are those more rooted in geographical identity – the Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife – who find the rapid changes of the modern world unsettling. They are likely to be older and less well educated. “They have lost economically with the decline of well-paid jobs for people without qualifications and culturally, too, with the disappearance of a distinct working-class culture and the marginalisation of their views in the public conversation,” Goodhart writes. He argues that this distinction, emerging from a melange of social and cultural views together with life experiences, matters more than old distinctions of right and left, or social class.
I think there is truth to all three views. If Howe and Strauss are correct we have likely moved from the Third Turning (the Great Unraveling) into the Fourth Turning (Crisis). If that is so we are pretty well unraveled by now, and on multiple dimensions. It may take some time to put things back together again.