Friday, June 22, 2012

The "Great Switch"

I have been slowly making my way through Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. In his treatment of George Bernard Shaw he describes the political confusion that took place during the 19th and 20th centuries such that labels and realities often do not match.

What Shaw and all the other publicists who agitated the social question helped to precipitate was the onset of the Great Switch. It was the pressure of Socialist ideas, and mainly the Reformed groups in parliaments and the Fabian outside, that brought it about. By Great Switch I mean the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite. It began quietly in the 1880s in Germany after Bismarck “stole the Socialists’ thunder”—as observers put it—by enacting old-age pensions and other social legislation. By the turn of the century Liberal opinion generally had come to see the necessity on all counts, economic, social, and political, to pass laws in aid of the many—old or sick or unemployed—who could no longer provide for themselves. Ten years into the century, the Lloyd George budget started England on the road to the Welfare State. 
Liberalism triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least; now for all the western nations political wisdom has recast this ideal of liberty into liberality. The shift has thrown the vocabulary into disorder. In the United States, where Liberals are people who favor regulation, entitlements, and every kind of protection, the Republican party, who call themselves Conservatives, campaign for less government like the old Liberals reared on Adam Smith; they oppose as many social programs as they dare. In France, traditionally a much-governed country, liberal retains its economic meaning of free markets, and is only part of the name of one small semi-conservative party; Left and Right suffice to separate the main tendencies. In England also, the new Liberal party numbers very few. Conservative and Labor designate the parties that elsewhere are known as Conservatives in opposition to Social Democrats. The political reality, the actual character of the state, does not correspond to any of these labels. It is on the contrary a thorough mixture of purposes and former isms that earlier would have seemed incompatible. Nowadays, a sensible voter should call himself a Liberal Conservative Socialist, regardless of the election returns. Changes of party mean only a little more or a little less of each tendency, depending on the matter under consideration.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

We are all students of law

Harold J. Berman argues that law is so fundamental to life that we have all been law students since a very young age.
A child says, "It's my toy." That's property law. A child says, "You promised me." That's contract law. A child says, "He hit me first." That's criminal law. A child says, "Daddy said I could." That's constitutional law.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Interaction of Law and Religion

I recently acquired the above mentioned book by the highly esteemed legal scholar, Harold J. Berman. A quick perusal of its introduction makes me think I'll enjoy it even more than I originally expected.

Just a brief quote and a few quick comments:
The principal affirmation is that law and religion are two different but interrelated aspects, two dimensions of social experience--in all societies, but especially in Western society, and still more especially in American society today [1973]. Despite the tensions between them, one cannot flourish without the other. Law without (what I call) religion degenerates into a mechanical legalism. Religion without (what I call) law loses its social effectiveness. [Italics added]
Indeed. Law is a necessary and inescapable part of life in this world. Civilization cannot function without it. For Christians to ignore or deny God's law and its ongoing applications both for the individual as well as for society at large is to consign the Christian faith to irrelevance--or in Berman's words, the Christian faith will "lose its social relevance." 

Worse, for Christians to deny God's law is to (unwittingly) advocate for the worship of another god in the public square. As Rushdoony said, "It must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society" (Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 4). It may not be a traditionally recognized deity, whether the One and Only True God of the Bible or any one of a number of false gods (Baal, Chemosh, Vishnu, Zeus, etc.), but whatever is held to be the source or origin of law (nature, reason, experience, etc.) has for all practical assumed the role of divinity.

If this is true, are we really preaching the gospel if we omit the comprehensive claims of the Christian faith?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Will atheism triumph in 2038?


Nigel Barber wrote a piece this week for the Huffington Post in which he predicted that atheism will defeat religion by the year 2038. He appeals to what he calls “the existential security hypothesis” in order to make his case. This is the idea that,

“as people become more affluent, they are less worried about lacking for basic necessities, or dying early from violence or disease. In other words they are secure in their own existence. They do not feel the need to appeal to supernatural entities to calm their fears and insecurities.”

Barber studied data from the nine “most godless countries” (Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), specifically looking for each country’s GDP per capita when it made the “atheist transition” (moving from majority religious to majority secular). He discovered that on average the figure was $29,822. Then, applying current global economic growth patterns, he arrived at 2035 as the pivotal year when the average country will reach the same GDP per capita, and likewise make the atheist transition. Using other similar measures, he arrived at the year 2041. Averaging them out, he came to 2038.

His analysis is, of course, much too simplistic. For one thing, he doesn’t factor in a nation’s particular history and culture. Might it not be relevant that most of the countries listed above as the “most godless” were already rapidly trending toward secularism prior to World War II, and that most were decimated by the war? What impact did the war have on the collective psyche of Europe, and how did it affect the institutions that were rebuilt in its wake? The mood of despair that overtook continent after the war (especially coming as soon as it did after WW I in a kind of lethal one-two punch), as evidenced by the dominance of existential philosophy, left many wondering where God was in it all—or if he was in fact anywhere.

Similar things might be said about the national disillusionment that took place in Japan as a result of a humiliating defeat and the divine emperor’s forced recantation of his divinity. Foundational beliefs were overthrown by the outcome of the war.

And of course none of Barber’s analysis even considers nations that have been historically Muslim or Hindu. His his sample isn’t nearly large enough or diverse enough to draw such sweeping conclusions based on a single criterion (GDP per capita).

Consider the U.S. as a case in point. The GDP per capita in the U.S. has been well over the $29,822 mark since at least 1999, and yet 81 percent of Americans polled said that religion is “very important” (55%) or “fairly important” (26%) in their lives.

For all the flaws in Barber’s post, it must be said that it is not altogether without merit to suggest a correlation between rising prosperity and declining religious commitment. Scripture itself makes the same point.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God (Deut. 8:11-14a).

But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation (Deut. 32:15)

See also Proverbs 30:9; Hosea 13:6.

Moses and the prophets and apostles—not to mention preachers throughout the ages—have pointed out the tendency of people to turn away from God when they grow wealthy. They are tempted to a sense of false security (1 Tim. 6:17). Perhaps we should congratulate Barber for finally catching up and noticing what believers have known for millennia. His error lies in assuming the tendency is an inevitability. Whether rising prosperity will lead to a secular majority in any particular country or not (regardless of all other factors), and what the precise tipping point might be remains to be seen.