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Monday, November 06, 2006

Melanie Phillips, Christianity and the defence of the west

Melanie Phillips has put the cat among the pigeons in a rather bigger than usual way with one of her recent posts. And specifically among a little flock waiting for trains to Glasgow, Manchester and other Eustonian destinations.

The cause of offence is this:

'[T]he collapse of Christianity in Britain and Europe and its steady replacement by secularisation is so catastrophic for the defence of the west. The useful idiots who believe that only a secular society can hold off the forces of irrational belief at the heart of the Islamic jihad have got this diametrically the wrong way round. Secularisation produces cultural enfeeblement, because the pursuit of personal happiness trumps absolutely everything else. The here and now is all that matters. Dying for a cause, however noble, becomes an absolute no-no. It's better to be dhimmi than dead - the view that has now effectively prevailed in Britain and Europe.
'And that is why I, a British Jew, argue that it is vital that Britain and Europe re-Christianise if they are to have any chance of defending western values.'

- as quoted by Shuggy, who comments a little tetchily:

'So if Melanie Phillips wants Europe to re-Christianize, her energies would be better spent trying to make converts by preaching the Gospel.'

Well, I'm never quite sure how religious Mel is (though in her normblog profile she refers to 'The Torah, which defines my moral outlook'). She's certainly enough of a realist not to expect mass conversions to Judaism. But in any case there's nothing inconsistent about seeing religious belief as producing benefits in purely secular terms. It's a much more intellectually serious stance than the Dawkinsite 'I don't believe, therefore everything about belief must stink' one. In a way Mel's in the position of a GP who can diagnose a heart condition but can't perform open heart surgery. She may or may not be right, but her position is not inherently absurd. And a non-believer who arrives at the same position can at least lay off knocking religion for the sake of it and start saying positive as well as negative things about the Christian cultural heritage which as Europeans we all share, whether believers or not.

One of the things I like about Norm is that he is consistently ready to see good in beliefs which he doesn't share. It's the mark of an authentic liberal. So although he endorses Shuggy's critique, he takes Mel seriously to this extent:

'There is, however, a serious question wrapped up in all this. Can there be a robust defence of liberal and secular values? Or are these, as Phillips thinks, too infected by the good life for their adherents to be willing to put up a fight for them? Anecdotal evidence from the Nazi death camps suggests that the prisoners most able to preserve some sort of moral direction in the hellish conditions of those places were people of fervent belief - Jehovah's Witnesses, rabbis, communists, etc - and that others educated in the virtues of rationality and sceptical enquiry found this much more difficult. I point that out not because I think it answers the questions just posed, but merely by way of reporting something I've come across that is obliquely relevant.'

'Liberalism and secularism need the strength also of a fighting self-belief', he concludes, having pretty much conceded that that, at present, is precisely what they don't have.

david t, however, evidently feels his manhood has been called into question:

'Liberals aren't wusses. They will stand and defend their values.'

David strikes me as a genuine, principled and courageous liberal. But is what he says here about liberals in general actually true, or is it wishful thinking? Is it, for a start, literally true? A question for Eustonian interventionist liberals: how many of you can honestly say that you ever seriously considered a career in the armed forces? (And, where applicable, would you encourage your children to do so?)

Here's my answer: as far as I can remember it last looked to me like a good idea when I was about eight years old, and the Army had a recruitment stand in Bentalls department store in Kingston with some really cool hardware on display. I'm a baby-boomer who grew up at a time when liberal values stood in great need of being defended against the totalitarian system on the other side of the Iron Curtain. One of my formative political experiences was watching the news on the day the tanks rolled into Prague. But when I was of an age to take the Queen's Shilling, I was more interested in overthrowing the bourgeois state (or at least sitting in meetings talking about overthrowing it) than in fighting for it. So if I talk tough on Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever, I'm making a brave principled stand with other peoples' lives.

That's how much of a non-wuss muscular liberal Mr Grumpy is. How about the folk waiting on Platform 11?

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