The title isn’t a blasphemous attempt to turn around what Jesus said (“…with God all things are possible.”)
It’s rather a paraphrase of a line spoken by Dostoyevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov: “Without God everything is permitted”.
Or rather not spoken by him, as literary pedants point out to establish their scholarly ascendancy over us, ignoramuses.
Fair enough, those exact words don’t appear anywhere in Dostoyevsky. But that exact thought does.
Dmitri says: “And without God and without life everlasting? That means then that everything is permitted, that one can do anything?”
This theme, with variations, is Dostoyevsky’s leitmotif, repeated by Myshkin in The Idiot, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Kirilov in The Possessed – and these are only those I can remember offhand.
In fact, one could go so far as to say that the post-Christian moral catastrophe is the thrust of Dostoyevsky’s entire oeuvre. In this, he both agrees and argues with Nietzsche, who largely set the terms of intellectual debate in Russia at the time.
Since then this theme has been flogged to death by every conservative commentator. This doesn’t mean that a few more lashes would go amiss – only that the amorality of atheism is, to me, an observation so obvious as to be boring.
Usually I just cite the empirically verifiable fact that more people died violent deaths in the first fully atheist century, the twentieth, than in all the other centuries of recorded history combined.
I then preempt the inevitable objection by saying that not all of these deaths were caused by advances in killing technologies. Millions were dispatched using the expedients long in the public domain: executions, tortures, inhuman imprisonment, artificial famines, neglect.
Another subject, however, hasn’t been explored as exhaustively, and I’m certainly not yet bored with it. My contention is that the collapse of Christianity as the principal social dynamic has produced not only a moral catastrophe, but also an intellectual one.
In other words, without God all things are possible not only to do, but also to say. If I ever get around to writing a book about this, I’ll doubtless cite many substantiating examples. Regular readers of this space know that these aren’t in short supply.
What I’d like to do here is try to understand why our collective intellect has been declining so steadily and precipitously since the coming together of two great misnomers: the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.
This isn’t to suggest that the average IQ is lower now than it used to be. I suspect on general principle that the spread of human abilities, including IQ, is roughly similar in every generation.
However, and this obvious point is often ignored, IQ relates to intelligence the way musicality relates to musicianship – it’s potential, not actual attainment.
Many musical people never learn to play musical instruments, or especially play them well. And many people with a high IQ never become intelligent, although they tend to do well in purely practical fields.
What I mean by intelligence is the ability to think through multiple complex ideas, both singly and in conjunction with one another; construct strong logical chains of many links; build multi-storey structures providing access to the truth; successfully rely on reason rather than emotions or ideology in dealing with the vagaries of life; know the differences among a feeling, an opinion, a judgement and an argument.
A brief scan of, say, Victorian newspapers will show that the columnists of the time occasionally wrote wrong things, but hardly ever stupid ones. These days, one can hardly ever find an Op-Ed piece that can withstand the most cursory of intellectual tests, never mind scrutiny.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) is a widespread fallacy, and one must be on guard when claiming that it was the demise of Christianity that caused the intellectual decline.
However, in this case one can easily argue in favour of a causal effect.
For any religion, when it’s the dominant force in society, teaches people not only, one could even say not so much, what to think but also how to think. It provides a methodology, discipline and technique without which no intellectual or creative activity can ever succeed.
The Christian thinking methodology blended Athens and Jerusalem together, and fortified the blend with indigenous additives. Over many centuries this produced a collective intellect like no other.
This irrespective of the person’s faith – in Christendom, even agnostics thought like Christians on secular subjects, taking advantage of the Christian methodology.
Christianity is a teleological religion, based on the assumption that life has a specific purpose, an end towards which it moves in eternity. Thus a thinking Christian accepts the existence of ultimate, absolute truth and dedicates his life to approaching it.
Moreover, Christians believe that, since the world was created by a rational deity, it’s rationally knowable and independent of our perception of it.
This explains why real science could only have appeared in Christendom – the Incarnation established an ontological link between God and man, conferring on the latter some of the rational powers of the former.
That was the foundation of Christian thought, on which the subsequent structure was built gradually but ineluctably. For Christian thought reflects Christian faith in that it too is teleological, striving to arrive at the absolute truth, or at least approach it.
That being the desired end, an intricate lattice of various methods and techniques were developed to ease a thinker’s way to it.
The process wasn’t haphazard: not only universities but even schools routinely taught such disciplines as logic and rhetoric, to say nothing of theology and philosophy. These were the mainstay, sometimes the entirety, of every curriculum.
The victory of atheism caused a rapid subsidence in the foundations of Western thought. People no longer believed in absolute truth, which deprived their thought of its vital teleological aspect. Absolute truth was fractured into shards of little half-truths and petty relativities.
Man, declared to be self-sufficient in all matters and therefore in no need of God, was cut away from his intellectual underpinnings and cast adrift.
The Christian idea of equality of all before God was perverted to mean the equality of every opinion, what with the man himself being not only the originator of it, but also its judge. The intellectual weapons of Christianity were decommissioned, leaving man to his own vices and devices.
What used to be Christian individualism became modern solipsism, a tendency to see oneself as the axis around which everything revolves. That meant backtracking to Athenian idealism, but with no Plato anywhere in sight.
As a result, serious thought was replaced by a toxic combination of emotions and ideology – with devastating results, at least 300 million of them, which is how many people were killed during the twentieth century.
If you look at one of the two central activities of Western modernity, politics (commerce being the other one), you’ll know what I mean. It proceeds from the worship of narrow-minded and ignorant egoism.
The key presupposition of modern politics, with democracy not counterbalanced by any restraints that could only come from competing powers, is that every vote, no matter how ill-informed or driven by pernicious appetites, is equally valid.
People are paper-trained to think that, regardless of how many individual wrongs are thrown in the pot, together they’ll produce a collective right.
So they may, once in a blue moon – statistically it’s not impossible. But the underlying proposition is not only false but demonstrably damaging if practised over time.
Give it a couple of generations, and no one will believe any longer that any ultimate political truth exists. Everybody is trained to think in terms of short-term expediency – which is to say no one is trained to think.
That explains democratic politicians routinely delivering speeches that are not only mendacious but, which is worse, intellectually puny.
The latest example is Mrs May’s soliloquy at the Tory conference, in which she first identified the high cost of servicing the national debt as a great problem – and then promised to drive that cost much higher by abandoning ‘austerity’, such as it is.
But this isn’t just Mrs May – it’s the overall collapse of the collective political intellect. Stupid politicians assume that their flock is even more stupid, and they’re usually right.
Rather than responding to political messages as sapient individuals, voters respond like dogs, reflexively. They identify some key stimuli activating their current appetites and jump up on cue.
That intellectual catastrophe produces the upward pull-through: people vote in politicians whose promises make their saliva pump harder, without giving the slightest thought to the veracity of the promises or the possible long-term ramifications.
The same observations can be made about commerce or just about anything else. It’s the staggering collective inability to think through one’s economic leaps before making them that created the 2008 crisis and is about to create another, worse one.
This is noticeable in the behaviour of both the providers and consumers of financial services. The former are incapable of thinking beyond this year’s bonuses, the latter beyond today’s appetites. Neither are trained to think through the potentially disastrous consequences of licentious profligacy.
In fact, when people stopped believing in God, they stopped believing in consequences. A moral failure for sure – but also an intellectual one.
In fact, I tend to see much of modernity as one immense intellectual failure. Rodin’s famous sculpture was merely an exercise in nostalgia for a world long gone.