books on the decline of Christianity

book review score+4

Religion Without God
Ronald Dworkin
Harvard, 2013

Atheists can be just as religious and spiritual as believers, says Ronald Dworkin in this little teeny-weeny book. At its base, religious feeling is the conviction that objective value permeates the universe. The difference between believers and nonbelievers, he says, is not so much their belief or non-belief in a deity, but rather that believers take the source of value as coming from outside nature and “religious atheists” do not.

Sounds reasonable. But it's fair to ask: doesn't this weaken religion? Almost everyone would claim to be spiritual if they could. For many people being “spiritual” is little more than a way of staking out a position of moral superiority that makes one feel better about oneself: a moral Rolex.

Dworkin argues that the existence of a god is not sufficient to create value. There must also be something in the world itself that defines it. For Dworkin, it is meaning that gives the universe its value. For example, if the Grand Canyon had been created by Disney it would not be beautiful, because its meaning would be different. Atheists whose sense of awe has not been dulled by cynicism can appreciate its meaning just as well as believers. Perhaps one purpose of religion is to keep that sense of awe alive.

This approach is not so much an Anglican-style surrender as a tactical withdrawal to more defensible ground. Dworkin was a compromiser who sought a middle ground between principle and practicality. But on this issue, religion cannot compromise. It needs to make a choice. If religion is created by man, then religion must evolve along with our understanding of nature. If not, then it is man who must evolve. This is a fundamental difference, and religion yields on this point at its peril.

Science says that religion evolved as a way of promoting group identity. Others have suggested that religion's claim to give eternal life may even be true—but that it applies to cultures, not individuals. If so, this is bad news for our culture, which has abandoned religion, and, arguably, lost both its soul and its chance for eternal life. Whether the loss of our soul or our abandonment of religion happened first might be a matter of debate, but if we are to recover what we've lost, we may discover that we simply cannot survive without some form of religion. By dispensing with the supernatural, Dworkin makes religion more palatable. But this seems to be less of a way out of the dilemma than an admission of defeat. After reading some of Dworkin's other books, I suspect he would be comfortable with that.

dec 19, 2013

book review score+1

The Benedict Option
Rod Dreher
Sentinel, 2017

In a similar vein is this book by Rod Dreher, a commentator at The American Conservative. Dreher has a unique insight into culture and politics. His big idea in The Benedict Option is that the culture wars are over, Christianity has lost, and the situation is utterly hopeless.

Dreher says a new Dark Ages is here, so Christians should consider packing up and moving to a monastery or create small communities where they can keep their beliefs alive until civilization returns. He writes:

Today the culture war as we knew it is over. The so-called values voters—social and religious conservatives—have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins. [p.79]

Benedict Option politics begin with recognition that Western society is post-Christian and that absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future. ... Most Americans will not only reject many things traditional Christians consider good but will even call them evil. Trying to reclaim our lost influence will be a waste of energy or worse. [p.89]

That's their option, of course, and I wish them well. The rest of us will just have to fight to try to stop the oncoming destruction of freedom without their help.

Most of the book reads like a pep talk for Christians. For Dreher, traditional beliefs are unchangeable. Teach your children Scripture, he says. Homeschool them. Prepare for hard labor. Maybe even move to Elk County, PA.

I've been there. There were lots of breweries there—about one for every 1,000 people. Other than that, well ... I thought Christians didn't want to be in hell.

It seems that the Crusader spirit has largely disappeared from Christianity. Dreher's call to withdraw and regroup is not so much a sign that the battle is lost but that the troops are losing confidence in the validity of their own beliefs.

Maybe the pastoral, ascetic life that Dreher advocates where people spend their days in a monastery praying, reading the Bible, drinking beer, cavorting with cows, and making hand-made rocking chairs will work out. He tries to make it sound pleasant. But if all the Christians go Galt, it may be a very long time before they can safely come out again, and they probably won't like what they see.

See also my commentary here.

jun 18, 2017; last edited jun 22, 2017