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Our Post-Christian Society
Christianity, post-Christianity, and the future of the West


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John O’Sullivan

Editor’s note: The following address was given at the inaugural conference of the Transatlantic Christian Council, held in Brussels on December 4. 

It is often said that we live in a post-Christian society. That is true, but its meaning is generally misunderstood. A post-Christian society is not merely a society in which agnosticism or atheism is the prevailing fundamental belief. It is a society rooted in the history, culture, and practices of Christianity but in which the religious beliefs of Christianity have been either rejected or, worse, forgotten. In other words a post-Christian society is a particular sort of Christian society. It is quite different, for instance, from a post-Muslim or a post-Buddhist society (if we can imagine such things). At an emotional level, its Christian character explains why many agnostics and atheists nonetheless find Christian hymns suitable and comforting at occasions such as funerals and weddings. Intellectually, its dormant Christian beliefs — notably those about the nature of Man — underpin our ideas on politics and foreign policy, as for instance on human rights. Even the Enlightenment — which strong secularists like to cite as the foundation of Western liberal polities — is an extension of Christianity as much as a rejection of it. In short, though much of what Christianity taught is forgotten, even unknown, by modern Europeans and Americans, they nonetheless act on its teachings every day.

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But there are consequences to forgetting truths. One consequence is that while we instinctively want to preserve the morals and manners of the Christian tradition, we cannot quite explain or defend them intellectually. So we find ourselves seeking more contemporary (i.e., in practice, secular) reasons for preserving them or, when they decay completely, inventing regulations to mimic them. When courtesy is abandoned, we invent speech codes, which are blunter in their impact and repress legitimate disagreement along with insults. When female sexual modesty and male sexual restraint are discredited as puritanical, we draw up contractual arrangements to ensure that any sexual contact is voluntary on both sides. This means that sexual relationships (and their consequences) may occur more often but that they do so in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and legal wariness that poisons relations between men and women over the long run. Above all, when we no longer protect and strengthen the family on the grounds that it is a patriarchal institution harmful to the life chances of women, we encourage the family breakdown that leaves women worse off financially, pushes men into an irresponsible life, and damages their children socially and psychologically.

Family breakdown is in fact the largest single social disaster plaguing the post-Christian society. The family is a natural way of regulating and disciplining us and our ambitions in the activities of everyday life. It makes us frugal; it encourages saving, wealth creation, and the deferment of gratification; it compels us to provide for the future; above all it ensures that children are brought up and taught to become self-reliant, and that the weak, the sick, and the elderly have others to succor them. When the family breaks down, we get crime, drug-taking, impoverishment, psychological problems, and much else at the personal level; and we get a cycle of deprivation, the growth of an underclass, spiraling social-welfare costs, over-government, and severe budgetary problems at a national level. The result of family breakdown is that we have to replace the family with regulation after regulation. Our remedies — easier divorce, better financial arrangements for women after divorce, increased welfare for single mothers, bureaucratic agencies to compel men to make child-support payments, laws and regulations that disadvantage natural family relationships in court decisions on child care and adoption, and much else — never work as well as the stable families they replace. Indeed, very often they make the situation worse.

Let me give you a very recent example: A pregnant Italian woman on a visit to Britain failed to take her regular medicine for bipolar disorder and suffered a panic attack. The police were summoned and took her to a psychiatric hospital. She was then “sectioned” (i.e., legally detained in the hospital against her will but allegedly for her own good). At the suggestion of social workers, a court then ordered that she be compelled to have a Caesarean and, since she was arguably unfit to care for the child, that her baby be “taken into care” and put up for adoption. That was done. The woman has a mother in Italy who cares for her two older children and a sister and an ex-husband in America, both of whom are on good terms with her. At no point did the courts or the social workers attempt to contact them. Nor was any contact made with the Italian Embassy about the detention of, and forcible medical assault on, an Italian citizen. The judge at a later court hearing, where the woman (now on her medicine) was seeking the return of her baby, remarked that she was articulate and competent. But he still decided that her baby should be adopted, because the social workers thought that would be in the best interests of the child. No one now argues that the woman is criminal, or incompetent, or otherwise a danger to her baby. So one has to draw the conclusion that British law now permits agents of the state to force women to give birth prematurely, to seize their babies, and to give them to total strangers more or less at will — or, in the jargon, if they arbitrarily decide that the baby would be better off with those strangers than with its parents (or, in this case, with its mother and grandmother).



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