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November 24, 2004

Spengler deconstructed?

I have only read two pieces by "Spengler." One was about The Passion of the Christ and the other is this one titled Muslim anguish and Western hypocrisy. The second piece I think is interesting, because it is in line with my idea that Islam is a "brittle" religion (in general).

After reading these essays I am impressed by Spengler's erudition, but, I hope that readers will approach his assertions with some skepticism, because I think he enjoys performing intellectual sleights of hand to support his theses or biases. One bias I can not ignore I think, especially in light of what I read so long ago about The Passion of the Christ, is that Spengler is not too keen on Roman Catholicism. A few quibbles below to get a flavor of what I think should be considered red flags in digesting his assertions with naive trust.

On Catholicism:

In fact, the terrestrial power of the Church, along with its authority to burn heretics, was pried out of her cold, dead fingers. It took the frightful 30 Years' War to break the political power of the Church in Europe, and the reunification of Italy to reduce the Vatican to its present postage-stamp dimensions....

Not until the Second Vatican Council of 1965 did the Church reconcile itself to the role of a religion of conscience without temporal power....

Church attendance in most European countries has fallen to single-digit percentages, and the lowest fertility rates are found in Spain and Italy, formerly among the most Catholic. It is unclear whether Catholicism will survive the transition to religion of individual conscience from temporal power, and the prognosis is bleak....

...The great monuments of European Catholicism lie exposed like the bones of extinct mammoths, and in Latin America, the mice of American-style Protestant denominations are eating the eggs of the Catholic dinosaurs.

A few points.

1) Spengler emphasizes the Church's persecution of heretics, while not offering the balancing position that Protestants also persecuted Catholics, and that activities like "witch" burning were far more prevelant in Protestant countries than Catholic ones. You would have thought that Protestant liberals fought for religious liberty against the One True Church when it was more a clash of intolerances than anything else (something he implies for Christianity in general, but only makes explicit in the case of Catholicism).

2) Yes, the Church did associate religion with temporal power, but the Protestant nations like England or Scandinavia still have an explicit assocation between the monarchy and the established Church. The Prince lives!

3) Yes, Church attendence has fallen, but most precipitously in Protestant Northern Europe (France being the Great Catholic Exception). England has more active practicing Catholics than Anglicans! It was Catholic Europe that pushed to keep Christianity in the Constitution. Yes, the Catholic countries have low fertility, but what has that to do with the reality that Christianity faith tends to be more vigorous in the south of Europe than in the north? Bait & switch I say.

4) Catholicism has been very active in Africa & Asia. The past two prime ministers of South Korea have been Catholic. In many of the former colonies of Protestant Britain Catholicism is the largest Christian confession! The American Catholic Church is growing. Latin American evangelicalism has made inroads mostly into the barely Catholic indigenous peoples and the underclass. This does not imply a religion on its last legs (only in Guatemala might Protestants reach majority status anytime soon).

If you read the piece on The Passion of the Christ Spengler implies that Roman Catholicism is pagan, that Protestantism is the genuine primitive Christianity and so forth. To me, this smells of traditional biases against Roman Catholicism. I don't read enough about Spengler to sketch out why he would be biased against Catholicism, but the passages above stink of selectivity of erudition to convince readers of something that wasn't.

To Jews:

Judaism suffered its own transition from a state religion to a private religion of conscience, bloodily and against its will. The best account comes from Rabbi Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, an Episcopal priest. Between the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and the establishment of Christianity as Rome's state religion in the 4th century under the Emperor Constantine, the two religions traded places. Judaism ceased to function as the state religion of Israel, and the legal philosophy preserved in the Mishnah gave way to the theology of the Rabbinical writings of the Talmud.

The Christian authorities often ceded Jews enough autonomy that it was not a conventional "religion of conscience" as it was a millet in the Ottoman system. Jews like Baruch Spinoza were excommunicated and ostracized, and hagiographic legends of Jewish mothers killing their children to prevent their forced baptism during pogroms does not to me show a ease with the idea of conscience as opposed to shibboleths and communal conformity. Also, if you note the last sentence, it seems that Spengler wants to pretend as if much of the Rabbinical learning is not legalistic interpretations of the Law. It's like Spengler doesn't know that Constantine had a good relationship with the "exilarch" of the Jewish community, one Gamileal. The real change in Judaism happened during the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, when the old forms and modes of interaction with the Christian majority did give way to individual choice, not during the period of Constantine when the Jewish elite and the Christian elite established a modus vivendi (I do not deny that Jews converted to Christianity en masse during this period, but communalist considerations were no doubt prominent variables in these decisions).

On to Islam:

No such concept of divine love and the ensuing sovereignty of the individual can be found in Islam. Love constrains the Judeo-Christian God, but not Allah.

The problem here is that everyone knows about the Sufis. That some Sufis and other holy orders did emphasize a loving God is highlighted in Karen Armstrong's A History of God as a possible avenue of Christian influence on Islam. Needless, the point is that though one might assert that Christianity has modal character A and Islam B, one need not categorically deny that A might be expressed in Islam on occassion, if not modally (these ideological fixations are of course at variance with the common day experience and expression of religious faith in my opinion, which is basically the same). I might also point out here that perhaps Spengler could comment on the relative sternness of the Calvinist God in comparison to many other Christian denominations and what it implies for Reformed Protestantism? (I happen to think Reformed Protestantism is also "brittle")

My critique isn't to say that Spengler's theses in this context is wrong, I happen to think it is more correct than not, but, readers beware, I feel the man has a tendency to spin his erudition to purposes other than explicitly stated. I say this as someone who has engaged in the same thing, I can recognize a fox because I've gone into the chicken-coop myself (I know I am harder on the Christian Roman Empire because I admire the latitudinarianism of the pagan Empire, sometimes I just can't help myself!).

Addendum: Also, props to Spengler for making an attempt to write things like this. Negative critiques are almost trivial on topics like this (for every 100 examples there might be 1 counter-example, but in text the proponent of position A with 100 examples can not state all 100 in prose, so the chasm between A with 100 supporting points and B with 1 supporting point is not clarified well in its magnitude. In other words, falsification is really easy for many theses based on history). I had to post this though because I simply can't believe that Spengler believes everything he writes. His readers deserve more exposition on his own axioms as a piece commences, or, they deserve more modest essays.

Posted by razib at 03:07 PM