Accepting that most people are damned, and liberal pluralism

Here is how I learned it. Once upon a time in the West, the Church aimed to save all of society by bringing everyone under the umbrella of the Truth. The shattering of Western Christendom with the Reformation caused a problem. If the Catholics were right, then the Protestants were damned, and if the Protestants were right, the Catholics were damned. You know all about the “Wars of Religion,” which occupied Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ultimately this led to the Westphalian system and a gradual acceptance that there would no longer be One True Religion in the West. Monarchs who even took a skeptical view on religion, such as Frederick the Great, arose in the 18th century. In this case, you had a Calvinist Hohenzollern dynasty which could not bring its Lutheran populace on board. In Saxony, you eventually had Catholic dukes ruling over a Protestant populace.

But another aspect of the collapse of universal Christianity in the West was the emergence of radical Protestant groups which understood most of society to be damned and beyond redemption. The separatism of the Amish is an extreme case of this. They don’t even attempt to convert anyone to their religion, which has turned into an ethnicity. This withdrawal of radical Protestants from attempting to force the temporal world to their will has expressed itself most fully in the United States of America, which never had a state-supported religion on the federal level, a radical innovation in its day.

This strain of Christianity is suspicious of the state and society in part because of the suppression their beliefs and practices by both the state and society in which they first emerged. But their relegation of the majority to the ranks of the damned also allows for a modus vivendi in this life. As a contrast, see this apologia for the Pope Pius IX behavior in the Mortara case in First Things, Non Possumus.

The basic argument seems to be that the Pope was motivated by the salvation which was being offered to the soul of the child baptized by the family’s maid. The curious thing is that the whole time I was reading the piece I was thinking about Islamists who would argue that coercive conversion of children of other religions to Islam is still good on the balance because they are now Muslims. The general way this wors is somehow a child is tricked into saying the shahada, and Islam enjoins that once converted one can not apostatize (the Kafir Kalash of Pakistan are suspicious of their children being around their Muslim neighbors because this has happened many times in the past to them).

Some of the same extreme “compassion” seems to be cropping up in American politics, as a deviation from the Truth is no longer tolerated. Pius IX was out of step with his time, as secular liberalism was on the rise. Today I wonder if that liberal in its own turn may have to give ground to a new totalitarianism.

13 thoughts on “Accepting that most people are damned, and liberal pluralism

  1. “Some of the same extreme “compassion” seems to be cropping up in American politics”

    They seem somewhat different to me. People are hounded for publicly undermining the narrative, not for their views per se. True, Brendan Eich and that secretly-recorded NBA owner are exceptions.

    But maybe you can’t have a stable equilibrium where people are allowed to hold views but not express them. Maybe if a view can’t be publicly expressed, inevitably people will assume that nobody respectable holds it and there’s no need to tolerate it.

  2. While I am critical of how “political correctness” has developed in our culture, I see the worst aspects of it more as a modern version of Victorian morality than totalitarianism. Like the Victorians, there is strong emphasis on outward restraint – on what one says and does in public – which is often contradicted by private behavior. It also has its strongest influence on the well-educated, while those who are of the working classes are seen as most “backward” and in need of “education.’ Another similarity is that both are moral systems that allow the participants a feeling of smug self-righteousness regarding how their own individual actions elevate them from the herd.

    Liberal values survived the extremely repressive morality of the Victorian era. I don’t see why the current moralistic trend in our culture should be any different.

  3. “Liberal values survived the extremely repressive morality of the Victorian era. I don’t see why the current moralistic trend in our culture should be any different.”

    In the Victorian era the elite political class, the universities and the literati opposed the repressive morality. Today it’s that very same clerisy advancing the moral panic.
    That’s why I feel it’s so frightening.

  4. “a deviation from the Truth is no longer tolerated”

    people on campus think that being skeptical of affirmative action is grounds to call someone racist in 2014.

  5. “In the Victorian era the elite political class, the universities and the literati opposed the repressive morality. Today it’s that very same clerisy advancing the moral panic.”

    The comment this is responding to made me feel better. But THIS comment brought me back to the downbeat reality. The cool-kid killers of all that is fuddy-duddy (the types of people profiled here: http://amzn.to/2CNEgQ1) are now the enforcers of a new kind of “common sense” they can claim for their own.

  6. FWIW, I think that “Victorian” is a better analogy to modern Islamic culture and society than “Medieval” which you often see in main stream media portrayals of Islam.

    While Islam’s formative years were in the European Middle Ages, aspects of Islamic culture like a focus on modesty, a last hurrah of monarchy, a culture that is in the throes from transitioning from pre-modern to modern, a dramatic rise in literacy rates that makes religious texts directly accessible as opposed to accessible only through the mediation of trained religious scholars who can moderate those texts with a gloss of religious tradition, the recent memory of the phasing out of slavery whose vestiges aren’t entirely gone, the effects of mass exposure to new ideas in a sudden wave, excessive use of the death penalty, residual belief in superstitious ideas like witchcraft and sorcery, a period of rapidly improving economic well being that makes expensive and cumbersome religious observances manageable, rising nationalism, and middle class to affluent funding of missionary activity, all of which we associate with the Victorians, is a pretty good fit and lens to try to frame modern Islam in, although, of course, an analogy is never a perfect substitute for actually understanding it fluently as a native or near-native at the family and social level.

  7. It strikes me that this is more profound in the Anglophone Western countries than the non-Anglophone. Perhaps it’s due to a common radical Prot background (though I can’t speak to whether it’s there in Ireland).

  8. @Karl, I don’t know what you mean by Victorian repression. The period was marked by middle-class social movements to end slavery, restrict child labor, promote universal education, create public universities, reform prisons amd asylums, and underlying all of these was promotion of women’s interest and the initial seeds of gender equality. Other than temperance/ prohibition (which may had much greater justification during the period), these all strike me as humanistic values.

  9. In the Victorian era the elite political class, the universities and the literati opposed the repressive morality.

    I think we tend to remember the Charles Darwins and the Oscar Wildes of the era more than the conformists for obvious reasons, but there were certainly more people who were invested in the status quo than critiqued it, considering the moral order is generally considered to have only been thoroughly shattered by World War I.

    The period was marked by middle-class social movements to end slavery, restrict child labor, promote universal education, create public universities, reform prisons and asylums, and underlying all of these was promotion of women’s interest and the initial seeds of gender equality. Other than temperance/ prohibition (which may had much greater justification during the period), these all strike me as humanistic values.

    Victorian morality was a very complicated, and often contradictory, system. I didn’t mean to imply nothing good came out of the period, only that it was a period in Anglo-American history where “virtue signaling” was also very common, and public action was relatively constrained by social custom. I hope you’re not also claiming that nothing good has come out of the current moral iteration, despite its overreach.

    As for other illiberal things besides temperance, the most virulent form of white supremacy flowered during the Victorian era. So did compulsory eugenics – although it didn’t achieve its apex until just past the Victorian era. Again, by our standards, it was a contradictory time. Similarly, I expect 100 years hence it will be manifestly easy for historians to see the “contradictions” which elude the perceptions of most of us today.

  10. Ok, you argued against affirmative action against university and got smacked.

    Maybe– and just consider this — this is just how regular workplaces work, and it has nothing to do with ” the culture”.

    Workplaces are all ‘totalitarian’ (as you say) because saying the truth can get you fired.

    At McD’s, if my server says ‘would you like fries with that, fatso’, or tries to sell a salad by describing factory farming, the server will get fired, even though this is “truth”.

    You don’t insult your paying customers with the truth.

    Academics don’t realize they are just McD servers with paying customers, many of whom entered thru affirmative action. Bad-mouthing AA is just like calling your customers fatso — you are violating workplace culture.

    (Academic workplace culture is not “the culture”. AA can and is debated elsewhere, just like cheeseburger obesity can be discussed, but not at Hamburger U).

  11. Ok, you argued against affirmative action against university and got smacked.

    hey asshole, i didn’t specify what happened.

    here’s what happened (one of many similar), a friend who is on admissions tells me she doesn’t support affirmative action over lunch at a cafe, but whispers it cuz she’s worried about seeming racist (she’s mixed asian-white).

    a woman friend who studies sex differences in an animal model admits she finds rejection of sex differences maddening, but looks around (we’re at a party).

    there are plenty of other views which were normal in 2005 as part of the discourse which are now verbotten.

    anyway, i should put up a post “times ikram has been an asshole.” eg remember when you made fun of my “nonexistent girlfriend” (now my wife?). or the time you said you were an absolutist for liberalism in one forum, but made exceptions in another?

    i could go on. i don’t forget this shit bro.

    are you an asshole in real life or just an internet troll? i know your real name, i should look you up 😉

  12. I apologize for offendong you. I actually edited this comment down to be polite and respectful. Clearly off the mark.

    I don’t live in the academic world – sex differences and affirmative action are topics at parties, though local sports teams and kids schools tend to dominate. I’m trying to understand the gap between your lived experience and mine, and am suggesting a hypothesis (workplace culture).

    But I think the better course would be for me to take a break, and reconsider my tone. I’d like to think I’m not perceived as this much of an asshole in real life, but it would explain a lot…

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