I just read The Cube and the Cathedral, by conservative Catholic theologian George Weigel. Silly book.
Normally I don’t care much for grandiose theological pontifications on history and civilizations etc., but since this book seems to have made a name for itself as an example of Islamophobia and American conservative-style Europe-bashing, I thought I’d take a look. It turned out that the Islamophobia was just incidental bigotry, nothing special, and that the Europe-is-going-to-hell rant is nothing I hadn’t seen before. The specifically conservative Catholic angle, was, however, interesting. As was the fact that Weigel’s main target is secularism and the “atheistic humanism” that apparently is sending Europe to hell. He argues (well, declares more than really argues) that Catholicism, much more than humanism, is the real guarantor of human rights, liberty etc. He supports his views by a tendentious and very selective reading of history and the current situation in Europe.
Anyway, one overall effect of the book was to make me think “you can never ever trust these bastards” about the Catholic hierarchy. But more than that, it also reinforced my suspicion that there is a fairly deep-seated difference of mentality between certain religious and secular intellectuals. Weigel and his kindred spirits among religiously based social thinkers feel comfortable drawing sweeping social and civilizations conclusions from supposed basic ideas such as theologies, they give a lot of weight to social consequences in judging the truth of ideas, and they see everything through the lens of deep (and invariably conservative) moral convictions. But to me, Weigel’s approach seems implausible from the get go. It’s not just the specific mistakes and lack of proper argument in the book that turns me off, and it’s not just the mismatch in our moral outlooks that prompts my distrust. It’s that hand-wringing about religion being the root of cultural self-confidence does not strike me as being relevant in the first place. (Weigel would naturally consider my attitude here to be yet another facet of the intellectual calamity that is atheistic humanism.)
A prime reason this type of moral theology fails to connect with me is, I think, its blatant anthromorphism—its way of tying very human social and moral concerns to cosmic truth claims. In a more secular intellectual milieu, especially among science-minded nonbelievers, such anthropomorphism ends up as very implausible. It still may be possible that human societies must rely on a theological element in their social moralities. Maybe secular Europe really is doomed without a Catholic revival. But if this is so, we could be convinced only through a very secular form of argument to that effect. An explicitly theological approach such as Weigel’s will not be very persuasive. But then, from Weigel’s point of view, that would itself be part of the problem.
So, in the end, I guess what I most get out of books like this is a sinking feeling that where certain matters are concerned, the usual sort of intellectual argument is of very limited use. In practice, the gulf that separates me and Weigel is just too far.