Think Again: Dangerous godlessness

The tripartite division of the recent CNN series God’s Warriors into Jewish, Christian and Islamic segments conveyed its underlying message: Religions produce murderous fanatics. That particular trope features in all the recent spate of books proclaiming, “I am an atheist, and if you had any brains, you would be too.”

That thesis, however, is badly flawed. First, religious fanatics prove no more about the inherent nature of religious belief than Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot prove about non-belief.

And the implicit equation of Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious fanatics is absurd. In the first two categories, CNN’s Christine Amanpour dredged up Dr. Baruch Goldstein and a handful of (largely unsuccessful) Jewish terrorists from the 1980s and a few Christian abortion clinic bombers. (The former allowed Amanpour to segue into a BBC-style frontal attack on Israel and the “Israel lobby,” already admirably dissected by Jonathan Tobin and Andrea Levin in these pages.)

Radical Islamists, by way of comparison, have killed thousands around the globe in recent years – in New York, Madrid, London, Bali, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Jordan, Afghanistan and Iraq. An Iranian regime with the declared mission of spreading the worldwide reign of Islam is on the verge of possessing nuclear weapons, and an already nuclear Pakistan could fall under Islamist rule.

Political Islam, according to Mary Habeck of Johns Hopkins University, recognizes no permanent political boundaries with unbelievers, for doing so “would end the expansion of Islam and stop offensive jihad, both of which are transgressions against [divine] law that commands jihad until the entire earth is under the rule of Islamic law.”

That mindset, in both its Sunni and Shi’ite variants, claims millions of adherents around the world, including tens of thousands who have declared their willingness to kill and be killed furthering the cause. By contrast, Judaism has never recognized a divine mandate for territorial expansion, and it has been centuries since Christians spoke with a straight face of Christendom.

AMANPOUR’S EFFORT to undermine religious faith in general is not only wrong-headed; it is dangerous. Radical Islam may be the greatest threat to world peace today. But the likeliest antidote is a resurgence of Jewish and Christian religious belief.

Without entering into fruitless debates about whether religious or non-religious people are more moral – fruitless since we lack even the common moral language the Decalogue once provided – there is one point even Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) should concede: Religious people are better at defending themselves from threats to their survival.

FOR EVIDENCE, we need look no further than the Europeans’ helplessness in the face of the continent’s growing Islamization. Secular Europeans are unwilling to undertake any sacrifice – even if it’s only producing more children – to save their civilization.

A lack of religious imagination prevents pleasure-loving children of the Enlightenment from grasping the threat of militant Islam. EU bureaucrats consistently treat Islamophobia as a greater danger than radical Islam. They cannot imagine that Islamic terrorists engage in terrorism because that’s what they do best, and not to advance rational, obtainable goals. Nor do they comprehend that Osama bin Laden is deadly serious when he proclaims a war of civilizations, and that there can be no splitting the difference between his goal of imposing worldwide Shari’a and the West’s desire to live in peace and comfort.

When the danger finally slaps them in the face, Europeans respond by assuming a posture of abject deference to Islam, in the hope they will be treated mercifully. A Dutch priest urges using Allah in place of God, the British prime minister forbids his ministers to mention the religion of native-born Islamic terrorists, British schools cancel classes on the Holocaust in the face of Muslim protests, BBC broadcasters invariably add “peace be upon him” to Muhammad’s name and one European country after another falls over itself to apologize for printing cartoons Muslims deem offensive.

MORE THAN four years after Iran’s nuclear ambitions became clear, and after being repeatedly led around by the nose, European nations are still unable to agree on more than symbolic sanctions. Even the threat of nuclear-armed mullahs sitting athwart the Straits of Hormuz (through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes) cannot spur them to action.

Young Europeans have chosen flight over fighting. Emigration from prosperous Germany and Holland exceeds immigration. A young Dutch writer, responding to the advice of German author Henryk Broder to flee to Australia, spoke for many when he wrote: “I am not a warrior, but who is? I have never learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at enjoying it.”

His only reaction to the loss of his country: “a feeling of sadness.”

That passivity in the face of threat is directly linked to Europe’s loss of religious belief. Those who view themselves as nothing more than sophisticated, pleasure-seeking animals, whose life has no purpose outside itself and ends with death, consider nothing worth dying for and war to be an invariably irrational option.

Not by accident is the United States, by far the most religious Western country, the only one that shows a determination not to submit to external enemies. American defense spending dwarfs that of all Europe combined. And since 1945, Europe has left the burden of its defense to the U.S. A poll by the German Marshall Fund found that 80 percent of Americans agree with the proposition “[under some conditions] war is necessary to obtain justice.” Less than one-third of Frenchmen, Germans, Italians and Spaniards responded in kind.

“A man who has nothing he cares about more than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature, who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself,” writes John Stuart Mill.

Godless Europe has become that man.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on September 7, 2007

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5 Responses

  1. Charles B. Hall says:

    The first part of this article makes some very well taken points. After Enver Pasha, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, it is hard to argue that religious people have been the most murderous. And while even one Jewish terrorist like Baruch Goldstein is one too many, the Jewish world has produced a single terrorist mass murderer and the Islamic world has produced many.

    Unfortunately, the remainder of the article completely misses. First, while population growth rates in most of Western Europe are indeed relatively low, the real demographic disaster is in Eastern Europe. For example, Poland has by any standard one of the most devout Christian populations in the world, has a declining population. Furthermore, some of the countries in Western Europe with low population growth rates already have some of the highest population densities in the world. For example, The Netherlands has been dealing with problem for centuries and they may have reached a limit as to how much of the sea they can reclaim. There is no chance they will become underpopulated any time soon. Thirdly, “Islamization” of Europe is not happening. While there are two small countries in Eastern Europe with Muslim majorities (Bosnia and Albania), along with the small part of Turkey (99% Muslim) that is in Europe, there is no country in Western Europe today that has a Muslim population of more than 12%. The State of Israel has a larger Muslim fraction of its population than that! (And that only counts Israeli *citizens*, not Palestinian Arabs in the territories.) Fourthly, while it is true that the US consistently has had much higher defense expenditures than its European allies, that is natural given that the US has accepted worldwide responsibilities. Those allies have not; NATO was conceived as a European defense organization. Furthermore, while the US does indeed spend as much on defense than all its allies combined (and in fact, almost as much on defense as the entire rest of the world combined), European allies France, Britain, Germany, and Italy are in fact four of the top seven countries in terms of defense spending according to this compilation based on CIA analyses:

    Click on on the “Per $ GDP” tab and you will find the surprising statistic that the fraction of Gross Domestic Product that France allocates to defense spending is almost exactly the same as the United States. (Its size in terms of numbers of active duty personnel is actually a larger fraction of its population, but I think that many of those personnel perform police functions that US military personnel do not perform, so it is difficult to compare accurately.) France also maintains deployments in over a dozen countries along with an aircraft carrier battle group in the Indian ocean — partly in support of US operations in Afghanistan.

    I will add that it took just a few minutes of internet searching to confirm all these facts. While there is some strong justification in criticizing some particular European policies, the broad condemnations in this essay are not justified by facts.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Dr. Charles B. Hall, I think your statistics are cherry picked. It’s true that France ($0.23) spends about as much per $10 GDP on defense as the US ($0.24). But if you look in Europe overall, the UK value is $0.15, Germany is $0.14, and Italy is $0.12. Backtracking from the table, if you combine those four European countries you get $0.16.

    Dr. Charles B. Hall: Fourthly, while it is true that the US consistently has had much higher defense expenditures than its European allies, that is natural given that the US has accepted worldwide responsibilities.

    Ori: That is precisely the point. The US and Europe are both rich and have worldwide economic interests. Yet the US is accepting worldwide security responsibilities that Europe does not.

  3. Charles B. Hall says:

    “the US is accepting worldwide security responsibilities that Europe does not.”

    This is true. But consider each case separately:

    1. France. It still accepts worldwide security responsibities, as noted above. It often sends troops to hot spots — under Socialist as well as conservative regimes.

    2. Germany. After World War I, nobody wanted Germany, the largest country in Europe other than Russia, to have military strength. After World War II proved that concept correct in the eyes of most other Europeans, the country was divided and neither of the parts was given full sovereignty over its defense and foreign policy. Before 1990, there is no way that either the US or the former Soviet Union would have permitted either West or East Germany from fully developing its military capability. After 1990, resources that might have gone into defense instead went into reunification. It will be interesting to see what the Merkel government does now that these issues are pretty much dealt with.

    3. Italy. 50+ years of political chaos after World War II prevented any major commitment to much of anything that didn’t have near-unanimous political support. The amazing thing is that the country did play a major role in the founding of the EU. More stable governments since 2001 have resulted in greater willingness to participate in military action outside of Europe; former Prime Minister Berlusconi sent what turned out to be the third largest force to the recent Iraq war. Newly elected Prime Minister Prodi (a rarity among western European politicians in that he is a devout Catholic) brought those soldiers home but continued support for their role in Afghanistan. The reasons for the mixed public support for foreign deployments in Italy is worthy of further study.

    4. Britain. It maintained major overseas commitments for 20 years after World War II as its colonial empire ended, and also developed nuclear weapons. From 1967 to the present, its policy has been largely to focus on Europe — and its “troubles” in Northern Ireland where unhappy British troops have had to keep the hating parties from massacring each other. Yet Britain had a military success during the Falklands war, it sent significant forces to the first Persian Gulf War, and sent a very large force to the second Iraq war — and that under three different Prime Ministers (the third, Tony Blair, is also a rare churchgoing European politician). It continues to have the second largest Navy in NATO. How it has managed these international expeditions with significantly lower per capital defense expenditures than that of the US or even France is worthy of study. (I have maintained for quite some time that until the Iraq war, about half the US defense budget was basically wasted pork barrel allocations to protect the jobs of powerful congressmen.)

    So I don’t think that the generalizations in Rabbi Rosenblum’s essay are valid. What IS worthy of further study are the reasons for the huge decline in measures of religious observance, the extent of the influence of post-modernist relativist academics, and the hostility of almost every European country to immigration. (Only Britain and France have any significant history of welcoming immigrants, and France’s model of requiring total assimilation into French culture is clearly no longer a success. We don’t have Muslim immigrants in New York City participating in violent riots!) There ARE issues here; I just don’t think Rabbi Rosenblum’s approach will adequately address them.

  4. micha says:

    If extremism is inherently dangerous, regardless of the content of the belief, then you’re right — extremist atheism should be lumped together with extremism in other religious stances.

    I often participate in a Jewish Culture forum where the regular membership is from across the Jewish spectrum and beyond (a few non-Jews stop by). It frustrates me to read posts from Jews who value Jewish tradition make this same equation of extremists. These are Jews who believe their is something unique to Jewish tradition, even if they consider Orthodox or “Ultra-Orthodox” (whatever that is) adherence to it to be extreme. How can one believe Judaism is different and not even question equating Jewish extremism (as they see it) and extremism in another belief? For that matter, if all beliefs are roughly the same and it’s only liberality vs extremism that is relevent, how do you justify claiming that you hold to the Jewish tradition at all?


  5. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    “consider Orthodox or “Ultra-Orthodox” (whatever that is) adherence to it to be extreme”

    Personally, I do not find Orthodox Judaism to be extreme. Yes, we have a lot of rules, but there is also a lot of flexibility even in halachic matters and there is very little that we are required to actually believe (basically, the Rambam’s 13 principles seem to be normative today). And it is in fact a basic halachah brought down in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De-ot, that we are supposed to follow a “middle path” of moderation in almost every area. (I’ve shocked some Jewish Buddhists when I have shown them this. Would that they had learned that in their Hebrew Schools!)

    As I write on 29 Elul, I agree that we should indeed examine ourselves and our communities as part of our basic examinination of our midot to look to where ourselves and our people have veered off to extremes. May all who read this be inscribed for a good year.

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