Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why Civilizations Die: Part III

This series on David P. Goldman’s book How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) starts with Part I on population decline, and Part II on the connection between secularization and population decline. Today we’ll cover what works for a lasting civilization.

Goldman proposes that religion is important in “culture,” because “culture” is about dealing with our own mortality.
Why have so many branches of the human family lost the will to live? They have lost the cultural resources that enabled them to cope with their own mortality. From awareness that we will die arises culture—the capacity to order our behavior consciously rather than by instinct. Culture is the stuff we weave out of the perception of immortality, the bridge between generations. Every echo of our earthly footsteps will die out unless those who follow us inherit more than our genes. To speak of a “search for meaning” is pointless unless that “meaning” endures beyond our lifetime. With sad frequency, ethnic groups will die rather than abandon their culture. And their culture is failing many peoples in the modern world (p. 20).
Religion, Goldman says, isn’t just an aspect of sociology; it is the primary factor; he uses the word theopolitics. But there is a difference between pagan religion and the covenant God of Jews and Christians. In pagan religions, faith in their god(s) is tentative, depending on success. As Goldman puts it,
Pagans worship their own image in the person of gods who are like them, only better. Pagan faith is everywhere and always fragile, according to Spengler’s [his online columnist name] Universal Law #15: When we worship ourselves, eventually we become the god that failed. The function of pagan gods is not to redeem us from death, but to bring us success. Pagan gods do not love men and women…. Absent success, pagan societies lose their faith; the religion of the ancient world is a carnival-parade of new gods introduced by winners to replace the failed gods of the losers, as defeated tribes were absorbed into their conquerors (p. 122).
He adds, in Spengler’s Universal Law #19: “Pagan faith, however powerful, turns into Stygian nihilism when disappointed.” In the modern world, pagan gods may not be the same as in ancient religions; they might be the tribe, the culture [Kultur was the word used in Nazi Germany], or self. All are fallible, and therefore will eventually fail.
But the Judeo-Christian God makes a covenant with man. “The American founding notion of ‘inalienable rights’ stems from the Hebrew concept of covenant: a grant of rights implies a Grantor, and an irreversible grant implies a God who limits his own sovereignty in covenant with mankind” (p. 80). This difference means that God isn’t available depending on specific seasonal outcomes, but is there throughout life and into eternities. And there is hope for peace and happiness beyond this life if we obey God’s laws in this life.
Goldman spends a fair amount of time explaining why he sees the Muslim God as more “pagan” than “covenant.” He says the idea that Allah would limit his powers for the sake of a human is repugnant to Muslims. They do not have a relationship with their creator; they rather simply try to appease and hope for good fortune. But their behavior doesn’t affect what happens; all is Allah’s will. I do not understand Islam enough to know whether this assessment is true. But the evidence of cultural failure when moving from traditional (agrarian) societies to modern (urban) societies is evident in the Muslim world as it is in Europe and Japan.
But America hasn’t failed. Its fertility rate holds steady at replacement. Israel is another exception. What makes the difference? Faith.
It is not that Americans in general are having children, but that Americans of faith are having children, and there are more Americans of faith than citizens of any other industrial country. According to a 2002 survey by the Pew Research Institute, 59 percent of Americans said that religion was important to them, against 11 percent in France, 21 percent in Germany, 27 percent in Italy, 33 percent in Great Britain, and 36 percent in Poland. In both Europe and America, people who practice a religion have far more children than those who do not. It’s just that there are far more Americans than Europeans practicing a faith (pp. 191-192).
Here’s some of the data comparing religion among childless vs. large families:
·         33% of childless families say they are not religious; only 12.5% of families with 4+ children are not religious.
·         41% of childless families say grace before meals; 62% of families with 4+ children say grace.
·         45% of childless families “strongly agree” that there is a “God who watches over me”; 80% of adults with four children “strongly agree.”
·         50% of families that never take part in religious activities have no children, but only a third of families with 3+ children do not. (p. 194).
There are differences among different religions in America, even among different Christian religions. If we separate them into “mainline” and “fundamentalist” Christians, we see some patterns. Fundamentalists who attend services weekly have a fertility rate of 2.7 (27% higher than the national average). But mainline Christians, such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians, average 1.3 children—the same as failing European societies.
American Jews show similar differences. “Nine-tenths of American Jews belong to the liberal denominations (Reform and Conservative) or to none at all. A generation ago, the Orthodox Jews seemed like a vanishing remnant of old country life. An observer looking at the configuration of American religion circa 1970 well might have forecast the end of faith in America, for the churches and synagogues that embodied faith at that moment in time were in decline. But the fervor of the evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals, and others [Mormons] has filled the vacuum left by the mainline denominations, and Jewish Orthodoxy is growing rapidly in part by attracting adherents from liberal denominations, but mostly through its own fecundity. Although traditionally observant Jews remain a small minority in terms of overall numbers, a third of synagogue-going Jews below the age of thirty attend Orthodox services (p. 196).
In other words, growing by attrition includes some conversion, but it is fueled by large families. Similar growth is happening in Israel. Among secular Jews, fertility has increased in a generation to 2.6, the highest in the industrial world. Ultra- Orthodox Jews have a fertility rate of 8.5, bringing the national fertility rate to 2.9. Meanwhile, “Arabs births in Israel remain steady at around 39,000, while Jewish births rose from 80,000 in 1994 to 120,000” in 2009. In another 60 years (two generations), Israel’s population will be larger than Poland. Poland’s median age will be 57 (as many older as younger), while Israel’s will be 32 (p. 201). And in the wake of this fertility by more orthodox segments of society, the shift of the culture as a whole is toward orthodoxy. The desire to live, and to have the culture live on, is strong. It bodes well for that little nation.
But, back to America. If Europe was made up of Christian nations originally, why have they failed to remain Christian, and then also failed to continue the will to have their individual cultures live on? And why, facing the same modern world, has America remained Christian at its core? Goldman says,
America is different because it was founded to be different. America remains a Christian nation because it overcame the centrifugal forces of ethnic rivalry through a radical and unprecedented device: the creation of a new country founded on a proposition—rather than commonality of language, race, or history. At the moment of Europe’s most catastrophic failure, people of faith chose to risk everything to found the country that became the United States of America.
The proposition that America was founded on is that our Creator has granted us unalienable rights, among them: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (property, and our own choice of ways of seeking it). And the Bill of Rights spells out what was understood at the founding, that God granted us freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to protect ourselves, freedom from oppressive government. We do not delegate to government powers beyond what is necessary to secure our rights.
The principles are eternal. They are based on promises from an unchanging, unfailing Creator. Unlike civilizations that base their meaning on love of something ethnic or otherwise ephemeral, the proposition will not fail. Only people fail in their understanding, and in their desire to value—to love—the covenant with God.
Goldman points out that we cannot export what we have in America, because it requires Americans—people who love the covenant with God. What we can do, and have done, is “evangelize,” or tell the world about the freedom concepts. Then, as has always happened, people select themselves out of the world to join the American covenant by immigrating, or to develop their own covenant based on God-given rights, as Israel has done.
This leads to a fair amount of foreign policy discussion. Goldman is persuasive and logical, but I don’t understand enough yet to know whether I can fully agree with his “therefore, we must” conclusions. Still, there is enough here to keep a person thinking a long time. And especially there is a lot that is hopeful about the long-time survival of the America that we love.

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