The Politics of God by Mark Lilla
Was really interesting to me. In part that's just because he tells a story of Western Civilization from the 16th Century to today that involves some characters I'm not altogether familiar with, and the whole thing has a nice neat arc to it. Do I believe that it's the only interpretation of events? Hell no. But it's interesting. Any time you try to explain what you see as a historical trend that takes place over the course of several centuries, you're bound to oversimplify. Lilla's crime (and I'd call it a misdemeanor, but I do agree with Brian that he crosses the foul line more than once) is that he plays "Happy Sally Sunshine" with the West in order to create a more convenient contrast with the Muslim world.
Once or twice, he made me twitch:
In the Wars of Religion that followed, doctrinal differences fueled political ambitions and vice versa, in a deadly, vicious cycle that lasted a century and a half. Christians addled by apocalyptic dreams hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury they had once reserved for Muslims, Jews and heretics. It was madness."It was madness" when Christians killed Christians, but not when they killed Muslims, Jews, and heretics? Might I suggest it was madness from the start? If your god plus my god means we have to spill one another's blood, it's time to evolve, darlin'. It's time to evolve past the need to appease the void.
The forward-thinking parts of the essay focus on the difference between "liberalizing" religion and "renewing" it -- with him more or less concluding that while liberalizing is our urge, it is destructive to societies because it ruins the religious experience (the apt metaphor is Methadone, I think, substituting for the greater rush of the People's Opiate), and that the more unpredictable patterns of "renewal" are more likely to give us the world we ultimately want.
The assumed "good" here, the "objective," and he never does say this outright but it is clear, is that we should want to make religion coexist with: 1) peace, and 2) productivity.
He blames world wars on liberalizing religion and making it jive with secular goals (again: peace, productivity) -- in part because people cannot have the full-on religious experience with a mollified faith, and in part because that lack of satisfaction leads to backlash.
Now he may gloss American fundamentalism, but I do not. And in fact, recent history has shown a similar pattern to the one he describes in Weimar Germany: in the US in the 30s, scholars predicted religion would soon become a quaint and dusty artifact. By the early 60s, there was a serious counter-movement, and it's increased momentum until only recently, as the US has become so completely saturated with religion as to make people start to get sick of it: the pendulum swings. Ought we make sure that whatever vestige remains in 80 years stay "zesty," enough to keep the masses on their asses? Or leaping from their asses and yelling "amen" if that's what it takes?
Well it's a stupid question. I can't predict the future, and I'm simplifying things as much as he does. (mea culpa.) But if he's asking is it better to let a moth evolve to match the soot, or to dip it in india ink, we must agree that the end result is much better when we let nature take its course. The problem is, a lot of moths had to die -- most of the moths had to die -- for it to get to that point. So what he's really suggesting is that we should encourage as many splinter sects as possible in the hopes that the meekest shall inherit the future.
He may be right about that -- but there will be a lot of blood between here and then.