A few weeks ago, one of the world’s most important financial consultants published a report. It was the usual orthodox global analysis supported by exhaustive numerical data, yet it also included phrases such as the following: “it’s difficult to find a justification for a financial and economic system that depends on expanding debt and subsidized capital” and “the European Union is becoming a kind of secular papacy.” In such a report, the first statement, although it contains much political substance, surprises us less than the second. The authors are speaking not only of politics, economics, and finance, but also making untypical allusions to religion and morality.
Recently, Chantal Delsol, the renowned French Catholic philosopher, published an essay titled La fin de la Chrétienté. Her thesis is that the modern West is going through the reverse process to that which happened in the fourth century when the Christian Theodosius, Eastern Roman Emperor, beat Eugenius, the pro-pagan emperor of the West, and established Christian orthodoxy in both parts of the empire. For the West, this entailed two important changes: on one side, the transition from polytheism to monotheism; and, on the other, social morality (in less than 40 years!) began to be cultivated by religious institutions rather than by the state. One of the crucial features of polytheistic societies is that their moral code is not established by a religious creed but by the elite working through secular institutions.
No matter how much I read Steven Pinker, Ayn Rand, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx (among others), I find myself unable to believe, despite my fervent wish to do so, that social man is a rational animal. Perhaps some isolated individuals have tried to be so; however, I believe that Jonathan Haidt and Pablo Malo come closer to the truth when they state that man is a moral being. Alasdair MacIntyre gives part of the reason for thinking as much when he argues that, although man wants to be rational, it is difficult to reach an agreement on “who is right” in social and political disputes. Because of this, he states, there is nothing else to do but refer to a third party to establish what one should or should not do, whether this is God, the state, or any other agent claiming the requisite moral authority.
Regarding the human psyche, it is necessary to refer to the Freudian “superego” that, as we know, constitutes the application of the moral judgement of the first-person singular, “I.” In the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, the second argument—that in a situation where one must choose between acting virtuously, without anyone knowing, or acting in a crooked way, but appearing to act correctly—most men would choose the second option. If this happens when a human being considers that he is not acting according to justice, imagine what he would be capable of doing (or ceasing to do) when the morality of the superego (religious, statal, or social) constrains his thought. He would have to be in possession of a very strong “ego” to resist such a powerful force. Paradoxically, we live in a context where having too much ego is looked upon as negative. What was once praised as ‘self-restraint’ is now condemned as ‘self-repression’ by a culture that has unwittingly absorbed Freud.
If Chantal Delsol is correct—and she probably is—we Europeans are living through a period as hectic as that of the 4th century Western Roman Empire. After the “death of God,” attested to by various 19th century philosophers, paganism is filling the vacuum left by Christianity. The problem with all this is not that it might disappear, something that will only concern believers; but rather that Christian civilization, Christendom, is crumbling. Nevertheless, believers can remain personally calm because Christianity will not completely disappear. According to Delsol, it will continue to exist as a sector minority religion, overshadowed by the dominant paganism.
But, whether we are Christians or not, should we worry about the decline of Christendom? Thinking about the evolution of our civilization during the 16 centuries of monotheistic Christianity, perhaps we can say that it hasn’t been such a bad thing, especially when we consider other regions where non-Christian beliefs have held sway.
The concept of the university, on which our technological, philosophical, and scientific development still largely depends, had its origin in Bologna in the year 1088, thanks to its religious foundations (and not just that one in particular). It was Christianity, despite its dogmas and intransigence (something that has been smoothed over as the centuries have gone by) that was responsible for the birth of these centers of discussion and ideas, called universities, to which we owe so much. I don’t know if it is by chance, but now, when Christian civilization is crumbling, we are seeing the first retreat of the freedom of thought and learning, as the new cancel-culture demonstrates. It’s true that Nazism and Communism entailed significant paralysis of individual rights and freedoms; but, unlike the current situation, they only affected certain countries for a limited time. The rest of the West followed the same upward path that, at least since the Enlightenment, has characterized our civilization. If these temporary restrictions that occurred during the 20th century truly fulfilled the function of laying the foundations of this new polytheistic identity—well, according to Antonio Gramsci—Marxism should be seen as a new Reformation, that, in a secular society, gave rise to a “new ethics.”
Without Christianity, there wouldn’t have been an Inquisition, nor so many witch burnings in Protestant countries; but without Christianity, there would have been no Enlightenment, American or French Revolution, socialism, anarchism, nor even economic and political liberalism. Many writers, beginning with Adam Smith, showed that thanks to the moral capital that Christianity generated, traders dared to risk commerce, without which the market and liberalism wouldn’t have been born.
Even Marcus Gabriel recognized that “social identity carries a metaphysical load that, in many cases, acts as a substitute for religion.” His view owed much to the implantation of a Kantian universal ethic. However, the new paganism is not going in that direction, as its taboos, moral ostracism, and cancel culture demonstrate. The new polytheism is made up of ecologism, veganism, animalism, transgenderism, pansexualism, blackism, and all those isms that form part of wokeism that we now know. Although I would like some of the philosopher Gabriel’s wishes to be realized, it is certain that with his apostleship on behalf of the universal moral code the only thing that he achieved was to feed the pseudo-justifications of the new polytheistic paganism. Because the new social polytheism also seeks to establish a universal ethic.
It is difficult, complex, and bewildering to live through a historical watershed. During the next few years, we will continue to be witnesses to a battle between two moralities—between a civilization that is still sustained by a secondary religion (monotheist) and a polytheist and agnostic one (primary) that is capable of forming an easy connection with people’s irrationality. In fact, secondary or monotheistic religions conceal in their breasts traces of polytheistic or primary religions. For this reason, I would ask Gabriel and the rest of the utopians to refrain from trying to convince us that a universal and rational morality is possible. Unfortunately, the battle—insofar as it takes place in the realm of rational debate—is lost.
In my opinion, it would be more useful to agree about what we want from this new polytheistic “papacy,” to use the same expression as the financial report quoted at the beginning; or from our territorial historical morality of almost 16 centuries. It is not Christianity that is in play, but rather Christendom. The polytheistic alternative does not seem better than what we already have. For this reason, it hardly seems necessary to bring up whether it is worth defending Christendom.
Juanma Badenas is a senior professor of civil law at the Universidad Jaume I (Spain) and member of the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences in Belgium. He is the author of La Derecha: La imprescindible aportación de la Derecha a la sociedad actual, Córdoba: Almuzara, 2020.