Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the great cathedrals in Europe, a few people—usually elderly women—can be found at worship. Everybody else is a tourist, cameras hanging around their necks, meandering through. I was recently in Scotland, and I read a newspaper story commenting on three hundred deserted churches dotting the Scottish countryside, asking if they should be destroyed or turned into bars and cafes. Europe herself, in her proposed constitution, refuses to acknowledge the heritage of Judaism and Christianity—although Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment are acknowledged.

Europe cannot remember who she is unless she remembers that she is the child not only of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the Enlightenment but also of Judaism and Christianity—the child, therefore, of Catholicism and the Reformation. If Europe abandons her religious heritage, the idea of Europe dies. And Europe has abandoned, or forgotten, her religious heritage. Europe is now “post-Christian.” What does this mean? What does it portend?

If a culture forgets what it is, as I believe Europe has done, it falls first into an agnostic shrugging of the shoulders, unable to say exactly what it is and believes, and from there it will inevitably fall into nihilism. Detached from its religious foundations, Europe will not remain agnostic. The first result is manifest in those ideologies of multiculturalism that make “difference” a kind of sacred, absolute principle, although no principle is considered to have any such status. Difference tells us nothing in and of itself. Some ways of life and ways of being in the world are brutal, stupid, and ugly. Some a human rights-oriented culture cannot tolerate. A culture must believe in its own enculturating responsibility and mission in order to make claims of value and to institutionalize them in social and political forms. This a post-Christian Europe cannot do.

Multiculturalism is then, in practice, a series of monoculturalisms that do not engage one another at all; rather, the cultural particulate most enamored of gaining and holding power has an enormous advantage: One day, it proclaims, we will bury you. A sign carried by radical Islamist protestors in London during the fracas over the Dutch cartoons proclaimed, “Europe is a cancer / Islam is the answer.” A perverted idea of Islam confronts a Europe that has lost a sense of who she is and what she represents.

For that Europe, the window to transcendence is slammed shut. Human values alone pertain. But these human values are shriveled by a prior loss of the conviction that there is much to defend about the human person, and they are seen as so many subjectivist construals without any defensible, objective content. Unsurprisingly, what comes to prevail is a form of reduced utilitarianism that rationalizes nihilism.

The territory as one's own property is the self itself, or an understanding of the self shorn of any encumbrances of the past, any shackles of old defunct moralities. The self blows hither, thither; it matters not, if it blows my way. The question of what the self is, and whether it has any transcendent meaning, is answered with a shrug.

The late John Paul II saw the result of the belief that we are sovereigns of ourselves, wholly self-possessing. In Evangelium Vitae he writes: “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.” Society “becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds.”

Someone may attach a value to us—we may have a market price, so to speak—a price, but not a dignity. Should no one attach value to us and we be too bereft or wounded to attach it to ourselves, we become dispensable. The final triumph of this notion will be a world in which the powerful have their way simply because they can and because the ethical and moral barriers to taking what they want have all been lost. The final fate of the disabled in a liberal society will not be a happy one. We champion “access” even as we redraw the boundaries of humanity to exclude wide swaths of human persons from this access.

Over time human rights, now almost universally accepted among Europeans, will themselves come to be seen as so many arbitrary constructions that may, on utilitarian grounds, be revoked—because there is nothing intrinsic about human beings such that they are not to be ill-treated or violated or even killed. Even now, many do not want to be bothered with the infirm elderly or damaged infants, so we devise so-called humane ways to kill them and pretend that somehow they chose (or would have chosen) to die. Elderly patients are being killed in the Netherlands without their consent. A new protocol for euthanizing newborns with disabilities is institutionalized in the Netherlands, and the doctor who authored the protocols, Eduard Verhagen, tells us how “beautiful” it is when the newborns are killed, for, at last, they are at peace.

The Australian utilitarian Peter Singer predicts confidently that the superstition that human life is sacred will be definitively put to rest by 2040. It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that by that moment “life unworthy of life” will routinely be destroyed—in the name of liberal humanitarianism and compassion, and even cost-effectiveness, rather than the triumph of a master race. It is a softer nihilism than the past's, but it is nihilism all the same.

In an interview for a British magazine during the summer of 2005, Singer said that if he faced the quandary of saving from a raging fire either a mentally disabled child, an orphan child nobody wanted, or normal animals, he would save the animals. If the child had a mother who would be devastated by the child's death, he would save the child, but unwanted orphans have no such value.

This is the entirely consistent result of the view that human life no longer possesses an innate dignity, that we are only meat walking around, and we can be turned easily into means to the ends of others, just as we may turn others into means to our ends. It is the old master-slave scenario come to life, even as we congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment.

Ironically, while Catholicism has become a champion of human rights and democracy as the political form that supports human dignity most fully and bids to be the political form within which human flourishing is most likely to take place, much secular reason has increasingly manifested itself as secularism. And secularism—a rigid cultural ideology that mocks religion as superstition and celebrates technological rationalism as the only proper and intelligent way to think and to be in the world—has developed into nihilism, into a world in which we can no longer make judgments of value and truth in defense of human dignity and flourishing.

No good has ever— ever—come from narrowing and constricting our understanding of humanity in this way. The Jerusalem side of the European heritage tells us that all are equally children of God—the disabled, the ugly, the bad-smelling, the boring, the lonely—all require our care and concern. As the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even the most wretched life is worth living before God.

Without God, without some transcendent principle, the wretched life is not worth living at all. And others have the power to decide whose life is wretched based on utilitarian criteria. The utilitarian ethic would annihilate the Christian ethic in the name of progress and decency and the ending of suffering.

For three centuries, Europe was defined in and through a complex dialectic and dialogue between belief and unbelief. This unbelief was not reducible to secularism. In his life and work, Albert Camus illustrates this dialectic at work, with the brilliant sort of self that may emerge from it and the other kinds of self that will emerge when the dialectic is ­rejected.

In his famous “Letters to a German Friend,” Camus tells a friend who has taken up with National Socialism that the Nazis think of Europe as a property to possess, while he thinks of Europe as the place within which he finds his being. This Europe is a capacious place and a beautiful one. “It is a magnificent land molded by suffering and history,” Camus writes. “I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Ultava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg.”

More important, Camus' Europe is not the Europe of nihilism within which everything reduces to the same shade of gray and no truth is to be found. The German friend believed that “everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one's wishes,” and from this he drew the inevitable conclusion that the “only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his own morality.” Camus, who did not believe the world had ultimate meaning, nevertheless held that the world was meaningful and that one could make judgments about right and wrong. Not all opinions are created equal. Not all views deserve respect.

What happens when, unlike Camus, Europe loses—abandons or forgets—one side of the dialectic? She winds up with a monologue, and the unbelief side becomes exaggerated and distorted into an ideology of secularism fueled by subjectivism, with the results we have seen. She comes to believe as did Camus' German friend.

Thinking of human beings as consumer subjects—as does the European Union, an econometric, highly bureaucratized, and legalistic construction—is not a sufficiently robust conception to commit people civically over time. One of the glories of Western pluralist democracies has been their capacity to forge unity out of diverse mixes of peoples—diverse in nearly every way in which people can differ. The United States has done this remarkably well, allowing immigrant communities to hold on to cultural aspects of their identities as long as these could be expressed in ways consistent with the constitutive norms, rules, and practices of democratic civil society itself.

What happens when, having lost the belief side of its historical dialectic, Europe loses a sense of self-confidence about her enculturating and civic mission? The first thing that happens is that it ceases to engage in the determined making of citizens. Assimilation becomes a dirty word. Ethnic communities are excluded from the broader streams of life under the rubric of an allegedly benign multiculturalism, where they fester in resentment and isolation. “Guest workers” live for generations in a twilight zone of semi-citizenship. Little is done to absorb and enculturate the newer waves of immigrants who have no experience of democracy and bring with them an officially sanctioned hatred of Western culture.

In Great Britain before the attacks of July 7, 2005, radical imams used the cover of religious liberty to recruit death-dealing militants who openly preached virulent anti-Semitism, scorn of democracy, the replacement of the civic law by Shari'a law, and contempt for anything Western. A deadly deal was struck, apparently, that Britain would leave them alone if they left Britain alone and did their bad stuff elsewhere. Clearly, relations with unassimilated minorities do not work like that. Britain shrugged its shoulders, but the hatred spilled into the streets, the subways, the buses.

France's Muslim majority lives in an angry subculture scornful of France and Europe, high in criminality and intolerance, often engaged in some circles in practices that openly defy constitutive principles of human liberty and freedom, such as arranged marriages for girls as young as eleven and honor killings and assaults. An antidemocratic, illiberal zone exists within the wider democratic body. Then the French government decides it must do something, and it takes a determined stand—against the head scarf! Resentment grows. In the Netherlands, the notion of pillorization got perverted to mean cultural isolation for the immigrant Muslim population.

Unsurprisingly, it was in Europe that the killers of September 11 became radicalized, picking up on, perhaps, the ideology of anti-Americanism preached enthusiastically by French elites and the anti-Semitic strain on the left.

Democracies often have a difficult task in figuring out how to deal with internal threats, with those within the body politic who would destroy it if they could: Witness Weimar dealing, or not dealing, with Adolf Hitler. Perhaps Europeans today are altogether too complacent, too convinced that economic rights and expressivist self-sovereignty can carry us through. But no one can miss the signs of cultural slackness and exhaustion all around in today's Europe. Demographic collapse is one sign of an existential loss of hope and a turning of the self inward on the self, refusing to extend the self to a child and thus abandoning the task of civic formation on this most fundamental and private level.

Europe suffers from many self-inflicted wounds—the wounds of indifference, the wounds of self-absorption. Will Europe be able to deal with all the daunting challenges she faces, including destabilization, economic stagnation, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and all the rest? Only if she remembers who she is, with something precious and valuable to offer, which means accepting her religious heritage and its normative constraints on what people are permitted to do and how they may do it. Only if Europe can sustain principles and commitments that are historically derived from presuppositions of divinely sanctioned human dignity. I speak here not of faith but of sustaining cultural memory, including that which resolutely rejected the view that we are all forced to choose between faith and reason, which would rule Europe's historical dialectic irrelevant.

Absent such remembering, Europe will continue down the path of what Vaclav Havel calls “arrogant anthropocentrism,” in which we see the face of European nihilism. In a recent essay, Benedict XVI (a European intellectual, after all) writes that, in Europe today, those who abuse Judaism and Islam are shamed or fined. But when Christianity is abused, “freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.”

This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is ­commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of ­outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. . . . Multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one's own heritage.

Europe, he continues, needs “a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive. . . . Europe [must] reclaim what is best in its heritage and thereby place itself at the service of all humankind.”

To this end, everyone should reread Camus' great essay, The Rebel, a text that got him excommunicated from French intellectual life by Sartre and his bullying minions. But Camus understood the dilemma and Sartre did not. His poignant struggle—the unbeliever engaged with belief, and we would add the believer engaged with unbelief—illustrates that often brilliant dialectic and dialogue central to the European ­heritage.

When I was an undergraduate more than forty years ago, I attended a lecture by Sir Julian Huxley, scion of the Enlightenment, a distinguished branch off the tree Huxley, a proponent of scientism, enthusiastic about eugenics as the forward march of progress. Without qualification of any kind, he pronounced that by the year 2000 religion and nationalism will have disappeared, having been supplanted by the total victory of scientific rationality and a benign world order. The view of the human person celebrated by Huxley was that of the sovereign individual, ruler of his own domain, master of all he surveys. There is no soul to fret about, only mastery to achieve.

Four years ago in April, a beloved Pope John Paul II lay in repose in Rome. As his body was carried into St. Peter's, the pallbearers made a circle through the crowd and then carried his body into the basilica as the people wept and applauded and the litany of the saints rang out with its beautiful, haunting chant that tells us we are not alone on our earthly journey.

Here we witness another sort of reality, another future, even another international order embodied. The view of the human person celebrated in the litany of the saints and honored by the presence of the millions, many of them young people, who poured into Rome to celebrate and to mourn, is very much that of the ensouled body, keeping body and soul, spirit and flesh together. This life is exquisitely social, its meaning and purpose immanent yet framed by the transcendent.

Which represents Europe? Huxley's optimistic view of a vision of progress unencumbered by faith and moral fretting, or John Paul II's “sign of contradiction”? There could scarcely be a wider gap than that between a view of human life as encompassed entirely by birth and ending definitively with death, with both birth and death coming increasingly under rationalistic and scientist control, and a view of human life as a gift and a blessing, given meaning because we understand that our good is not ours alone but a good that links us to a world of others, our brothers and sisters, although they may be foreign and strange and even hostile.

That Europe should wind up poised between two such powerful and contrasting worlds results from no incoherence, as a moral philosopher might claim, but rather from the intrinsic telos embedded in each distinctive understanding and deeded to it by its history. Europe was defined for centuries in and through an energetic dialogue between belief and unbelief and, having lost belief, finds nihilism. If human beings do not tend to what is good—if, indeed, they no longer believe in any such thing—they create a vacuum, into which comes that negation called evil and sin in Christian theology, a draining away from what is good.

Evil need not take the form of the Hitlerian ­monster of Europe's past or the serial killers of contemporary movies. It can take the form of medical practitioners killing handicapped newborns or infirm patients, rather than healing and caring for them; the form of isolating and neglecting immigrants; the form of ignoring antisocial behavior and cruelty until it turns into open and widespread criminality; the form of an indifference that, in the name of toleration, permits a zealous minority to call for the murder of those who have drawn cartoons (however stupid those cartoons may have been) and for more suicide bombers and the killing of innocents.

Evil can take the form of refusing to be what one is. The retreat from defining Europe in relation to her Jewish and Christian heritage is the face of European nihilism. When a reaction comes, it is likely to be extreme and distorted because indifference prevailed too long.

The Europe Camus described will one day die if, forgetting the heritage of Judaism and Christianity, she withers into something no longer recognizable as herself. In his great novel The Fall, Camus' world-weary narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clemence, says of modern European man: “He fornicated and read the papers.” Now we might say that “he—and she—fornicated and surfed the Internet.” It is scarcely an improvement, and certainly not the stuff out of which strong, vibrant, lasting cultures are sustained.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift