Heather Mac Donald’s defense of “skeptical” (i.e., atheist) conservatives against the Religious Right has by now been widely disseminated. It first appeared in The American Conservative and drew a response , on this blog and in The National Review , from Michael Novak who (very generously and gently, I thought) sought to broaden Mac Donald’s shockingly superficial understanding of religion and the religious impulse. Mac Donald then followed up with a response in The National Review . As in the earlier article, she dismissed the notion that we are inheritors of Christianity’s moral legacy and insisted on the possibility of being good without God: Religious institutions and beliefs are human creations, and arguments for conservative values can proceed on the basis of reason alone.

Mac Donald labors under the same assumption I used to encounter among university undergraduates when I taught the introductory survey of comparative literature, namely, that we live in an enlightened age, especially in comparison with the benightedness of earlier generations. Among my students, the assumption presented itself as follows. We would be discussing a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century novel, say, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary , when a student, invariably female, would shudder before exclaiming: “Imagine living back then, with all that backwardness and prejudice and lack of freedom,” and so on.

What my students precisely lacked was imagination, imagination to understand that the past was a different place, with different ways of living and thinking about the world, and that women, and men, too, had ways of deriving satisfaction and even happiness without the opportunities or legal arrangements of our present time. The almost knee-jerk reaction of contemporary students was instead: Why did women put up with that? My young female students were convinced that they, unlike Emma, would never stand for a bumbler like Charles Bovary. This way of thinking, however, is contingent upon the material conditions of the world we live in. Since the time of Flaubert and Mann, the advance of capitalism has radically altered material life in the West, led to changes in civic and political arrangements, and transformed our assumptions about the right way to live.

It is a superficial, but dangerous, trope of our time that advances in democracy and human freedom are self-evident to rational minds. This delusion is common among liberals and the Left, who never cease uncovering instances of authoritarianism, cruelty, and intolerance in the distant or the recent past. And now Heather Mac Donald, a conservative but one irritated by Christian conservatives and their claims concerning the workings of God in our lives. For her it is the achievement of the secular Enlightenment that we are “more compassionate, humane, and respectful of human rights.” Just compare, she writes, the fourteenth century’s treatment of prisoners to today’s, “an advance due to Enlightenment reformers.”

As a scholar of the eighteenth century, I am familiar with this attribution of our supposed moral advance to the sages of the Enlightenment. The philosophes , however, independent scholars of their day, were simply capitalizing on the changed material environment in which they lived. Beginning in the early modern period, in the late fifteenth century, with European exploration of the globe and the opening of vast international trade, men (and mostly they were men) began to have economic opportunities beyond those dictated by tradition. The history of the West since then has been one of continuous improvement in the material life of more and more people, not simply the traditionally rich and privileged. With this democratization of wealth, ordinary men began to chafe at the traditional political and civic arrangements that kept them from wearing the clothes they liked, marrying the person of their choice, or choosing their own profession. The market began to offer “choice” not only in lifestyle but also in products. In response to this more liberal economic environment, philosophers began to enunciate ideas concerning liberty and individual freedom. But where would they have come up with the idea that each of us has a right to determine our destiny, if not for the moral legacy of Christianity, namely, the uniqueness of every person before God and the duty of that person to work out his individual salvation? All of liberalism’s important achievements¯free political institutions, religious practice, intellectual and artistic expression¯grew, in tandem with the wealth of the West, from that simple idea.

Don’t imagine that because criminals now have clean cells, even telephone privileges and access to law libraries, that we are more enlightened than our fourteenth-century predecessors. With our current material resources¯a huge establishment of lawyers (many of them women), college degrees in prison management, cheap electricity, food providers, and so on¯it would be irrational to keep criminals chained to walls in unheated cells for years, dependent for food on meals brought by their next of kin, and all the other horrors of incarceration brought to us by Alexandre Dumas. Liberals, and Heather Mac Donald, think that such “progress” is self-evident, as if ethics were something that accumulated in our arteries like cholesterol. But make no mistake: If we returned to the material conditions of the fourteenth century, prisoners would have their law books taken away.

While it is self-evident to Heather Mac Donald that “the rule of law” is transparent to “all rational minds,” try that idea on the Chinese, who are certainly rational (and infinitely skeptical, it would seem). One of the reasons that the concept of human rights has so much difficulty inserting itself in China is because of the absence of a Christian legacy. The Chinese are becoming more prosperous, but they have only the vaguest sense of what is second nature to us in the West¯namely, the sacredness of the human person. The greatest reform movement in the world, the abolition of slavery, was led by Christians, not the philosophes . So, yes, Miss Mac Donald, we do live parasitically off the moral legacy of Christianity.

There are some of us who doubt the ability of America to advance the idea of freedom around the world, but, if we don’t believe in a transcendent sanction for the effort, we will surely fail. The self-evident nature of the idea simply won’t work. We already see the limits of that idea among liberals, who lack the stomach to defend our way of life in the war on terror. Their lack of will has much to do with the present bounty of our material life, which has led to an increase in “rationality” at the expense of the more primitive instincts with which people survived in the fourteenth century. In the end, will is not enough. The Muslims have the will, and it’s definitely not a product of the Enlightenment.

Elizabeth Powers is currently completing a memoir of American life since the 1950s.

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