There has been rampant bickering in recent years surrounding Europe’s hulking cultural changes, and books from conservative commentators, such as Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, Melanie Phillips’ The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power and Milo Yiannopoulos’ Dangerous have only made the discussions increasingly commonplace. While Europe has been a heterogeneous paragon for centuries, if not millennia, where ideals like liberty, progress, constitutional government and secularism are central amongst its people, it is nevertheless transforming, largely owing to Christianity’s political and social decline, Islam’s increasing influence, the advent of postmodernism and waves of mass migration. As Angela Carter put it: “Soon, nostalgia will be another name for Europe.”
It is no secret that unprecedented waves of mass migration in Europe have roused the concerns of many across the continent, particularly owing to the large number of Muslim migrants. Various reports indicate, such as Pew Research Center’s Europe’s Growing Muslim Population’ that Europe’s Muslim population is to double – and possibly triple – between now and 2050. Decades of declining European birth-rates, paired with mass migration, are not the only concerns. Indeed, the reason for the fast-tracking of what many have coined the “Islamization of Europe” is owing to the increasing influence that the religion is having. In the United Kingdom, mainstream Muslim organisations are dispensing “Islamic justice” through more than 85 sharia “courts”. Polygamy, adultery and wife-beating, to name but a few, are matters of jurisprudence. In Germany, Saudi Arabia plans to build 200 new mosques in the parliamentary republic at a time where there’s been a near four-fold increase in Islamic terrorism-related cases in the country, and 800 in 2017 alone.
If Europe could be defined by any ecumenical state, it would be harbouring an anxiety about national identity, especially after the refugee crisis in 2015. This has been evident in many of the arguments used by the pro-Brexit camp and the increasing support for anti-immigration parties across the continent. With Europeans increasingly consternated about the legitimacy of their own beliefs and traditions, there is a sense that its citizens are foreboding a bleak future. As English philosopher Roger Scruton put it: “there is every possibility that our societies will either become unmoored entirely or be hauled onto a very different shore.” Well-known conservative commentators have gone so far as to understand Europe’s mutation as it “committing suicide”.
British author, journalist, and political commentator, Douglas Murray, traces this crisis of identity back to the late 19th century to two seminal events. The first is criticism of the Church, which undermined the Biblical foundation of Western Christianity. The second event occurred simultaneously, with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although faith was the prime means by which recourse could be gained for those seeking answers to fundamental questions, it became science – not theism – that provided the answers.
While the undermining of religion and Darwin’s seminal discoveries were pivotal in dismantling Christianity’s grip in Europe, Murray depreciates the role postmodernism has played in reifying Europe’s identity crisis since the early 20th century. Author and philosopher Daniel Dennett captures the calamity of post-modernism in this respect when he asserts:
“Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”
Predicting Europe’s inevitable identity crisis in the 19th century, although unaware of the multiple ‘identity challenges’ that would beset Europe during the 20th century, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche presaged that Europe would be a place where “the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and ‘Why’ finds no answer”. The most damaging force in Europe’s history will be the withering of purpose and meaning, amounting to a foray on reality, the greatest crisis of humanity:
“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. . . . For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end.” (Will to Power)
Postmodernism and Nihilism
Developed in the mid to late-20th century, postmodernism is an attitude of scepticism or rejection toward the meta-narratives and ideologies of our modern culture, and typically questions various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality. The predominance of postmodernist discourse, particularly in Europe’s universities, has resulted in the increasing adoption of anti-foundationalist concepts of subject and identity. Moreover, postmodernists have ushered in an increasing scepticism of truth. To be precise, postmodernists are those who see truth as not existing, or discovered, in any objective sense, but see truth as linked in a circular relation to the systems of power which promote it, and to the effects of power which truth itself generates.
The postmodern person does, in many respects, personify the kind of person emblematic of Europe’s problems today: an alienated, indifferent and dehumanised conformist who is, as Douglas Murray puts it, “deeply suspicious of all truths”.
Most pressing about postmodernism is that, in serious severity, it is dismantling any intelligible identity for the European, to the extent that values are concerned, owing to the fundamental scepticism it holds regarding truth. His scepticism means that the postmodernist has undercut intellectual and moral hierarchies in Europe and made “truth” claims, transcendental or transcultural, dubious. This is evident in the musings of Harold Pinter, who in 1958 wrote:
“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”
Increasingly prevalent in postmodernist Europe is the view that what is true is created by the specific cultures and is exclusively extant in that culture. Consequently, any statement that tries to broadcast a truth, such as “female genital mutilation is bad”, is seen as a mere power play, an attempt to dictate the parameters of other cultures – “the Western cultural colonialist”. The result is the wrecking of any collective and unified truth in what is the birthplace of Western civilisation, with a menacing succession of moral and epistemological relativism placed pole to pole.
Postmodernism in Europe is one form of nihilism, that is to say the belief that life has no intrinsic value, owing to the European becoming suspicious of truth. Resultantly, the postmodernist increasingly sees his world as appearing meaningless and devoid of any intrinsic values. “It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism, and that’s another interview for another time, if you’re interested in it,” as Al Gore put it. Once meaningless occurs, the nihilist will grow increasingly disillusioned about his very own identity and ultimate purpose in the world.
Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo argues that the postmodernist narrative is fragmented, whereas modernity, with its coherent narrative, is unified. Europe’s modernity narrative is oriented towards a foundation or origin. Its history is seen as developing through a logical progression. Conversely, by having no coherent narrative, Europe’s dalliance with postmodernism thus must coincide with nihilism. In what way, though, can Europe redress this fundamental disorientation?
Will Christianity Save Europe?
“Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through” exclaimed Douglas Murray, speaking on Europe’s identity crisis. Oft to cavil at the sight of traditional values being undermined, many conservative commentators like Murray claim that the removing or undermining of the bible is responsible for Europe’s “sickness”, starting first from the churches, and then in the wider culture. Furthermore, European civilisation is, to a large extent, based upon fundamental biblical teachings. Our values and identities ostensibly “hail” from it, and in many respects the European situates the good life with reference to the book.
The overthrowing of Christianity, owing to such things as Darwinism in the 19th century and the postmodernism surge in the 20th century, has stripped Europe of not only its identity, the argument goes, but also the source of values. In fact, Europe’s self-supporting structure of rights, laws and institutions couldn’t “exist even without the source that had arguably given them life”, claims Murray. Indeed, philosophers such as Larry Siedentop in his Inventing the Individual: The Origins Of Western Liberalism, who extols his own attack on liberalism, chides modern values such as freedom, equality, diversity and others as stemming from Christianity.
The question raised by Douglas Murray is whether, particularly relevant for the task of remedying Europe’s nihilism, the fruits (modern values) can survive without the roots (Christianity)? Put another way, it is hard to see how safeguarding European culture at a time when so many of its citizens are irresolute can ever be restored unless non-religious people are able to work with the Christian source from which their culture came.
The problem with the above position has been noted by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who argues that European nihilism cannot be rectified by a return to Christianity because nihilism is, in fact, a consequence Europe’s conjugality with Judea-Christian ethics, a state of meaninglessness that has only been punctuated by Europe’s acceptance of postmodernism.
It is doubtless the case that what is fundamental about Judea-Christian ethics is that it deprives Europeans of the capacity to place value in the actual world in which they live, and the absolute truth it supposedly commands depletes Europe of any inherent value – the ultimate teleology of such ethics, that is to say where those ethics are ultimately directed or situated (in this case, heaven), refers to a fictitious place. In this sense, nihilism is a logical conclusion of Judea-Christian thought.
The life of Jesus, as those who have seen Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ know, is one which life-affirming ethics is garnered through Jesus’ suffering. Put another way, the ultimate meaning that Jesus’ suffering signifies makes life worthwhile. In this sense, it is the Christian who is the nihilist. For without Jesus, life would be exactly nothing, a world with no inherent source to situate the highest, life-affirming values.
Argued by philosophers such as Nietzsche, when Judea-Christian ethics reaches its logical conclusion, whereby the ultimate source of Christian ethics – heaven – and its perception as the ground for ultimate truth is “killed” (because of modernity’s scientific advancements, for example), man will necessary find himself with an absence of any fundamental ground of knowledge and value. Nietzsche’s pithy statement “God is dead” underscores the fact that a state of ‘nothing’ is now pervading in Europe.
The Challenge for Europe
Europeans have a critical quandary in front of them: lust after the ostensible provenance of their values or, rather, do they become sires of a new European identity?
What mustn’t be overlooked, or whitewashed, when ruing the sweeping changes in Europe and surmising solutions is that the Christian interpretation of the world is the root of nihilism, an intellectually defective system that enfeebles the European insofar as he is unable to see the world as having inherent value once science prostrates theism.
Europe’s sovereign shift in the last two centuries is its “pathological transitional stage”, which saw it bounce from heaven as the grounds of meaning to there being no possible grounds for meaning at all. Revered British historical sociologist Anthony D. Smith is correct when he notes that Europe’s dilemma is:
“a choice between unacceptable, historical myths and memories on the one hand, on the other a patchwork, memoryless scientific ‘culture’ held together solely by the political will and economic interest that are so often subject to change”?
While Douglas Murray and many of his conservative ilk are keen to recoil back to very cause of nihilism as a reputed solution, pushing through it could, as Nietzsche said, “be the sign of a crucial and most essential growth”.
Postmodernism, however, is an imbroglio that must be overcome if any meaningful conception of what it means to be European can be forged. Its wrecking of any collective and unified truth in what is the birthplace of Western civilisation is especially unsettling, as already mentioned, with its menacing imposition of moral and epistemological relativism. Not only do these concerns justify expunging postmodernism’s increasing presence, but there are inherent errors that surely behoves us to dispense with the system entirely. Not only do the tropes of ‘power structures’ go beyond evidence-based critical thinking and use vague terminology to support obscurantist, boring and semi-literate theories, postmodernism is meaningless insofar as it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. Linguist Noam Chomsky points this out when enquiring into why intellectuals won’t respond like people in other fields when asked:
“Seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc? These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.”
Pauline Rosenau identifies seven main reasons why postmodernism must be evaded. The first concerns the fact that postmodernism’s anti-theoretical position is essentially a theoretical stand. Second, although postmodernism stresses the irrational, instruments of reason are freely employed to advance its perspective. Third, the postmodern prescription to focus on the marginal is itself an evaluative emphasis of precisely the sort that it otherwise attacks. Forth, postmodernism stress intertextuality but often treats text in isolation. Fifth, dogmatically rejecting modern criteria for discerning theory, postmodernists cannot argue that there are no valid criteria for judgement. Sixth, postmodernism lampoons the inconsistency of modernism, but the postmodernist shuns the norms of consistency itself. Lastly, postmodernists contradict themselves by relinquishing truth claims in their own writings.
The enlightenment ideas that did so well in fostering a sense of cohesion in Europe are not ready to be dispensed with, and the counter-enlightenment ideas of postmodernity, particularly the general suspicion of reason, still must contend with the unfinished modern in the European project. As Jürgen Habermas stresses:
“Whoever transposes the radical critique of reason into the domain of rhetoric in order to blunt the paradox of self-referentiality, also dulls the sword of the critique of reason itself.”
In abrogating religion’s significance in the social and cultural realms, what is necessary in Europe are fundamental changes to the way inhabitants perceive each other, especially repudiating the social chasm that postmodernism has foisted on Europe. To be precise, the relationship that Europeans must forge with the other must be established on the notion of a social contract, in which self and the other have a relationship inherently reciprocal, such that the terms of the relationship the individual offers to the other must be terms that the other can envisage offering back to the self.
In his The Theory of Communicative Action – Lifeworld and System. A critique of functionalist reason, Habermas lists three structural components necessary for civil solidarity and shared meaning in Europe:
1) “The cultural reproduction secures a continuity of tradition and a coherence of knowledge sufficient for daily practice.”
2) “The social integration of lifeworld ensures that newly arising situations are connected with existing conditions in the world in the dimension of social space: it takes care of coordinating actions by way of legitimately regulated interpersonal relations and stabilises the identity of groups to an extent sufficient for everyday practice. The coordination of actions and the stabilisations of group identities are measured by the solidarity among members.”
3) “Finally, the socialisation of members of a lifeworld ensures that newly arising situations are connected to existing situations in the world in the dimension of historical time.”
If Europe is in the process of committing suicide, we have to save it, and Habermas’s ideas offer hope. They will flounder, however, if we continue to fall victim to wonted pills. The touted “solution” by too many conservative thinkers should be known by a more apt term, “Doublethink”, which is readily becoming Europe’s dictum. The man who conceived the term, George Orwell, could be forgiven for presaging the very predicament being faced in Europe:
“We are for the withering away of the state, and at the same time we stand for the strengthening of the dictatorship, which represents the most powerful and mighty of all forms of the state which have existed up to the present day”.