Public policy in a democracy rests upon public opinion, which in turn rests on public feeling. The feelings people have towards remote and abstract objects such as states and categories are normally pretty stable, but when they do change, they resemble earthquakes in the political world. Shelby Steele has recently been writing of the revolution in public feeling that took place in America in the 1960s, when white racism was replaced by white guilt. Whole new social and moral structures have been thrown up. The appearance of anti-Americanism in Europe in the wake of 9/11 is less fundamental, but is also in many respects a revolution of feeling. Israel has found itself buffeted by this change. My concern is with another shift in recent sentiment, less dramatic but in my view no less significant. It is the rising hatred of Christianity among Western peoples, which I shall call “Christophobia.”
I am not, of course, talking of secularism. Scepticism about Christianity largely began in the eighteenth century and increased steadily throughout the twentieth. It is hardly surprising that a revelation couched in the idiom of a remote past and purporting to reveal the transcendental aspects of the human condition could not survive the coming of what we may call “the scientific world view,” in which truth is tested by empirical confirmation. Much of Christianity has responded to this development by retreating into a modernist accommodation with what it takes to be science. It has generated the ecumenical movement, a kind of deism (if I understand it rightly) in which all religions are treated as variant responses to the one divine creation.
Secularism, then, is not at all puzzling. It leads one to expect that Christianity would slowly fade away, leaving Christians to their services and secularists to long Sabbath mornings with the Sunday papers. There are indeed exceptions to this general picture of accommodation mitigating decline. Christianity remains a cause of violent conflict in places like Northern Ireland. In the United States, there is trouble at the interface where evangelicals and Roman Catholics encounter feminism and abortion clinics. The Catholic Church remains resistant to the march of modernity in some striking respects, but it too has long been on the defensive, and liberation theology leaves ecumenism panting behind. In Africa and South America, Christians are prospering mightily, but the zeal to persecute heretics which periodically characterized Christian Churches from the late middle ages into the early modern period has largely faded away. And this is why the problem arises. Why should significant numbers of Westerners, especially among the educated, increasingly exhibit a quite visceral hatred of this apparently declining set of beliefs?
I first noticed this sentiment in the case of the brothers Hitchens, celebrated journalists, one on each side of the Atlantic. Christopher is a “left-wing maverick” and recently visited his native Britain. He and his brother Peter, a patriotic Conservative in London, aren’t very close. Why not, asked an interviewer in The Times. Is it because you are so far apart politically? Not at all, replied Christopher. What I can’t stand is that Peter is a practicing Christian. Hitchens takes the view of the English publisher who once defined a religious fanatic as anyone who believed in God. But that was a joke, and Christopher isn’t joking. Again, in November last year in Britain, an award for Christian athletes was dropped because of a reluctance among the athletes to be “outed” as Christians. The work of people like Richard Dawkins in Oxford breathes the passions of the long gone Rationalist Press Association for whose readers Christianity was a repressive power against which every form of free expression from science to free love was struggling to breathe. Meanwhile, Philip Pullman, whose best-selling trilogy for children promises to become, as it were, the new Narnia, is an atheist who has revived an old Gnostic doctrine to the effect that the temptation in the Garden of Eden was that of enlightenment rather than an invitation to evil disobedience. In another part of the forest, one might remember that some years ago in Lebanon a set of Christians began distributing pamphlets apologizing for the Crusades to the understandably bemused inhabitants of Beirut.
If we move from these straws in the wind to the wind itself, we might cite the results of recent polling in the United States by the American National Election Study which attempts to measure intergroup attitudes by “feeling thermometers” quantifying how one group regards another. Mutual hostility between religious groups such as Jews, Catholics, and Evangelicals appears in these results to have diminished, while secularists, who belong in the typology of “culture wars” as progressives rather than as orthodox in the moral and religious spectrum, have become increasingly hostile to the “religious right.” Since the 1972 Democratic Convention, they have increasingly dominated the Democratic Party.
Why should intellectuals waste their shot and shell pounding a target which has largely faded from view (and indeed where the moral and logical issues are confused)? And what might this tell us about the internal cohesion of European or Western civilization? A more directly political question would take off from the contrast between the extraordinary solicitude for Islamic sensibilities in Western states since 9/11 and the insouciant clobbering of Christian totems by artists and writers. But before I suggest an explanation of this phenomenon, I need to explore its wider significance.
In the Middle Ages, Christianity was, like Judaism and Islam, a law to which its followers were subject: in other words, an identity. With the coming of the modern world, Christianity became, or perhaps was maneuvered into becoming, a set of beliefs purporting to answer the same questions as those asked by scientists, a role in which it was notably incompetent, and from which it has steadily withdrawn. Also, from the sixteenth century, the encompassing Church of the medieval respublica Christiania succumbed to the public-relations disaster of breaking up into a number of quarrelling versions. By the time of Voltaire in the eighteenth century, Christian churches had adopted a set of attitudes that has kept them on the defensive ever since. For one thing, Christianity was associated with orthodoxy and authority as against reason. For another, its language belonged to a posture of consolation and supplication at odds with the apparently realistic attitudes of the sceptic and the atheist who no longer hoped for an afterlife. Epater les chrétiens was no less amusing a sport than épater les bourgeois—indeed the two were often indistinguishable. The essence of the conflict between “science” and “religion” came to rest on the killer question: “Do you believe in God?” meaning by “God” a ubiquitous patriarch with the power to punish and reward. Nietzsche’s crisp declaration that God is dead was widely accepted, though fewer people accepted the corollary that (as Dostoyevsky put it) everything is permitted.
It is important to observe that most of these battles were between science and “religion” rather than science and Christianity. Marx wrote that religion was the opium of the people, not Christianity specifically. The issue in those days was about the grounds of belief, of faith versus reason, and in principle all religious propositions were equally likely to be regarded as superstitious, as potential grounds of non-negotiable bigotry, or perhaps as “nonsense” in the technical sense affirmed by logical positivists. This was, significantly, the position of the Bolshevik regime, in which atheism was the basic religious doctrine taught in schools. Today, however, a significant change has occurred in progressive opinion: in a multicultural context, religious beliefs are taken to be part of “culture” and hence off limits to criticism, unless they are Christian, and more recently also, Jewish.
We may call this sentiment “Christophobia,” and its simplest version is the legend people got from Voltaire and others, namely, that mankind had hitherto been dominated by all kinds of strange prejudices and superstitions but that now at last (in the eighteenth century) a dawn of reason was rising in which human beings would abandon these divisive absurdities and recognize themselves as sharing a human essence with a right to happiness and the power actually to bring this about. Such was the core of belief found in Jacobinism, socialism, rationalisms of various kinds (including that of the American founders), logical positivism, and all other versions of what the nineteenth century espoused as progress and the twentieth century came to call “the Enlightenment Project.” And it is very important to observe that all other civilizations and peoples were to be incorporated within this projected earthly salvation. It was a global project.
Voltaire’s legend is, of course, simple-minded because it can give no account of why this dawn of reason should turn up in Europe, or indeed why it should turn up at all. The reason is that it is a political program unwilling to recognize its debt to a past which it is busily repudiating. It is averse to recognizing Christianity as a historical phenomenon rather than as a mere mistake. Let me merely point to one or two obvious ways in which the modern world has emerged out of Christianity, not by repudiation but by a continuous evolution.
Consider the crucial issue of the nature of human beings. The Greeks believed that man was a rational animal, which implied that being human was a function of being rational. Women and slaves being defective in rationality were also less human. Christianity replaced this with the idea that each person was an immortal soul equally valuable to God and constituted of a set of affections, which had been deranged by the Fall. It thus counterposed against the hierarchical structures of society a theological egalitarianism which periodically erupted in trouble for holders of high office, bishops in particular. In the course of developing this complex idea of what it is to be a human being, Christian thinkers evolved the organ called “conscience” which could be incorporated within the new forms of urban life to generate the mode of moral experience we call “individualism.” Without this long development, the idea of human rights would be meaningless, as it largely is in other civilizations. The abolition of slavery was a major step in the advance of the progressive project, and it was, of course, almost entirely a Christian achievement.
The essential point may well be that Christianity as a religion was constituted by faith in Jesus as the redeemer. Faith is different from knowledge, and hence Christianity was hardly born before the philosophers were on board working hard to preserve some coherence in a doctrine that was never secure because of the human propensity to get things wrong (or indeed perhaps to get them inconveniently right). One of the earliest of the distinctions necessary to make sense of the world in terms of Christianity was, indeed, that between the secular and the sacred on which secularism itself depends. Another given in the gospels is the distinction between the civil and the sacred powers, between church and state. These are indispensable constituents of the pluralism at the heart of Western civilization. The relation between theology and science is much too complicated to be dealt with here, but one might point out that the emergence of experimental science (which allowed the modern world so greatly to surpass the Greeks) depended upon the proposition that man could only understand what man had made himself. Since nature had been made by God, our only way of learning about it was not by speculation but by “putting it to the torture” as Bacon put it.
These considerations are perhaps enough for our limited purpose: namely, to make it clear that the question “Do you believe in God?” is a very bad indicator of where anyone might conceivably stand on the relation between our Christian inheritance on the one hand and our modern sophistication on the other. They are also sufficient, I think, to indicate that the common identification of Christianity as a repressive force by invoking the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the trial of Galileo is merely a tedious misunderstanding of history. What human institution, one may ask, doesn’t have its ups and downs? But before moving on to make sense of the curious Christophobia of the modern West, I need to indicate why this is, in civilizational terms, so strange a phenomenon.
The minimal account of religion as a human phenomenon must be that it is a set of stories and beliefs human beings tell themselves to account for what lies behind the manageable world (to the extent that it is manageable) in which we live. In other words, a religion is a response to the mystery of the human condition. The going secularist account of human life is that we are part of an evolving organic life that happened to develop on the edge of a minor planet in a universe of unimaginable vastness. Beyond this, questions of meaning and significance are in scientific terms unanswerable, and we tend to follow Wittgenstein: Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent. We have blocked off religious questions altogether, because they are empirically unanswerable, and people respond in a variety of ways. Some drop the questions and get on with life, others shop for a more exotic set of stories and rituals with which to respond, and many, of course, remain Christian to one degree or another. On the face of it, however, we have a culture which very largely carries on without seriously considering ultimates. We have abandoned the cathedral, and are content to scurry in and out of skyscrapers. So perhaps we are pioneering a new civilizational form in which the issues of human meaning have been recognized as essentially unsolvable, and left to one side. Or, alternatively, we may have transferred the passions appropriate to religion onto beliefs of some other kind.
Philosophers turn everything into preliminaries, and before I get to the main argument, I should perhaps declare my own position here. I am a simple child of secular times, and a sceptic, but one impressed by the grandeur and complexity of Christian intellectuality. The Voltairian and the village atheist, seen from this perspective, look a little shallow. In the vast rambling mansion of our civilization, the cobwebbed gothic wing containing our religious imagination is less frequented than previously, but it certainly remains a haunting presence.
And, of course, we have bought into substitutes. In secular terms, their basic feature must be that they look more like science than religion. Let me suggest that educated Europeans are today united in terms of a project we characterize as the perfecting of the human condition by the power of reason. Devotion to this perfection leads us to scan the news each day in search of signs of the times: we focus on the fate of rights and how they are violated round the world, at the poverty which signals the imperfection of inequality, at peace processes leading us forward and violence and bigotry dragging us backward. The aim is to foster the happiness of mankind, and we are buoyed up when the signs are good and cast down when they are bad. We seek, if we respond to this new form of devotion, to harness human power to control human folly, inspired by our past successes in triumphing over the vagaries of nature. There are many internal disagreements over what this perfection might mean, though currently there is a large measure of agreement that the central problem is war and other forms of human conflict. All of this can be subsumed under the famous slogan that mankind must take its destiny into its own hands.
We can, I think, distinguish three stages, or more exactly variants, in the development of this project. The first is the entirely familiar idea of progress. Nineteenth-century Europeans in contact with technologically incapable people not only brought them the benefits of Christian salvation but also clean water, railways, and industry. The whole package was understood as a god- like increase in human power controlling human circumstance. This was profoundly disruptive in other cultures because they had long been accustomed to a different idea of the balance between what could be changed and what must be endured. Here from the West came a set of aliens teaching that nasty things that had long seemed inevitable could be remedied. But the actual situation of these interesting aliens was that they were missionaries not only to other cultures, but also to the mass of people in their own culture as well. Technologists, administrators, and intellectuals had to become, as Ernest Gellner has called them, “the Westernizers of the West.” The great figures of the movement to improve the lives of the heathen often happened to be Christian missionaries like Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, but in Europe itself, and in America and other Western parts, they were rulers and social reformers.
Christians might be believers in progress, but progressives were likely to find Christianity an optional extra, if not an actual impediment to the advance of reason. Christians were therefore often suspicious of progress. “To become a popular religion,” wrote W. R. Inge, “it is only necessary for a superstition to enslave a philosophy. The Superstition of Progress had the singular good fortune to enslave at least three philosophies—those of Hegel, of Comte, and of Darwin.” Beyond European civilization the demand was indeed for philosophies of one kind or another, not for religions, which many of them already had in abundance. Gunpowder, clean water, and vaccines were the thing, not routes to salvation. For most of the beneficiaries of Western enlightenment abroad, Christianity was for understandable reasons increasingly understood as an optional extra. The crucial thing was that scientists seemed to have a method of coming to agreement about what was true and what worked, whereas Christians and exponents of other religions seemed locked into endless irresolvable disputes. Hence the initial response of Indians, Chinese, and others was likely to be admiration for the technical skills of Europeans, and contempt for their beliefs and manners.
The smart thing to do seemed to be to copy Western technology and throw the rest away. Like most versions of smart cherry picking, this one turned out not to work. The baffling thing was that in often mysterious ways, the generation of railways, medical surgery, military science, and so on seemed to be inseparable from Western institutions and ideas. Foreigners are always detestable, and superior foreigners even more so. The horrible possibility loomed that in order to cut themselves in on this Western power, non-Europeans might have actually to become Europeans themselves. Even outsiders as culturally close to Europe as the Russians developed strong countercurrents to Western influence, as with the Slavophiles. The same was true in Eastern Europe. Even Germany before the First World War conceived of itself as a spiritually superior nation quite different from the shallow technology of the French and the British.
Progress was a development that sought to bring reason and betterment both to the poor in Western countries, and to the downtrodden in the rest of the world. It was a movement of benevolence, but benevolence at this level of human relations is not easy to distinguish from power. The West, it seemed, was bent on taking over the world. The result would be to turn everyone into imitation Europeans, and foreign cultures rebelled. It made no difference that their rebellion against the benevolence of the West could only be articulated in ideas and institutions (nationalism, self-determination, parliaments, etc.) borrowed from the arrogant West itself. Outsiders used whatever instruments were to hand and demanded for themselves the political freedoms the West claimed to champion.
This repudiation of progress hardly stopped the project in its tracks. Western ingenuity was more than equal to the task of creating more assimilable forms of Westernization. The trick was to combine some version of Westernization, or perhaps we should say modernization, that was both a recipe for “joining the modern world” and also the expression of a powerful hostility to the West itself. Such a package would allow resentful Chinese and Indians to absorb the West while at the same time rejecting it. Reason and passion might thus both be accommodated. This was the achievement, though not indeed quite the intention, of Marx and other socialists for whom Westernizing the West was no less central a project than spreading enlightenment to the rest of the world.
What I am treating as the “stages” of the Enlightenment Project are not, indeed, successive. There is a good deal of overlap. The Marxist version of progress was communism, and the term may stand for all forms of collectivism which took off from the view that bourgeois individualism had merely been one phase in the emergence of modernity, and one that was imminently to be superseded by higher communal forms of association. In its beginnings, communism counted itself as the real inheritor of progress. Whereas the enlightened looked to reason, communists looked to revolution as the way of blasting a path through reaction to the promised land of technology and equality, or soviets plus electricity. The Marxist version of human perfectionism had an irresistible appeal during most of the twentieth century, partly because it offered the promise not only of catching up with the West, but also of skipping a stage and jumping to the head of the progressive convoy.
The great drama of twentieth-century history was the failure of this promise. Far from solving human conflict, the revolution of humanitarian fraternity served merely to increase it. Far from forging ahead into the modern world, the countries that followed this path lost much of their moral or social capital and ended up with an obsolete rusting industry built over a pile of corpses. It became clear that perfecting the human condition was a bit more complicated than it had seemed.
The failure of Communism was consecrated in the fall of the Soviet Union. The remarkable thing is that, as in most cases when prophecy fails, the faith never faltered. Indeed, an alternative version had long been maturing, though cast into the shadows for a time by enthusiasm for the quick fix of revolution. It had, however, been maturing for at least a century and already had a notable repertoire of institutions available. We may call it Olympianism, because it is the project of an intellectual elite that believes that it enjoys superior enlightenment and that its business is to spread this benefit to those living on the lower slopes of human achievement. And just as Communism had been a political project passing itself off as the ultimate in scientific understanding, so Olympianism burrowed like a parasite into the most powerful institution of the emerging knowledge economy—the universities.
We may define Olympianism as a vision of human betterment to be achieved on a global scale by forging the peoples of the world into a single community based on the universal enjoyment of appropriate human rights. Olympianism is the cast of mind dedicated to this end, which is believed to correspond to the triumph of reason and community over superstition and hatred. It is a politico-moral package in which the modern distinction between morals and politics disappears into the aspiration for a shared mode of life in which the communal transcends individual life. To be a moral agent is in these terms to affirm a faith in a multicultural humanity whose social and economic conditions will be free from the causes of current misery. Olympianism is thus a complex long-term vision, and contemporary Western Olympians partake of different fragments of it.
To be an Olympian is to be entangled in a complex dialectic involving elitism and egalitarianism. The foundational elitism of the Olympian lies in self-ascribed rationality, generally picked up on an academic campus. Egalitarianism involves a formal adherence to democracy as a rejection of all forms of traditional authority, but with no commitment to taking any serious notice of what the people actually think. Olympians instruct mortals, they do not obey them. Ideally, Olympianism spreads by rational persuasion, as prejudice gives way to enlightenment. Equally ideally, democracy is the only tolerable mode of social coordination, but until the majority of people have become enlightened, it must be constrained within a framework of rights, to which Olympian legislation is constantly adding. Without these constraints, progress would be in danger from reactionary populism appealing to prejudice. The overriding passion of the Olympian is thus to educate the ignorant and everything is treated in educational terms. Laws for example are enacted not only to shape the conduct of the people, but also to send messages to them. A belief in the power of role models, public relations campaigns, and above all fierce restrictions on raising sensitive questions devant le peuple are all part of pedagogic Olympianism.
Olympianism is the characteristic belief system of today’s secularist, and it has itself many of the features of a religion. For one thing, the fusion of political conviction and moral superiority into a single package resembles the way in which religions (outside liberal states) constitute comprehensive ways of life supplying all that is necessary (in the eyes of believers) for salvation. Again, the religions with which we are familiar are monotheistic and refer everything to a single center. In traditional religions, this is usually God; with Olympianism, it is society, understood ultimately as including the whole of humanity. And Olympianism, like many religions, is keen to proselytize. Its characteristic mode of missionary activity is journalism and the media.
If Olympianism has the character of a religion, as I am suggesting, there would be no mystery about its hostility to Christianity. Real religions (by contrast with test-tube religions such as ecumenism) don’t much like each other; they are, after all, competitors. Olympianism, however, is in the interesting position of being a kind of religion which does not recognize itself as such, and indeed claims a cognitive superiority to religion in general. But there is a deeper reason why the spread of Olympianism may be measured by the degree of Christophobia. It is that Olympianism is an imperial project which can only be hindered by the association between Christianity and the West.
Consider another rather more obviously imperial project. It appears to be the case that Colonel Gadaffi of Libya wants to fuse Libya with the whole of Africa. This would seem to be an absurd enterprise, given that Libya is small and Africa vast. The Colonel seeks, however, to “melt and merge [Libya] in Africa.” The cost of this adventure is in one way catastrophic: Libya would cease to exist. But on the other hand, Libya would in a sense become Africa. It would have the run of all that water, those raw materials, that exploding population, etc. This is the image of a grandiose project of takeover, and it might stand, I suggest, as an image of the Olympian project of turning the whole world into an expression of Western prosperity and human rights. The cost might well be abandoning the particular character of Western civilization as an historic entity, but Olympianism might also be the salvation of mankind.
In reality, of course, you can’t give up your identity, because you are what you are. It’s a fantasy. You can, however, toss away the scraps of your past that seem to be an impediment to your present ambitions, as some Olympians have done in apologizing for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquest of the Americas, slavery, and anything else apologizing for which might curry favor with one part of the “Third World” or another. Above all, however, Olympianism seeks to repudiate its own religious basis. The last thing a missionary rationalism needs is a noisy minority reminding outsiders that the project of world justice as currently advanced is a spin-off from Western civilization. Worse, Christianity as a reminder of this fact is exactly the thing likely to provoke irrational resistance to the message. The basis of much of the visceral hatred of Christianity today is that it contradicts the ambition to present the West as the source of pure reason and compassion. Very similar Olympian passions may well account for the rising hatred of Israel, construed as a vehicle of religious dogmatism standing in the way of the West’s accommodation with the whole Islamic world.
The Olympian project now takes the form of advancing world government by judicializing political conflicts, and its central instrument is in expanding treaty commitment to human rights and in creating international criminal law. The setback (for Olympians) of Colonel Gaddaffi’s Libya becoming the Chair of the U.N. Committee on Human Rights suggests that there is a certain unreality in these international organizations, but Olympians think in the long term. They have, after all, been working on the project since Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. Failure in the 1930s was redeemed after 1945 by the creation of the United Nations, which accorded international bureaucracies some power over most of the important political problems. Politicians can often be persuaded to sign uplifting treaties even at the cost of creating problems for their own constitutions. An imagined place in history is a powerful inducement to a politician. The treaties signed soon come to be understood by lawyers and journalists, always keen to expand their power, as another step forward in the process of making a better world.
They are even spoken of as if they constituted international law. Certainly Olympian high-mindedness is a powerful enough card in public opinion to make any denunciation of these instruments by democratic governments a perilous adventure. The concept of “the world community” flattered the West, which was therefore prepared to foot the bills. It is however an empty expression since the world community neither covers the world nor constitutes a community. The Iraq crisis of 2002–2003 made it very clear that the executive element of the “world community” (if there is any) is to be found in the United States. The General Assembly of the U.N. is not to be taken very seriously as a legislature.
Progress, Communism, and Olympianism: these are three versions of the grand Western project. The first rumbles along in the background of our thought, the second is obviously a complete failure, but Olympianism is not only alive but a positively vibrant force in the way we think now. Above all, it determines the Western moral posture towards the rest of the world. It affirms democracy as an ideal, but carefully manipulates attitudes in a nervous attempt to control opinions hostile to Olympianism, such as beliefs in capital or corporal punishment, racial, and other forms of prejudice, national self-assertion—and indeed, religion.
The essence of the Olympian moral posture is a kind of humility. Whatever it has, it is keen to share—technology especially. A just world is an offer to be accepted, not a command to be obeyed. The project being to bring everyone into the world community, Olympians will make whatever sacrifices are required. It will not only pick up the expenses, but abandon anything in its own past that might be a sticking point to non-Western peoples. Humility amounts to the offer of accommodation to others on terms that all sides can agree upon, and the great virtue of the humble is that they can recognize, own up to and apologize for their faults.
Such a moral posture comes naturally to the Olympian because it merely extends to the Third World the precedence accorded to the poor when deciding public policy in the liberal democratic states of the West itself. The old familiar social question—how to deal with the poor—has suddenly turned up in a civilizational context. “The test of a civilization,” Olympians somewhat implausibly say to each other, “is how it treats its poor and vulnerable.” The rhetoric of Western elites is steeped in self-criticism about the inequalities of contemporary Western societies. Ideally, the Western elites would like to see, or at least imagine they would like to see, an order of things which dispenses, or at least seems to dispense, with inequality, indeed with any form of the exercise of power. The aim of the Olympian project in this area is to replace as the basis of order irrational passions such as fear of punishment. They ought to give way to more rational expedients such as understanding and therapy. As in all versions of the Enlightenment, “education” is central, but one needs distancing quotes around the term “education” to make it clear that we are referring to a process that aims to produce people of a certain type: in other words, not education at all, but training. And the basis of this training will be to make people empirically flexible but morally rigid.
Having developed a welfarist moral and political posture, the Olympian takes easily to expressing the same posture in international affairs. That notably coercive institution the state is now pronounced a survival from the past. The idea of governing has not quite disappeared from politics, but the term “governance” is preferred, not only because it sounds more arcane, but also because it suggests that laws and rules “emerge” out of a society rather than be made by some sovereign body. Rules, laws, edicts, recommendations, and so on turn up in our lives without apparently being touched by human breath; they come from bodies so remote—preferably supranational if not international—that one may take their wisdom for granted. And if there should be muttering about the burdens this concern for the world’s poor might impose, Olympians have taught their democratic populations to think of themselves as generous and compassionate to suffering classes of people. They have large funds available for subsidizing the Third World poor in their endeavors to improve themselves. In any case, Western people are extraordinarily generous about helping those who suffer in remote places.
One of the central problems of Olympianism has always been with the nation state and its derivative, nationalism. A world of nation states is one of constant potential antipathy. It makes something of a mockery of the term “world community.” Hence it is a basic tenet of Olympianism that the day of the nation state has gone. It is an anachronism. And on this point, events have played into the hands of this project. The homogeneity of these nation states is a condition of democracy, but it also facilitates the wars in which they have engaged. If, however, homogeneity were to be lost as states became multicultural, then they would turn into empires, and their freedom of action would be seriously constrained. Empires can only be ruled, to the extent that they are ruled, from the top. They are ideal soil for oligarchy. Olympianism is very enthusiastic about this new development, which generates multiculturalism. Those who rule a rainbow society will have little trouble with an unruly national will, because no such thing remains possible. The Olympian lawyer and administrator will adjudicate the interests of a heterogeneous population according to some higher set of principles. Indeed, quite a lot of this work can be contracted out to independent agencies of the state, agencies whose judgments lead on to judicial tribunals in cases of conflict. This is part of a process in which the autonomy of civil institutions (of firms to employ whom they want, of schools to teach curricula they choose, and so on) is steadily eroded by centralized standards. Multiculturalism in the name of abstract moral standards has the effect of restricting freedom across the board.
Like the Libyans in Africa, the Olympians in the West are turning a plural thing like a civilization into a rigid thing like a project. There is a dire purposiveness about the Olympian passion for signing up to treaties and handing power over to international bureaucrats who want to rule the world. Everything down to the details of family life and the modes of education are governed and guided so as to fit into the rising project of a world government. The independence of universities in choosing whom to admit, of firms choosing whom to employ, of citizens to say and think what they like has all been subject to regulation in the name of harmony between nations and peace between religions. The playfulness and creativity of Western societies is under threat. So too is their identity and freedom.
Globalization is having very odd effects on our thinking, but none is more curious than the Olympian project of turning the West’s cultural plurality into a homogenized rationalism designed for export to, and domination over, the rest of the world. Turning a civilization into a project by putting everything through a kind of rationalist strainer so as to remove every item that might count as prejudice, bigotry, and superstition will leave Europeans meandering without a compass in a wonderland of abstractions. It reminds one of Aesop’s frog, who wanted to be as big as an ox, and blew himself up more and more, his skin becoming thinner and thinner, till he burst.