Darwinism, Secularism, and the Decline of the West – Part 1

            These propaedeutic remarks are the first installment in a series of multiple reflections based on my essay “Losing Our Religion: Darwinism, Secularism, and the Decline of the West,” which appears in the volume Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension, edited by Stephen Dilley (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013: 155-194).

            How is that Western culture, in which it was once virtually impossible not to believe in God, has reached the point where such belief is relativized and privatized among the masses, and discouraged as “anti-intellectual” by the cultural elite? What was the cultural engine that drove this process of secularization? In asking this question, we may, following Charles Taylor, distinguish three senses of “secularization”: (1) the removal of God from public spaces through the sociocultural and political privatization of religion; (2) the decline of private belief in God and regular participation in associated religious practices; and (3) a change in the societal conditions of belief, whereby belief in God is relativized as merely one option among many and thus rendered more difficult to embrace. The relationship between the first two senses of secularization is complex, but both would never have progressed to the point they have without the third. Broadly speaking, there are two factors of relevance to this massive restructuring of the societal conditions of belief: the first relates to what Taylor has called the “cosmic imaginary,” and the second to what he calls the “social imaginary.” In respect of the former, profound changes have taken place in the way that Western cultural elites envisage the universe and our place within it. We have moved from an ordered and personal cosmos in which humanity has a special purpose and place, to an impersonal universe with no special place for humanity and no purposes beyond those that we imagine for ourselves. There has also been a profound change in the way that the modern and post-modern West conceives of its social life and perceives its identity in relationship to other cultures and civilizations. Both of these developments have, on the whole, profoundly undermined the metaphysical foundations and operative principles of classical liberalism, to the detriment of Western civilization as a whole.

            Understanding why this is so requires a clear distinction between classical liberalism and its modern counterpart, which is less confusingly known as progressivism (about which more will be said in due course). The “classical liberalism” I intend to consider is not some minimalist idea of autonomous individuals engaging the world through rational choices—a conception so thin it may be shared by utilitarians, natural rights theorists, libertarians, and so on—but rather the much richer strain of theistic classical liberalism derivative of John Locke, Adam Smith, and the Judeo-Christian natural law tradition that was dominant in the American founding. By “theistic classical liberalism,” therefore, I mean a five-fold doctrine: (1) that human individuals possess natural and inalienable rights derived from God and thus prior to and independent of any government; (2) that foremost among these natural rights are the right to life, liberty, and private property (hence the inherent immorality of theft); (3) that government was created to protect the natural rights of individuals by the rule of law, so it should never supersede or contravene these rights of the individual in any way; (4) that economic freedom and human prosperity, which have their basis in private property and honest individual labor and creativity in the production of wealth, are demonstrably best served by the systemic market order induced by the unconstrained operation of the price mechanism in relation to the laws of supply and demand; and (5) history repeatedly teaches us the fact that our fallen, flawed and humanly imperfectible nature is prone to greed, envy and sloth (among other faults) and that human effort cannot remedy this—the only thing that can is divine redemption and an eschatological Kingdom brought into existence and maintained by God himself. For this very reason, the expansion of government beyond the construction of public works and the protection of negative rights (freedom from harm) into the arena of positive rights (entitlements) is most dangerous because it undermines the behavioral incentives required for productive and charitable participation in civil society, places too much power in the hands of corruptible officials, and leads to an incremental loss of freedoms and a decline in prosperity for all. This is why the only proper role of government is to provide public infrastructure and to ensure equal protection under established laws; it is not the role of government to attempt to force an equal distribution of health and wealth—as if this were even humanly possible or rightly constitutive of justice—by an unequal and tyrannical exercise of power that will inevitably breed corruption, if it is not corrupt from the start. The private goods constituted by personal health and material prosperity are outcomes best left to providence, individual effort, and private charities operating within a stable framework of legal protections. Thus we see that the fixed doctrines characteristic of the rich theistic classical liberalism embodied in the American founding are better known today—at least in America—as the tenets of modern social and economic conservatism.

            We preface a short overview of our argument with another definition: Darwinism is conventionally understood as the idea that the history of life on this planet is best explained by blind selective pressures operating on differential variation in populations that is random and undirected. Our historical, philosophical, and sociological analysis begins with the contention that the rise of Darwinian science so conceived—despite its increasingly glaring deficiencies and the scant evidence that universal common descent is true and that natural selection operating on heritable variation is a sufficient mechanism —has severely undermined and continues to undermine the theistic foundations of natural science. Having said this, it is important to emphasize that it is no part of our purpose here to provide a critique of Darwinian claims in relation to paleontology, genetics, and molecular biology, but rather merely to trace the consequences of “robust” Darwinism in the West. While some may disagree with our contention that Darwinian claims are vastly overblown and— outside of a presumptive materialist metaphysics—not terribly plausible let alone well-grounded as science, our purpose here is to examine the social and moral consequences of the intellectual authority accorded to Darwinism in Western culture, quite independent of the defensibility of Darwinism as a scientific hypothesis. In this vein, then, we will argue that the intellectual rise of Darwinian science provided a necessary condition for the unbridled growth of personal and sociocultural secularity that—to the detriment of us all—has eroded the foundational and operational principles of the theistic classical liberalism that was integral to the American founding and a central catalyst for the free societies of the modern West. An appreciation of how the consequences of Darwinian ideology have historically unfolded begins with an account of how the Judeo-Christian worldview gave birth to Western freedoms, modern science, and technological dominance. From this vantage point, we are equipped to grasp the extent to which this foundation has been compromised by the dehumanizing impact of Darwinism, and why the conceptual destruction of human nature that Darwinism entails has led to a decline in the ideas and institutions that have been the guarantors of our freedoms and the nexus of our global hegemony. To the degree that these ideological consequences have been (and are) socially manifest, we observe the spread of moral nihilism and the growing political specter (and in the historical case of communism and fascism, the horrific political reality) of totalitarianism. Our analysis culminates with a discussion of the transnationalist infatuation of the Western intellectual and political elites and the legitimation crisis this is spawning, along with an exhortation to repudiate false ideologies all the way back to their roots, and to reappropriate and defend the Judeo-Christian principles that gave rise to Western freedoms and global hegemony and can yet preserve them.

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