Thursday, March 19, 2009

Organic chemistry

The 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture
By Charles Murray

Drive through rural Sweden, as I did a few years ago. In every town was a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticulously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government. And the churches are empty. Including on Sundays. Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their "child-friendly" policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. Those same countries are ones in which jobs are most carefully protected by government regulation and mandated benefits are most lavish. And they, with only a few exceptions, are countries where work is most often seen as a necessary evil, least often seen as a vocation, and where the proportions of people who say they love their jobs are the lowest.

What's happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase "a life well-lived" did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize "spreading." I'm not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

If that's the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that's the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble--and, after all, what good are they, really? If that's the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors? If that's the purpose of life, what could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

The same self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When life is a matter of whiling away the time, the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening. What explains Europe's military impotence? I am surely simplifying, but this has to be part of it: If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?

I stand in awe of Europe's past. Which makes Europe's present all the more dispiriting. And should make its present something that concentrates our minds wonderfully, for every element of the Europe Syndrome is infiltrating American life as well.

We are seeing that infiltration appear most obviously among those who are most openly attached to the European model--namely, America's social democrats, heavily represented in university faculties and the most fashionable neighborhoods of our great cities. There are a whole lot of them within a couple of metro stops from this hotel. We know from databases such as the General Social Survey that among those who self-identify as liberal or extremely liberal, secularism is close to European levels. Birth rates are close to European levels. Charitable giving is close to European levels. (That's material that Arthur Brooks has put together.) There is every reason to believe that when Americans embrace the European model, they begin to behave like Europeans.


  1. So, is Murray a Christian himself? Or is he a moralistic deist of the sort who believe that religion for the little people promotes a better society.

  2. To my knowledge, he's not a Christian. However, unbelievers are sometimes useful critics of secularism. They know it from the inside out.

  3. So what if he is a moralistic deist? Does it matter? You take allies where ever you find them.

  4. Thomas Nagel comes to mind, so does Scruton.

  5. Yes - it does matter for two reasons; Firstly, there is a supernatural component to Christianity that is left out of a purely sociological analysis. Secondly, the prescriptions for the church that a moralist is likely to recommend would be somewhat at odds with that needed to promote a true Gospel based Christianity.

    Additionally, there are other explanations of Europe's secularism that don't lend themselves to political posturing of this sort - Rodney Stark's for example.

  6. We need to draw a distinction between Murray's critique of liberal ideology and his alternative. His critique can still be valid even if his alternative is inadequate.

  7. What I can't understand ... is why Americans want to emulate the dying carcasses of European secularism? What's with this death wish? How stupid is that? And that's what the uber-leftist liberal administration of Obama is headed.

  8. Yes - though his reasoning is not all one way - in that he also reasons backwards from his chosen remedies back to original argument. Additionally, he doesn't really posit a mechanism or back it up with any sort of figures.

    As an alternative, Rodney Stark fingers State Churches and not 'liberalism' as the cause of the secularism in Europe, with reasonably persuasive statistical arguments backing this up.

    So do you find Murray's argument more persuasive because of your political pre-suppositions?

  9. I'm not discussing the cause of European secularism. I'm discussing the moral consequences thereof.

  10. I assumed, by what you posted and the fact that there was no additional commentary, that you wanted the discussion to be restricted to the article in question.

  11. The article discusses the moral consequences of modern Continental liberalism. What's the moral consequence of thinking that human life is reducible to organic chemistry?