Without God?: Reflections on Europe and America
the far western end of the axis that traverses Paris from the Louvre down the
Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe is the Great Arch of La Défense.
Designed by a sternly modernist Danish architect, the Great Arch is a colossal
open cube: almost 40 stories tall, faced in glass and 2.47 acres of white
Great Arch of
Its rooftop terrace offers an
unparalleled view of the French capital, past the Tuilleries to the Ile de la
Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.
The arch's three-story high roof also houses the International Foundation for
Human Rights. For President François Mitterrand planned the Great Arch as a
human rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of
the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
Thus, in one guidebook, the Great Arch was dubbed "Fraternity Arch." That same
guidebook, like every other one I consulted, emphasized that the entire
Cathedral of Notre-Dame would fit comfortably inside the Great Arch.
All of which raised some questions, as I walked along that terrace in 1997.
Which culture would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations
of democracy? The culture that built this rational, geometrically precise, but
essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the gargoyles and
flying buttresses, the asymmetries and holy "unsameness" of Notre-Dame and the
other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?
Those questions have come back to me, if in different forms, as I've tried to
understand Europe in recent years. How, for example, should one understand the
fierce argument in Europe over whether a new constitutional treaty for the
European Union should include a reference to the Christian sources of European
civilization? Why did so many European intellectuals and political leaders deem
any reference to the Christian sources of contemporary Europe civilization a
threat to human rights and democracy?
Was there some connection between this internal European debate over Europe's
constitution-making and the portrait in the European press of Americans (and
especially an American president) as religious fanatics intent on shooting up
the world? Was there a further connection between this debate and the fate of
Rocco Buttiglione's candidacy for the post of Commissioner of Justice on the
Understanding these phenomena requires something more than a conventional
political analysis. Nor can political answers explain the reasons behind perhaps
the most urgent issue confronting Europe today
the fact that Western Europe is committing demographic suicide, its
far-below-replacement-level birthrates creating enormous pressures on the
European welfare state and a demographic vacuum into which Islamic immigrants
are flowing in increasing numbers, often becoming radicalized in the process.
My proposal is that Europe is
experiencing a crisis of cultural and civilizational morale whose roots are also
taking hold in some parts quarters of American society and culture.
Understanding and addressing this crisis means confronting the question posed
sharply, if unintentionally, by those guidebooks that boast about the alleged
superiority of the Great Arch to Notre-Dame: the question of the cube and the
cathedral, and their relationship to both the meaning of freedom and the future
To suggest that Europe is living through a "crisis of civilizational morale" is
a very broad description. Let me raise some specific issues that point toward
and to the necessity of a cultural, indeed theological, analysis of Europe's
— Why, in the aftermath of
1989, did Europeans fail to condemn communism as a moral and political
monstrosity? Why was the only politically acceptable judgment on communism
the rather banal observation that it "didn't work"?
— Why, as historian John
Keegan puts it, do Europeans often espouse "a philosophy of international
action that actually rejected action and took refuge in the belief that all
conflicts of interest were to be settled by consultation, conciliation, and
the intervention of international agencies"?
— What accounts for
disturbing currents of irrationality in contemporary European politics? Why
did one of every five Germans (and one-third of those under 30) believe that
the United States was responsible for 9/11, while some 300,000 French men
and women made a best seller out of L'Effroyable Imposture [The
Appalling Fraud], in which the author, Thierry Meyssan, argued that the twin
towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by the U.S. military, using
— Why did the voters of
Spain give a de facto victory to appeasement in their March 2004 elections,
held days after Al-Qaeda operatives killed hundreds and wounded thousands by
bombing a Madrid train station?
— Why is Europe retreating
from democracy and binding itself ever tighter in the cords of bureaucracy?
Why do European states find it virtually impossible to make hard domestic
— as on the length of the
workweek or the funding of pensions? Why is Europe on the way to what French
political philosopher Pierre Manent calls "depoliticization?" Why does
Manent have "the impression today that the greatest ambition of Europeans is
to become the inspectors of American prisons"?
— Why are so many European
public intellectuals "Christophobic," as international legal scholar J.H.H.
Weiler (himself an observant Jew) puts it? Why is European high culture so
contemptuous of both religious and secular tradition, as French philosopher
Rémi Brague has pointed out?
— Why do certain parts of
Europe exhibit a curious, even bizarre, approach to death? Why did so many
of the French prefer to continue their summer vacations during the European
heat wave of 2003, leaving their parents unburied and warehoused in
refrigerated lockers? Why is death increasingly anonymous in Germany, with
no death notice in the newspapers, no church funeral ceremony, no secular
— "as though," as Richard
John Neuhaus observed, "the deceased did not exist"?
— Above all, why is Europe
committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what
British historian Niall Ferguson calls the greatest "sustained reduction in
European population since the Black Death of the 14th century"?
— Why do 18 European
countries report "negative natural increase" (i.e., more deaths than
— Why does no Western
European country have a replacement-level birthrate?
— Why is Germany likely to
lose the equivalent of the population of the former East Germany in the
first half of the 21st century?
— Why will Spain's
population decline from 40 million to 31 million by 2050?
— Why will 42% of Italians
be over 60 by 2050
— at which point, on
present trends, almost 60% of the Italian people will have no brothers,
sisters, cousins, aunts, or uncles?
— What is happening when
an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to
create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next
Probing to the deeper roots of Europe's crisis of civilizational morale is
important for understanding Europe today and for discerning whatever promising
paths of European renewal there may be. Getting at the roots of "Europe's
problem" is also important for understanding a set of problems Americans may
face in the not-too-distant future. And that means that both Europeans and
Americans must learn to think in new ways about the dynamics of history.
During 13 years of research and teaching in east central Europe, I've been
impressed by what might be called the Slavic view of history. You can find it in
a great thinker who lived in the borderland between Orthodoxy and Catholicism,
Vladimir Soloviev, who challenged the fashionable nihilism and materialism of
the late 19th century.
You can find it in 19th-century Polish novelists, poets and playwrights, who,
breaking with the Jacobin conviction that "revolution" meant a complete rupture
with the past, insisted that genuine "revolution" meant the recovery of lost
spiritual and moral values. You can find it in such intellectual leaders of the
anti-communist resistance in east central Europe as Karol Wojtyla, Václav Havel
and Václav Benda, who all argued that "living in the truth" could change what
seemed unchangeable in history.
..."history" is driven by
— by what men and
women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and
good and noble; by the expressions they give to those convictions in
language, literature and the arts; by what individuals and societies are
willing to stake their lives on.
The common thread among these
disparate thinkers is the conviction that the deepest currents of "history" are
spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic. "History" is not
simply the byproduct of the contest for power in the world
although power plays an important role in history. And "history" is certainly
not the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production, as the Marxists
Rather, "history" is driven by culture
by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be
true and good and noble; by the expressions they give to those convictions in
language, literature and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing
to stake their lives on.
Poland is one embodiment of this way of thinking, which Poles believe has been
vindicated empirically by their own modern history. For 123 years, from 1795 to
1918, the Polish state was erased from Europe. Yet during that century and a
quarter the Polish nation survived with such vigor that it could give birth to a
new Polish state in 1918. And despite the fact that the revived Polish state was
then beset for 50 years by the plagues of Nazism and communism, the Polish
nation proved strong enough to give a new birth of freedom to east central
Europe in the Revolution of 1989.
How did this happen? Poland survived
better, Poland prevailed
because of culture: a culture formed by a distinctive language, by a unique
literature, and by an intense Catholic faith (which, an its noblest and deepest
expressions, was ecumenical and tolerant, not xenophobic, as so many stereotypes
have it). Poles know in their bones that culture is what drives history over the
This "Slavic view of history" is really a classically Christian way of thinking
about history, whose roots can be traced back at least as far as St. Augustine
and The City of God. Yet, it is the Slavs who have been, in our time, the
most powerful exponents of this "culture-first" understanding of the dynamics of
the world's story. ...
World War I, the Great War, was the product of a crisis of civilizational
morality, a failure of moral reason in a culture that had given the world the
very concept of "moral reason." That crisis of moral reason led to a crisis of
civilizational morale that is much with us today.
This latter crisis has only become visible since the end of the Cold War. Its
effects were first masked by the illusory peace between World War I and World
War II; then by the rise of totalitarianism and the Great Depression; then by
World War II itself; and then by the Cold War. It was only after 1991, when the
77-year-long political-military crisis that began in 1914 had ended, that the
long-term effects of Europe's "rage of self-mutilation" could come to the
surface of history and be seen for what they were
and for what they are.
The damage done to the fabric of European culture and civilization in the Great
War could only been seen clearly when the Great War's political effects had been
cleared from the board in 1991. Recognizing that damage for what it is brings
into sharper focus the contemporary European cultural and political situation
and its lessons for the United States.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's insight into the meaning of the Great War reinforces
the intuition that we should look to the realm of culture for a deeper
explanation of the currents of history. So let us take a first step in reading
history the old-fashioned way
St. Augustine's way
through lenses ground by the tools of theology. And that brings us to another
Christian analyst of modern European history.
Henri de Lubac was one of 20th-century Catholicism's most distinguished
theologians. Like other Europeans who had witnessed the Continent's travail
during the first four and a half decades of the century, Father de Lubac was
haunted by the question, "What happened?" Or, perhaps more to the point, "Why
had what happened, happened?"
Father de Lubac was fascinated by the
history of ideas, which he knew to be fraught with "real world" consequences.
Thus, during the early 1940s, he turned his attention to some of the most
influential intellectual figures in pre-20th century European culture. The
result was a book, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism [Le Drame de
l'humanisme athée], which argued that the civilizational crisis in which
Europe found itself during World War II was the product of a deliberate
rejection of the God of the Bible in the name of authentic human liberation.
This, de Lubac suggested, was a great reversal. In the classical world, the
gods, or Fate, played games with men and women, often with lethal consequences.
In the face of these experiences, the revelation of the God of the Bible
the self-disclosure in history of the one God who was neither a willful tyrant
(to be avoided) nor a carnivorous predator (to be appeased) nor a remote
abstraction (to be safely ignored)
was perceived as a great liberation. Human beings were neither the playthings of
the gods nor the passive victims of Fate. Because they could have access to the
one true God through prayer and worship, those who believed in the God of
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus could bend history in a humane direction.
History was thus an arena of responsibility and purpose.
Yet what biblical man had perceived as liberation, the proponents of atheistic
humanism perceived as bondage. Human freedom could not co-exist with the God of
Jews and Christians. Human greatness required rejecting the biblical God,
according to atheistic humanism.
This, Father de Lubac argued, was something new. This was not the atheism of
skeptical individuals. This was atheistic humanism
atheism with a developed ideology and a program for remaking the world. As a
historian of ideas, de Lubac knew that bad ideas can have lethal consequences.
At the heart of the darkness inside the great mid-20th century tyrannies [of]
communism, fascism, Nazism, Father de Lubac discerned the lethal effects of the
marriage between modern technology and the ideas borne by atheistic humanism.
He summed up the results of this misbegotten union in these terms: "It is not
true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What
is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man." That is what
the tyrannies of the mid-20th century had proven
ultramundane humanism is inevitably inhuman humanism. And inhuman humanism
cannot neither sustain nor defend the democratic project. It can only undermine
it or attack it. ...
The argument over acknowledging any Christian contribution to the democratic
civilization of the 21st century may have clarified the understandings of
"democracy" and "human rights" that shape contemporary European high culture and
the political elite in the Brussels-Paris-Berlin axis, but it also raised
serious questions about Europe's capacity to defend its democracy, morally and
If democratic institutions and procedures are the expressions of a distinctive
way of life based on specific moral commitments, then democratic citizenship
must be more than a matter of following the procedures and abiding by the laws
and regulations agreed upon by the institutions. A democratic citizen is someone
who can give an account of his or her commitment to human rights, to the rule of
law and equality before the law, to decision-making by the majority and
protection of the rights of minorities. Democratic citizenship means being able
to tell why one affirms "the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable
rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law,"
to cite the preamble to the European constitution. Who can give such an account?
Here is one of the richest ironies involved in the question of the cube and the
cathedral. The original charge against Christians in the Roman empire was that
they were "atheists": people who were "a-theos," people who had abandoned the
gods of Rome and who were thus a threat to public life and public order. To be
a-theos was to stand outside and over-against the political community.
The "Christophobia" of contemporary European high culture turns this indictment
inside out and upside down: Christianity cannot be acknowledged as a source of
European democracy because the only public space safe for pluralism, tolerance,
civility, and democracy is a public space that is thoroughly a-theos.
It is all very strange. For the truth of the matter is that European Christians
can likely give a more compelling account of their commitment to democratic
values than their fellow Europeans who are a-theos
who believe that "neutrality toward worldviews" must characterize democratic
Europe. A postmodern or neo-Kantian "neutrality toward worldviews" cannot be
truly tolerant; it can only be indifferent.
Absent convictions, there is no tolerance; there is only indifference. Absent
some compelling notion of the truth that requires us to be tolerant of those who
have a different understanding of the truth, there is only skepticism and
relativism. And skepticism and relativism are very weak foundations on which to
build and sustain a pluralistic democracy, for neither skepticism nor
relativism, by their own logic, can "give an account" of why we should be
tolerant and civil.
It is all very strange. For
the truth of the matter is that European Christians can likely give a
more compelling account of their commitment to democratic values than
their fellow Europeans who are a-theos
— who believe that
"neutrality toward worldviews" must characterize democratic Europe. A
postmodern or neo-Kantian "neutrality toward worldviews" cannot be truly
tolerant; it can only be indifferent.
In contrast to this thin account of
we should be tolerant because it works better
there is the argument for tolerance given by Pope John Paul II in his 1989
encyclical letter on Christian mission, Redemptoris Missio [The
Mission of the Redeemer]. There the Pope taught that "The Church proposes;
she imposes nothing." The Catholic Church respects the "other" as an "other" who
is also a seeker of truth and goodness; the Church only asks that the believer
and the "other" enter into a dialogue that leads to mutual enrichment rather
than to a deeper skepticism about the possibility of grasping the truth of
The Catholic Church believes it to be the will of God that Christians be
tolerant of those who have a different view of God's will, or no view of God's
will. Thus Catholics (and other Christians who share this conviction) can "give
an account" of their defense of the "other's" freedom, even if the "other,"
skeptical and relativist, finds it hard to "give an account" of the freedom of
the Christian. That the Church did not always behave according to these
convictions is obvious from history.
The point today is that the Church
recognizes, publicly, that acts of coercion undertaken in its name were offenses
against its own true doctrine. That is why, on March 12, 2000, Pope John Paul II
led a "Day of Pardon" at St. Peter's Basilica. This was not an exercise in
Catholic political correctness, nor was this pandering to approved victim
groups. This was confession: an acknowledgment of sin and a plea for divine
mercy that recommitted the Church to live the truth it professed about the
freedom of the human person.
A community capable of such acts
the community of the cathedral, if you will
is a community capable of learning from the past, capable of a reformed life. A
community capable of such acts of public repentance is a community that can give
a compelling account of its commitments to freedom.
Can others? Can those who are a-theos
can the people of the cube
grapple with the dark passages on European history caused by radically
secularist understandings of the human person, human community, and human
destiny: the Reign of Terror, Nazism, and communism?
These concerns are not, let me repeat, the products of American Euro-phobia, nor
are they the result of the sharp division between much of Europe and the United
States over the Iraq War. Indeed, there is nothing very original in my reading
of Europe's current condition: You can find the same points of concern in John
Paul II's 2003 apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa. There, the Pope
suggests that, within Europe itself, there is an intuition that a "Europe" of
political, legal and economic structures alone is insufficient. Like John Paul
II, thoughtful Europeans are asking whether a "Europe" that represents the
continentwide triumph of bureaucratic regulation is all that might be hoped for.
The debate over the invocatio Dei in the new European constitution was
also the present and the future, not just the past. Those who insisted that
there be no overt recognition that Christianity played a decisive role in the
formation of European civilization did not do so in the name of "tolerance,"
despite their claims to the contrary. They did so because they are committed to
the proposition that there can be politics-without-God: that a Europe free,
tolerant, civil, and pluralistic can only be built as a public space from which
the God of the Bible has been excluded.
That this position is shared by more than a few American political, judicial,
intellectual, and cultural leaders is obvious, and suggests that what has been
unfolding in Europe in recent decades
indeed, over the past two centuries
could well be replicated in the United States (as it is already being replicated
in Canada). To repeat, that is why "Europe's problem" is, from an American point
of view, "our" problem, too.
George Weigel. "Politics Without God?: Reflections on Europe and America."
Zenit (December 24, 2004).
Above are excerpts from an address given by George Weigel at the Gregorian
University in December.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and
action of Pope John Paul II,
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
(Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and
translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech,
Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won
numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News,
and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than
fifty newspapers around the United States.