Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Crisis of Faith

                                                    The Crisis of Faith

     In the movie, The Third Man, Holly Martins walks into the Casanova Club where he runs into Crabbin, the man who has invited him to give a lecture at his weekly meeting of local intellectuals. Crabbin reminds him that the talk is scheduled for the next evening. Holly asks him what the topic is. Crabbin replies, “The crisis of faith”. Martins says, “what’s that?” Crabbin answers, “You  should know, you’re the writer.”  The great irony here is that the crisis of faith is what the movie is all about.  In this essay, I wish to examine the crisis of faith, how it undermined and ultimately destroyed what we think of as western civilization, and how to this day it continues to undermine and weaken western societies.
     From the beginnings of western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire, to the beginning of the eighteenth century, both Europe and the Americas were committed to Christianity as the motive force behind both the maintenance of society and the expansion of Western European Civilization to other parts of the world.  The first rifts occurred between conflicting Christian beliefs.  Early on, an orthodoxy was established and those who deviated from accepted norms, usually had to choose between conformity and extermination.  The great rift in this orthodoxy was the Protestant Reformation.  This was the first time that the established church lacked sufficient force to impose it’s will on those who deviated from its strictures.  This opened the door for a period we now refer to as the “Enlightenment”.
     In the early to mid-eighteenth century, a number of philosophers building on the works of such humanist scholars as Erasmus, began to see the conflicts among the various Christian beliefs as an opening through which they could drive a wedge which would free people’s minds from Christian dogma of all kinds.
     In France this movement was led by such figures as Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau. In England there was John Locke, David Hume and Bishop Berkeley.  These thinkers questioned the very foundations of epistomology and human existence.  They literally wanted to discard all previous notions of reality and return to first principles.  They tended to view both Christianity and belief in God as straightjackets that imprisoned the minds of mankind.  They wanted men to be free to decide for themselves what constituted moral behavior and not be subject to the authoritarianism of either the church or the state.  (It should be noted that the United States was founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment, and that Enlightenment thinking probably reached its apotheosis in the writings of the American philosopher, Thoreau.)
     The conservative reaction to Enlightenment thinking took place in Germany, where it was led by Kant.  Kant believed that civilization and humanity depended on belief in God.  In this he was in agreement with both the torah and Freud.  All three agree that the locus of morality must be outside the consciousness of the individual, or disaster will ensue.  In the torah God says to the human race that they must obey His law, because if each man follows his own heart and decides for himself what is right and wrong, then the human race will be reduced to the level of the beasts in the field.
     In “The Brothers Karamazov”, Dostoyevsky continued the argument by putting forth the notion that we live in a world that is rife with injustice.  (For those of you who have read the book, the “horror stories” he describes are not works of fiction. They came right out of the Russian newspapers of the day.)  The only way people can bear this is through the belief that the universe is ultimately a just place.  If people lose this belief, they will lose their humanity and ultimately civilization as we know it will collapse.
     The event that marks the end of what is traditionally called; “Western Civilization” was World War I.  Due to stringent censorship, the magnitude of the slaughter was kept secret until after the war ended.  To this day it is almost impossible to comprehend a war in which over a million men were killed in just one battle. (To get an idea of what it must have been like, watch the Lewis Milestone movie of, “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  It contains some of the best battle scenes ever put on film.)  When the staggering number of casualties was finally revealed, it caused people to lose faith not only in God and religion, but also their governments and other social institutions.  Up to this point, the “crisis of faith” had been confined largely to the intelligentsia. Now it became widespread and infected the entire populace of western societies.
     This gave rise to the philosophical creed known as Existentialism.  This is the belief that the universe somehow created itself and that life and consciousness are accidents of chance.  Hence the universe is neither moral nor immoral.  It just is and as such is indifferent to the lives and struggles of the creatures that dwell in it.  Such concepts as truth, beauty, good and evil are merely phenomenological constructs that exist only in our brains and have no objective reality.  Consequently, morality is a social construct used by the elites to maintain control of the masses.  It is clear that this philosophy has permeated western societies with disastrous results.  Let us look at an area where the crisis of faith has had its greatest effects.


     My wife is currently taking graduate education courses towards becoming a special education teacher.  One day she asked me to read one of the journal articles assigned as part of her coursework.  In one article I came across the following:
     “Furthermore, because the purpose of education is to provide students with the skills that they would need to acquire a job and become independent, productive adults (Margonis,1992)…….”
     George Orwell could not have put it better.  What you have just read is not the definition of education, but the definition of vocational training, which is the antithesis of education.  The purpose of education is to broaden your outlook on life, and to make you a better more moral person; not to help you get a job.  It’s probably just as well that the vocational training model has been adopted throughout our school systems, because our society has become so fragmented that it’s doubtful that we could establish an educational system based on traditional definitions.
     When I was in graduate school, the definition of education that was offered was this: Education is the means by which a society transmits its knowledge, values and culture to its young.
     Let us look at this definition starting with knowledge.  At one time the epistemological thrust of this society was British Empiricism and the scientific method.  There was general agreement about how fact was differentiated from hypothesis and assertion.  As existential thought permeated our society this began to change.  If there is no such thing as “objective truth”, than our criterion for truth can be whatever we want it to be.  As a result, beginning with the feminists, and then being adopted by the gay rights people and now the left and the right, the criterion of truth became, “Does it serve our political agenda?”  The reason feminism has been so successful is because they were using this standard of truth, while everyone else was still using empirical standards.  So when a feminist said that “every six minutes another woman is being raped” the audience did not realize that this was a figure being pulled out of thin air; they thought there must be some evidence for this and reacted accordingly.  Now we have reached a point where people on the left want it written into the history books that the US constitution was modeled on the Iroquois Indian Federation and people on the right want the same books to convey that the Earth is only 5,000 years old.  We have also reached the point where schoolchildren taking math exams can get a higher grade for coming up with the wrong answer than the children who get the right answer.  So we cannot pass on the knowledge of this society because there is no common ground of just what constitutes knowledge.  This society has become so epistemologically diverse it is probably a lost cause.
     Next we have “values”.  In the antediluvian period when I went to school we were taught to have respect for the rights of others and it was drilled into us that we were to behave like little ladies and gentlemen.  How quaint.  Imagine the uproar a teacher would create in today’s society if he or she tried such a thing.  Given what I constantly read about and see on TV, I for one am glad that the schools make no attempt to instill the values of today’s society in our young people.
     As for “culture”, if the America of today has such a thing, I have failed to discern it. Aside from rap “music”? and internet pornography, use of mind altering substances, and sexual deviance I can’t think  of many other activities sufficiently widespread throughout this society so as to constitute a “culture” .
     Probably the crisis of faith has had its most deleterious effects on the upper classes and the elites who actually run this society.  The nineteenth century is known as the “robber baron” era when a relatively small group of extremely ruthless men made fortunes at the expense of the American public as a whole.  There is probably some truth to this but let us look at the whole picture. First of all, they created an industrial infrastructure that for almost 100 years made us the richest and most powerful nation on earth.  Secondly, whether it was because of public relations, personal conviction, or a feeling of connectedness with the country as a whole; these people founded universities, hospitals, museums, opera houses and funded large numbers of institutions designed to benefit the general public.  (True Marxists will argue that they were used to control rather than benefit society at large and there is in fact more than some truth to that argument.)
     Today, we have an upper class that has made fortunes by liquidating the industrial infrastructure created by the “robber barons”; creating massive unemployment and generally lower standards of living for everyone but themselves.  They have altered the tax structure to redistribute massive amounts of wealth from the working poor and the middle-class to themselves, and they use none of their wealth for the benefit of society as a whole.  (In fact, they relentlessly pressure government to reduce or eliminate any expenditures that benefit anyone but themselves.)  Unfortunately, this situation cannot be reversed because they have acquired so much wealth that the government is too weak to resist them.  This is amply demonstrated by the fact that when the swindlers and thieves on wall street were found to have stolen and gambled away so much money that the entire American economy was on the verge of destruction the “government” handed them the keys to the federal treasury so they could use it as their own personal “slush fund”. If this country had a functioning government, these people would have been put in prison; not handed hundreds of billions of dollars from the American taxpayer.  (At this point it should be noted that if current economic policy continues, the end result will be something called a “hyper-inflation”. ) It is clear that these people possess limitless greed and have absolutely no sense of what used to be called, “the common good”.
      The only conclusion one can draw from all this, is that it is very difficult to convince average people that it is worth leading a moral life when they live in a country run by psychopaths.


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