“The Harsh Light of Modernity”

In my RCP newsletter, I just linked to an article by Pat Buchanan on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the wider problems facing the Catholic Church.

In 1965, three in four American Catholics attended Sunday mass. Today, it is closer to one in four. The number of priests has fallen by a third, of nuns by two-thirds. Orders like the Christian Brothers have virtually vanished. The Jesuits are down to a fraction of their strength in the 1950s.

Parochial schools teaching 4.5 million children in the early 1960s were teaching a third of that number at the end of the century. Catholic high schools lost half their enrollment. Churches have been put up for sale to pay diocesan debts….

As one looks around the world and back beyond the last half-century, it seems that Catholicism and Christianity have been in a centuries-long retreat….

In Europe, Christianity is regarded less as the founding faith of the West and the wellspring of Western culture and civilization, than as an antique; a religion that European Man once embraced before the coming of the Enlightenment. Many cathedrals on the continent have taken on the aspect of Greek and Roman temples—places to visit and marvel at what once was, and no longer is.

I agree with the direction of the trend, if not with the evaluation, especially when Buchanan goes on to equate Christianity with Western Civilization as such, an absurd denial of both our Classical heritage and of the secular achievements of the Enlightenment. But what is most interesting is a big error he makes in his argument about the demographic consequences of the loss of faith.

[W]hen the faith dies, the culture dies, the civilization dies, and the people die….

And the people have begun to die. No Western nation has had a birth rate in three decades that will enable its native-born to survive….

But in the Islamic world, an ancient and transcendental faith is undergoing a great awakening after centuries of slumber and seems anxious to re-engage and settle accounts with an agnostic West.

The error here is his assumption that while the West is contracting, the Muslim world is resurgent and growing. But the exact opposite is true.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius just recently caught on to this fact.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, documented these findings in two recent papers. They tell a story that contradicts the usual picture of a continuing population explosion in Muslim lands. Population is indeed rising, but if current trends continue, the bulge won’t last long….

Fertility in Iran declined an astonishing 70 percent over the 30-year period, which Eberstadt says was “one of the most rapid and pronounced fertility declines ever recorded in human history.”…

Eberstadt argues that the fertility decline isn’t just a result of rising incomes and economic development, though these certainly played a role. “Fertility decline over the past generation has been more rapid in the Arab states than virtually anywhere else on earth.”

So rather than rising as we decline, the Muslim world is collapsing much faster. There are, of course, plenty of reasons why. I was particularly struck by Eberstadt’s description of a “flight from marriage.”

Accompanying this fertility decline is what Eberstadt calls a “flight from marriage.”… What’s “astonishing,” says Eberstadt in an email explaining his findings, is that in the Arab world, this move away from marriage “is by many measures already as far along as was Europe’s in the 1980s—and it is taking place at a vastly lower level of development than the corresponding flights in Europe and developed East Asia.”

If you were a woman in the Muslim world, can you think of any reasons why you might want to flee—quite literally—from marriage?

All of this puts the conflict between Islam and the West in a very different perspective. Rather than being the leading edge of a global Muslim takeover—as Buchanan and many on the right fear—the current wave of fanaticism and terror is the last howling protest of a dying creed.

David Goldman (the blogger also known as “Spengler”) fleshes out some of these implications. Mainstream columnists like Ignatius, he points out, may just be figuring out the Muslim world’s demographic collapse, but leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been shouting about it in alarm for years. As they face the prospect of one last big cohort of young men of military age, to be followed by decades of decline, they may look on this as their last, best chance to strike against their enemies.

But in the long term, the effort is futile.

Iran may be one of the world’s most secular countries; some reports put mosque attendance in the Islamic Republic at just 2%, lower than Church of England attendance. When the odious Islamist regime falls at length, we probably will find that there are as few Muslims in Iran as there were Communists in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like other religions rooted in traditional society, for example the nationalist-Catholic faith that Europeans abandoned after the two world wars, Islam cannot abide the onset of modernity. Some forms of religion can flourish in modernity; Islam is not one of them.

The variable that best predicts fertility across all Muslim countries is education: as soon as women become literate, they stop having children. That is a hallmark of a faith that melts away in the harsh light of modernity.

The big picture is that Islam is dying, and it’s dying more rapidly than the dominant culture of the West. The even bigger picture is that all traditional cultures are withering under the “harsh light of modernity”—and the dilemma is that modern culture has not yet embraced a better, more rational creed to replace them and serve as the foundation for a growing, self-confident civilization.


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