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What is the most important event in human history?
The Event Implies the Worldview.
The answer you give to the ultimate question will imply an answer to the question I posed in an earlier chapter: What is the one correct religious worldview? Probably this question will confuse some readers who, like me, have been educated in naturalistic ways of thinking and may therefore imagine that I must be proposing a theocracy. On the contrary I would oppose a theocracy of any kind, including a Christian theocracy, not in spite of the fact that I believe Christian theism to be the correct religious worldview, but because I believe the Christian teaching about the sinful heart of man. I know that theocrats wielding absolute power will not long remain Christians in any sense that I can recognize.
From Scripture I also know that when Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, Jesus answered that "my kingdom is not of this world." Muhammad, Lenin or any other worldly person would not have made that statement. A king or a president may be a Christian and that he is a Christian should make a difference in what he says and does. This truism is a very long way from recommending a theocracy. Acceptance of religious pluralism-separation of church and state in American constitutional jargon-is one of the important ways in which Christianity differs from Islam, which contemplates an Islamic state, or from Marxist-Leninism, which implies what amounts to a materialist atheocracy (the dictatorship of the proletariat in communist jargon), which is every bit as rigid and coercive as any religious theocracy.
If you are shocked by the suggestion that there is only one correct religious worldview, that is probably because you have been indoctrinated to take naturalism/materialism for granted as "the way educated people think today" and so you are unaware that religious relativism is itself merely one way of thinking about religion and certainly not the position of all educated people. People are able to be relativists in one way only by being absolutist in some other way. For example, self-styled "skeptics" are generally dogmatic and authoritarian materialists. They are skeptical only toward things they dislike. A scientific atheist or a liberal agnostic is actually in agreement with a Christian like me, a Hindu pantheist or a Muslim in believing that there is only one correct religious worldview. The difference is over which of the mutually exclusive possibilities is correct. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and scientific naturalism cannot all be correct unless the meaning of each possibility is so attenuated that it affirms very little. Whether a specific religious worldview is correct is one question. Whether and to what extent anyone would use force to ensure that his own religious worldview predominates over the others is a separate question. Almost anyone will approve of the use of force to protect his own creed and people from being dominated by murderous oppressors.
Perhaps Gandhi truly condemned violence in all circumstances, even to prevent a Hitler or an Osama bin Laden from ruling the world, but we may be certain that Gandhi's many Hindu and Christian admirers would not follow him to that extreme and would even kill him (as a Hindu actually did) if they thought such violence necessary to protect themselves from lslamist domination. I remember the beautiful movie Gandhi, which showed Gandhi's offer to turn the entire government of India over to the Muslims in a desperate effort to avert the violent Hindu-Muslim divorce that accompanied Indian independence. Assuming Gandhi truly meant that offer and had sufficient authority to make Hindus afraid that Muslim domination of all India was a real possibility, can you condemn that Hindu assassin without reservation?
Gandhi is acclaimed as one of the greatest saints of the twentieth century but I wonder how he will look to the twenty-second century if India and Pakistan fight a nuclear war in the present century. There is a small measure of truth in the moral relativist's adage that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Lenin differed from Lincoln not in his willingness to employ violence but in the enthusiasm with which he did so and the ends that he sought to achieve. Those who think that any choice of ultimate purposes is arbitrary may see little difference between the two. One man kills thousands to end slavery another kills millions to impose slavery, or just because he enjoys killing and wants the world to think him important. To a relativist who does not believe in any universal truth, or to a pacifist whose entire morality is limited to condemning violence, the difference is just a matter of subjective preference. Each to his own taste.
Now back to the ultimate question. What is the most important event in recorded history? I will suggest four possible answers. Anyone is free to propose others, but I predict that none of the others will survive for long in the glare of public scrutiny. The only criteria for eligibility, however, are that the event must be in recorded history (the invention of writing or the wheel does not qualify), and it must be important for everyone, not merely for members of a particular tribe or nation, or persons with some particular mission in life that other people do not necessarily share. For example, the speed of light in a vacuum is a specific figure and no other. This scientific fact, important for physicists, is true for everyone regardless of creed or nation, but no one would argue that it is the most important piece of knowledge for everybody to have. The most important event in history must be true in the relevant sense, and it also must be very important for everyone. Does any single event qualify?
Christians should be able to give a confident answer to the ultimate question on the premise that the Gospels, summarized in the introductory verses of the Gospel of John, tell the truth. The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, is undoubtedly the most important event in the history of mankind if it actually happened as the Bible says. One may not know all sorts of things and be none the worse for it, but if God really lived on earth as a man and said and did the things that the Gospels report, then not to know these sayings and deeds, or to disregard them, is to be missing the one key that is capable of unlocking everything else. That is why it is of supreme importance that the good news must be made available to everyone, whether or not they choose to believe it.
The most devastatingly negative judgment must be made of any educational system which insists, as the schools of most nations do now, that students should not be taught the information they need to give an informed answer to the question posed by Jesus: "Who do you say that I am?" I am not saying that the schools must provide an answer to that question, much less endeavor to indoctrinate students in any "religious beliefs." What I am saying is that educators have a duty to ensure that students know what the Christian answer to the ultimate question is, and that they know what they need to know to understand why the question is important and to evaluate the answer. Specifically everyone should know the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels. (Whether Jesus actually did and said these things is part of the question. That some semiliterate Galilean fishermen made the story up is another possibility, and Gospel critics are welcome to propose it or any other for consideration.)
We need not assume for this purpose that the Gospels are true, but it is grossly irresponsible to assume that they are so obviously false that they do not need to be mentioned. lf the schools in North America, Europe, China, India, Israel and the Muslim nations would merely do as I am recommending here, that would be sufficient for my purpose. That the nations all fear to provide this basic education is itself an implicit answer to the underlying question. Given the opportunity, most people will be eager to learn the truth about the most important event in history. Because the Word is not merely a concept invented by men but a person able and willing to speak to sincerely inquiring minds and hearts, they will probably find the answer they seek. That is the terrifying possibility that motivates the nations in their educational systems to conceal the contents and even the existence of the Gospels. What they fear is not that the Gospels are false but that they might be true, or at least persuasive.
Receipt of the Qur'an
Muslims can also give a confident answer to the ultimate question. For them the most important event in history is Muhammad's receipt of the Qur'an directly from the one true God, together with Muhammad's proclamation of the Qur'an to the world and his consequent formation of the original Islamic society, supposedly an ideal state which modern Islamists aspire to revive. Muslims actually date their calendars from the year in which Muhammad made his migration, or Hijira, from Mecca to Medina, the turning point of his career.
The Qur'anic truth is universal if it is true at all because non-Muslims need to know Allah's wishes so they can submit to them in order to escape the wrath of Allah after death and the wrath of Allah's followers here on earth. The Islamic state has no place for those who do not submit to the will of Allah as revealed in the Qu'ran, which explains the oppressive and sometimes violent mistreatment of unbelievers. Christianity as such does not have the same ambition to impose a theocracy, although some Christians have mistakenly thought so, usually with disastrous results. Most Christians are content to live in a secular state, provided the state grants them freedom to practice and proclaim their religion. This explains why the thoroughly Christian (Protestant) American society of the nineteenth century welcomed millions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. It is inconceivable that an Islamic state or a Jewish state like modern Israel would do anything similar. American Christians do not feel threatened by non-Christian immigrants unless the new arrivals aspire to establish an anti-Christian state on whatever basis-materialist, Islamic or otherwise.
I cannot speak for all Christians, but I can say at least for myself that all students should also learn enough about the words and deeds of Muhammad to make an informed judgment about the credibility of Islam's claims, particularly in comparison to the claims of the Gospels concerning Jesus. I have no fear of the consequences, provided both cases are portrayed as fairly and completely as the circumstances allow, by accurate reporters rather than by spin doctors seeking to present only a prettified or demonized picture. This is a specific example of the general "teach the controversy" approach that led to the Santorum Amendment discussed in chapter one. Educators must make a judgment as to which controversies are sufficiently "alive" that they need to be taught. When educators use their authority in a biased or irresponsible way, as I allege scientific naturalists to have done, then the judgments of the educators must be reviewed in the legal and governmental process.
For many decades American educators have assumed that all topics they can classify as "religion" are sufficiently irrelevant to modern life that it is unnecessary or even harmful to include them in a curriculum. American educators in the 1970s may have thought it important that students learn something about communism because communism at the time was a serious contender for world domination. They would have thought it essential that students learn about biological evolution because that is "science," but they generally thought it unimportant for students to learn about Jesus, Muhammad or the Bible, We should expect that these priorities will change over time, and I believe that they are changing now. Lenin and Freud are in the dustbin of history whereas the followers of Muhammad and Jesus are becoming more active in the world. The curriculum at all levels of education will have to reflect these trends if educators aspire to teach the young what they need to know.
Scientific naturalists have been telling the world for many years that the most important event in history was the discovery of modern science by geniuses such as Galileo, Newton and Darwin. Richard Dawkins has put this point of view nicely. If advanced extraterrestrials ever visit the earth, he wrote, the first question they will ask about us will be "Have they found out about evolution yet?" Scientific naturalists like Dawkins believe that science frees us from the superstition they associate with religion and thus gives mankind a prospect of peace, material abundance and health in a world governed by reason.
For the most visionary devotees of science, science even provides a promise of indefinitely prolonged life as we learn to download our mental "software" into computers/spaceships and then explore the universe at leisure. A generation or two from now, these futuristic visions may seem either prescient or absurd, depending on whether the technological wonders appear as predicted. We may say the same for the fantasies of human improvement that have been spun from the hype accompanying the Human Genome Project. If the geneticists finally make good on their promises, they will look very brilliant indeed, and scoffers like me will be forgotten in the resulting jubilation. Our great-grandchildren will have a much better view of the outcome than we can have now. Perhaps the fulfillment of the promises of genetic mastery will have given birth to a new era of human freedom or tyranny, or perhaps the great genome project will be remembered only as a very expensive delusion.
The American Republic
Some Americans and admirers of America may answer the ultimate question by saying that the most important event in history was the establishment of the American republic, with its constitutional guarantee of equal justice under law. In the words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the United States of America was "a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." I do not think that this American alternative is a satisfactory answer to the ultimate question, but to propose it for consideration is not as chauvinistic as it may seem. The premise is not that American society is inherently superior to others, that its basic ideals are without antecedents or that its constitutional order (unlike the ideal Islamic state of legend) was not grievously flawed from the outset. Of course, the practice of slavery contradicted the principle that "all men are created equal," and thus the seeds of the Civil War (and even women's suffrage) were present from the beginning, long before the slave owners realized what their agreement to the Constitution implied.
Democracy and equality existed as ideals even in the ancient world, but they were associated with mob rule and lawlessness, as in the French Revolution. Some American political ideas and institutions were borrowed from Britain, but nonetheless the American republic was a novus ordo seclorurn ("new world order"), to quote the motto we put on the money. It is not the invention of liberty and equality but the combination of these values with the rule of law inherited from Britain that was America's gift to the world, and this achievement qualifies the American example, notwithstanding our grievous faults, to be considered of prime importance for the entire world. The millions of immigrants who have come and still come to America seeking freedom and opportunity provide undeniable testimony to the universal appeal of the American dream. Even Islamist terrorists yearn to come to America, if only to take advantage of our freedoms to learn how to pilot hijacked airliners, one of innumerable opportunities they would never be offered in any Islamic country.
There are also some right questions to ask about the four proposed answers to the ultimate question. Each answer implies a religious worldview, and the choice of worldview has important consequences for government and society. An Islamic worldview implies an Islamic society. A Christian worldview implies a different kind of society, not a theocracy but certainly a society in which Christians feel comfortable. I would argue that something has gone wrong with societies governed by any of the worldviews. In each case, what went wrong and why? My task in this book is to ask the questions rather than to answer them, but the job of asking is not complete unless the questioner provides some idea of what an answer may look like. To that end I will propose an hypothesis in each case-a tentative answer around which to organize further discussion and debate. If anyone can propose a better answer, I want to consider it.
Soviet Communism: What Went Wrong?
For practice I will start by analyzing a discarded answer to the ultimate question, one that would have been a serious contender not many years ago. The Communist Revolution of 1917-1918 gave the world the Soviet Union and similar dictatorships, which were for a long time admired in many countries, especially by intellectuals eager to try out bold social experiments as the inevitable wave of the future. We know now that just about everything went wrong with the communist experiment. Why was that? Can we attribute the failure to bad people who perverted a good idea, or was the idea bad from the outset?
I put this example first because the question is easy to answer, and it illustrates the general point I am making with all the other examples. Very few people outside of the most elite universities are so protected from reality that they can believe in Marxism today, but only a few decades ago many learned people would have said that the founding of the Soviet state was the most promising event in world history. It is not that communism made a wrong turn somewhere after getting off to a good start. Stalin, Mao and Castro did not betray the ideals of Lenin. Rather the evils that were implicit in Marxist-Leninist principles from the beginning came into full flower as the communist system became entrenched in power and able to override with force every faint remnant of better ideas and every scruple of conscience. No doubt Lenin and Stalin were evil men, but it is not very informative to stop with that observation. The more important question is why these evil men were able to amass so much power and do so much damage. I offer the hypothesis that the underlying defect in Marxist theory was that it contained no provision for sin, which is the inherent corruptibility of human nature. This tendency is likely to be especially dangerous in government leaders who rely on a theory they believe to be infallible. Communist theory did not provide a remedy for the likelihood that communist leaders would abuse whatever power they held. The founders of the American republic, whose understanding of human nature was Christian even if they were deists, provided an elaborate system of checks and balances because they recognized human nature's ability to be corrupted, a factor which the Marxists neglected.
Islam: What Went Wrong?
That question is usually asked these days in the context of the World Trade Center attack of September 2001, although it is better to ask what responsibility Islam bears for the fact that Muslim states are consistently ruled by corrupt and brutal tyrannies. Given this record of failure, it is questionable whether nations like Iraq, Syria and Egypt could ever become secular democracies where women are treated decently unless they first abandon Islam or change it drastically. In the aftermath of the attack national political leaders, understandably determined not to spark a worldwide religious conflict, reassured their citizens that the war on terrorism was not a war on Islam and that Islam was a religion of peace which was not responsible for terrorism. In some cases the reassurances were so enthusiastic that an unwary listener might have gained the impression that Muhammad had delivered the Sermon on the Mount, or at least had emphatically endorsed its teaching. More wary listeners pointed out that the terrorists themselves gave their lives in the belief that they were acting pursuant to authentic Muslim teaching, and that multitudes of cheering Muslims appeared to agree with them.
Even the supposedly "moderate" Muslim governments that the Western governments had relied on to keep the radicals in check turned out to be a great disappointment. Repeatedly Americans witnessed a seemingly responsible Muslim public figure, who had worked with apparent sincerity for good ecumenical relations while living in America, return to the Middle East and there deliver on state-sponsored media an anti-Jewish and anti-American tirade so crude that it would have embarrassed a Nazi propagandist. The "moderate" governments turned out to be subsidizing the radicals they were supposedly controlling, apparently in the hope that they would take their terrorism to Israel or America rather than practice it at home.
Even after all this was revealed, some influential journalists continued to proceed on the apparent premise that Muslims are the innocent victims of American imperialism or chauvinism, and that the great evil to be feared was not Muslim terrorism but rather discrimination against Muslims. This is not surprising; I remember well how many liberals thought (and still think) that the great threat to liberty in the 1950s was not Stalinism but McCarthyism. Were these journalists, and the academics and politicians who agreed with them, perceptive or deluded?
I could answer that question but, in keeping with the purpose of this book, I prefer to say only that what I have described is a classic case of proclaiming the answer to a question that has never been properly asked. It is not for relatively uninformed statesmen like President George W. Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair to tell the world how Qur'anic teaching should be interpreted. That is a task for the most influential Muslim leaders, and of course their deeds speak far more eloquently than mere words. I see no evidence that Muslim leaders are eager to provide a candid answer to my question about what went wrong, so if we wish to receive anything more informative than soothing platitudes, we must formulate the question precisely and press it very insistently. Muslim leaders disavowing terrorism are a great deal like Darwinists equivocating about scientific spokesmen for atheism. They generally want to distance themselves from terrorism without saying anything that may seriously anger the terrorists.
To help frame a specific question, I propose this hypothesis: the Islamist terrorists are correct that they are not perverting the Qur'anic program but trying to fulfill it. Muslim leaders, especially in the Middle East, may prevaricate to avoid the consequences of affirming my hypothesis, but they will not deny it in words and deeds that make their denial credible to those who are less than overeager for reassurance that we can all just get along. Muslims are not taught to be at peace with unbelievers but to struggle relentlessly to bring them under Qu'ranic rule. Just as the communists sometimes followed a policy of peaceful coexistence when it seemed convenient, Muslim aggression may be more apparent at some times than at others, but the underlying struggle is unrelenting.
Moreover, dedicated Muslims are not pragmatists, a fact that is difficult for most Americans to believe. America is the home of pragmatism and the characteristic delusion of liberals is to believe even against all the evidence that other people, including totalitarians, are at heart very much like themselves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt seems to have thought he could charm Stalin into a reasonable frame of mind, and Lyndon Johnson thought he could make a deal with Ho Chi Minh. Totalitarians are not at all like liberals, and we may find that Muslim leaders are even less likely to respond pragmatically to offers and incentives than were communist dictators. An act of jihad such as a suicide bombing in a crowded public place does not have to achieve some ultimate goal such as the destruction of Israel in order to please Allah. Murderous acts that pragmatists instinctively describe as "senseless" are perfectly logical if you understand how Muslims think when they really believe the Qu'ran. You may think my hypothesis true or false, but in either case it is more respectful of Muslims than misdescribing them as similar to Presbyterians whose peaceful intentions have been misunderstood.
If my hypothesis is to be evaluated in the context of a specific example, the best example would be the predicament of Palestinian Muslims under Israeli rule. The Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, have genuine grievances that would attract powerful support in Europe, America and even Israel if the case were properly presented. In fact, they do attract considerable support, even though the case is never properly presented. Designing a successful strategy for the Palestinians would be easy. All the Muslims would have to do is to make common cause with the few remaining Christians, promise a secular Palestinian state with a constitution providing for equal justice under law, and then employ the protest methods that worked so well for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These methods would assuredly work just as well against Israel because the Israelis are a civilized people with a strong moral tradition derived from the Bible, and because Israel is dependent on the support of foreign governments that would dearly love to see the conflict settled. Instead the Palestinian Muslims murder civilians, including women and children, and give the impression that they will be satisfied by nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state and the consequent massacre of its citizens.
Much as Americans might wish to walk away from this conflict, we cannot take responsibility for permitting another holocaust. Why don't the Palestinian Muslims pursue a strategy that may lead to success? That question is easy to answer on the premise that what they really want is to establish an Islamic state in Palestine, not a secular state. Making an alliance with Christians may bring short-term advantages, but it would undermine their real objective and be contrary to the revealed will of God. If a Muslim wishes to enter paradise, the best way of doing that is to die in a jihad rather than to bargain with infidels. From a Qur'anic standpoint Western pragmatists and liberals just don't understand what life is really about.
For purposes of comparison I want also to present an hypothesis contrary to my own. A Harvard professor of Islamic history, no Muslim himself, reportedly argued at a conference in late 2001 that Islamist radicalism is in retreat in modern lslam, which he said was becoming increasingly moderate and reformist.
The Islamic learned men, he [the professor] said, have very limited interest in the political world. . . . "Better 60 years of oppression than one day of disorder," is a common sentiment among such leaders, representing their desire for spiritual accomplishment over worldly pursuits. (David Brooks, "Understanding Islam," Weekly Standard, January 21, 2002)Very likely there are some such "leaders," but I wonder whom they are leading. Certainly not the crowds in the streets who cheer every terrorist act, nor the mothers who teach their sons to aspire to martyrdom in a jihad. I also wonder how the professor would explain the difference between the behavior of Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians in the conflict over Israel. On the other hand, if we assume that my hypothesis is correct, then how could a distinguished professor of Islamic history be so out of touch with reality? I have an hypothesis for that also. For all his learning, the professor has been viewing Islam from the outside in, not living inside it and seeing the world from that perspective. There is a world of difference, and I know about it from my own experience as one who formerly viewed Christianity from outside and now views the world from inside Christianity. Perhaps Harvard would benefit if it included people with that kind of experience; I call that diversity.
For a much more realistic analysis of what has gone wrong with Islam, which still misses the point, see the article on this subject by Bernard Lewis in the January 2002 Atlantic Monthly. Lewis concedes that all Islamic countries are in a deplorable condition today, but he acquits Islam itself of responsibility for the decline because Islamic culture was so much more progressive many centuries ago. Lewis concludes, "To a Western observer, schooled in the theory and practice of Western freedom, it is precisely the lack of freedom - freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny - that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world. But the road to democracy . . . is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles." What requires explanation is why Christian countries overcame these obstacles and Muslim countries uniformly did not. What was the difference, other than the Islamic mindset?
Christianity: What Went Wrong?
The Christian faith is in decay primarily in its home countries of Europe and North America, and this may give people the false impression that the situation is much the same everywhere else. On the contrary, a vibrant faith community is growing up in Africa and Asia, and this is not the work primarily of foreign missionaries but of courageous local people whose faith has been refined in the fires of persecution. The majority of faithful Christians now live in what we used to call the Third World. Persecution is particularly fierce in Muslim and Hindu countries because the ruling groups there fear that the gospel will be powerfully attractive to their oppressed people if they are allowed to hear it. Why do you think that the Taliban rulers, for example, felt so threatened by a few relief workers who brought Bibles with them?
If we consider the whole world, the Christian faith is still very attractive. Koreans and Africans are even considering sending missionaries to America to rekindle the dying embers of faith in our mainline denominations, and I hope they do. I like to tell Christian audiences that our faith thrives in the long run when we are persecuted, painful as that may be for those who have to endure it. What Christianity can't stand is wealth and respectability. This factor explains why the established churches of Europe in particular have so badly decayed. They became part of the government and, worse, of the social establishment. I could say only half-jokingly that a church which joins a social establishment puts itself in bondage to the second law of thermodynamics, the principle that every complex thing breaks down unless strenuous efforts are constantly made to renew it. In Europe Christianity is associated with mindless conformity, hypocrisy, and social privilege. In China it is associated with freedom from atheistic totalitarianism. What more do you need to know?
American Culture: What Went Wrong?
The notorious American Taliban soldier mentioned in chapter five and the transgendered son of chapter six are not freaks but colorful examples of the logical consequences of underlying ideas that are enthusiastically approved in American educational circles. These are, specifically, the absolutizing of the racialist or multiculturalist version of "diversity" and the delusion that the difference between boys and girls is merely a matter of socially constructed "gender," which can be altered or abolished at will.
To provide a more complete picture of what has gone wrong in America, I should add an example from the business culture. In late 2001 Americans were shocked by the largest corporate bankruptcy ever when the opulent and influential Enron Corporation was suddenly revealed to be a hollow shell with massive debts and losses concealed by accounting tricks. Even more shocking to me was the involvement in the scandal of the public accounting profession through the leading firm of Arthur Andersen & Company. Was this debacle the fault of a few corrupt individuals, or did it point to underlying flaws in the culture of American business? Of course there were some corrupt individuals, as there always are. The pertinent question (as with Lenin) is why they were able to go so far before being exposed, so that their eventual downfall caused such enormous financial damage.
My father was a partner in Arthur Andersen until his death in 1966, so I felt a personal identification with that long-respected firm's undoing. I remember as a child hearing my dad talk about the accounting business and how important it was for accounting firms to avoid any extraneous business involvement with clients that might compromise their objectivity when evaluating the client firm's financial statements. Why was that elementary principle ignored not only by Arthur Andersen & Company but by other prestigious accounting firms? In the 1930s such a moral failure in business would have been blamed reflexively on capitalism, with reformers calling for government to take over the companies and replace management with salaried civil servants. Experience has since taught all those who are willing to learn from it that direct government management is not a cure for the evils of competitive free enterprise but a way of making those evils still more intractable by removing the discipline of the market.
But if it is simplistic to blame capitalism, then what was to blame? My hypothetical answer to that question ties together all the examples of recent American failures. What went wrong was that Americans in the mid-twentieth century abandoned the complex religious understanding that had served the nation well until that time. Before about 1960, American culture kept two distinct religious strains in creative tension with each other. One was the deist/rationalist strain derived from Thomas Jefferson and European intellectuals, and the other was the evangelical Christian strain stemming from the British evangelists John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and their many American followers. Alexis de Toqueville's Democracy in America eloquently describes how essential the religious element was in forming the traits of character required for a successful encounter with the challenges posed by an unprecedented level of personal freedom. America gained much from the mixture of personal piety with a secular rationalism that kept the piety from reaching suffocating levels.
After the cultural triumph of Darwinism, however, the rationalists became dogmatic scientific materialists and set about driving the Christians to the margins of society, denying them influence in government, education or cultural life. The Christians bear as much responsibility for this situation as the rationalists because they gave up their position almost without a struggle. Because science provides no basis for value judgments, the culture accordingly turned to legalism as the only means of controlling behavior, and to relativistic background philosophies that made all rules and standards appear to be arbitrary exercises of power. The prime failure was one of cognition, and so the greatest damage was done in the elite universities and in the professions influenced by those universities.
The influence of a crucial element in the cultural mixture was greatly diminished, so that even inherently good things were allowed to become overbalanced and hence destructive. Science is a good thing, but not when it aspires to rule over religion and philosophy. Free economic enterprise is a good thing, but not when earning ever larger piles of money becomes the prime purpose of life. Even the infamous tyranny of political correctness started out as a good thing. It is good to avoid hurting the feelings of vulnerable people, even if you think the "victims" are unduly sensitive. When the victims become so powerful that they can suppress every word and idea they don't like, however (the paradox of powerful victims is paradoxical no longer), then a corrective is badly overdue. I believe that this corrective process is already under way, and I hope that this book helps to explain how and why it has begun.
Science: What Went Wrong?
What went wrong in science is that influential scientists became so devoted to ideological causes, including those that expanded the power and prestige of science, that they neglected their primary duty to test all theories impartially, including those from which they derive wealth and prestige. In biomedical science especially, many scientists were no longer content to live on comfortable salaries but aspired to own substantial interests in biotechnology companies. By the year 2000 editors of scientific journals were seriously concerned about undisclosed financial conflicts of interest on the part of authors who were posing as impartial scientific evaluators. Some scientists had placed themselves in a position akin to that of the accounting firms just before the Enron debacle. I refrain from saying more because I believe that events will eventually make the necessary points for me.
Above all, what went wrong in the developed countries where science predominates was that the prevailing culture, through its opinion-makers, gave up on the search for truth. They sorted all thoughts into two baskets, "religion" and "science." Then they kept everything in the "science" basket, however contrary to the evidence, and threw out everything in the "religion" basket, however often it had been confirmed by experience. That left the most technologically advanced societies with a definition of knowledge that allowed knowledge only of means and relegated all questions of ultimate ends to the realm of subjectivity and speculation. Like a traveler without a map or a compass, these societies no longer had any knowledge of where they should be going. Not surprisingly, they lost their way.
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