Review of L’eclipse du sacre
Alain de Benoist and Thomas Molnar
Paris: La Talle Ronde, 1986, 247 pp.
This book is a series of discussions between two religious thinkers with shared cultural concerns. Thomas Molnar and Alain de Benoist have both written extensively on the problem of secularization in the modern West.
The attempts by modern states to recognize secularism as a public philosophy and to distance themselves from the symbols of traditional theistic religion represent a striking departure from earlier human history. Almost all past societies, even those few that prohibited the establishment of a national religion, encouraged public displays of religious beliefs. The United States until the 1950s impressed foreign visitors, such as the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, as a land that combined religious freedom and pervasive public piety.
Against the tendency toward approved manifestations of piety, a militant secularism has asserted itself in the form of opposition to, for example, nondenominational public school prayer (even silent meditations are disallowed as a form of public school prayer) or public funding of activities associated with religious bodies. The attempt to dissociate religious belief from the polity has behind it influential supporters from members of the Supreme Court and Congress through the media and universities down to teachers’ unions. This militant secularism has a clear precedent in the anticlerical Third Republic in France, which strove to eradicate French Catholicism in the opening years of the twentieth century. The culminating point of raising secularism to the level of public philosophy can be found, of course, in communist countries where atheism and scientific materialism have become hallowed state teachings.
Molnar and Benoist each stress the unprecedented and problematic aspects of governments and societies suppressing the public expression of religious sentiment. They also speculate about the future of our non-religious society. Molnar argues that because of the constancy of human spiritual needs, even secularism must eventually resemble a religion or yield to a real faith; Benoist, however, believes that the sense of the sacred has already departed from our culture.
It may be useful to note that these two thinkers start from dramatically different premises about religion and culture in the West. Molnar is a traditionalist Catholic who deplores the modernizing tendencies in the church and who even now speaks of Martin Luther with a frisson d’horreur.
Christianity and Atheism
Benoist, by contrast, is a critic of what he calls “judeochristianisme,” the monotheistic assumptions and ethical prescriptions that have informed Western thought since the Middle Ages. Identifying himself as a “neo-pagan,” Benoist has described Christianity and atheism as two sides of the same coin. The biblical reductionism by which all natural and historical phenomena were traced back to a single divine principle left the world without mystery. The view that there is a single divine author of the world, who stands over against it and demands human obedience to his will, caused nature to become desacralized. The cosmic point of gravity in the post-pagan West was no longer the relationship between men and nature or their ancient sacred cities but between the Creator and mankind. As long as men fulfilled the divine commandments imposed on them, they would enjoy divine favor and exercise mastery over nature.
Atheism, as Benoist sees it, represents an exaggeration of certain Judeo-Christian ideas committed at the expense of others. Atheists draw from the Judeo-Christian cosmology its desacralized view of nature, and even their customary veneration of scientific laws is derived from a theology that stresses the objectivity of the universe as the product of a self-revealing Creator. The biblical God and his followers are intended to rule nature without being parts of it, and the achievement of Western atheism is to “dislodge God from his throne to put us in his place and to attempt to construct mimetically a relationship to the world analogous to God’s relationship with creation.” Atheism is the flattery of imitation that post-Christian man pays to a transcendent deity who orders and regulates a world of his own making.
A Cat-and-mouse Game
There is an element of truth in many of Benoist’s statements, and the presence of that element makes it hard for Molnar to trap him in what often seems a cat-and-mouse game. For example, Benoist is justified in insisting on the necessary connection between, on the one side, atheism, socialism, and millenialist ideology, all elements of Marxism and, on the other, Judeo-Christian culture. Modernist and postmodernist trends did not emerge out of a cultural vacuum. Nor would they today be so widespread among the educational and political elites unless they had a well-established, historical foundation. Benoist finds that certain contemporary ideologies have roots in the Bible: modern nationalism in the Old Testament, modern egalitarianism/universalism in the New Testament, and political millennialism in both Testaments. Unfortunately, he exaggerates these connections. The Bible does not provide a sufficient explanation for modern ideologies that developed thousands of years after the Bible was written. Since ancient times, devout Christians and Jews have believed in a biblical God without turning into secularists. Benoist is provocative when he describes the early church as “the Bolshevism of antiquity.” Yet, though primitive Christians held possessions in common and defended the spiritual dignity of slaves, they did not claim to be either scientific materialists or social revolutionaries. Nor were they as “globalist” as the Roman Empire, which persecuted Christians and Jews and imposed emperor worship on all its subject peoples.
Hebraic and Classical Traditions
In trying to deal with Benoist’s presentation, particularly in the last section, which contains questions and answers from participants, Molnar stresses the value-relativity and pantheism in Benoist’s neo-paganism. But Benoist proves an elusive target. He manages to counterattack by accusing the biblical God of alienating men from nature, of generating moral fanaticism, and of driving his followers into ceaseless crusades to change the world in his image. Molnar asks one particularly sharp question about the mechanical nature of ritual piety in the Greco-Roman world. What made a sacrifice suitable (hieroprepes), as opposed to unsuitable (memiasmenon), was largely unrelated to the attitude or intention of the celebrant. The gods were believed to respond to the ritual itself, independently of the worshipper’s virtues or vices. Benoist might have responded by pointing out the similarity between the Greco-Roman attitude toward sacrifices and the one suggested in Leviticus. Although in the Greco-Roman world sacrifices was mainly an external affair, the Hebrews, no less than the Greeks, thought that performing ritual sacrifices without the prescribed procedure was both wicked and dangerous. Benoist might also have pointed to the rules that govern Christian sacraments, particularly in the Roman and Orthodox communions. Here, too, the efficacy of a particular ritual depends upon the manner in which it is done. The violation of the proper procedure affects the validity of sacraments, no matter how well-meaning the participant may be.
Significantly, Benoist makes no such comparison between pagan and Judeo-Christian religions. He is determined to underscore their absolute difference and therefore ignores any points of contact between them. Benoist makes much of the presumed difference between the biblical concept of fearing God (yeras hashamaim) and the Hellenic sense of feeling awe (hazamenos) before divine mystery. But the Hebrew word for fear, yerah, can also signify reverence, while the Greek verb hazesthai means to dread one’s parents or the gods as well as to stand in awe. Some obvious ethical and theological overlaps exist between the Classical and Hebraic traditions.
I believe that Molnar and Benoist both recognize these overlaps. Their contributions reveal that they are immensely learned in philosophy and the study of comparative religions. In battling with each other, they marshal staggering amounts of erudition drawn from entire lifetimes of reading. Unlike most American intellectuals, they believe that matters of the soul count for more than public policy issues. I tip my hat to both debaters and commend them for discussing the truly permanent things.
All the same, a debating format is not always the best instrument for examining scholarly positions. Sometimes, in the heat of battle, the participants blur or exaggerate what in less bellicose circumstances would be presented with greater care. This is particularly true of Benoist. Still, Molnar tries too hard to play his assigned role, assuming a militant Catholic stance a bit too often instead of displaying his sound knowledge of Classical civilization. He depicts primarily an ancient world that was mired in animistic superstition. But surely Molnar knows (I have no doubt that he does) that Greco-Roman religion inculcated reverence for one’s city and one’s ancestors and, as the French historian Fustel de Coulanges showed more than a century ago, contributed significantly to civic virtue and martial valor. The image that I find in Molnar’s presentation of pagan society is at best a fragmentary picture of Classical civilization. In other, less polemical circumstances, Molnar would likely be as skeptical of it as I am.
Despite these objections, the debat dialogue between Molnar and Benoist makes for exciting reading. One may hope that sometime in the future university students in religion and philosophy will be encouraged to examine and think about this book. Having to read it may be for them an education in itself.
Paul Gottfried is a senior editor of the Modern Thought section of The World & I and author of The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right.
[The World and I (New York), December, 1986]