Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians

An atheist argues for preserving our religious roots.

It is a commonplace that one of the principal reasons for the much-discussed civilizational decline of the West is the loss of religious faith, at least in Europe, where multiculturalism and secularism have been elevated to religious status. (This is not to say that America’s religious character also isn’t under assault in ways large and small; witness, for example, President Obama’s absolute omission of any reference to God in last week’s Thanksgiving address, in which the once-and-future community organizer referred to the holiday as a mere “celebration of community”).

On his recent trip to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the increasing indifference toward religion in that country. But of course he meant indifference toward Christianity, not all religion, because he recognizes that Islam is thriving in Europe. In meetings with Muslim leaders, he praised the “great importance” Muslims placed on religion: “At times, this is thought-provoking in a society that tends to marginalize religion or at most to assign it a place among the individual's personal choices.”

Continental Muslims themselves are keenly aware of the momentum they have accumulated and of Christianity’s contrasting torpor; and the supremacists among them, not content to “coexist” as the bumper sticker implores, are pressing their advantage. A Muslim immigrant group based in Bern, for example, has called for the emblematic white cross to be removed from the Swiss flag because as a Christian symbol it “no longer corresponds to today's multicultural Switzerland.” The group recommends a flag that is less offensive to Muslims: “One has to ask if the State wants to continue building up a symbol in which many people no longer believe."

But Islam is not the only antagonist that has been scaling Christian Europe’s walls for decades, of course. Brilliant British journalist and critic Melanie Phillips noted that the leftist bastion the BBC, loathe to offend non-Christians, has decided to replace the terms AD and BC (Anno Domini, or the Year of Our Lord, and Before Christ) with CE and BCE (Common Era and Before Common Era):

This attack on BC and AD, fatuous as it may seem on the surface, is yet another attack on British culture and the Christian underpinnings which provide it with its history, identity and fundamental values… The impulse behind changing such established terms – obviously as familiar to us all as the names of the days of the week – is part of the wider desire to obliterate Christianity in British culture.

To address this self-destructive desire, along comes Marcello Pera’s new book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies. Pera, a professor of political philosophy and the philosophy of science in Italy, and the president of the Italian Senate from 2001-2006, had previously co-written Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam with Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, who contributed a foreword to the new book. Pera’s complaint is that European “liberalism has lost faith in its own founding principles and has severed the historical and conceptual ties that once linked it to Christianity.”

Pera happens to be an atheist. Yet he recognizes the importance of acknowledging “the need to defend the founding principles of our own tradition”:

Our moral norms, and with them our coexistence and our institutions – the very same ones that have passed down and preserved for us the civilization in which we are living, at times troubled and afflicted, at times satisfied and hopeful – would wither and die if they were to cut themselves off from Christianity.

Indeed, he writes that civilization itself “sprang into being at the foot of the Cross,“ and that “if we remove the Christian underpinnings from human rights, not only will liberal doctrine collapse, but Western civilization will fall along with it.”

This does not mean that we must all be Christians, only that we must recognize our cultural debt to Christianity:

For the believer in Christ, that “gift of God” is grace, the unasked for, mysterious experience of an encounter with Him. For the believer in Christian culture, the “gift of God” is our Christian heritage of virtues, customs, habits, institutions – in short, our civilization.

It is not necessary that liberals be Christians in the former sense… It is essential that they be Christians in the latter sense, because being Christian by culture means possessing a foundation for our doctrine, a guide for our actions, a reference point, and a sign of hope.

One would expect that, as an atheist, Pera favors secularism. And to a certain extent he does. The secularism of which he approves

opposes theocracy, the submission of the state to ecclesiastical hierarchies, and the interference of churches with democratic decisions. It does not oppose religion, nor does it take Christianity as a fairy tale for the unintellectual.

But today’s secularism is different, Pera says. The secular culture of Europe today

is strongly ideological, averse to criticism, intolerant of objections, resistant to contradiction, impervious to contrary arguments. It is an anti-religious culture. It treats religion as superstition, as a vestige of a mythological era, as the legacy of a remote time in human history, as the leavings of intellectual immaturity… The only contribution of Christianity that secularism is willing to admit is the consolation of the foolish – a bit like magic, astrology, fairy tales, or quaint stories for the gullible.

And yet “the state is aggressive toward the principles of Christian believers, but tolerant of fundamentalist Islamic culture.” Europe “offers a dialogue to Islam for the same reason it does not want to talk to itself: the rejection of its own roots,”Pera says. “The bitter truth is that the West is afraid of Islam because it is afraid of religion, and of its own religion first of all.”

He offers ten reasons why we must overcome that fear and call ourselves Christians – among them, to remember our origins, to solve the moral crisis of Europe and the West, and to preserve pride in our civilization and defend it from attack. Without embracing this central pillar of our cultural identity, the West stands no chance against an enemy that has no such identity crisis, that is not hamstrung by cultural guilt and self-doubt, and that does not hesitate to assert its religious superiority.

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