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Science can be a powerful ally on the spiritual journey

Last month I attended a conference at Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion called Religion, Society and the Science of Life. The premise was that there is something called the ‘new biology’ which is perhaps more sympathetic to religious or spiritual views of existence than the ‘old biology’.

What is this ‘new biology’? No one really laid it out at the conference, but from what I gathered, it refers firstly to the rise of systems biology. Computational analysis has given us a picture of nature as ‘a system that operates at a very wide range of scales’, as Cambridge plant biologist Ottoline Leyser put it, ‘and the whole system is soaked in feedback’.

If Darwinian biology studied life at the level of competing species, or competing genes, the new biology studies how systems interact from the very small scale (cells, DNA) to the very big (planetary eco-systems). The emphasis is now perhaps more on interdependence and feedback loops within holistic systems rather than Darwin’s war of all against all. Perhaps that view is more sympathetic to holistic spiritual visions than the more reductionist and mechanistic ‘old biology’. 

However, the ‘new biology’ can also refer to the rise of synthetic biology – the ability to create new forms of life, to de-code and edit genes. This seems to me more of a super-Darwinian vision, in which we can upgrade our genetic fitness not slowly, over generations, but instantly through CRISPR (a new genetic editing system, recently used to eradicate illness-carrying genes in human embryos). It is an exhilarating vision but also one that raises the prospect that humans will be surpassed by a superior species – homo deus of some sort – or we’ll mess up and wipe ourselves out by creating a super-virus. You can now order CRISPR gene-editing starter-packs on the internet…Yes, for $100 you too can make your own species! 

Universities as universes

The conference was a good attempt to get different disciplines to talk to each other. That’s what universities should be: ‘communities where you always recognize that someone else’s questions are as interesting as yours’, as Rowan Williams puts it in this interesting new book. I’m reading the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, God, Philosophy, Universities, in which he talks about the medieval university as a place offering a universal vision of existence –  of the cosmos, human biology, and man’s purpose in the cosmos.

That universal vision broke down in the 17th century, when Aristotelian science was supplanted by the mechanical materialism of Descartes, Hobbes and the rest. Disciplines became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, with completely different and sometimes clashing visions of the universe, man, and man’s purpose. There’s rarely any effort to combine those visions into a universal vision – the faculties simply don’t talk to each other enough, and when they do, it’s with suspicion or incomprehension. 

If there is any over-riding vision for modern universities today, it is probably materialist utilitarianism: there’s no God, no afterlife, let’s try and make money, expand the economy, and maybe improve society. In the UK, 97% of the £3 billion the government gives to university research goes to sciences, with only 3% going to the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Only one in ten undergrads study the humanities – by far the most popular degree is business studies and other vocational degrees. If there is any sense of purpose in this vision, it’s the blind drive for economic growth: get up the career ladder, get tenure, win funding, attract publicity, expand your department, attract more students, build more buildings.

What’s lacking in this vision of academia is any real understanding of consciousness, how it arises, what it’s for,  how it relates to the consciousness of other humans, animals, the natural world and the cosmos. Nor is there much understanding of how to transform consciousness, how to help it flourish and even reach enlightenment – a mission that was central to the first universities in ancient India and ancient Greece. 

Let’s imagine, for a second, a future model of the university in which the study of consciousness and the transformation of consciousness is central, rather than marginalized and excluded. For one thing, it would have a much greater sense of the importance of the arts and humanities. 

On science and spirituality

Personally, I have faith that science and spirituality are not at war with each other, that they both lead to one truth. I don’t believe that God – a word that denotes a higher dimension somewhat beyond our comprehension at present – requires us to believe in absurdities. I think both science and spirituality are driven by the hope that it all makes sense in the end, that our minds are moving towards greater understanding of ourselves and the cosmos.

One reason I think people mistakenly believe science and spirituality are enemies is because they confuse the empirical method with the worldview of naturalism and mechanical materialism. One of the key-note speakers at the conference was Massimo Pigliucci, prominent Skeptic blogger and recent convert to Stoicism (he’s just written a book called How To Be A Stoic). Massimo took issue with an Aeon piece I wrote on ecstatic experiences recently, and he wrote

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things,

Massimo equates the scientific method with the worldview of disenchanted materialism. If I don’t believe the latter, I must be against the former. This is a standard mistake, highlighted by Rupert Sheldrake in his banned TEDx talk: ‘There’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or worldview. And unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and restrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of scientific endeavour’.

I think William James was right that we need a more ‘radical empiricism’ which is open to human experiences as a valid source of data – experiences of happiness, meaning, despair, transcendence and so on. If we accept subjective experiences as valid data, then we’d accept that most humans have occasional experiences of a higher dimension of mind, spirit or power which they describe with God words or spirit words. This is a common aspect of human nature which we need to include in any biological description of homo sapiens. We could then try to work out what this dimension is (not easy) and how we can access it in ways that help people flourish (somewhat easier). 

My intellectual heroes – James, Frederic Myers, Aldous Huxley and others – saw no contradiction between science and spirituality. They developed a sort of evolutionary spirituality, in which homo sapiens unfolds her spiritual potential from culture to culture and religion to religion. Wisdom –  sapiens – is a golden strand in our evolutionary code. We’re not quite sure where the sapiens came from – the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace thought it comes from a spiritual dimension which occasionally intervenes in evolution, while a few conspiracy-theorists have suggested wisdom-teachers like Pythagoras or Dionysus are really visiting extra-terrestrials, intervening benevolently in our cultural evolution. Pythagoras did have a golden thigh, after all, which sounds like a cyborg to me.

Anyway….we do at least have some idea how to develop the golden strand of sapiens in our minds and culture, so we can rise up the ladder of the helix.  I hope humans are just at the beginning of our evolutionary journey, and that we will develop more advanced forms of spirituality in which we don’t kill people with different definitions of the divine. Universities may have a role to play in that spiritual evolution, as far-fetched as that sounds today!

Crossing the Is / Ought divide

One of the challenges of combining science, ethics and spirituality is the Is / Ought divide. Can one go from an ‘Is’ – a scientific description – to an ‘Ought’, a moral prescription? Many Skeptic philosophers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche have insisted you can’t, which has led to the sense of ethical confusion today. Must we try and pin our ethical or religious theories to the latest scientific evidence? Not easy when the evidence changes so quickly. 

And yet many contemporary thinkers, including me, have arrived at a sort of empirically-supported virtue ethics, in which the good life for individuals and cultures is the life in which we fulfil our natures as rational, social, political and spiritual animals.  The virtue ethics of Aristotle, the Buddha, the Stoics, and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas are all based on models of human nature and theories of how to train the mind and body to find flourishing and liberation. They’re both ethical and biological systems – and also, at a deeper level, systems of physics and metaphysics, theories of consciousness, what it is, what happens to it after death. They’re universal theories. 

Findings from empirical psychology, psychiatry, sociology and neuroscience can help support classical virtue ethics. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology have tested out some of the techniques for self-transformation from Stoicism, Buddhism and Aristotelianism, and found that they ‘work’ – they help some people change chronic habits of depression and anxiety.

The empirical science of ecstasy and transcendence, which goes all the way back to William James, has also found that homo sapiens often has ecstatic experiences – moments where humans go beyond their ordinary self and feel powerfully connected to something greater than them. Psychologists have even developed scales to measure the depth of a person’s mystical experience. Psychology and neuroscience is increasingly finding that such experiences are good for us. So we can incorporate our yearning for ego-transcendence into an expanded virtue ethics (as, say, Iris Murdoch does in The Sovereignty of the Good). 

In both Philosophy for Life, and The Art of Losing Control, I described how recent findings from the psychology and the social sciences support this sort of expanded virtue ethics, how scientific evidence gives us hope that we can free ourselves from suffering and find flourishing in this life. I tried to build an agnostic model of virtue ethics, where people can accept the usefulness of both Greek philosophy and ecstatic practices as a means to flourishing, even if they don’t believe in God or a higher power (although I, broadly, do). 

But we also need to be honest about the limits of empirical science. CBT and mindfulness may help some people overcome emotional problems, but that doesn’t mean it makes them more virtuous people (as Stoicism and Buddhism claim). It’s difficult for science to measure how a person behaves all the time, whether they behave virtuously, without following them around their entire life or keeping them in a confined space (like a monastery).

This point was well made by the philosopher Owen Flanagan in his 2011 book, The Boddhisattva’s Brainwhich explores how contemplative science can tell us some useful things about Buddhist virtue ethics, but not whether the dharma actually makes people good, let alone whether it helps them reach Nirvana. 

Likewise, we can try to assess if ecstatic experiences help people flourish, but we can’t know for sure, because we don’t know what happens to consciousness after death. Socrates drinking hemlock, or Jesus dying on the cross at 33, appear to be a non-optimal outcomes from the point of view of their personal flourishing in this life. But they would argue it led to a greater flourishing in the next life.

Empirical psychology, then, can provide some support for virtue ethics theories, but they can never be entirely ‘proven’, because not everything can be precisely and objectively defined and measured.

A systems theory understanding of religions and revelations

Let me end with two things that I didn’t see discussed at the conference, which I think usefully connect the ‘new biology’ with spirituality. The first is to consider how systems theory help us understand individual and communal flourishing.

When I was mentally ill, I was stuck in a toxic feedback loop of rumination. I had a toxic idea of my self as damaged, broken and unloveable, which made me relate to other people in an avoidant and defensive way. This made other people react to me with suspicion and hostility, and it became a feedback loop – reinforcing my toxic idea of self and my alienation from the world. I was caught in a whirlpool of ego. 

I then had a near-death experience, which broke the loop of fear and rumination. It felt like some external force hit me and re-set me, a sort of external shock, like a spiritual meteor, although it may have been something within my own mind manifesting. Anyway, the experience helped me realize I was causing my own suffering through my thoughts. I couldn’t control what others thought of me, but I could learn to accept myself, and this gradually changed the feedback dynamic between me and other people (wisdom epigrams like ‘you get back what you put in’ refer to this sort of feedback loop between people’s intentions and other minds).

So that’s one point: mental illness can be understood in terms of getting stuck in feedback loops of rumination and alienation, and people are sometimes liberated from these loops by mystical-type experiences. That seems to be what happens in psychedelic therapy, for example. In Alister Hardy’s database of spiritual experiences, one often finds people saying they felt more and more cocooned in a loop of negative rumination, and then suddenly a spiritual experience breaks them out of the cocoon and they feel re-connected to their soul, their body, to other beings, and to the sparkling wonder of existence.

I subsequently became fascinated with the idea of nature as a self-regulating organism, and the idea – which one finds in many different cultures – that when a civilization becomes alienated, out-of-balance with nature and with the gods, when it worships itself and forgets its dependence on nature and the spirit-world, the eco-system seizes on individuals to act as regulators, to bring the system back into equilibrium. The shaman, prophet, artist and visionary are all figures who are seized by the eco-system (or the spirit world if you prefer), and used – possessed – as regulatory mechanisms to bring the alienated civilization into a new equilibrium with the spirit-world. 

Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, introducing tools to shift human consciousness and culture

This systems theory of religion and revelatory experiences isn’t entirely original. The work of Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and David Byrne incorporates systems theory into their exploration of communities, religion and the arts. Stewart Brand helped to organize the first Trips Festival in 1969, developing the idea of the rave as a self-regulating system in which he acted as the Regulator, tweaking the system to produce communal ecstasies (this is described in Fred Turner’s excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture). He saw his mission as introducing new ideas and tools into the system – like the idea of the Whole Earth – which would then help the system to find a better equilibrium.  It’s interesting to think of religions as systems of information-sharing and consciousness-connection which form new holistic systems through collective ecstatic experiences.

DNA and the forgiveness of sins

The second idea which I think usefully connects spirituality with the ‘new biology’ is the idea, in classical Greek culture, that we carry around the sins of our tribe within us, and we somehow have to pay the karmic debt for these sins. I think this is an interesting way of understanding DNA – the double helix is our long ancestral history, and it contains both unfulfilled potential and inherited curses. The spiritual journey involves developing the potential while healing or breaking the curses.

I’ve inherited a genetic or epigenetic disposition to anxiety and other emotional problems, possibly from my mother, who possibly inherited it from her mother, who possibly inherited it from my great-grandfather, who either developed it during World War I, when he was gassed in the trenches, or perhaps inherited it from his ancestors. It’s hard to know where it began, but it’s there, in our genes, and a lot of my spiritual journey in this particular life is trying to work with these tendencies in my mind, in order to change the story, change the tune, while also helping other people going through similar stuff.

How do you change the story? Through things like wisdom, philosophy, spiritual practices, and also through therapeutic psychedelics. One way to understand the healing use of psychedelics – particularly ayahuasca – is that they give you the capacity to see your personal and family history, and to change bits of the story so that they don’t just repeat themselves over and over. It’s the spiritual version of CRISPR, the gene-editing technology. You see the emotional loop, and you can go snip, I want to change that loop so it doesn’t keep replicating.

Perhaps psychedelics can help break ancestral patterns of violence and suffering. But that doesn’t mean they’re essential to spiritual growth – Jesus suggested we just need to take the Eucharist, believe in Him, and we will be liberated from all ancestral sins going back to Adam. The Buddha and the Stoics, meanwhile, suggested we just need the wisdom to realize the emptiness of our thoughts and we can be liberated. Anyway, God knows what gene-editing is going to do to our understanding of the meaning of sin and suffering. Who needs karma or original sin when you have CRISPR! 

Douglas Murray’s holy war on Islam

St James Matamoros (killer of Muslims), hero of the Spanish re-conquest

After the bombing in Manchester, prime minister Theresa May said, on the steps of Downing Street: ‘We struggle to comprehend the warped and twisted mind that sees a room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish but as an opportunity for carnage.’

Really? After over 50 years of Islamic terrorism against the West, we still struggle to comprehend the mind of those violently opposed to us? That suggests a real failure and weakness on our part.

Douglas Murray, the author of The Strange Death of Europe, thinks that those who attack us are constantly trying to explain their motives to us. We’re just not listening. They are constantly explaining that they’re motivated by their reading of the Koran and their understanding of Islam.  But Western politicians and journalists won’t publcly acknowledge this, because it might seem racist to connect terrorism and Islam. Instead they insist terrorists have ‘nothing to do with Islam’, that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’.

Murray’s book – currently number 6 in the Amazon UK charts – is a rallying cry for Europeans, a last stand, like Childe Roland blowing his horn before falling beneath the moors’ swords. Europe is being rapidly transformed by waves of Muslim immigration, he says, and this threatens Europe as we know it. We must resist, he says, or liberal Europe will die.

Europe’s liberal universalist dream is that new arrivals will more or less share its liberal ideals. But that’s not necessarily so. A survey by ICM last year, for a Channel 4 documentary presented by Trevor Philips (the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), found that 23% of British Muslims support the introduction of shariah law in some parts of Britain, 52% think homosexuality should be illegal, 40% believe wives should always obey their husbands, one in six want Muslims to live more separately from the rest of society. Philips said: “there is a correspondence between this desire to live separately and sympathy for terrorism. People who want to live separately are about twice as likely to say that they have sympathy for terrorist acts.” (Some criticized the methodology of this survey).

Murray thinks these illiberal attitudes will grow as Muslim populations grow in western Europe, from around 2% in 1990, to 6% in 2010, to a projected 10% in 2050. Eventually, he fears, liberals will be in the minority and Europe will become a shariah-state. It has a sort of tragic Nietzchean note to it, in common with other alt-right texts – his friend James Delingpole has a podcast which broadcasts from ‘occupied Europe’, while American alt-righters love to talk about how Europe is ‘lost’, ‘London is fallen’ and so on.  It’s simplistic and alarmist, but then so is a bomb.

Murray’s book does a sort of sleight-of-hand. It mixes a critique of Islam as an illiberal religion with a critique of mass migration in general. He mixes denunciations of Islam with reports of how London is now majority non-white, how the face of western Europe has been transformed in the last two decades, how mass migration is putting a strain on public resources and public sentiment.

It’s true that European populations have been utterly transformed in the last three decades. We are sometimes told that nothing has changed, that Britain has always been a ‘mongrel nation’ – like the Huguenots, right? No, something has changed. Rates of migration went up very rapidly under New Labour. Cities including London, Bradford, Birmingham and Slough have gone in 50 years from being almost entirely white to becoming majority non-white.

Office of National Statistics figures on UK migration

Is this sudden expansion of the immigrant population a good or bad thing, economically? It’s not clear. European populations are ageing, and migrants provide cheap labour. On the other hand, the rising numbers puts strain on schools, hospitals and housing. Some welcome the greater diversity in our culture – the arts, the music, the food, the cultural dialogue – while others blame increased diversity for lower levels of trust in communities (the evidence for this is, again, mixed).

Migration and rape

Murray’s most controversial point, and it’s one he returns to repeatedly, is that mass immigration has led to a rise in crime in European societies, and in particular of rape. He focuses on the awful incidents of gangs of Middle-Eastern, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men who groomed and abused thousands (yes, thousands) of white teenage girls in Rotherham, Halifax, Oxford and elsewhere. The local authorities in Rotherham apparently failed to spot and stop the abuse partly because they were afraid of appearing racist. One of the first investigators of grooming gangs, Julie Bindel, writes:

the police and social services appeared to be scared of intervening in these particular grooming gangs, because a large number of the men involved were of Pakistani Muslim origin. The professionals who were turning a blind eye did not want to be labelled as racist

Murray also covers the mass groping by migrant men that took place in Cologne’s main square on New Year’s Eve in 2015, as well as reports of mass groping and rape at a Swedish music festival, and rapes in asylum centres. He argues that Sweden has become the rape capital of Europe and blames this on its high level of immigration.

This linking of immigration and race to rape is an extremely old and powerful propaganda technique – which is why Donald Trump and Nigel Farage use it, why Steve Bannon’s alt-right website Breitbart seizes on any stories involving migrant rape. It’s why the Nazis dropped leaflets on French soldiers saying English troops were seducing their wives, why British posters in WWI showed the Kaiser as an ape carrying off a British woman. It was the main justification used by white Americans for violence against blacks in the 19th and 20th centuries – they’re raping our women! It pushes a very old monkey button in us, that says: ‘protect your women from the rapey foreigners’ (and yes, the button says ‘your women’). Historically, invading tribes really did – and do – rape and abduct women. The ancient rape-alarm button is still there in my limbic system – I remember reading about the Rotherham case and feeling horrified and vengeful, probably more so than if the perpetrators had been white.

‘They’re raping our women’ is a very old and effective propaganda technique. A British WWI propaganda poster, a Nazi anti-semitic cartoon, and a recent magazine cover, from Poland I think

 

Where sex crimes are committed by immigrants, we need to prosecute them without fear of appearing racist. However, Murray is guilty of exaggeration and inaccuracy – and that’s really unforgivable in such a contentious area.

He reports that in 2009, immigrants were responsible for all reported rapes in Oslo. I was horrified by this. Why weren’t we being told? Was there a politically-correct cover-up? It turned out to be true that from 2006 to 2009, all 41 reported incidents of ‘assault rapes’ (rapes committed by a stranger) were committed by immigrants. But there were many more incidents of domestic rape, committed by Norwegians. An Oslo police report in 2010 – also seized on by anti-immigrant journalists and politicians – found that 61% of rapes were perpetrated by Norwegians. Around 30% of Oslo’s population is foreign-born, so immigrants are over-represented in the rape statistics, but it’s a dangerous inaccuracy to say they’re responsible for all rapes – and they’re not all Muslims.

He’s guilty of the same exaggeration and inaccuracy (or, if you prefer, lies) on Sweden. Sweden has the highest level of rape in Europe, and one of the highest levels of migration. Murray, like Nigel Farage and President Trump, insists the two are connected. But Sweden’s high level of rape appears to be mainly because the country changed its laws to introduce a broader definition of rape than other European countries, and it has taken steps to try and encourage women to come forward to report if they’ve been raped.

I think there are genuine issues with migrant men coming, on their own, from highly conservative, highly patriarchal cultures to a permissive and (relatively) gender-equal culture like Western Europe. While most sex offenders in the UK are white (82%), data suggests that between 20% and 30% of grooming gangs are Asian (who make up 6% of the population) , while gang rape is apparently much more likely to be perpetrated by young black-British men.

But Murray undermines his case by misusing statistics. And this matters, because he’s trying to make a sober, rational and intelligent case against mass migration in general and Muslim migration in particular, and to distinguish himself from racist extremists. When he mishandles statistics to create alarming emotional narratives, he gives credibility to myths and provides fuel for the extremists.

Public opposition to immigration

On one point Murray is certainly right: there is a deep disjuncture between European public attitudes towards immigration, and the attitudes and policies of mainstream politicians and liberal journalists. The mass migration into the UK which began in the mid-1990s was passed without a public discussion. Any discussion was shut down – if you criticized mass immigration in politics, journalism or academia, you were a racist, a far-right loony.

At my own centre, our 2016 annual lecture by Canadian historian Stephen Brooke looked at the emotions of Asian immigrants moving into Tower Hamlets in the 1970s, specifically their fear of racial violence (their emotions were measured by the Greater London Council). He didn’t even bother looking at the emotions of the white East Enders, who felt their community identity was threatened (rightly – within 30 years Asians had become the largest ethnic group in the borough). The GLC didn’t ask white working class people how they felt, so there was no data. They were the inexplicable Other.

In fact, ever since they began measuring it in the 1960s, public opposition to immigration was high – it started at a high of around 80% and has dropped since then, but it remains over 50%. It’s become a much more pressing issue to voters in the last decade – before then, it was not a top five issue. Now it is. This may be because of Islamic terrorism, or because migration has become more visible, or because it’s become more OK for media and politicians to express opposition to immigration.

Today, many politicians express a concern that multiculturalism is not working – even Angela Merkel. But now we are told it’s too late. ‘The dam has burst’, Boris Johnson wrote in 2012. ‘There is nothing we can now do except make the process of absorption as eupeptic as possible.’

European unease around the issue of immigration became acute in 2015, when a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean in boats, thousands of them drowning en route. Europeans were shocked by photos of dead children washing up on the shores of Greece and Italy. Europe’s leaders showed very different responses to the migrant crisis. In 2015, Chancellor Merkel said all asylum seekers were welcome in Germany (this year, trailing in the polls, she’s decided ‘what matters most is repatriation, repatriation and more repatriation’) while leaders in Eastern European countries expressed their opposition. ‘We are a Christian country’, said Slovakia’s PM. ‘Islam has no place here.’ What is the Christian response – to welcome in millions of migrants, or to resist mass Muslim immigration?

Murray makes the point that the million refugees of 2015 weren’t all Syrian asylum seekers – only around 40% were. Almost as many were economic migrants from Kosovo, Albania and Sub-Saharan Africa – single men looking to make money for their families back home. Should or could Europe simply accept anyone who wants to move there? Is that a serious policy? For the millions of Syrians fleeing the civil war, was it not better and cheaper to keep them in refugee camps nearer Syria, so they could move back home when the war was over?

At his most philosophical, Murray describes what he sees as Europe’s cultural exhaustion. We have become soft, decadent, pleasure-seeking, ‘without any unifying idea capable of ordering the present or approaching the future’. We’re suffering ‘an exhaustion caused by a loss of meaning, an awareness that the civilisation was ‘no longer accumulating’ but living off a dwindling cultural capital’.

Many Western Europeans – including Murray – have either lost their faith in Christianity or never had that faith in the first place. He writes: ‘Who knows what will step into this void, but for the time being the consensus appears to be that the answer lies in enjoying our consumerist culture, frequently buying things that do not last and then buying newer versions of the same to replace them. We can go on holiday, of course, and generally try to have as nice a time as possible.’

When Europeans have a moment of existential crisis – as most of us do now and then – what answers does our culture give?  ‘Nothing says, ‘Here is an inheritance of thought and culture and philosophy and religion which has nurtured people for thousands of years and may well fulfil you too.’ Instead, a voice at best says, ‘Find your meaning where you will.’’

We’ve become a culture of hedonism, expressive individualism, and shrill identity politics. It is a society, he says, ‘ripe for submission’. Islamic communities are beset by no-such crippling doubts, partly because anyone who publicly denounces Islam or even subjects its texts to historical criticism has to go into hiding. In an era of complexity and confusion, Islam gives clear, rigid certainty. That, Murray suggests rather pessimistically, is why it will probably win. Again, this note of cultural pessimism and critique of consumer capitalism is quite common in the alt-right.

But hey, maybe we’re not doomed! Blow your horn, Childe Roland. Show us a way forward before we kneel to the Prophet.

Neo-Christianity and the war on Islam

Murray actually spends more time criticizing the limp inaction of European politicians than he does suggesting practical solutions. But he suggests some. Firstly, listen to European publics when they say they don’t want more immigration. This seems fair enough to me. If the public doesn’t want more immigration, try to lower immigration. Otherwise you eventually lose all legitimacy as a political system and democracy breaks down. The 2015 migrant spike is just the start – the desire to migrate to Europe from poorer parts of the world is not going away. Either you say ‘come on over everyone’ or you try and discourage mass illegal migration – why not have a public campaign in countries like Kosovo and Albania explaining that western Europe is not the promised land?

Could one also have a ban on further Muslim immigration, as Donald Trump tried to introduce? A ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries is supported by a majority of Europeans. But an explicit anti-Muslim immigration policy would alienate the roughly 20 million Muslims living in Europe, and weaponize the minority of them prone to violence. It would play into the aim of groups like ISIS to ‘eliminate the Gray Zone’ between Muslims and infidels, and draw a stark line between Muslims and non-Muslims. What are you going to do – intern them? Deport them? Where to?

That’s why it’s not a good strategy to say ‘the problem is Islam’, as Murray does, even if there is a clear link between Islamic terrorism, certain passages in the Koran, and some Islamic fundamentalist cultures (specifically, Wahabbism and Salafism). I do think you can criticize sexist, homophobic or anti-democratic beliefs where they exist in Muslim cultures, as well as practices like female genital mutilation or honour killings, and you can raise textual and historical inconsistencies in Islam. I also think we should crack down on extremist preachers – chuck ’em out! But to say ‘Islam as a whole is a threat and has no place in Europe’ puts 20 million people into a state of existential threat. It makes them more likely to cling to rigid and extreme forms of Islam.

Are European governments so pathetic in their response to Islamic terrorism? No. I think they’ve done a very good job at reducing incidents, considering how easy it is to make a bomb or drive a truck into a crowd. Of course they understand there’s a link between Islamic terrorism and Islam. They also understand it’s a strategic error to criticize Islam in its entirety, as Donald Trump did to win votes (now as president he genuflects to Saudi Arabia, chief global exporter of extremism, while criticizing Iran, that well-known funder of global terror).

Murray’s broader solution is to urge a return to Christianity, even for the non-religious. He writes: ‘Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through.’ He doesn’t think it’s likely anyone will come up with a new religion (apparently he hasn’t attended Sunday Assembly), and he thinks the arts are not a sufficient substitute as they are ‘parasitic on Christianity’ – they offer a form of remixed Christian transcendence. He thinks liberalism also grew out of Christianity’s respect for the individual, and may not survive the decline of that religion in the West.

He writes: ‘A society that says we are defined exclusively by the bar and the nightclub, by self-indulgence and our sense of entitlement, cannot be said to have deep roots or much likelihood of survival. But a society which holds that our culture consists of the cathedral, the playhouse and the playing field, the shopping mall and Shakespeare, has a chance.’  Although he finds evangelical Christianity ‘uninformed’, he feels drawn to cathedrals or the music of Thomas Tallis. It’s Roger Scruton’s sort of aesthetic Anglicanism – when I asked Scruton if he was Christian he said ‘it has done nothing to offend me’. How’s that for a whoop of faith!

Murray’s neo-Christianity – like the neo-Christianity of alt-righter Steve Bannon – is a strange thing. It’s a Christianity more to do with Charlemagne than Jesus, with Christendom than Christ. It’s not a turning towards Jesus, but a turning against Muslims. It’s a sort of Christian nationalism, a civil religion, and apparently it’s on the rise – a new report suggests the number of those calling themselves Christian in the UK has stabilized because people increasingly see Christianity as an expression of English patriotism. Tommy Robinson, leader of the English Defence League, became a Christian last year.

But there are all sorts of paradoxes and inconsistencies in this neo-Christianity. First of all, there are twice as many Christians in the UK’s immigrant population as Muslims. The reason Christianity is growing in London, unlike the rest of the UK, is because of Christian migrants, mainly African Pentecostalists and Eastern European Catholics. If Murray thinks the only viable future for Europe is a return to Christianity, does he think the influx of foreign Christians is a good thing?

Secondly, he suggests Christianity is the best defence for liberalism, but Neo-Christianity or Christian nationalism can be just as illiberal as Islam, and sometimes just as violent. Yes, in some ways our liberalism emerged from Christianity, but in other ways it emerged by rejecting Christianity, and there’s still a tension between the two.

According to the Pew Centre, American Christians are becoming broadly more accepting of homosexuality, but over 90% of African Christians think it should be illegal. Half of evangelical leaders in the global south, and a quarter of evangelical leaders in the global north think the Bible should be made the law of the land – sort of a Christian version of shariah law. 71% of evangelical leaders around the world see secularlism as the greatest threat to society.

Breitbart columnist Milo wotshisname dismisses the idea of a ‘rape culture’ in America (unless it involves immigrants)

The Christian right may not insist on women wearing burkas, but 52% of American evangelical leaders think women should always obey their husbands, while Steve Bannon’s alt-right movement (an unholy alliance of Christian, Stoic, libertarian and white supremacist men) is violently anti-female rights and pro-patriarchy. It justifies marital and date rape and dismisses  ‘rape panics’ on American campuses. So, for the alt-right website Breitbart, it’s absolutely intolerable and horrific when migrants rape white women, but if white men are accused of rape, it’s femi-nazim and moral panic.

Still, Christians don’t detonate bombs do they? Most Christians don’t, but some Christian extremists do. In Norway, Anders Breivik killed 77 teenagers in his crusade against multiculturalism – he repeatedly called himself a Christian. In the US in the last two weeks, a far-right Christian killed a politician in Montana (in the same week a white supremacist fatally stabbed two men in Portland, and another far-right loon fatally stabbed a black man on the campus of Maryland University). Anti-abortion terrorists tend to self-identify as fundamentalist Christian. There have been over 200 incidents of bombing or arson against abortion clinics since the 1970s, the most recent is the shooting of three people in a US clinic in 2015 by a man who called himself Christian.

If we’re fine with the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Islamist terrorism’, which I am, then we should also be fine with ‘Christian terrorism’. Yet 80% of Christians think Christian terrorists aren’t really Christian, while over half think Islamic terrorists are actually Muslim. Why won’t the media use the word ‘Christian’ or even ‘terrorist’ to describe violent hate crimes by Christian fundamentalist groups and individuals?

I feel that Murray has searched for an existential answer to life’s meaning, a grand narrative, and has decided his mission is to oppose Islam. This is the great war of our time, he reckons, and it is heroic to give one’s life to this mission (and it’s true that some outspoken critics of Islam have ended up being killed, like Pim Forteyn and Theo Van Gogh). Nuance and balance is the first victim of this grand war.  And this crusade is not Christianity. It’s militant tribalism, however much you dress it up with Shakespeare and Thomas Tallis. It’s closer to Fight Club than the Beatitudes – you give yourself a meaning by picking a fight.

In conclusion, I agree with Murray that European politicians have – by accident or design – imposed mass immigration onto their populations for two decades, against the wishes of their populations. I agree that if populations want to control or lower immigration, governments should try to do it rather than dismissing them as bigots. I agree that political correctness should not stand in the way of prosecuting crimes by immigrants. I also agree that Europe needs a greater sense of transcendence and meaning, beyond consumerism and hedonism.

However, it is a strategic error to say ‘the problem is Islam’ because it alienates and weaponizes the 20 million Muslims already living here, and pushes Muslims of all varieties towards more extreme variants of the faith. Circulating false but highly provocative statistics like ‘all rapes in Oslo are carried out by immigrants’ is deeply irresponsible and fans the flames of extremist fear and violence on the right.

Finally, I don’t think it’s a goer to embrace Christianity as the solution to Europe’s existential problem if you don’t actually believe in Jesus or even in God, but just see it as a useful cultural barrier to resist the barbarians. That is not a vital long-term solution – it’s an empty suit of armour, without a warm, beating heat within it. You end up perverting the faith you’re using as a military banner.

Christianity has an important role to play in our culture, but we’ve long been more pluralistic than that, influenced just as much by Greco-Roman culture, and today by other cultures like Indian, American, and, yes, Muslim culture. I think pluralism is not empty or morally hollow, but a reflection of the nature of God, and the dignity of human freedom. I know it’s uncomfortable not to have one official existential Meaning for our culture, but have a look at the countries that have that (Iran, Saudi Arabia) and ask yourself if we’re really in such bad shape.