Open Borders, Christianity, and the Enlightenment

In my most recent post, “The Islamophobic Case for Open Borders,” I asserted that CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM, and THE ENLIGHTENMENT are the three great faiths competing for the allegiance of modern mankind, but left the claim mostly undefended. I then proceeded to argue that Islam would decline in a world of open borders, as Muslims would emigrate from Muslim-majority countries, where apostasy from Islam and proselytization of other faiths are to varying degrees suppressed by legal and/or private violence, to countries where Islam would have to compete in a free religious marketplace. Islam, I suggested, has never been competitive under those conditions and would not be today.

By contrast– or so I will argue here– Christianity and the Enlightenment are competitive in a free religious marketplace, and open borders would do little to alter their relative strengths. Both would gain market share vis-a-vis Islam and the smaller, non-Western religions, but neither would gain a definite ascendancy over the other. Perhaps this conclusion will be reassuring. My billion immigrants post, though properly understood it was an optimistic forecast about what a world with open borders would look like, alarmed many readers because I forecast such sweeping and dramatic changes. Here, I am predicting that something will stay more or less the same, namely, the Western religious scene, though far more populous, will still be dominated by the long contest between Christianity and the Enlightenment that has been going on since the 18th century. 

  1. In Praise of the Blogosphere

But first I want to respond to some of the responses to my last post. Bryan Caplan’s review of my post was generally very flattering, as was David Henderson’s, and I’ll return the favor by saying that in all my years pursuing and enjoying the life of the mind, I’ve rarely felt so well-rewarded as in these blogospheric exchanges. The academic journals, trapped in their stultifying over-specialization, can’t hold a candle to this. Paul Krugman has expressed cynicism about the academic journals; Bryan Caplan has suggested that they’re (mostly) a waste of paper; Arnold Kling has lamented the math bigotry of the academic establishment and mused cynically on the unlikelihood of worthwhile change coming from within the economics profession. This is a bandwagon worth jumping on. The blogosphere is obviously far faster-moving, more accessible, and diverse than what the journals offer, but supposedly the academic journals are more rigorous than the blogs. Replication crises have gone a long way towards bursting that bubble. They are symptomatic of how slow and siloed is the academic conversation in the journals. The blogs allow for a much faster and more transparent, if less formal, peer review process.

There are some worthwhile things published in the journals which would be difficult to disseminate as effectively through the blogosphere. But there are a lot more things, and more interesting and important things, that could have an impact through the blogosphere but would never be published in the academic journals. In general, a vast amount of effort is poured into writing for the academic journals that could be far better spent elsewhere. The reason isn’t that established and aspiring academics make honest mistakes about how their efforts will best serve truth and human welfare. Rather, formal, peer-reviewed “scholarship” is primarily a form of rent-seeking. The very term “publishing” has become an Orwellian euphemism, for it usually consists of burying behind a paywall (albeit accessible to the higher ranks of the academic caste via university JSTOR subscriptions) what could easily be distributed for free via SSRN or academia.edu.

I’ve seen some of the corruption in academic publishing from the inside. If you want to get your piece in a peer-reviewed journal, you have to know what it’s fashionable to cite (or worse; what citations would please this particular journal editor) in order to steer between the Scylla of “you don’t know the literature” (that is, you don’t cite me and my friends and our favorite papers) and the Charybdis of “you don’t get to the point fast enough” (because you have pages and pages of citations in order to prevent editors from saying “you don’t know the literature”). Citations are the currency of academic fame, and editors and peer reviewers need to be paid off. This system is unfavorable to the discovery of fallacies in establishment theory or correction of stylized facts, both because the gatekeepers have been schooled in a certain paradigm and have trouble seeing outside it, and because they often have a material vested interest in keeping new ideas down.

As a young academic, I was surprised to discover that many academic journals (e.g., PLOS) require authors to pay thousands of dollars to get their work published in a “peer-reviewed” journal. I use scare quotes because the blogosphere is full of peer review in the literal sense, with blog posts responding to blog posts, lively comment sections, etc., but the academic cartel has appropriated the phrase “peer review” and claimed a monopoly on its use. If I had sent this blog post to 1,000 economists, philosopher, intellectual historians, etc., and had gotten rich, critical feedback from them all, it would be far more genuinely peer reviewed than any academic journal article, but it still wouldn’t count as “peer reviewed” in academia. Anyway, I considered paying journals to publish my work. It might, after all, have a pretty good ROI, if a “peer reviewed publication” bought me a tenured academic job for life. I was stopped by (my own poverty and) vague ethical scruples. But what exactly was wrong with it? They openly admitted to being paid to publish stuff. I stood to benefit. And it might make sense for the universities to do business this way, too. Universities have great difficulty assessing the quality of academic candidates. In effect, they outsource this task to academic journals, who form peer review networks to assess the quality of academic work. The journals aren’t really in the publishing business, so much as the certification business.

After a bit of thought, I realized where the ethical problem lay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an academic certification service paid by academics to provide credentials that will help universities make hiring decisions. The problem is that they’re still masquerading as scientific journals.  They’re pretending that their business is to advance the frontiers of knowledge, when they’re really trying to help universities allocate tenure in proportion to knowledge. And this has costs, not mainly because people might actually waste their time reading these materials (which probably doesn’t happen very often), but rather, because it forces young academics, first to over-specialize, and then to pursue spurious originality in the context of some over-specialized niche.

All institutions face the problem of balancing intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards in pursuit of some good. Intrinsic rewards are the rewards inherent in the pursuit, and consist in the enjoyment of that good. Thus, for a painter or a poet, the intrinsic rewards of his work consist in the enjoyment of its beauty. For a judge, the intrinsic rewards is the pleasure that comes from seeing justice done; for a policeman, the pleasure of seeing law-abiding people protected from criminals; for generals and soldiers, victory; for a priest or a pastor, the saving of the souls of his congregation, and so forth. The intrinsic rewards of being a scholar consist in the discovery and propagation of the truth.

Some work is done for the intrinsic rewards alone. But since we all have mouths to feed, we don’t have the luxury of doing much work just for the intrinsic rewards. And so extrinsic rewards come into play, and they can greatly increase productivity. The poet who would write an occasional verse in the minutes his day job left him, may, once he is published and earning royalties, dedicate the whole day to perfecting beautiful verses. The soldiers who might fight until the crops needed attention, can, when regularly paid, fight as long as the campaign requires. Tenured professors can devote far more time to scholarship than they ever could if they had to earn their livings some other way and study economic theory or Latin literature or epistemology in the scanty minutes they could spare after returning from a job. But as soon as extrinsic rewards come into play, a danger of corruption arises. The judge takes bribes; the soldiers become mercenaries and fight for the highest bidder; poetry and art become means of flattering the powerful, or the mob; the piety of priests and pastors becomes a hollow pharisaism and a mask of avarice; and scholars write, not what fascinates their love of truth, but what they think will get past the peer reviewers and impress the tenure committee.

It’s a subtle problem, because a few mercenaries in a system that, for the most part, is properly motivated by intrinsic rewards, might do excellent work. An amoral policeman who thinks he can’t get away with brutality or bribery, might serve bravely and honestly in hopes of promotion and pay raises. An amoral judge in a healthy legal system might dedicate himself to shrewd legal analysis and scrupulous respect for precedent and/or the moral law, merely in hopes of impressing his superiors and getting fame, power, and job security. Also, it’s an important principle (famously associated with Aristotle) that intrinsic rewards are an acquired taste. Today, a student makes sure to design his regression analysis properly, to get an A in the class. Ten years later, the same student, now a professor, might refuse at all costs, disdaining bribes and threats alike, to put his name to an improperly designed regression. Good institutions can, to some extent, foster the virtues that sustain them. Nonetheless, corruption can always creep in, and probably institutions are rotten a good deal more often than not. I think contemporary academia is fairly rotten.

And it’s worth remembering that it’s actually fairly normal for the universities to be clogged with barren scholasticism while the interesting intellectual work is done by freelancers and independents of one sort or another. The great European universities have carried on, generation after generation, since the High Middle Ages, yet David Hume, Voltaire, John Locke, Descartes, Erasmus, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo are among the many, many famous figures in intellectual history who were, by modern standards, amateurs, philosophizing on the side while holding day jobs as bureaucrats, tutors, financiers, or pastors etc., or making their living by writing for the people directly. If the blogosphere is not only more interesting but, at its best, more rigorous, more serious, than the academic journals, that shouldn’t be surprising. It’s actually a fairly typical situation.

As a general rule, institutions can’t be fixed merely by rearranging the incentives. The ancient, unanswerable question looms: Quo custodiet ipsos custodies? Who guards the guards themselves? If all the cops are corrupt, none of them can be relied on to report bribes. It’s no use appealing over the head of one bribed judge to another judge who is just as eager for a bribe. It takes a good deal of virtue to make good institutions work. Some of the guards have to guard, not because they’re being guarded in their turn, but simply because they’re honest.

Yet institutional design can help, so I would suggest the following reforms.

First, all new PhDs should be invited to join an Open Science Society, members of which are forbidden to publish anything behind a paywall, or to pay to have anything published. Membership would be optional, but public universities would be instructed to treat non-members of the Open Science Society as if they didn’t have PhDs at all, so a commitment to open science would become a sine qua non of full membership in the academic profession. Most academic journals, deprived of subscription revenues, would close, and good riddance. The few that remained would have to get endowments or else advertise.

Second, professional societies should organize public examinations, which academics would be required to take periodically (e.g., every 2-3 years) to show that they were keeping up with the cutting edge of their fields. I think the mere availability of such examinations would go a long way towards killing the ruinous “publish-or-perish” cultures that diverts so much of academics’ efforts into useless scribbling. Publish-or-perish persists, despite widespread recognition of its stupidity, because universities have no good way of assessing professors and so peer review, though a very inadequate signal of professor quality, is what they fall back on. (Naive second-rate schools sometimes use student evaluations as a criterion, but good schools know that they are worse than useless.) Good formal examinations to test what professors know would provide a superior signal of professor quality, and universities would, I suspect, quickly come to use them in preference to peer-reviewed publication records as a means of making hiring and promotion/tenure decisions.

The above reforms wouldn’t eliminate all problems of perverse incentives, but I think they’d help. There would be far less academic publishing, but what there was would enjoy much more readership and would get vigorous peer review in a blogosphere rendered much livelier by the paywall ban on PhDs. I think it would favor the cause of open borders, which currently gets far less attention from the intelligentsia than the inherent merits of the cause deserve. Meanwhile, the spirit of Socrates lives on in the blogosphere, and I’ll be forever grateful to have enjoyed it there.

2. Christian Nonviolence: A Relevant Digression

While Caplan praises my essay on the decline of Islam under open borders, in general, he has one strong dissent. I had written:

The Old Testament, to be sure, contains some hair-raising passages that seem very much opposed to religious freedom, but that’s part of the Mosaic law, which St. Paul’s epistles clearly and insistently establish is not comprehensively binding on Christians, but has been superseded, fulfilled, replaced by the higher ethical teachings of Jesus. The early Church never used violence.

Caplan responds:

While this is a great piece, Nathan grossly overstates the incompatibility between Christian doctrine and religious violence…

Yes, St. Paul did “clearly and insistently establish” that the Mosaic law “is not comprehensively binding on Christians.”  But he focuses almost entirely on dietary requirements, circumcision, and the like.  If Paul (or Jesus) meant to spearhead a culturally novel rejection of religious violence, he would have explicitly said so.  And to make “The early Church never used violence” true, you would have to torturously gerrymander both who counts as “the Church” and when counts as “early.”

Now, to respond to this is in one sense a digression, but I’ll explain its relevance to open borders in a moment. For Jesus seems, at least, to have gone well beyond “a culturally novel rejection of religious violence.” He seems to have spearheaded a culturally novel rejection of all violence. After all, He taught:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

Jesus is taking the most defensible case of violence as the object of his critique. Let it be granted that you are in the right, that your motive for engaging in violence is to resist an evil person; still Jesus says to turn the other cheek. Obviously, if even self-defense is forbidden, so a fortiori is aggression. “Turn the other cheek” is a pacifist creed more pacific than most pacifists would dare to desire. I have sometimes called it pacifist-anarchism because it would seem to rule out even the most legitimate violence of governments.

Moreover, Jesus Himself lived up to His own teaching perfectly. He used non-lethal violence to drive money changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12), but He never killed anyone, and when Peter started fighting to save Jesus’s life from the Romans and Jews, Jesus told him to stop (Matthew 26:52). Jesus had, according to the New Testament, miraculous powers, but He declined to use them in His own defense. He set the example of the nonresistance that He preached. Indeed, one of the main themes of the Gospels is that the Jews were anxiously awaiting a militant messiah, but Jesus refused to accept the role, saying instead that “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and for that reason, His servants would not fight. And the early Church followed Jesus’s example. Of course, this also explains why St. Paul’s insistence that the Mosaic law has been superseded doesn’t focus on religious violence. St. Paul didn’t have to argue that because Jesus had done so, whereas the life and teachings of Jesus didn’t make clear that the dietary and ritual aspects of the Mosaic law were to be mitigated or abrogated, so that fell to St. Paul.

When I wrote that “the early Church never used violence,” I meant the Church prior to the conversion of Constantine around AD 312. As for who counts as “the Church,” not every Christian all the time counts, but only Church leaders and Christians acting under their orders. Thus, I do not think the fact that Christians served in the Roman army prior to AD 312 falsifies my claim that “the early Church never used violence,” because Christian service in the Roman army, though it seems to have been permitted to Christians, was not a Christian duty or an act of obedience to ecclesiastical authority. But I am claiming, not with certainty but with some confidence based on reading a lot of history (most recently Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity) that Church leaders (e.g., major bishops) never, prior to AD 312, personally perpetrated violence, or commanded Christians to do so, in the name of the Church. If I’m wrong, I beg readers to cite counter-examples in the comments. I would love to know about them.

I don’t think it’s “gerrymandering” to define the early Church in this way, but of course, it opens the way for another criticism of the thesis, namely, that the early Church didn’t use violence because it was too weak. Of course (this critic would say) the early Church didn’t command violence against the vastly superior might of Rome. That would just be suicidal. But as soon as the Church had access to the levers of power, it used them.

But this critic would be wrong to be unimpressed by the early Church’s nonviolence, merely on the ground that it was physically weak. The weak can use violence too, and in particular, the Jews fought desperate and bloody revolts against Rome in AD 66-73 and again in AD 115-117 among other occasions. These Jewish rebels were not dissuaded by their apparent weakness from fighting the Roman superpower because (a) they tended to expect or at least hope for God’s aid, and (b) inasmuch as they expected salvation as a reward for the righteous struggle, they had little to lose by fighting. (This is also the secret to the effectiveness of modern Islamic suicide bombers.) Thousands of Christian martyrs showed by their willingness to undergo torture and death for the sake of Christ, that they were no less fanatical, no less willing to exchange life for salvation, than the Jewish rebels. But they only suffered rather than perpetrated violence, because that was what Jesus had done, and what their faith commanded them to do.

The juxtaposition of (a) Christians serving in the Roman army and (b) Christian martyrs refusing to fight in self-defense when persecuted for their faith, suggests something very interesting, namely, that Christianity was understood by early Christians to forbid religious violence in particular. Inasmuch as they still had one foot in the secular world, sought and got the protection of its laws, and partook of its wealth and honors, it was fitting that they should fight to defend secular regimes. But inasmuch as they were citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, they should abide by its laws, and emulate the perfect example of those laws, Jesus Christ, who did not fight, nor permit His servants to do so. It was precisely in their role as Christians that they must not fight, must accept violence without returning it.

The Christian emperors after AD 312 used violence, as all heads of state do, enforcing laws and fighting wars, and in general, the conversion of Rome was morally problematic for the Church, which could no longer be merely a shining counter-culture, but had to become entangled in the legislation and leadership of a whole society. The closure of pagan temples is the earliest major instance of using state power for Christian religious ends, but I won’t admit it to be an example of religious violence, since I take the word “violence” to refer to the violation of someone’s person or private property, and not to include such actions as the razing of public buildings (even if perhaps ill-advised). I won’t try to defend a claim that “the early Church never used violence” after AD 312: the story becomes too complicated. But I think a certain sense of the illegitimacy and unfitness of religious violence haunted the Christian mind through all the centuries that lay between the conversion of Constantine and the founding of the American republic, which is why not only Protestants but many Catholics felt a sense of relief at American arrangements of religious freedom. Deep down, devout Christians had always known that religious freedom was right, and yearned vaguely for something like what American civilization finally realized.

To conclude this digression on Christian nonviolence, let me highlight two ways in which it’s relevant to open borders.

A. The Christian case for open borders, or at least one Christian case for open borders, is that the teachings of Jesus call the legitimacy of any sort of violence into question. Even self-defense appears to be forbidden in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet there is a case where the duty of violence seems even more compelling than in the case of self-defense, namely, the defense of others, and especially, of one’s own children. It seems to me that (a) I have a natural right to defend myself when attacked, and (b) I also have a natural right not to defend myself when attacked, but (c) I may not have a natural right not to defend my daughter if she were attacked. I can consent, for the sake of peace, of obedience to Jesus, and/or of my salvation, to suffer aggression without resistance. But what if the aggression is not against me but against my daughter? What if she, rightly or wrongly, does not consent so to suffer, but is helpless to defend herself? Surely she has, in natural law, a right to expect such defense from me, as her father, with my greater strength. I do not think that, in such a case, I would dare to refrain from violence, perhaps even from lethal violence.

Of course, society deals with the problem of violence through specialization and division of labor, with police and soldiers being armed and trained at the expense of taxpaying citizens whom they are sworn to defend. Since I would, I think, have a duty to defend my daughter by means of violence at need, I don’t think I have a right arbitrarily and unreasonably to withhold my approval from police forces and armies that defend my daughter through the maintenance of public order and the defense of the national territory against foreign aggression. This is one reason why Christianity has always honored monastics, who forgo sex and procreation, and thereby free themselves from the duties to acquire property to feed their families and arms to defend them. By their celibacy, monastics gain a right to withdraw their approval from the state and its violence, and to embrace the sublime ethics of the Sermon on the Mount in a purer fashion than other Christians can. Anyway, if the justification of state violence derives from citizens’ duties to protect their families, this justification only applies insofar as the state is defending the rights and property of citizens against violation by fellow-citizens and foreigners. It does not justify imperialist aggression, and it does not justify violence against peaceful immigrants, who violate no one’s person or property simply by the fact of being located on the national territory without government permission. So Christians must embrace, with respect to peaceful immigrants, the nonviolence of the Sermon on the Mount.  

B. If an aversion to religious violence is an inherent, ancient and general tendency in Christianity, with respect to which the violence of the late medieval papacy represents a definite deviation universally condemned by other Christians and now repudiated by the papacy itself as well, then we have reason to expect that Christian immigrants to the West will naturally and easily avoid religious violence, not merely as a result of assimilating to Western culture but because to abjure religious violence is clearly supported by the teachings of the Christian faith. Here the case of the 19th-century Catholics is an instructive precedent, for the 19th-century Catholic Church still insisted rather fiercely on the appropriateness of religious violence, as no Christian church in the world does today, yet Catholic immigrants integrated seamlessly into the American regime of religious toleration, to which, as it turned out, they never posed any serious threat. The fears of generations of anti-Catholic Americans, such as the 19th-century Know-Nothing Party, were in my view quite reasonable, since the Roman Catholic Church at that time was still stained with evil doctrines justifying religious violence, of which, praise God, it has since repented. Nonetheless, these fears proved completely unfounded. Today, when even the Roman Catholics are fully committed to religious freedom, we can be highly confident that the mass immigration of Christians from, say, Africa, Latin America, or Russia would pose no threat of religious violence whatsoever.

For more on Christianity and non-violence, check out Robert Murphy’s response to (me and) Bryan Caplan. He takes my side.

III. Christianity vs. the Enlightenment

Back to my major thesis. CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM, and THE ENLIGHTENMENT are the three great faiths competing for the allegiance of modern mankind: it’s finally time for me to defend this bold claim. It needs defense mainly on two fronts: (a) against an objection that the Enlightenment is not a religion, and (b) against an objection that it underestimates the rest of the world’s religions.

I think I can persuade critics that my description of the Enlightenment is a “religion” is innocuous. Religion might reasonably be defined as “a system of practices designed to bring humans into contact with supernatural personal beings,” or something like that. That definition captures what higher religions like Christianity and Buddhism have in common with paganism. The problem with it, is that the higher religions were something more than that, and this definition leaves out this very important something more. The higher religions supplied an ethics and a cosmology to their believers. Paganism didn’t. It is symptomatic of the nature of pagan religion, that when philosophy arose in the Greek city-states, it conflicted very little with the pagan cults of the same cities. The first philosopher, Thales, when he set ancient philosophy in motion by theorizing that everything was reducible to water, wasn’t taking his cue from pagan religion or even arguing against pagan religion. The poignant, perhaps playfully half-believed stories that pagan religion circulated for purposes of art and festivity, were largely irrelevant to the concerns of the philosopher. Even more importantly, pagan religion did very little to settle moral questions. In Greek mythology, the gods behave quite badly most of the time. There are virtuous characters: the hearers of The Iliad and The Odyssey certainly admired the courage of Achilles or the resourcefulness of Odysseus. There are occasional suggestions that bad people like Sisyphus and Tantalus are specially punished in Hades, but for the most part, all share the same dismal fate. In ethics and cosmology, paganism offered rumors rather than doctrines. It might suggest a good deal, but it settled nothing.

Christianity, by contrast, was born as a philosophy and an ethical system as well as a system of ritual. It was an urgent matter to audit the available philosophies of the day, and discern which of their tenets could and could not be assimilated to Christianity. It was even more urgent to audit the lives of every believer, holding them up to the standard of Christian morality, and develop regimes of repentance and confession to bring straying believers back into communion with the Church. The sacred buildings and rituals had a new purpose: to express and embodied the philosophy and ethics of the Church. Other higher religions, the religions born in the “Axial Age,” resemble Christianity in offering an ethics and a cosmology. And it is in this sense that the Enlightenment is a religion. The Enlightenment is characteristically indifferent to and/or skeptical of the supernatural, but like the higher religions, it offers to the world a peculiar ethics and a peculiar cosmology. Its ethics are based on democracy, its cosmology, on science. And because it offers an ethics and a cosmology, the Enlightenment competes with other higher religions for the minds of men and women. Of course, the themes of democracy and science have many, many variations, and there has been plenty of disagreements among the Enlightenment intelligentsia across ten generations or so, as there have been among Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on, but the differences do not, I think, overwhelm the similarities so as to make “the Enlightenment” a mere arbitrary reification. Thus, when Peter Watson, in his intellectual history of the 20th century The Modern Mind, writes that…

It seems obvious to me that, once we get away from the terrible calamities that have afflicted our century, once we lift our eyes from the horrors of the past decades, the dominant intellectual trend, the most interesting, enduring, and profound development, is very clear. Our century has been dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science. The trend has been profound because the contribution of science has involved not just the invention of new products, the extraordinary range of which has transformed all our lives. In addition to changing what we think about, science has changed how we think…

A hundred-plus years ago science was much more a disparate set of disciplines, and not yet concerned with fundamentals. John Dalton, for example, had inferred the existence of the atom early in the nineteenth century, but no one had come close to identifying such an entity or had the remotest idea how it might be configured. It is, however, a distinguishing mark of twentieth-century science that not only has the river of discovery (to use John Maddox’s term) become a flood but that many fundamental discoveries have been made, in physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, biology, palaeontology, archaeology, and psychology. And it is one of the more remarkably coincidences of history that most of these fundamental concepts– the electron, the gene, the quantum, and the unconscious– were identified either in or around 1900.

Various fields of inquiry– all those mentioned above plus mathematics, anthropology, history, genetics, and linguistics– are now coming together powerfully, convincingly, to tell one story about the natural world. This story… includes the evolution of the universe, of the earth itself, its continents and oceans, the origins of life, the peopling of the globe, and the development of different races… Underlying this story, and giving it a framework, is the process of evolution… By its very nature science cannot be forced in any particular direction. The necessarily open nature of science… ensures that there can only ever be a democracy of the intellect in this, perhaps the most important of human activities. What is encouraging about science is that it is not only powerful as a way of discovering things, politically important things as well as intellectually stimulating things, but it has now become important as metaphor. To succeed, to progress, the world must be open, endlessly modifiable, unprejudiced. Science thus has a moral authority as well as an intellectual authority. 

… he writes as a spokesman for a widely shared worldview with a history traceable to the 18th century, which in the late 20th century arrived at a kind of triumphant maturity, but for which the best single label is still that of the historical period in which it had its beginnings: the Enlightenment.

To describe the history of the modern West as “Christianity versus the Enlightenment” is outrageously misleading, crude, oversimplified, and inadequate… and yet there is some truth in it, nonetheless. (To say that the Republican Party in the US represents a political expression of Christianity, while the Democratic Party represents a political expression of the Enlightenment, would be an even more outrageous oversimplification… yet there is some truth in that, too.) Both Christianity and the Enlightenment reject magic and superstition, extol peace, and deplore war and poverty. The thinkers who spearheaded the Enlightenment, Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, were Christians. The polity which best embodies Enlightenment ideals, the United States, has consistently had a Christian majority and a streak of fervent Christian piety. While the revolutionary Enlightenment of the Left, which sees the French Revolution as unfinished business, has always been hostile to Christianity, the liberal Enlightenment of the American Revolution and the British Empire, which has been more successful, has usually been friendly to Christianity, even when skeptical of Christian doctrines. Christianity and the Enlightenment have often been on the same side. Certainly, Christianity has no necessary enmity with the Enlightenment’s favorite themes of science and democracy. On the contrary, the Enlightenment inherited these from the Christian past, though it put new emphasis on them.

The abolition of slavery was a victory for both Christianity and the Enlightenment; World War I was a defeat for both; Nazism was an enemy of both; World War II was a victory for both; the American civil rights movement and the end of segregation was a victory for both. If the world’s borders are ever opened to free migration, it will almost certainly come about as yet another joint victory for Christianity and the Enlightenment.

Yet for all that, each generation since the 18th century has faced the choice of whether to accept inherited Christian teachings and practice Christian morals, or to embrace the new beliefs and lifestyles emanating from the Enlightened intelligentsia. Initially, the Enlightenment was mainly Deist, accepting a “watchmaker” God who sets the world in motion but then leaves it alone, but not denying God, among other reasons because it’s hard to explain, without God, where the world comes from in the first place. Later, Darwin made atheism seem more tenable, by providing a naturalistic explanation of the origin of life. Today, atheistic scientific materialism sometimes seems to be the default or dominant view among the intelligentsia, though Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Faith reminds us that belief in the supernatural remains dominant at the popular level. The typical Enlightenment thinker has changed over time, from Voltaire in the 18th century, to J.S. Mill in the mid-19th century, to Herbert Spencer in the late 19th century– today, intellectuals like Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker may best typify the Enlightenment tradition– but though the Enlightenment is a broad church, a liberal, egalitarian, and anti-supernaturalist bent unifies its champions across the centuries.

As Muslims look to the early Arab conquests as the end of a benighted past and the dawn of a new and better epoch, so the Enlightened look back to two political revolutions, the French and the American, as the dawn of the good, progressive modern world, as against the evil, benighted past that came before. As Islam has its Sunnis and Shias, the two revolutions left two different Enlightenment legacies. The American revolution succeeded, and the American Republic has, ever since, had a spirit of success and a certain complacency. Americans generally approve of their ancestors, though they expect to surpass them, morally and materially. The French Revolution, by contrast, ultimately failed, but lingered on as a legend and a dream, and it became the defining aspiration of the Left to carry on the French Revolution’s unfinished business, to attain that for which they thought the French revolutionaries were striving. Karl Marx eventually became the great prophet of the Left, and had the geopolitical dice fallen differently, all the children of the Enlightenment might revere Marx as Muslims revere Muhammad. Instead, the American Enlightenment has held its own, and the global spread of democratic capitalism is watched with approval by an Enlightened intelligentsia that once looked with favor on the Soviet Union. The Left has settled for the welfare state and the still-evolving Sexual Revolution. But both strands of the Enlightenment see little or nothing good about the pre-Enlightened centuries before Voltaire wrote, and both disbelieve in the supernatural. They comprise something far more than the mere negation that is atheism. To its adherents, the Enlightenment is almost a whole world, or at least, it is all the world that matters, as Christendom was all the world that mattered to a medieval European. The cathedrals and churches left behind by the Christian past, even if services are still held in them, are regarded with an antiquarian interest a little like that with which Christians in Byzantium regarded old pagan statues of Zeus or Hercules.

Philip Jenkins, in The Lost History of Christianity, documents many interesting examples from the Muslim world of syncretism and overlap between Christianity and Islam. Thus, there are places where Muslims and Christians both honor St. George; there are borrowings of ideas and architectural designs in both directions; Muslim thinkers like Rumi turn back to the teachings of Jesus (whom the Muslims hold to be a prophet) and helps to spread Sufism among reluctant or partial converts to Islam from Christianity. I once met a “Christian” from Syria who explained to a Muslim colleague of mine that, though his community was Christian, they didn’t think Jesus was God, but only that he was a prophet, and that Muhammad was also a prophet. Such syncretism and compromise complicate the question of what the market shares of Christianity and the Enlightenment were in the Middle East, at any given point in the long, troubled co-existence of the two faiths there. In the same fashion, many modern Westerners find various ways to split the difference between Christianity and the Enlightenment. Thus, in modern America, over 70% of Americans self-identify as Christian, yet 58% say that premarital sex is “not wrong at all.” These majorities must overlap, so a lot of people apparently consider themselves Christian, yet think premarital sex is morally unobjectionable, an obvious inconsistency. Consequently, it’s not really possible to say how much of the population adheres to Christianity, versus how much of it adheres to Enlightened beliefs. Self-identified Christians surely include many who are more oriented towards the Enlightenment than Christianity, but the 42% who think God created human beings less than 10,000 years ago are clearly resisting the Enlightenment message. As a very rough guess, Christianity and the Enlightenment probably have about equal market shares in the United States, while the Enlightenment is more dominant in Europe.

Another passage from The Modern Mind will go far towards justifying me in downplaying the significance of religions other than my “Big Three”:

When this book was conceived, it was my intention (and the publishers’) to make the text as international and multicultural as possible. The book would include not just European and North American– Western– ideas, but would delve into the major non-Western cultures to identify their important ideas and their important thinkers, be they philosophers, writers, scientists, or composers. I began to work my way through scholars who specialized in the major non-Western cultures: India, China, Japan, southern and central Africa, the Arab world. I was shocked (and that is not too strong a word) to find that they all (I am not exaggerating, there were no exceptions) came up with the same answer, that in the twentieth century, the non-Western cultures have produced no body of work that can compare with the ideas of the West. In view of the references throughout the book to racism, I should make it clear that a good proportion of these scholars were themselves members of those very non-Western cultures. More than one made the point that the chief intellectual effort of his or her own (non-Western) culture in the twentieth century has been a coming to terms with modernity, learning how to cope with or respond to Western ways and Western patterns of thought, chiefly democracy and science… I was astounded by this response, which was all the more marked for being made in near-identical terms by specialists from different backgrounds and in different disciplines.

Wow! Bryan Caplan might cite this passage in support of his theme that “Western civilization is a hardy weed.” I would agree, though Watson and his interlocutors, in stressing the overwhelming intellectual potency of the 20th-century West vis-a-vis the rest of the world, seem to have in mind the Enlightenment element of Western civilization, not the Christian element. Watson is biased in favor of the Enlightenment. C.S. Lewis, in my opinion the greatest thinker of the 20th century, doesn’t even appear in his voluminous index, and one might get the impression from Watson’s book that Christianity has been steadily giving way before the rising tide of the Enlightenment’s science and egalitarianism. Actually, Christianity has held steady at about one-third of world population, gaining members in Asia and especially Africa, and enjoying a revival in Latin America, as its historic heartland in western Europe has become less Christian and seen its share of world population decline, while Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, David Bentley Hart, and many others, have held their own on the intellectual plane. But the point stands that the two great Western religions have no peer competitors outside the Muslim world.

Judaism and Shinto have no proselytizing ambitions, so they are not players in a worldwide contest for human souls. Confucianism, in its origins more a philosophy than a religion, even if has sometimes gotten a religious flavor by becoming encrusted with rituals, is the analogue more of Aristotelianism or utilitarianism, than of Islam or Christianity. Ancestor-worship lacks doctrines and is more a custom than a faith.

Hinduism, a system of believing and belonging surrounding a sacralized worldview, does qualify as a religion, and while it shows little propensity or ability to proselytize beyond India, India itself comprises a substantial enough share of the human race as to make Hinduism important. Yet it’s still not really a global contender. Buddhism is the closest thing there is to a world religion that was not born out of Jewish monotheism. It had its great proselytizing successes in the past and has a very international constituency, albeit concentrated in Asia. But it’s largely quiescent. It shows no sign of the ambition to convert the globe. Islam alone has mounted powerful and escalating resistance to the penetration of Western ways, but it can’t compete outside its home turf. Even without open borders, Christianity and the Enlightenment are spreading worldwide.

Watson’s quote is two-edged. It stresses the global influence and penetration of Western ideas and ways of thought, but it also mentions that other cultures are finding ways to “cope with or respond to” Western ways. There is a hint there of resistance. The Enlightenment, despite the universalism of its ideals and the impressive global reach of its influence, is an indelibly Western phenomenon, and I see signs around the world of successful pushback, above all in the Islamic world but also in places like Russia and India. I don’t expect a rollback of science and democracy, but there may be a decoupling of science and democracy from the liberal, secular spirit of the Enlightenment. Russia is a leader in science and math but has turned its back on liberal democracy. India is approaching seven decades of almost unbroken democracy, but Hindu nationalism has risen to challenge the secular ideals of the founders of the Indian polity. As Islam once seemed destined to conquer the world, but did not, the Enlightenment, too, may have passed the moment of its greatest expansion. The West may, in the long run, prove to be to the Enlightenment what the Middle East is to Islam, namely, its one permanent bastion, where it clings and stagnates and in due course is eclipsed by progress elsewhere.

The “Islamic Golden Age” of the early Middle Ages, when Islam was the world’s most advanced civilization, occurred when much or most of the population living under Muslim rule was Christian. The Enlightenment, too, has enjoyed two centuries of economic, scientific, and moral progress (with a couple of catastrophic disruptions of course) when an Enlightened elite governed a largely Christian populace. The waning of Christian belief in Europe has proceeded in step with the waning of European dynamism and global influence. In what looks likely to be a disastrous election year, with Donald Trump hijacking the Republican Party as a spokesman for the moral underclass, I’m full of grim forebodings that the Christian moral center of the United States, too, is being hollowed out, and a twilight of long, turbulent stagnation is falling over the once-great republic. But time will tell.

Anyway, for now, despite growing resistance from some emerging non-Western alternatives, I think the story Peter Watson tells, of the Enlightenment spreading its influence, shaping minds around the world, and eclipsing older traditions, is still true, and is still the main story. In the 1990s, it was widely lamented that “globalization” was homogenizing the world. It was a symbol and a symptom that American tourists complained of seeing McDonalds’ golden arches everywhere and not feeling like they could really leave home. Coke and Hollywood and Washington Consensus economic policies are similarly ubiquitous, and respect for science and aspiration to democracy, though less tangible, seem to be spreading, too.  

3. Why Open Borders Would Sustain the Enlightenment/Christianity Stalemate

Under open borders, billions of people from all over the globe would come to the West, encounter Christianity and the Enlightenment first-hand, absorb one or the other or elements of both, and in many cases, return home, where they would spread the ideas they learned in the West. The West’s schizophrenia would be projected across the whole world, as is already happening today, only it would happen faster. So far the forecast, though hardly tame or innocuous, is derived in a fairly straightforward way. I am simply extrapolating present trends, but accelerating them, on the assimilation principle. Open borders would lead to more cross-cultural human interaction, fast-forwarding history, and most of the new human interaction would take place on the territory of the West, where Christianity and the Enlightenment enjoy structural advantages.

The riskier prediction is that the balance of influence between Christianity and the Enlightenment would remain unchanged under open borders. After all, it’s quite possible that (a) Christianity and the Enlightenment would both gain adherents under open borders, but (b) one or the other will be more successful in making converts, so (c) open borders would tip the balance towards one or the other.

The (nominally) Christian share of the population would almost certainly fall under open borders. The Christian churches tend to make converts from all immigrant populations, and surely would do so under open borders, but not fast enough to offset the drop in the Christian share of population. Immigrants might be quicker to absorb the ideas and attitudes characteristic of the Enlightenment, than to explicitly adopt a new faith, and in some cases (especially in the case of Muslims) a historically hostile faith. If so, the population of the West under open borders might end up just as Enlightened as today, or more, but less Christian.

Against this, note that with respect to the Sexual Revolution, Christians are more in harmony with the opinions of the rest of mankind, than the Enlightened are. Statista.com has a great chart here on global views of premarital sex. There are dramatic differences around the world. In western European countries like France, Germany, and Spain, the percentage saying that sex between unmarried adults is “unacceptable” is under 10%. More say this in the USA (30%) and Russia (also 30%), where Christianity is a stronger force. At the other extreme, it is regarded as “unacceptable” by vast majorities in Muslim countries like Egypt (90%), Pakistan (94%), Jordan (95%), and Indonesia (97%). But it is also condemned by 77% in Nigeria, 71% in the Philippines, 67% in India, 58% in China, and 48% in South Africa. In general, almost every non-Western country seems to be less tolerant of sex outside marriage, than are most countries in the West. It’s true that (a) immigrants would be likely to self-select on the basis of sexual mores, with the relatively libertine being more attracted to the West, and (b) immigrants would start to assimilate after arriving, so that many would adopt attitudes towards sex more like those prevailing in the West. Even taking all that into account, the resident populations of Western countries would almost certainly be much more sexually conservative under open borders, than they are today. By the same token, same-sex marriage is mostly a Western and Latin American phenomenon, rejected almost everywhere in Africa and Asia.

The likely consequence of open borders, then, is that conservative Christian views on sexual morality, which are perhaps the single biggest factor isolating the Christian churches today, weakening their influence on the young, and rendering their whole message implausible, would suddenly become normal. This could give Christian churches an advantage in converting immigrants, who might, in new circumstances, doubt their traditional beliefs or feel a need for a new community, yet recoil from the sexual libertinism prevailing in the West. But the mere fact of having so many people agreeing with them would give Christians a new plausibility on sexual matters. Similarly, the sexual liberalism of the Enlightened would, under open borders, make them a small minority in the resident population, facing the moral disapproval of most of the population, even if the advantages of incumbency gave them disproportionate political power. Legislatively, as some part of the immigrant multitudes acquired the vote, conservative Christians could find many new allies on same-sex marriage, pornography, family law and gender roles, etc.

That’s why I think open borders would leave the balance of influence between Christianity and the Enlightenment largely unchanged. It would reduce the nominally Christian share of the population in the West (but increase it in the world) while bringing Western social conservatives new allies on their home turf (though also accelerating the spread of the West’s loose sexual mores abroad). Individual stories would vary, with some immigrants finding community in Christian churches, while for others, Western freedom would be the ticket out of traditional moral restraints. But the individual stories would largely cancel out. There would be some new features of the religious landscape, such as large Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim minorities. But for the most part, the long contest of Christianity vs. the Enlightenment would continue. The actors would be more numerous, more varied in their race and ancestry, and on average, somewhat less educated, but they’d be engaged in the same arguments, and taking the same positions, that Westerners take today.

4. Rethinking “Assimilation”

I’ve mentioned “the assimilation principle,” and made it central to my analysis. But the term must have an odd sound in the context of a discussion of the West’s long civil war of the mind between Christianity and the Enlightenment. If Westerners are so dissimilar among themselves, what can it means for immigrants to assimilate? Kudos to Vipul’s post “A critique of the concept of assimilation” for helping me to think through this. My post on “The melting pot” is also relevant.

What I mean by assimilation is simply that, upon arrival in the West, immigrants will tend to observe Westerners and imitate them in some respects. Individually, most immigrants will come, over time, to bear a greater resemblance to some Westerners. Collectively, the distribution of traits such as manners, opinions, professions, education, lifestyles, etc., among immigrant populations, will come to bear a greater resemblance to the distribution of such traits among Westerners. Assimilation may sometimes go the other way, as Americans have adopted German Christmas trees and Irish St. Patrick’s Day, but the flow of cultural influence will be overwhelmingly from natives to immigrants rather than vice versa.

Note that this definition of “assimilation” is robust to any degree of dissimilarity among natives themselves. To see this, suppose that all possible traits are somehow collapsed into a one-dimensional spectrum from 0 to 100, and half of Americans are at 0, and the other at 100. There is, then, maximum dissimilarity among Americans. Suppose further that immigrants arrive with traits in between, say, in the range of 30 to 70. How would immigrants “assimilate?” Simple: each immigrant would emulate some American or group of like-minded Americans, and end up becoming a 0 or a 100. Individually, each immigrant would emulate certain Americans. Collectively, the distribution of traits among immigrants would come to resemble the distribution of traits among Americans. But while it’s impeccably logical, this seems like a reductio ad absurdum of the concept of assimilation. When critics of immigration often complain that “immigrants don’t want to assimilate,” they surely think that there is a common American, or British, or French, or German culture, and that immigrants ought to adapt to it, respect it, embrace it. 

In what sense is there a common American culture, or a common British, French, or German culture? I’ve described the West as a battleground between Christianity and the Enlightenment. Whether or not that characterization is accepted as useful, the West clearly has a lot of people who believe that God made the world and Jesus Christ rose from the dead and there are miracles and angels and devils and there will be Judgment Day and paradise, and a lot of other people who think blind naturalistic evolution made life and miracles don’t happen and everyone is equal and free love is OK and death is the end and the universe will inevitably end in heat death at last. It’s nice that these people manage to coexist peacefully. But how can there be a common American/British/French/German/Western culture for immigrants to assimilate to, in the presence of such deep disagreements? It’s not a rhetorical question. I suspect that such a common culture is more of a reality than I am able to recognize. Can someone help me?

Here’s my attempt to anticipate the kind of answer I’m looking for. “Yes, Americans disagree about some ultimate things, like cosmology, and about some practical, everyday matters of morality as well,” the advocate of common culture will begin by conceding. “But,” he will continue, “what we have in common is more important. We have an understanding of our constitution and our laws. We are participants in a great political and legal tradition going back to Magna Carta or before. Many of the habits that make freedom work are largely unreasoned and even inarticulate. They are passed down from generation to generation half-unconsciously, but they make us behave in ways that keep our economy strong and preserve the civil peace. Foreigners don’t have the same habits. Even if they’re good people in their own way, they don’t know how to fit into American society in a way that contributes to its flourishing. It’s difficult to communicate, to transact, not just because of language but because of different assumptions. They don’t know the protocols, so they disrupt and interfere and get in the way, without meaning to. Even an immigrant who is fully committed to Christianity or the Enlightenment at the religious/ideological level probably won’t get on well with Americans who may share their ultimate beliefs, but whose behavior less by conscious ultimate beliefs, than by a myriad of beliefs, less important in themselves, that we accept uncritically from the surrounding culture as we grow up. Often, we might be unable rationally to justify, if challenged, the beliefs, attitudes, and habits that make us American, but that doesn’t matter. Such beliefs, attitudes, and habits make us who we are, and make our society what it is, and they give our society a considerable degree of practical integrity, unity, and solidarity, even in the face of pervasive disagreement about ultimate things.”

I don’t really buy it. I’d have given it more credence fifty or sixty years ago than today. In the short run, mere habits, uncritically accepted, matter a lot. But in the long run, people will change their habits to correspond to their beliefs. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was more pressure to conform. American life offered fewer options, and some beliefs were definitely disfavored. Since then, America has sometimes drifted, sometimes deliberately advanced, towards ever-greater tolerance, with the result that no normative center now holds. Even things that Americans all tend to hold sacred, e.g., “democracy,” “the Constitution,” mean such things to different people that they don’t represent a real commonality. Between myself and anyone who thinks that the Constitution contains a right to gay marriage, for example, the gulf is so wide that I don’t see how there could be any common citizenship between us. 

As the tendencies of Enlightenment thought continue to develop and spread in the population, the mental distance between the Enlightened and the Christians must continue to grow. Same-sex marriage is a case in point, since the views of marriage for which Christians are now condemned and marginalized were fully shared by the thinkers of the original 18th-century Enlightenment. A similar evolution took place in the history of Islam. One theme of The Lost History of Christianity is that Christianity and Islam were much more similar in the early years of Islam. They steadily diverged as Islam continued to develop. As the Enlightenment becomes ever more post-Christian, I think any common culture in the West will be increasingly lost, and the question of whether immigrants assimilate to Western ways will give way to the question of which Western ways they assimilate to.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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