Why Is Human History an Inhuman Nightmare?


This is an excerpt from John Harris’s new book, Climbing Backward Out of Caves, which makes a case for the rational basis of belief in a higher being.

Finally we have what is perhaps the twentieth century’s premier reason for denying God’s existence, and what is assuredly the favorite visceral reason among sincere intellectuals who have not incurred great personal tragedy but have read much and thought much. I serendipitously ran across a version of this argument recently at the end of the late Oriana Fallaci’s novel Insciallah (which, she tells us, means “as God wills it”). The book, though fiction, is crammed with facts garnered during Fallaci’s journalistic visits to a Beirut in full meltdown (after the 1983 suicide-bombings of the French and American peace-keeping garrisons). Earlier, as the troubled sixties staggered to a close, this extraordinary woman had also reported from battle zones in Vietnam and been left for dead after the Mexican government’s slaughter of hundreds of protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. For that matter, as a girl Fallaci had suffered through her father’s incarceration and torture at the hands of the Fascists, and had later watched in gleeful terror as Allied bombers pounded her native Florence. Perhaps she had a right to conclude, if any person ever has had, that no god of goodness could be presiding over human events.

The case she makes, however, at her novel’s end (through one of her characters) does not content itself with reviewing current events in the globally turbulent late Cold War era, or even with revisiting Churchill’s and Hitler’s back-and-forth firebombings (begun by the former) of civilian populations, Nazi death camps, Stalinist gulags, and the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The argument is pushed far back to the very dawn of history. People, it seems, have always wanted to kill each other. The “honorable” institution of the soldier, in particular (writes Fallaci), has licensed plunder, mutilation, rape, torture, infanticide, massacre, and every other crime which would be associated with a society’s most desperate sociopaths in peacetime. Human beings can be blood-chilling animals, far more savage than anything merely natural. As they have applied their genius to developing ever more destructive technology, the possibility that the entire species might actually self-exterminate has grown distinctly probable. Yet in indulging such insanity, human beings give every appearance of having done what they were made to do. Sanguinary conquest and brutal rapine are not the exception in our history: they are the norm. Periods of relative tranquility exist like small troughs between great waves. The mechanism seems simply to be recharging its murderous energy at these moments.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Fallaci would reverse this “moral equivalency” approach in The Rage and the Pride; and then, in The Force of Reason, she would come right back with a “life feeds on death” argument against the existence of God.  The previous century’s final decades, at any rate, saw her and many others of her generation (e.g., Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning also lately crossed my path) treating wanton violence indiscriminately as a mark of the human beast. Their worthy resolve was to resist surrendering to this apparent downward spiral of history—to fight basic nature with evolved enlightenment. Certainly resistance can no longer be mounted by trusting in a metaphysical presence, the repeatedly failed recourse of past generations which—if anything—often cleared the way for the War God’s homicidal juggernaut. The new resistance must be more secular, more survivalist. As castaways on an island attend to the basic necessities of life before indulging any fantasies about rescue ships, so the contemporary survivor of a century of unspeakable genocide insists on essential rights and tangible prohibitions, not concerning himself unduly about overarching philosophical coherence. The graves are too fresh for airy theorizing.

Hitler’s six million, Stalin’s twenty to thirty million, Mao’s fifty to eighty million… the twentieth century’s body count is so massive that mere margins of error often run into tens of millions of human lives. Pockets of just over a million such as we find in the Rwandan civil war (a number which also fits the Irish Potato Famines, by the way, where an element of calculated genocide was certainly present) hardly seem to bear inclusion. If we are not to be permanently, fatally stultified, however, by the depth of our own depravity, we must strive to count every body. We must no longer tolerate speech that incites violence. We must purge mass entertainment of its irresponsible representations of mayhem. We must limit the manufacture and distribution of weapons. Those instruments of doom which we have already created must systematically be dismantled…. And so the program goes.

From such well-meaning and understandable frustration is likely to emerge a feverish hodge-podge of legislative fine-tuning and social engineering which leaves its designers—dare I say it?—ready to kill each other. In a way, the new “hands on” approach to civil and social organization might be called a response from true faith rather than the more conventional passivity based upon false faith. It might be so called, at any rate, if individual humans were actively called upon to take responsibility for their lives rather than legislatively boxed in by Big Brother governments that seem the new incarnation of an old god. Yesteryear’s faith held that God micromanages human affairs. Despots were to be tolerated because God had put them in power, and wars were to be fought because God had friends and enemies here on earth. True faith, in contrast, places the onus of events upon the moral judgments of individuals; and, as I have said, the decision to abide by the mass’s judgment or tradition’s judgment—to advance no judgment whatever of one’s own—is itself a personal choice. When a despot steals children from their homes or executes women for laughing publicly, his policemen make a decision to obey orders, the neighbors make a decision to look on idly, the soldiers make a decision to aim and fire as directed… and so on, and so on. None of these is God’s decision; or rather, the God of goodness has already ruled clearly in each such matter, and those involved in atrocities make a decision to ignore His ruling.

When wars are waged, likewise, the populace—even a servile populace—makes the collective decision to support the monarchy’s or oligarchy’s raising of an army. (A democratic republic, obviously, would be yet more complicit in that decision.) Tolstoy insisted in War and Peace that there was no enigma involved in the French army’s disastrous flight from Moscow into the Russian winter. The Grand Army followed Napoleon as long as he led its members where they wished to go. As soon as they no longer liked his orders, they disobeyed them and did as they pleased. All people do as they please all the time. The price of acting on a decision might be death by firing squad, of course… but the act still exists as an alternative, and the person of faith ought to be able to face death rather than play the coward and blame God for not giving him a third option. After all, the “death” option is supposed to carry eternal life for people of faith.

Yet even the noble choice of the martyr has been horribly sullied in the contemporary world. The martyr (literally “witness”—a person who testifies to a higher reality by freely allowing this one to be wrenched from him) is supposed to be a brave individual who acts from a mature conscience. The current scene is littered with frightened, confused adolescents who want only to be accepted by their peer group, even at the cost of their lives. I have seen Palestinian mothers affirm fervently on camera that they dream of the day when their sons will obliterate themselves in a dense crowd by touching off a bomb-vest. Motherhood has apparently been as grotesquely caricatured by these lunatic times as has the selfless, life-asserting mission of the martyr.

So the new call to action (or calls, for there are as many as the tongues of Babel) are all too often not an appeal to people to make choices based on transcending moral principle. In the absence of faith, rather, we are sliding into a chaos of hermetic ideologies whose marching orders are as arbitrary and preemptive as they are incoherent to anyone outside the circle. One man’s Big Brother is another man’s Jealous Step-Brother. The legislators who are supposed “rationally” to bring our destructive urges to heel often seem more interested in exploring the reach of their power than in freeing the human being’s productive energies. If they ban incendiary speech, who will define “incendiary” for them? Should they not also ban mind-numbing propaganda that restrains its hearers from doing “good” works (with “good” being no better defined than “incendiary”)? If they ban weapons except for designated enforcers, who will designate the enforcers? Should they not also ban punitive lawsuits, which can leave people far more impoverished than if a vandal had simply stormed into their home and pillaged it? Quis custodes custodiet—who will guard the guards? What will hold together all these spontaneous bursts of self-righteous moralism?

My point is that moral principles cannot be added as needed to these new social/political experiments like pepper to a stew. Behind every ad hoc initiative whose humanity is taken as self-evident lies a moral assumption whose roots may utterly undermine humane values. If, without any due process, you take a child away from a father who is said to beat him, what prevents a Big Brother state eventually from raising all children? If you close down a production company for making obscene films, what prevents a Nanny government eventually from licensing only those producers who grind out its own manner of propaganda?

Human history, frankly, is probably not the panorama of carnage that it is made out to be by “postmodernists”. Even when the Roman Empire was in full decline, most farmers could hoe their rows in peace on any given day. Our collective misery has vastly worsened as our technology has advanced, insofar as evading a horseman is distinctly possible in a forest, whereas evading a V-2 rocket is impossible even in the bowels of a large building. The Sudanese narrator in David Eggers’ biographical novel What Is the What? strongly implies that he was happier in his native village, deprived of modern medicine and running water, than in any of the subsequent economic “upgrades” through which his whirlwind life carried him (the rungs of which ascent were punctuated by marvels like the Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifle and the latest techniques in big-city home-invasion). This is not to say that sanitation and vaccination are agencies of decadence or evil: it is to stress that high technology has transported too much power too quickly into our lives. Never before have we so needed a stable sense of metaphysical duty—not a patchwork of prohibitions and ordinances, but a pyramid of values drawing to a clear, tight apex of purpose.

If Islam, for all the fanatical destruction that its fundamentalist energies have released upon the contemporary world, may be said to have tapped into any compensatory impulse to do good, that impulse can only be the human attraction to a higher calling. Western religion is virtually defunct when measured on the same scale. It has largely succeeded in melting the moral calling into a buttery sauce for utopian chicken-in-every-pot social projects. There is no soulful appeal to the individual as a being meant to transport God’s will into secular time—the will of the God of goodness, not of Him Who Hates Infidels or of Him Who Prepares Healthy Menus.

The ghastly nightmares of the past century are no reason to disbelieve in God: they are a reason for renewed belief in God. They illustrate what may happen in a world where faith has grown stale or vanished. Recall that time is real, but that we cannot know its true nature in our present condition. If God’s purpose were (like the social engineer’s) to make this life ever more heavenly for us, then He has most certainly failed within living memory, and we should doubt His competence and very existence. But if time, rather than a chain of ever-ascending links, is instead a phalanx of “right nows” wherein human beings are constantly challenged to triumph over their animal nature, then the past century’s failure is our own, and the new century’s ongoing misery an indictment of our arrogant resistance to learning basic lessons.

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