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Archived Online Discussion
Topic: The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West
Date: 5-6 pm (ET)
on Thursday, May 27, 2010
Robert Royal
Robert Royal:

From the Moderator:

Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington D.C., is joining the Knights of Columbus tonight to discuss his book on the critical role religion and Christianity in particular has played in the shaping of Western History. He is happy discuss questions from readers.

Chris Kennedy
Highlands Ranch, CO, USA Council 10937
This is a very good book and an enjoyable read.

In the book you wait until page 117 to Quote Jesus about "Render Unto Caesar..." It seems that one of the ongoing themes is the separation of Church and State and the value of the dynamic tension between them. You did not mention Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus nor Pope Benedict's Encyclicals Spe salvi and Caritas in Veritate both of which develop the theme of the proper role of Gevernment, Civil Society and the Market can you comment on this.
Robert Royal:

My book is an attempt to describe the importance of religion -- and a certain type of religion at that -- to contemporary readers, not just to Catholics. So the Catholic part of the argument is not always put forward  directly in Catholic terms, but it is quite strongly there if you read between the lines. When I come to the modern period, for instance, I'm working pretty heavily on themes of personalism and Christian anthropology, central arguments in Centesimus Annus, but I couch them in ways that readers not already Catholic can see their explanatory power. If you have the wrong idea of what a human being is, as JPII said, it's no wonder you wind up with systems like Nazism, Communism, and secularsm. My main point is that human beings are by nature religious and certain consequences flow from that.

Chris Kennedy
Highlands Ranch, CO, USA Council 10937
Following up on the Separation of Church and State question, you mention Islam two times prior to the last Chapter. Do you see parallels between the the Greek and Roman concepts of Church and State and that of Islamic Countries. With the large Minorities of Muslims in Western Europe, is the Church vibrant enough to transform another culture?
Robert Royal:
That's a good one, and a hard one. Islam resembles Greek and Roman religion in the sense that it admits - at least up to now - no real distinction between religion and politics, mosque and state. The difference between the ancients and Islam is that modern Muslims really believe, while the myths of the ancient world were more like edifying stories than real religion. I have no doubt that Christianity has the power to transform an and all parts of the world because our Lord said he has conquered the world. But whether the Church as a whole at the moment possesses such resources is less certain. When Christianity was more sure of itself in Europe, the Muslim presence would have been much, much less of a proble, as it is here in America, where Christianity is still more vibrant.

Chris Kennedy
Highlands Ranch, CO, USA Council 10937
At the beginning of Chapter four you quote Julian the Apostate about the Christians caring for their own and those that are not their own, you also reference Galen and the behavior of the Christians during the plague. In the last chapter you reference the Christian Democrats and the bringing of Christian values into the the modern state. Do you believe that the modern welfare state has been a positive or a negative from the perspective of religion building and sustaining the west. For Bureaucrats the corporal works of mercy are building their treasure here on earth (in the pay of the state), for a Christian it is building their treasure in heaven.
Robert Royal:
You ask a hard and complicated question. But a few thoughts. At this point, I think it's a very bad idea to turn over the sectors of society that used to be the province of Church or at least civil society -- education, caring for the sick, raising children -- to the modern state.  The modern state justifies itself by its alleged care for its people, but as is quite obvious, it takes a utilitarian approach that condemns the young (unborn), already is or will be condemning the old (euthnasia, assisted suicide, rationing), and propagandizes for self-destructive behavior like gay marriage and secularism, which it confuses with neutrality. Giving states power was initially thought to be a way to help more people. That seems quite false now. Modern states reflect a culture of death, and the situation will only get worse unless we take vigorous action.

Why do you think it is that the United States has a better record on issues of religion than other countries. While we have had religious discrimination here, we have never had official persecutions that I know of. What makes us able to avoid what Mexico, Spain, France, and others have experienced with their religious persecutions?
Robert Royal:
Our history here was very different. In an odd way for a historically Protestant nation, our political freedoms have been rooted in our churches. The continental European model -- Mexico is a spinoff of a similar history -- sees freedom as the result of throwing off religious principle. Or at least it did at the beginning of modern democratic movements in Europe. I argue in my book that now, who else stands up even for the basic idea that a human being has free will, if not the Church? The scientists tell us we're determined by matter and genes, and the socialists of various stripes think we're the plaything of social forces. On the Church today tells us we are free, and also that freedom does not merely mean the unlmited license to do whatever we want, that our freedom not only has a goal, but gains its value from the fact that what we do really matters. I wish our Church communicated this better, though JPII and Benedict XVI have been great voices of sanity on these questions.

Chris Vitale
Boston, MA
You mention in your Chapter on Rome how Epicurian skeptic philosophy, in the view of Cicero and others, undercut belief and sapped the virtue of the Romans. Do you think that postmodernism and relativism pose similar threats to society in the West today?
Robert Royal:
Absolutely. Look, we see all over the world that the societies with a religious or moral foundation are growing -- even in terms of mere population. The softer, self-indulgent societies -- mostly the advanced ones -- not only are not reproducing themselves, they have little will to resist, say, radical Islam or corrupting forces within. The Romans grew strong on their old peasant and Stoic virtues. They grew weak when they got too wealthy and self-indulgent. There's a lesson there, which is why I descibe them in my book. By the way, we're usually told in textbooks that it was CHRISTIANITY that weakened Rome. But the barbarians who conquered Rome were mostly Arian Christians; it didn't seem to weaken them much.

Guilford, CT
How would you answer those who claim that most violence is caused by religious sectarianism? While it's certainly true that the 19th and 20th centuries were the centuries of secular/atheistic warfare, what about previous centuries?
Robert Royal:

Like almost anything else that we sinful humans get our hands on, religion can be misused to cause violence. And we see that even today with the various fundamentalisms -- Islamic, Hindu, even sometimes Christian -- in the world. But I wrote my book to say that, first of all, the cartoon version of Western history, in which Christianity causes the fall of Rome, the arrival of the Dark Ages, the inquisition, the Wars of Religion, and so forth, is a bunch of selective slander. If we're to get all the blame for Western Civilization, we better get some of the credit too. And even in the list of alleged horribles, who started the violence that led to the Crusades? Christians? Muslims conquered the whole of the middle East, North Africa, and Spain -- all historic Christian communities. Muslims took over Sicily for a century and sacked Rome as well. Have you ever read about that in a textbook?

More troubling are the Catholic/Protestant Wars of Religion, and I'm the first to say that there was much wrong in Christians killing Christians over theology. Even there, though, a lot of the violence was tied to politics. The Catholic French made an alliance with the Muslim Turks, for example, to keep the Holy Roman Empire in check. Catholics therefore fought Catholics, and there were Protestants fighting Protestants as well, over political rather than religious issues. This was not the West's finest hour, but we shouldn't define the West or the political effects of religion in a one-sided way either.

Gillespie, NJ
Why does European Christianity seem to be withering away, while Christianity in North America seems on the rise? Or is Chistianity in America susceptible to the same problems plaguing the European continent, but just not as far along?

Thanks for your book, Mr. Royal.
Robert Royal:

In my book, I argue that man is by nature religious. Statisics show that even in Europe, most countries have large majorities who are believers (after 75 years of Communism, Russia is 80 percent believers). The big problem in Europe, as here, is what one sociologist has called believing without belonging, believing but being unattached to any church. That's the root problem, one that affects other institutions in the modern West besides the churches as well. A Scripture scholar I respect said recently that belief, like fire, is a good thing -- in a fireplace. If it gets lost elsewhere, it either goes out or burns up what it should not.  Americans are not as cyncical about our institutions -- we didn't destroy ourselves in two World Wars the way the Europeans did. But we're getting there on the political order and allegiance to the Church has weakened as well. In any event, it's the institutional crisis that's going to have to be solved.

Ed Carr
Riverdale, NY
Mr. Royal: You seem to have a positive view of the future of the faith, especially in light of your discussion of how Christian belief and practice in earlier centuries was sporadic and superstitious. Do you see a larger role for faith in shaping society in the 20th Century?
Robert Royal:
A Christian must live in hope, if only because God is ultimately in charge, not us. Numbers never really tell us what's going on spiritually, but right now Christianity and Catholicism are exploding worldwide -- something you never read in a paper or see on TV. We're growing faster than Islam. There will be more Catholics in Sub-Saharan Africa alone in 50 years than there are on the whole planet now. Does this mean Christianity will have a larger or smaller influence in the world? It's hard to say, but a lot of people who have predicted the demise of the Church or churches -- more a concealed wish than an accurate assessment -- have been "surpised" that it's persisted. The thesis of my book is that Christainity has survived the rise and fall of several civilizations. That's a fact few people notice, or want to notice.

Norman Shockey
Chesire, New Hampshire
I enjoyed your discussion of Virgil. What exactly is meant by your discussion of his having "naturally Christian soul"?
Robert Royal:
Nima naturaliter christiana was actually a phrase Christians used to describe the Roman poet Virgil. You can see in his great poem, the Aeneid, that his hero, Aeneas, shows great piety to the gods, even when it means sacrificing something he holds dear. He has a sacred  mission, to find a just city, Rome, which his god Zeus intends will be a force for good in the world. There's much else in his gentleness and evocations of spirits in the other world that struck Christian readers. And there are some who say that one of his poems even prophesied the coming of Christ, In his own great poem, The Divine Comedy, the Catholic poet Dante takes Virgil as his guide until he comes to the Heavens. And he makes clear that in God's Providence, whatever the actual sins of the historical Rome, Rome was a vehicle for the sacred, both in the way the networks of the Empire allowed Christianity to be communicated and in the way Rome became the capital of Christianity as well.

Robert Royal:
Let me thank you all for reading my book and for your interesting reactions. As you can see from this discussion, there's much more to be said on all these issues, and there are ways to say them that resonate not only with those of us who are Catholic, but with our fellow citizens of various persuasions. If there's one thing that history demonstrates clearly, it is that, as the Bible puts it, where there is no vision the people perish. We are fortunate to have enjoyed many blessings in this country. But without moral and spiritual renewal, we may not enjoy them for long -- or know what to do with them all. I encourage you all to continue learning and questioning the received views of the faith and its role in America and the world. There are lots of good surprises in such study -- as you would expect since we believe we have been given the Good News. Blessings to all. -- RR
The Knights of Columbus would like to thank all of the participants in this discussion for your great questions.  We'd also like to extend a special thanks to our host for this evening, Robert Royal, for his insightful perspectives.  We encourage you to join in next month's discussion on Tuesday, June 29 with Meg Meeker, M.D., for an in-depth look at her book Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons.

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