One of radical Islam’s signal successes has been to give credence to those who believe that religion constitutes the greatest threat to mankind. In the short run, a nuclear Iran presents the strongest candidacy for triggering apocalypse.
A strong case can be made, however, that too little religion constitutes as great a threat, in the long run. An economically stagnant, increasingly depopulated Europe is Exhibit A. The United States, which is both the developed world’s most dynamic and most religious country, Exhibit B.
The Talmud in Taanis (23a) describes an incident involving Choni Hama’agel. One day, Choni saw a man planting a carob tree, and asked him how long he anticipated before the carob tree bore fruit. The man answered, "Seventy years." Why, then, Choni inquired, was the man bothering to plant a tree from whose fruits he would never eat. The man replied, "Just as my fathers planted for me, so am I planting for my children."
Only as long as people conceive themselves as part of a chain of generations will they plant carob trees. That sense of generational continuity -- the Burkean social contract between "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born" -- no longer exists in Europe.
Europe is rapidly becoming a childless society, whose citizens have neither the incentive nor inclination to plan, much less sacrifice, for the future. At current birthrates, there will be a hundred million less Europeans by mid-century. Spain’s birthrate is 1.1 children per couple, and a number of European nations and Canada are not far ahead.
In the 1970s, the great fear was that an exploding world population would result in the the rapid depletion of the earth’s natural resources. Stanford professor Paul Erlich predicted in his best-selling The Population Bomb (1968) that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s. Four years later, the Club of Rome announced that the world would run out of a long series of crucial minerals – gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum and gas – by 1993. None of those dire predictions came remotely close to fulfillment.
But one natural resource is rapidly disappearing in many sections of the globe: human beings. And human beings, as Mark Steyn notes dryly in a recent New Criterion article, "It’s the Demographics, Stupid," are the "one indispensable natural resource." Europe by the end of the century will resemble a continent hit by a slew of neutron bombs. The great buildings will still stand, but the people who built them will be gone. We are living, observes Steyn, through a period of "self-extinction of the races who built the modern world."
That population decline is of immense consequence for Western nations. Societies with few children are by definition aging societies. A dwindling cohort of younger workers cannot possibly foot the bill for the vast panoply of social benefits to which oldsters have become accustomed. As Steyn puts it, if only one million babies are born in 2006, it’s a pretty good bet that a country will not be able to fill two million job openings in 2026.
The only way to make up the shortfall is by importing one million foreign workers, most of them from Moslem countries. But that process can only expedite the transformation of Western Europe into an extension of the Maghreb, already predicted by Bernard Lewis.
Not surprisingly, those who no longer take seriously the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply do less multiplying. The United States is both the Western world’s most religious country and that with the highest birthrate. The Red States carried by George W. Bush in 2004 included 25 out of the 26 states with the highest birthrates; John Kerry’s Blue States included the sixteen with the lowest birthrates.
A lack of children, however, is only one aspect of the West’s lack of future orientation. Those who lack belief in an afterlife, indeed in any transcendent values that might give meaning to their lives, gravitate towards a hedonistic, here-and-now existence.
Asked by Foreign Policy magazine what current ideas, values, and institutions may disappear in the next 35 years, Princeton "ethicist" Peter Singer confidently predicted, "The traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments." The proliferation of assisted suicide and euthanasia laws in Europe, and even in some American states, suggests that Singer’s dystopian prediction may well come to pass.
Singer himself denies any higher value to human life over that of animals. Human beings, he avers, are nothing more than the sum total of their pleasures, i.e., more sophisticated pleasure-seeking animals.
Animals, however, do not generally plan for the future. Nor will citizens who have no one to whom to transfer their accumulated wealth, and who have long since ceased viewing their own countries as the embodiment of enduring values worthy of preservation, be inclined to worry much about tomorrow.
European workers have proven notoriously unwilling to consider any alteration in their increasingly unsupportable employment benefits. The attitude is: If the coffers run dry, that’ll be someone else’s problem. Why should I worry?
Even the most fundamental task of self-defense is beyond most of the West. For the last half century European countries have been content to rely on the United States for protection, while spending almost nothing on its own defense. Appeasement has become their default response to external and internal threats. Always better to push off danger to the indefinite future, which has ceased to be of concern.
Confrontation, on the other hand, risks war, and with war goes death. If one’s life has no meaning outside of itself, and death represents the end of everything, then one would be insane to opt for a course that increases the immediate risk to life, even if it will result in greatly reduced future danger. Europe’s inability to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran is but the latest example of the habit of appeasement.
"Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder," the historian Arnold Toynbee once observed. By losing their connection to the future, the post-Christian societies of the West find themselves hurtling towards extinction.