Jonathon Van Maren:

“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”

For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.

My rude opinion is that Ferguson’s attitude has little to do with religion per se and more to do with the intelligentsia’s belief that the masses of yahoomanity need to be guided and instructed by the proper authority figures, namely, themselves. The Grand Inquisitor for thee but not for me. The same dynamic is in play in the media environment — has the New York Times or CNN done anything to earn our trust and respect? Does anyone believe they’re devoted to truth? No. Quite the opposite, in fact. But nonetheless, we’re in the middle of a mediacentric moral panic over how civilization will collapse if the masses stop listening to them and start worshiping the golden calf of podcasting. Communication technologies, like it or not, have eroded the possibility of any particular institution, whether religious or political, commanding the same sort of respect and authority that it once did. People, even the modern-day equivalent of peasant villagers, know too much and are emboldened to ask impertinent questions. Leaders and institutions have disgraced themselves too badly for too long. Clay feet can’t stay hidden in the age of the smartphone. All of the old unifying myths are losing their power.

Will this all lead to chaos and possibly bloodshed? Almost certainly. When has human history not ended up there? But with postmodern fragmentation, as with most things, the best way out is through, wherever that may lead. Christianity can’t clone itself into the future, but traces of its DNA will still be evident in its descendants. With any luck, that will be good enough.