Niall Ferguson on the gods of history (part 1)
Why we're always preparing for the wrong catastrophe, the difference between Jews and the Scots, and what's his deal with Fukuyama
In a world full of Very Online People and ‘blue checks’, Niall Ferguson is one of a dying breed: the public intellectual. Author of sixteen books, among them my personal favorites The Ascent of Money and The Square and the Tower, he recently published Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe about the history of apocalyptic catastrophes. Recently, Ferguson has also started a new university, the University of Austin, dedicated to “the fearless pursuit of truth.”
This is the first half of our interview, covering religion, the American empire, his new book, and much else besides. The second part will be out next week, and exclusively dedicated to his thoughts on American higher education and his new university project.
Recently I've been obsessed with religion and Christianity. I did a huge interview with Tom Holland about it, and you had one with a Catholic magazine, wherein you mentioned you were raised in the Church of Scotland.
It's more complex than that, Antonio. I was raised an atheist by my parents who were Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. But they both left the Church of Scotland before I was born, in a protest against the sectarianism that bedeviled life in Glasgow as it bedeviled life in Northern Ireland. Glasgow was a microcosm of Northern Ireland. So I was raised a devout atheist by two people who were raised Presbyterians. So I was in effect brought up as a Calvinist, but without the comfort of the existence of God.
I see. None of the upside but some of the downside.
Well, there is some upside. The upside is that you are given the Calvinists sense of belonging to the elect. That's important because unlike other faiths, the Calvinist strain of Protestant Christianity, if you do it right, it's guilt free. If you're a member of the elect, you are really not capable of doing bad things. At least that's how it was notoriously inclined to work. So I could never quite understand my Roman Catholic friends or my Jewish friends who would talk all the time about guilt, and how guilty they felt about everything, down to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
I was puzzled by this because guilt hadn't been part of my upbringing. But essentially if you get rid of God, if you say as my parents did to me, "It's all just a cosmic accident life, and it has no meaning, there's definitely no afterlife. God is this construct, which is why we're not going to church, although your friends are," then you get some of the operating system of Calvinism because everybody just carries on behaving quite Calvinistically. But you don't have the story of an afterlife, and you don't really have the full ethical framework because you're not exposed to it on a weekly basis.
And so I had the odd experience of being raised an atheist. All my atheist friends, Richard Dawkins, the late Chris Hitchens, the radical atheists who would write books about God being dead or discredited or canceled, they had not started out as atheist. They'd become atheists. Whereas I don't have that zeal of the convert; I'm somebody who was brought up an atheist, and I therefore don't actually have the delusion that atheism is right. On the contrary, I have the terrible realization that it's just another religion and a rather unsatisfactory one at that.
I definitely agree with you about the New Atheists. Liberalism as it exists today—this is Tom Holland's whole thing with Dominion—is obviously an expression of secularized Christianity. And as you described, the residue of your own Calvinism continues. Religions don’t just get deleted, and certain residues of the religion last longer than others.
I don't necessarily want to turn this into a whole woke discussion unless you want to, but a lot of wokeness is very redolent of Protestant-style Christianity: this overweening respect for the victim, an obsessive purity culture, etc. The point that Holland raised that I obsess over is this: in a Christian society, even a secular liberal one, does liberalism itself require a sense of religion, either of the formal type like Christianity or the civic religion that arguably took foothold in the US? And if so, is it possible to just create it? Because one of Christianity's problems is that you have this direct faith relationship with Christ, and it’s hard to fake.
Religions like Judaism are more about the practice and community. I recently observed Yom Kippur; my views on God are not worth going into here, but let's just say they're not 100%. It doesn’t matter: you can go and enact the same narratives and songs, and it's irrelevant whether God exists or not. In fact, there are sub-denominations of Judaism which are avowedly agnostic. That’s much harder to do in Christianity. So I'm curious about how we’re stuck in this liberal bind, in that it’s Christian belief at heart…when that’s gone, what do we do with liberalism?
I enjoyed Tom Holland's book very much, like you, although the insight that Christianity's all around in this supposedly secularized world was not a new one to me. When I had been a young academic, one of my first jobs was in Cambridge at Peterhouse, the oldest of the Cambridge colleges. And there I got to know Maurice Cowling, who was one of the grand old men of conservative historiography. And Maurice's life's work was a great unreadable series of tomes with the title Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England.
What Maurice would do was, he would take usually liberal thinkers of the 19th century and 20th century, and he would reveal that their liberal thought was in fact a shadow or emanation of the religious upbringing that they had. When I'd been an Oxford undergraduate, I'd become somewhat obsessed with William Ewart Gladstone, the great liberal prime minister, one of the towering figures of liberalism in British politics. He too was a perfect illustration of this point, because Gladstone's liberalism was in a constant tension with and in relationship to his religiosity.
The key insight I had as a historian working on the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century was that, however possible it may be to live as an atheist, as a family, as an individual, it is a very unsatisfactory operating system for a society. Regimes that proclaim themselves atheist and seek to eradicate Christianity have been among the worst regimes in history.
I came to realize that as I was studying those liberal thinkers, that it was actually impossible to make sense of the 19th century world if you weren't really quite well-versed in Christian theology. And I don't mean you'd gone to Sunday school: you actually needed to have quite a deep understanding of the debates that greatly preoccupied the Victorians. I realized at that point that I was poorly equipped to do that because I'd really been brought up in deliberate ignorance. My parents had made sure that I was pretty ignorant of Christianity by the time I went to university, and I don't blame them for that. I know why they did it. But it meant that actually a lot of the coded Christianity in liberal thinking was rather hard for me to spot.
The key insight I had as a historian working on the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th and late 20th century was that, however possible it may be to live as an atheist, as a family, as an individual, it is a very unsatisfactory operating system for a society. Regimes that proclaim themselves atheist and seek to eradicate Christianity, have been among the worst regimes in history. It's really important to understand that, to see why the most anti-clerical regimes were also very, very wicked. This is I think a very important lesson that I learned. I came to realize, reading Tocqueville as you mentioned, that it would actually be very, very difficult to make a stable and harmonious society without some religious cement, some religious glue to hold it together. Atheism does not provide that; it's not actually a viable operating system for a stable society.
Indeed, it actually can be quite dangerous. The Bolsheviks proclaimed themselves atheists and carried out hideous crimes because they had consciously decoupled themselves from Christian ethics. The more extreme Nazis very consciously decoupled themselves from Christian ethics and committed what were perhaps the worst crimes in history. So I've become … I'm a doubting atheist. You know how Christians in the Victorian era would have doubts, were assailed by doubts? Well, I've always been assailed by doubts as an atheist. And in particular, doubts that it could be the basis for a stable society.
What you do after secularization has happened is not clear, because G.K. Chesterton had this great line that, "The problem with atheism is not that men believe in nothing, it's that they'll believe in anything." He didn't quite say that, but that's the basic idea. That's true because what we see in the secular societies of Western Europe is that supposedly secular people, atheists or agnostics, are able to believe in all sorts of nonsense and to adopt cult-like behaviors that are essentially religious. This is what woke-ism is on both sides of the Atlantic. It's a quasi-religious cult-like activity with recognizable precursors in the more radical sects of the Reformation.
But it's warped, I think. I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have the Puritans than the woke. This is the danger that the secular society doesn't stabilize, it ends up being prey to new and often slightly cranky pseudo-religions.
I wrote this post ‘Why Judaism?’ because everyone was asking me what’s this Judaism thing about? My hang-up is that once you get beyond the utilitarianism of secular liberalism, once you get beyond making the easy moral tradeoffs, at some point you get to some deontological showdown and are forced to say “This document I believe in. These are the moral foundations of my moral universe, and if we can’t agree on this, we don't occupy the same universe." But again, in a Christian society, it's very difficult to maintain that sacred faith as it’s a very fervent and personal one. John Gray, whom I love as an author, has this great book called Seven Types of Atheism. And he agrees as you just did that a society without a religion just doesn't have a lot of binding glue. He himself is also one of these brainy philosophical types, and at the end, he just can't bring himself to believe. So what do you do?
You show up on Sundays and sing along. Because ultimately, religion is also a social activity.
The more socially meaningful it is, the better it seems to me. One of the things that happened to me earlier this year was that, I made my first proper visit to Utah and spent some time there. Utah's a place that is fascinating, because it's clear that one reason they have a relatively small state, a small government, is that they have a very big religious community. The church does a lot and creates a lot of really quite powerful norms with respect to family life and neighborliness. It's really impressive because it's more visible and it's more ubiquitous than anywhere else in the United States.
So I came away from Utah thinking that that illustrates pretty well the importance of religious life as a complement to what the state can do. The more religious life withers, the other thing you notice is, the more the state's competencies grow because it starts substituting or displacing things that had previously been done by religious communities. Charles Murray makes this point in Coming Apart, what's really rotting away in white America, as he calls it is partly religious communities. They are much less important and effective than they used to be. So we come back to Tocqueville and the recognition that American democracy at its healthiest was highly decentralized, underpinned by the dynamism of American religious life as well as by a peculiar preoccupation with the law and voluntary associations. I buy all that, and I wish it was still more true. But in truth, a lot of that has withered away.
I had a conversation with Chris Rufo recently. Now he’s a crusader around the CRT topic, but before that he did a documentary that reminded me of early Michael Moore called America Lost, in which he took very frank looks at three depressed American towns. The film describes much of what you describe, and the issue is there's no government policy that can just make those rich communities re-appear.
Right. Religious communities, religious faiths, when you look closely, they're mainly about creating a set of social norms that order the family and the local, community and give structure to life. My wife is from a Muslim background although she's an apostate and therefore a rather more committed atheist than me. Ayaan is somebody who came to bitterly dislike the social order that Islam imposes, particularly because of course it consigns women to an explicitly second-class status. So you've got to choose your religious faith carefully. They all seem to me to come with some significant downside. I wouldn't really want to be a Mormon. I admire your decision to convert to Judaism. A lot of my career has been spent studying Jewish history, or aspects of Jewish history. At the end of the day, I can't really imagine doing what you're you're doing.
I feel as if I'm just condemned to inhabit this strange and slightly uncomfortable space of the doubting atheist, because I would never credibly belong to any of these communities of faith. For better or for worse, I'm stuck out here. And unfortunately, so are my kids. Because I think although I took them to church and do it sporadically (it's a bit hard to do with pandemic restrictions) I've done that because I really felt they should understand the Christian frameworks, since it's still the operating system actually of North America and most of Europe.
I sense when looking at my older children, that they've inherited from me that detachment, the inability to have religious faith. I remember going to look for it. I do remember, I would look for really impressive churches, go into cathedrals and see if it would come to me. And I've come to realize that I've been vaccinated against religious faith. My parents really succeeded in that. I'll always hear my mother's voice saying over and over again, “Life is just a cosmic accident and this is it. After death, the atoms go off to do other things and you're over.” I've come to terms with that, and it no longer upsets me. In fact, it never really did. It always seemed to me gratifyingly realistic.
The Jewish thing is at least partially driven by my three Jewish kids. In American life now, we're in this weird situation where the only functioning organizations you see are corporations. Having personally worked at the most ruthlessly profit-seeking corporations for the past 20 years, it’s obviously something that I don't necessarily object to. That said, I think it's a somewhat denuded public space when literally the only things that function are Amazon delivering your stuff, Zoom staying up, and everything else going to hell.
Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is a wonderful book that completely nails where we were going, though it was written back in the 1990s. I think the comforts of religious communities of faith are very real. The closest I came to understanding that and experiencing it was as a fellow of an Oxford and also of Cambridge colleges. The colleges are these strange survivals of the pre-Reformation world: living in a college with its pre-Reformation architecture, with its chapel, its Latin grace at dinner, the choir, the music. Remember, an extraordinary, powerful magnet that the Anglican church has is the quality of its music. To be part of that is fundamentally satisfying. And to attend chapel, and to be part of a community that has a spiritual side to it, undoubtedly is somehow good for one's mental state.
This is why religion is the ubiquitous feature of all societies that we've studied. I miss that. Coming to American universities which don't really have any religious character that's worth talking about, I miss the choirs, I miss the bells and the smells. Of course, I've been brought up to be very wary of all that because Anglicans, if you're a good Presbyterian, are no different from Catholics. I had all that anti-Catholic prejudice of the Presbyterians, but again, without any consoling Protestant God to believe in.
The music bit is part of Judaism too. I was just thinking while reciting the various Jewish prayers for Yom Kippur, many of which are sung, that your typical tech worker bee never experiences anything like that, save for in the absurd form of a corporate all-hands meeting. There's no song that we could all actually sing together anymore in America, not even the national anthem, that wouldn't cause some protest.
Yes. This is dangerous because collective singing is extremely important. Dancing, it's there in our evolutionary psychology, and it's why I find American sports so dreary because nobody sings. Whereas when you go to see a football or soccer game in the UK, the joy of participation is partly the joy of singing obscene chants at the rival team, but singing them in a mighty discordant unison.
I think the English tradition of choral music is almost without equal in the world, for sheer aesthetic appeal. I can never resist going to religious services when I'm back in England, while attendance in California is a challenge for me. We tried a Presbyterian church, but it was so political. I couldn't bear how often we had to swear or pray to God to rid us of Donald Trump. This was just more than I felt I could bear. So we ended up with the Episcopalian church, but it must be said that attendance is sparse and the singing is really not up to very much. This is a problem in Northern California: where to find at least the aesthetic rewards of religiosity, I haven't figured that out yet.
There's this great Twitter account called Cursed Protestant Nonsense that just troll-retweets Protestant content. There's one tweet that’s essentially: "Tell me you're Episcopalian without telling me you're Episcopalian." Of course, it's just about every Black Lives Matter banner in the world in front of a church.
The reactionary parts of my personality of course is drawn to Rome. All reactionaries gravitate to Rome.
Of course, yes.
But I'll never be able to cross that threshold. That's just ... too many grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents would turn in their graves, it would cause some kind of earthquake in Scotland.