Can Mormonism save Western civilization from Submission?

I was very sad when I heard of the terrorist attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7. I have been in the Middle East many times, and I only had good experiences with Muslims, but it seems that the Western and Islamic civilizations are on a violent collision course, and nothing good can come from that.

The attack against Charlie Hebdo was an attack against freedom of thought and the free press, and as such it can only be vigorously condemned. At the same time, I agree with those who, while firmly condemning the shootings, observed that many Charlie Hebdo cartoons against Islam were really over the top. “Je suis Charlie” because I support freedom of expression, but “Je ne suis pas Charlie” because I don’t insult others’ religion just for the fun of it. I will fight for the freedom to publish Charlie Hebdo … but I won’t read the magazine. I will fight to protect our civilization, but the war against Islam is not my war.

On the same day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, January 7, the long-awaited new book of French novelist Michel Houllebeq, “Soumission” (Submission) was published by Flammarion. The English translation hasn’t been published yet. If you speak French, I encourage you to read the original - otherwise there is a good critical review on The New Yorker.

I am a big fan of Houllebeq, so I rushed to read Submission. The novel is set in a near-future (2022) France where an Islamic party led by charismatic politician Mohammed Ben Abbes is about to make a big win in the elections. Ben Abbes will end up second after Marine Le Pen’s National Front, and the socialists and other mainstream parties will rally with him to avoid an otherwise inevitable victory of the National Front. Ben Abbes will become President, and France will become an Islamic nation.

Ben Abbes never appears in the novel, which is narrated from the point of view of university professor of literature, François, a specialist of 19th century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. François is a typical Houllebeq anti-hero. Like Daniel, the main character in Houllebeq’s “The Possibility of an Island,” François is portrayed as an intelligent but essentially weak person, unable to form strong relationships with people or ideas, and obsessed with sex - especially with younger women.

Of the other main characters, the most important for the story’s tight narrative are a Secret Services staffer with a clear understanding of contemporary historical and cultural currents and, especially, Robert Rediger, a powerful intellectual who converted to Islam. At the end, Rediger will persuade François to convert with well constructed arguments, but what really persuades François is the prospect of having many young wives – whom he won’t even have to choose and court, because they will be assigned to him by the authorities.

Islamic activists aren’t violent – the only violent act in the novel is committed against them - and always sound reasonable and pragmatic. They are ready to negotiate and compromise on secondary issues, but stand adamantly firm on the main issues, such as an Islamic public education system. Ben Abbes is presented as the first great French politician after Mitterand, and when the book ends he is poised to (gradually and pragmatically) unify Europe and the Mediterranean region under an illuminated political entity inspired by Islam.

Compared with the Islamic strength and purity, the leftovers of the once great Western culture seem decadent and ineffectual, lacking conviction and strenuous mood, obsessed with unimportant things and unwilling to fight for survival. The word that comes to mind is “weak.” The main achievements of the Western civilization – the separation of religion and state, the freedom of inquiry and speech, and the emancipation of women – are presented as symptoms of the effete, sedate weakness of an aging civilization that is no longer able to resist the youthful force of Islam.

Typically, conservatives oppose the Islamic “invasion” of Western societies and liberals accept it as a welcome sign of openness, but according to some of Houllebeq’s characters, conservatives should ally with Islam against effete liberalism, because their core values are the same: a strong society inspired by a strong religion, and a return to the firm social structures that, according to both, are better able to support a strong civilization.

I don’t know if that’s what Houllebeq thinks. I suspect not – rather, I think he is observing today’s historical moment from a distance, without taking a side explicitly. It’s certainly not what I think: on the contrary, I believe that Western civilization has achieved great things, which must be preserved. But at the same time, I am afraid I agree with the central thesis of Submission – our Western culture is aged and weak, while Islamic culture is young and strong.

Italian philosopher and politician Gianni Vattimo has often applied the terms “weak” and ‘strong” to cultural and philosophical stances. Cutting through all the big words, involved sentences and qualifiers that Vattimo – a weak thinker himself - likes to use, strong thinking is characterized by firm convictions and a powerful sense of duty, which take precedence over less important niceties like openness, tolerance and personal rights.

Islam is strong.

Christianity was also strong – a few hundred years ago. It isn’t strong now, as François realizes in the powerful atmosphere of some old ruins of Christian Europe in rural France. Then he goes back to Paris, and converts to Islam. Mostly for the submissive girls, but he also persuades himself intellectually that Islam is the new thing.

2022 isn’t that far. Should we accept Submission as the inevitable fate of our Western civilization? If not, what trends in the contemporary Western civilization can make it young and strong again?

When I first visited the “Mormon neverland” in Utah a few years ago, I was surprised to find a strong culture right in the middle of the weak America of today. Mormonism, a new religion born in the strong America of the century before last, has created a community of strong thinkers with firm convictions and a powerful sense of duty. Actually, I am hardly the first to notice interesting parallels between Mormonism and Islam.

Mormonism is often defined as a (radically novel) reformulation of Christianity, but I think it qualifies as a new religion. In particular, some central aspects of Mormon doctrine, such as the idea that God was once a limited being like us, and we ourselves will become more like God in an endless progression, would sound dangerously heretical to most mainstream Christians. Therefore, I consider Mormonism as a genuinely new religion – and please don’t tell me that religion doesn’t define culture in today’s “enlightened” world: that would be naïve. Just go to Utah and take a look.

Mormons are powered by the calm happiness that comes from knowing one’s place in a good world, and a quiet determination to make the world even better, step by step, with good works including science and technology. They are blessed with a firm conviction that they will see their loved departed ones again after a life of good works building Zion – on Earth and beyond.

Not that my friends in the Mormon Transhumanst Association are that two-dimensional. On the contrary, they – and their families and friends that I had the pleasure to meet – are as complex and multi-dimensional persons as everyone else on our planet. They feel sorry for the problems of the Mormon homosexuals, the women who prefer not to stay at home and bake cakes, the intellectuals who are excommunicated from the Mormon Church, and perhaps even for the smokers and coffee drinkers (like me) who aren’t allowed to enter the inner Temple. But protecting the Mormon religion, culture, community and social organization comes a strong first in their scale of priority, and takes precedence over less important niceties.

If Robert Rediger hadn’t converted to Islam, I think he would consider converting to Mormonism. And François too – the Mormon Church renounced polygamy to appease the rest of the U.S. with a smoke screen hiding the otherness of their religion, but I guess a sovereign Mormon nation would be open to polygamy. Perhaps Houllebeq should consider writing another novel set in a near-future Mormon America.

From my perspective – the perspective of a smoker who can’t live without hot coffee and doesn’t judge others’ personal lifestyle choices – I wonder whether Mormonism could become much more open and tolerant without losing its strength. I am not sure it could: other Western cultures did become much more open and tolerant, but at the cost of becoming weak. However, I know many Mormons who share my opinions on social issues while remaining strong about what really matters, so let’s wait and see.

Perhaps Mormonism can save the Western Civilization from Submission.

Another possibility is the emergence of new religions focused on strong cosmic visions without petty, provincial aspects. All religions, at least all the Western religions that I am more familiar with, have both cosmic and provincial aspects, at times difficult to disentangle. I often refer to the cosmic aspects of religion as “cosmology,” as opposed to provincial “geography and zoning norms.” My God does cosmology and only cosmology– He is not interested in the petty details of our daily life, as long as we act with love and compassion and do good works to bring humanity closer to Him. Perhaps new strong, powerful religions with awesome cosmologies not encumbered by geographies and zoning norms will become popular and help our Western civilization recover its former strength. I am not very optimist: Based on the lukewarm reactions to Cosmist ideas so far, I suspect that geography and zoning norms might be essential to establish and keep strong convictions and a powerful sense of duty. But another possibility is that I, and many others who think along similar ways, have been unable to find the best ways to communicate our message, in which case we must work hard to become better communicators, and develop a new generation of better communicators.

Image: Wikimedia Commons