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How Civilizations Die: an ambitious, brilliant book

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 24, 2012 | In Reviews

Europe is “wounded,” Pope Benedict XVI told an assembly of Italian bishops today. What if the wound is fatal? We know that European culture is in distress. What if it cannot recover?

Civilizations rise and fall; they do not last forever. In an ambitious and fascinating book, David Goldman has set out to explain: How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) My faithful readers may recall that back in January I commented on Goldman’s preface, and remarked that it was brilliant. Now I can say the same thing about the whole book. Goldman himself is an impressive character. He writes regularly for the Asia Times under the pseudonym “Spengler.” He has been an editor of First Things, a columnist for Forbes, and a bond analyst for Bank of America. His areas of expertise range from music and mathematics to economics and religion. In How Civilizations Die he shows a remarkable grasp of world history, religion, and current demographic trends. His book is packed with arresting insights: some brilliant and undoubtedly true, others debatable and even quirky, but all challenging.

The central thesis of the book is that Islam is dying. But any reader who finds this notion reassuring, believing that a worldwide conflict with militant Islam can be avoided, will be disappointed. Goldman argues that a civilization is most dangerous when it is facing extinction. Like an animal trapped in a corner, a dying civilization becomes desperate.

Terrorism is not new to the 21st century. Bombings were fairly common in Russia during the last years before the Revolution, Goldman reminds us. The Bolsheviks debated the Mensheviks about the efficacy (but not the morality) of terrorist tactics. But suicide bombings raise different questions, and the world has never seen suicide bombings on anything like the scale witnessed in recent years. Suicide is a sure sign that someone—the person committing the act—sees no future on this earth. Goldman argues that although individual Islamic militants might not see the logical argument clearly, Islam as a whole tacitly recognizes that there is no future.

Where is the proof for this remarkable claim? In the demographic data. Goldman makes the very reasonable argument that a failure to reproduce indicates a loss of confidence about the future, and the Islamic nations have recently seen a dramatic drop in birth rates.

The argument here is not merely theoretical. Once birth rates drop, natural pressures come into play to accelerate the trend toward societal collapse. The population ages, the young people carry an increasingly heavy burden caring for their elders, consumption outstrips production, debts grow. The young become angry and alienated. If the pressure is particularly acute, violence is likely to erupt.

In the Islamic world, the drop in fertility has been abrupt. Goldman sees this development as a result of Islam’s inability to cope with modernity and with the innate human desire for personal freedom. Countries that had very high birth rates suddenly have very low birth rates. Of all the nations in the world, this shocking reversal is most pronounced in Iran: a country with an irrational leader, close to developing nuclear weapons. In light of Goldman’s argument that the most dangerous societies are those approaching extinction, this is a clear warning against complacency regarding tensions between Islam and the West.

There is another, more immediate argument against complacency: The West is dying, too. Birth rates in many European countries have already fallen well below the replacement level, to the point where societal collapse is all but inevitable. (The resulting drop in population has been eased somewhat by massive immigration, but since the immigrants come mainly from Islamic societies, the social pressures are exacerbated.) In the US, the birth rate is hovering at the replacement level. But there is hope, Goldman observes:

It is not that Americans in general are having children, but that Americans of faith are having children, and there are more Americans of faith than citizens of any other industrial country.

Throughout this fascinating book, Goldman weaves a thread about the importance of religious belief. Nations with an active faith thrive; those that lose faith—or those in which the faith is overcome by its own inherent weaknesses—die. Along with this theme, How Civilizations Die also continually refers to the fundamental human quest for freedom. Goldman believes what the Declaration of Independence teaches: that all men possess natural rights, and struggle, always and everywhere, to defend them.

Interestingly enough, this approach does not make Goldman a believer in “American exceptionalism,” as it is ordinarily understood. He does not claim that the Almighty gave the US a special mission to spread freedom around the world. Rather, he states:

If the principles of a good society are a matter of deduction rather than faith, there is nothing exceptional about America, except that the Americans deduced its correct principles somewhat in advance of other peoples.

Since his book is a survey of human history, looking at the rise and fall of civilizations, Goldman tends to look upon Christianity in political terms. “Christianity arose out of the failure of the fragile nations of late Roman times,” he writes. That is doubtless true as a fact of political history, but it is obviously not an explanation of the religious faith. In a similar way he looks upon the Thirty Years Was as a definitive failure for Christianity as a civilization. It would be more accurate, I suggest, to see that conflict as marking the collapse of Christendom. The European socio-political scheme built on the foundations of the faith was lost. But the faith endures.

Soon the Catholic world will embark on a Year of Faith, declared by Pope Benedict XVI as a spur to worldwide evangelization. If this initiative is a success (as I think it will be) and if Goldman is right (as I think he is), we may witness a reversal of the demographic decline that this book documents. Because Christian faith is coupled with hope, and hope is a more powerful stimulant for genuine, fruitful romance than anything Hollywood can offer.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 24, 2012 10:55 PM ET USA

    Once again, just as after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church will be called upon to rebuild society. When every other nation and creed commits suicide, the Catholic Church will heal, just in time to save the world (again).

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - May. 24, 2012 9:59 PM ET USA

    Wow, this sounds like an really intriguing read. I imagine that some of what he says is true, that basically it is religious people that are having more kids and who will eventually have a demographic majority. If that is true than there is some hope for this very broken civilization and nation.