- The Washington Times - Friday, July 9, 2010


By Melanie Phillips
Encounter Books, $23.95,486 pages

Melanie Phillips is an Oxford-educated award-winning columnist for London’s Daily Mail; author of several books, among them “Londonistan”; and a splendid polemicist who sees the increasingly disjointed world around her clearly and pulls no punches when describing it.

“This book,” she tells us, “arose from a sense of perplexity and cultural disorientation. It appears to me that much of public discourse has departed sharply from reality. Self-evident common sense seems to have been turned on its head. Reality seems to have been recast, with fantasies recalibrated as facts while demonstrable truths are dismissed as a matter of opinion. … Those who dissent are vilified as beyond the pale, and many fear speaking up.”

But not Ms. Phillips, who argues that the age of reason, which was to have liberated us from the unreason of a religious world, has in fact given rise to a new world of increasing irrationality in which conspiracy theories abound: The CIA created AIDS in a laboratory, Sept. 11 was a joint American-Israeli operation; and an extraordinary number of people - many of them well-educated - subscribe to cults of various kinds, among them celebrity worship (Princess Diana, whom cultists believe was assassinated), parapsychology, scientism, paganism and witchcraft.

Some of Ms. Phillips‘ data may startle those of us who think of ourselves as reasonably normal people. “What previously belonged to the province of the quack and the charlatan have become mainstream,” and “‘Wicca’ - or witchcraft - and paganism constitute the fastest growing religious category in America, with between 500,000 and 5 million adherents.” Throw in New Age spirituality, and the number reaches 20 million.

In Britain, there were at last count 100,000 practicing pagans, with paganism now being viewed in “Britain’s multicultural nirvana as just another faith.” In Scotland, Ms. Phillips tells us, authorities allow pagans to practice healing rituals in health service hospitals. In British prisons, pagan priests are allowed to use wine and wands in prison ceremonies. “And a Pagan Police Association has been set up to represent officers who ‘worship nature and believe in many gods.’” For good measure, the Hertfordshire police force gives officers eight pagan holidays a year, “including Halloween and the summer solstice.”

Although there’s enough material here for a series of Monty Python skits, Ms. Phillips, who at times manifests a strong satirical bent, is not out to amuse. The world is awash in irrationality, she writes, in large part because of the marginalization of religion. She calls herself “an agnostic although traditionally minded Jew” with “a deep concern for the security and survival of the Jewish people and for the security and survival of Western civilization.”

That civilization, Ms. Phillips argues, was built on the values given to us by Christianity and the Hebrew Bible. But by trivializing religion and its traditions, by seeking faith in popular culture and encouraging cultural relativism, we’re creating a world in which truth becomes lies, good becomes bad, victim becomes aggressor - a world turned upside down.

In this world, she writes, Israel is demonized, the United States is vilified for the war on terror, and the West, succumbing to a “soft totalitarianism,” lays itself open to real threats, among them the intention of Islamists to return the world to the seventh century: “Instead of fighting off the encroachment of Islamic obscurantism - part of a campaign to conquer the free world for Islam - the West is embracing that obscurantism as if it had a cultural death wish.”

For instance, as she sees it, “President Obama’s speech of conciliation to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009 was a startling example of this genuflection to the forces of irrationality and antimodernity.”

Agree or disagree, Ms. Phillips argues her case in strong, vital prose with intensity and high intelligence. She deserves a wide and respectful hearing.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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