Architects of the Culture of Death
By Donald De Marco and Benjamin D. Wiker
410pp | Ignatius Press. 2004 | ISBN 1586170163 | US$16.95rrp

In their introduction to this volume Donald De Marco and Benjamin D. Wiker, the former a philosophy professor and the latter a science and theology lecturer, quote from the Didache, a first century manual for those considering becoming Christians: “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not corrupt boys. You shall not commit fornication…You shall not use magic. You shall not administer drugs [magic potions, contraceptives and abortifacients]. You shall not slaughter a child in abortion, nor slay a begotten one…”

It is a chastening list for, after 2,000 years of Christianity, which has given us sublime teaching and great saints to exemplify it, the Western world in our times has slipped back into the spiritual darkness and immorality of the pagan world. How could this have happened? This book singles out the men and women of the last 200 years whose theories and ideas have been so potent and so poisonous in subverting our formerly Christian culture.

Expanded from articles published in the National Catholic Register, the authors bring together all these “architects of the culture of death” in their arresting phrase, so that, like the disgraced Nazi leaders in the dock at Nuremburg, we can learn to recognise them and to understand why they stand indicted at the bar of our moral judgement. They are divided into seven different categories: will worshippers, evolutionists, secular utopians, atheistic existentialists, pleasure seekers, sex planners and death peddlers. Some are famous names and formidable intellects, such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Sartre; others, like Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead, have been shown to be academic charlatans, inventing pseudo-scientific theories backed by spurious research, to suit their own perverse inclinations. Yet others, like Helen Gurley Brown, long-time editor of Cosmopolitanand creator of the “Cosmo girl”, or Dr Jack Kevorkian, inventor of the “mercitron” or death machine, could only have come to prominence in a culture that has already lost its moral bearings. Of this latter, a fellow doctor confesses, “I feel the deepest shame in my profession that [Kevorkian] should be counted a member.”

The authors tackle five major themes: militant atheism, the isolation of the will from the consequences of its choices, making freedom into an absolute, the obsession with sex and the erosion of the sense of human dignity. They do not simply set out to write potted histories of these pernicious ideas; they include biographical material on each of their subjects so that readers can see how theories which have borne such Dead Sea fruit arise from particular lives – lives that were generally warped, solitary, bitter and selfish. As might be expected, the personalities examined in these pages are largely unattractive: both domineering and egocentric. Charles Darwin, happily married with a large family, is an exception; yet his hypotheses on evolution and the survival of the fittest are no less baneful in their influence than those of Margaret Sanger, the strident champion of eugenics and birth control. Professor Peter Singer, who makes no distinction between human and animal life and who advocates infanticide for the disabled, merely takes Darwinism to its logical conclusion.

The “culture of death” in all its insidious disguises, whether Freud’s reductive analysis of human nature or Marx’s advocacy of violent class conflict, wilfully rejects the truth about man: his inherent dignity as a person made in the image and likeness of God and therefore having an immortal destiny. This traditional Christian teaching throughout the ages has been deepened and developed during the providential pontificate of the late Pope John Paul II, through his philosophy of “personalism”. Living under both Fascism and Communism and acquainted with the consequences of unfettered individualism in the West, he knew how ideology always depersonalises – and therefore betrays – the persons it purports to serve. The authors contrast the supernatural attractiveness of the Pope’s teaching with the hollowness of the enemies of truth that is exposed in these pages. Marx, who had the valid insight to see that there is deep injustice in the workplace, did not understand that “there can be no justice without love”.

The true hope for mankind lies in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with its call to selflessness and love of neighbour, its culture of life. “Our primary task as persons is to participate lovingly in each other’s lives”, state the authors. The central human drama, they emphasise, is to “make the journey from selfish egoism to loving personhood.” This drama is played out in every human soul. “Morality begins when people are generous and loving, when they exercise their duties to be decent, rather than their rights not to be inconvenienced”, the book observes, in contrast to the chilling, pro-euthanasia remark that “some individuals have a duty to die”.

What unites the individuals described in this book is their decision to reject a loving creator-God and then refashion Him in their own image: gross, distorted parodies, leading not to life and love but to death. Death is often literally the case; Derek Humphrey’s book, Final Exit, which extols the “virtue” of euthanasia and which was the best-selling non-fiction book in the US in 1991, has been a suicide handbook for hundreds of people. As an undergraduate, I recall picking up Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography, Words; reading this clever, cold testimony made me feel so depressed that I abandoned it halfway through. Such is the power of words adrift from the Word of God that is Christ. People yearn for truth; famished souls, longing to discover the meaning of their lives, will seize on any half-baked, garbled statement and invest it with significance far greater than it deserves.

Ayn Rand’s cult book among college students of the 1960s, Atlas Shrugged, articulates the ludicrous principle that “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Students especially should read this volume: idealistic, critical of hypocrisy, open to new ideas yet often without a solid foundation on which to test them, they will find it a sure and revelatory guide as they tackle their reading lists or encounter another cult book on the campus.

The women depicted in the book are, if anything, more lonely and embittered than the men: Ayn Rand, who announced that man “is a self-made soul”; Simone de Beauvoir, who wanted to “liberate women from reproductive servitude”; Helen Gurley Brown, who preached “sex, money and success” to young women in her widely read magazine, all rejected the fulfilment of either spiritual or natural motherhood and this is reflected in their disordered and unhappy personal lives. They are testimony to the ravages wrought by feminism and its repudiation of true womanhood. Judith Jarvis Thomson, a philosophy professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of a highly influential defence of abortion, who regards the embryo as an alien invader of its mother’s body, is “compelled to rationalise the death of the person as a locus of love and generosity… If our souls are dead, we will surely be dead to the iniquities of abortion.”

In these brief, clear summaries of the writings and influence of those who have hugely contributed to the present moral and spiritual decay of our society, the authors underline a stark truth: if you cut yourself off from God you are most likely to end up also being cut off from your fellow-man. “No man is an island”, the poet John Donne wrote – except, one might add, those who choose to be; this where hell begins. To close off the “I” from the “Thou” – Icheinsamkeit (I-aloneness) – is, as the authors observe, the path to insanity — and perdition.

Christians must not delude themselves that they can somehow remain untouched by the “culture of death”. We, too, become its architects if we do not fight it. In the film “Judgement at Nuremburg” the moment of truth occurs when Spencer Tracy, a small-town American judge, confronts Burt Lancaster, a judge in the Third Reich, and reminds him that the horrors of the Nazi period began with the tiny lies, intellectual subterfuges and compromises of ordinary living. This is where our battle begins.

Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.