Debased by this soulless culture
On Sunday, Pope Benedict launched a powerful attack on what he
called a culture of death. Although he did not define what he meant
by the term, his statement denounced the 'thingification of mankind'
- a process through which human beings are increasingly regarded
and treated as things to be traded or disposed of when no longer
Anyone who is disturbed by the way that television and popular
culture causally turns every aspect of life into a pornographic
spectacle will have an inkling of what Pope Benedict is on about.
As a non-religious sociologist it is not often that I find myself
in agreement with the Pope. But there is little doubt that his diagnosis
regarding the flourishing of a culture of death captures an important
dimension of contemporary reality.
Human degradation has always been part of our existence. In his
sermon on Sunday the Pope compared the grotesque excesses of the
ancient Roman Empire with those of 21st-century society.
Yes, Rome knew a thing or two about the culture of death but possibly
the comparison may be unfair to the Romans. Roman depravity coexisted
with a cultural celebration for human life and spirit. In contrast,
Western society today finds it difficult to give meaning to life.
The Romans may have had slaves but at least they regarded those
who were 'free' as genuine human beings worthy of respect. Respect
and belief in the uniqueness of humanity plays only a feeble influence
over our affairs.
A couple of days before Pope Benedict's sermon I read a report
written by Professor Chris Rapley that claimed the way to solve
Earth's environmental problems is to reduce the size of its human
population. Using the language of thing-ification, Rapley demanded
that the 'issue of population management' must be addressed.
Population management - a euphemism for population control - has
as its premise the belief that human life, or at any rate too much
human life, is the defining threat to global existence. A growing
number of environmentalists believe that population control is a
sensible way of protecting nature. According to this perspective,
human activity is the principal threat to global survival.
The depiction of human activity as itself a threat to the world
tends to endow our species with an overwhelmingly negative status.
From such a grim depiction of the human experience it is very difficult
to derive any meaning from human life.
Instead of regarding every human being as having the potential
to create, produce, imagine, invent and solve problems, the population
lobby sees people as a burden on the environment. From this standpoint,
human life need to be controlled and reduced. That is why the population
lobby devotes more energy to curbing life than celebrating it.
Regarding people as things to be managed and controlled represents
an almost casual celebration of the culture of death. In a world
where lecturing people not to have children is promoted by a variety
of institutions, life itself may become deprived of any special
Contemporary culture loves to represent humans as destructive and
a threat to the planet. The perception that it is humanity that
bears responsibility for the perils we face assigns an undistinguished,
if not low status, to the human species.
At times this sentiment expresses a sense of loathing for humankind.
Such sentiments are vividly expressed in the Orwellian slogan 'Four
legs good, two legs bad!' This denigration of human life is the
defining feature of the 21st century's culture of death.
At first sight, it is paradoxical that a culture that finds it
so difficult to give meaning to life has become so obsessed with
sex. However, the sex that permeates our cultural horizon is a caricature
of the real thing. It is rarely a life-affirming experience. Indeed,
according to some, sex is all right only if it does not lead to
Thousands of books are published with the explicit intention of
reducing it to a skill. But this is all formulaic banal stuff. It
even lacks the sense of occasion provided by an old-fashioned Roman
I really hate the culture of death. Which is why I'll take the
pain, joy and intensity of a culture of life. And instead of being
afraid of the size of the world's population I think that we should
celebrate human life.
in the Daily Express, 10 January 2006