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Michel Houellebecq: The perils of secular atheistic materialism through the eyes of a French ‘Islamophobic’ intellectual

Although people may disagree with Houellebecq on a variety of issues, the criticisms of secular atheistic materialism he has raised through his works are pertinent enough to raise serious concerns about the dominant social dogma among the intellectual elite all over the West.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that insulting Prophet Muhammad is not free speech. An Austrian women criminal conviction by an Austrian court was upheld by the ECHR on the grounds that her comments on the Prophet “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.”

For certain intellectuals, the move will come across as merely the latest step in secular Europe’s eventual inevitable fall to Radical Islam. A prominent intellectual who has written extensively on the spiritual decline of Europe that has felicitated such a collapse is Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is a controversial French author, often dubbed an Islamophobe, who has critiqued modern European culture and argued that the current liberal European lifestyle is unsustainable.

Houellebecq’s book ‘Submission’ created quite the storm when it was first released. The book, set in 2022, describes the narrator’s personal journey in a politically charged France on the backdrop of national elections where the far right French nationalists and radical Islamic groups are involved in a series of violent clashes with each other and the very real possibility of the entire country descending very quickly into chaos and complete anarchy. The lead in the book, Francois, is a melancholic middle-aged professor who does not quite really gel well with the time he has been born into. He leads a meaningless life, without a wife or a family, who just passes from one temporary sexual relationship to another without ever forming an emotional bond with his partner.

The meaning of the title of the book becomes abundantly clear in one of the quotes by a character in the novel, “It’s submission. The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.” The novel, thus, mulls the idea that submission could be the path forward for a truly happy European society.

It is quite clear from Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ that he does not believe an Islamic takeover of liberal Europe will necessarily be a bad thing for the future of its people. It appears that he believes Islam can discipline the liberal westerners and assist them in leading a more meaningful life, something that Christianity can no longer felicitate. At the end of the novel, Islam eventually takes over France, the order is restored, women are veiled, polygamy is legalized and the high unemployment rate is resolved after women are removed from the workplace and sent into the homes. The novel ends with the narrator, who was conflicted about converting to Islam, poised to convert with the prospect of a better life, a prestigious job and wives chosen for him.

From his personal history, however, it appears that Islam is not Houellebecq’s preferred solution to what he regards as the core threat towards the European people, their secular atheist materialistic culture. He admitted during an interview with The Guardian that he was “probably” Islamophobic. Despite allegations that his novel, Submission, was Islamophobic, he strongly maintains that it was not. “Everything returns to order … the moderate faction manages to control its extremists, which is far from a given at the moment.”

Houellebecq has been very sharp in his critique of liberal sexual mores. In his book, ‘Whatever’, he writes, “It’s a fact…that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation, it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent.

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’…Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.”

Again, in Submission, Houellebecq reveals his disdain for liberal sexual mores through the narrator, “Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicoloured lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favour of clothes that were loose and shapeless.”

According to Houellebecq, Catholics are not regarded by Muslims as their real enemy. He writes, “For these Muslims, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheist materialism. They think of Catholics as fellow believers. Catholicism is a religion of the Book. Catholics are one step away from converting to Islam—that’s the true, original Muslim vision of Christianity.”

The author appears to endorse the idea that secularism is doomed to failure from the very onset. He writes in ‘Submission’,  “they argue that belief in a transcendent being conveys a genetic advantage: that couples who follow one of the three religions of the Book and maintain patriarchal values have more children than atheists or agnostics. You see less education among women, less hedonism and individualism. And to a large degree, this belief in transcendence can be passed on genetically. Conversions, or cases where people grow up to reject family values, are statistically insignificant. In the vast majority of cases, people stick with whatever metaphysical system they grow up in. That’s why atheist humanism—the basis of any ‘pluralist society’—is doomed.”

Houellebecq’s reasoning does appear to be grounded on solid facts. Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck college, University of London, and a specialist in demography in his book ‘Shall the Religious inherit the Earth?’ asserts that it is very much the case. And even he doesn’t believe that is necessarily a bad thing. “As a utilitarian”, Kaufmann writes, “I believe that the maximisation of collective happiness is the proper end of humanity; and on that score, religion seems more rational than irreligion.” And the reason given is very simple, religious people have more children than their secular counterparts. It is argued that unlike materialists, who often turn out to be hedonists, religious people are prepared to make sacrifices to promote and sustain their values.

Houellebecq’s criticism of liberal sexual mores is not without merit as well. Sexual liberalism has created a class of men who cannot find sexual partners in an era where monogamy is increasingly on the decline.

There have been occasions when mass murders have been committed by men who were sexually frustrated and vehemently angry with the fact that they could not find sexual partners. Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, also sympathizes with the notion that the sexual revolution has created classes of losers and winners in the sexual marketplace.

A study on Tinder, the hookup app, revealed that the bottom 80% of men are competing for the bottom 22% of women while the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men in terms of attractiveness. Thus, it appears clear that in an extremely sexually liberal community, a significant portion of men will find themselves unable to satisfy their sexual urges. It can have devastating consequences as a high proportion of sexually frustrated men is deeply problematic for any society. Peterson speculates that “enforced monogamy” may be the only way to solve this problem.

Liberal sexual mores are also associated with low birthrates while sexually conservative societies tend to have more children. Thus, coming back to the demography argument, liberal sexual mores do appear to be unsustainable in the long term.

Houellebecq isn’t the only author who has focused his attention on these issues. Cultural commentator Mark Steyn wrote in his bestselling book, America Alone, “The continent has embraced a spiritual death long before the demographic one. In those seventeen European countries that have fallen into the “lowest-low fertility,” where are the children? In a way, you’re looking at them: the guy sipping espresso at a sidewalk cafe listening to his iPod, the eternal adolescent charges of the paternalistic state. The government makes the grown-up decisions and we spend our pocket money on our record collection…the long-term cost of welfare is the infantilization of the population.”

It is important to note that European governments may well have been forced to open the doors for migrants from regions of the world with evidently higher birth rates precisely due to falling birth rates combined with the behemoth welfare state apparatus. To maintain a massive welfare state, you need taxpayers who are going to pay for it. And in the absence of taxpayers, you have little choice but to import them from other nations. As Steyn says, Europe’s “lavish welfare states are unsustainable with their post-Christian birth rates.”

A regular feature in all of Houellebecq’s books is a narrator who is non-religious and has an extremely pessimistic view of the world. The narrator often suffers from depression and an aching loneliness. In Submission, the author finds some solace as he looks poised to convert to Islam. Such a description may not be too out of sync with reality. Official ‘well-being statistics’ do show that religious people of all hues are happier than their atheistic counterparts. Also, as a matter of fact, studies show that religious societies are more tightly knit, more cohesive, more bound together, all of which are indicators for greater happiness.

Whether a society based on Islamic values will be better for Europeans than the current society based on secular atheistic materialism only time will tell. But it cannot be ignored that Europe currently is in a state of crisis felicitated precisely by progressive values. And although people may disagree with Houellebecq on a variety of issues, the criticisms of secular atheistic materialism he has raised through his works are pertinent enough to raise serious concerns about the dominant social dogma among the intellectual elite all over the West.

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K Bhattacharjee
K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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