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Gaining ground

Culture | INTERVIEW: Why do some cultures produce much more human achievement than others produce? An agnostic and libertarian scholar set out to answer that question-and found that Christianity underlies much of history's creative greatness. For Charles Murray, it isn't the first time that research has guided him to a controversial destination

Issue: "Earthquake in Bam," Jan. 10, 2004

This is the fourth in an occasional series of e-mail interviews with writers, scholars, and others who help form the culture in which we live. WORLD hopes that readers, by listening to influential people who do not necessarily share a Christian worldview, will be better equipped for discussion and evangelism, and will be challenged to sharpen their own understanding. (Previous interviewees: Paul Theroux, Brian Jacques, Anne Lamott.)

AT A TIME WHEN MANY IN academia settle for readily controllable mini-projects, Charles Murray continues to try to nail jellyfish to walls. After authoring provocative books such as Losing Ground (about poverty-fighting) and co-authoring The Bell Curve, which controversially looked at intellectual differences among groups, the American Enterprise Institute scholar spent five years boldly going where almost no one would venture: In his new book, Human Accomplishment, he tries to quantify individual genius in the arts and sciences throughout almost all of the past 3,000 years.

Mr. Murray tries to figure out why outstanding accomplishment is not evenly distributed among various cultures. Here are his two general conclusions: "A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose.... A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture that encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals."

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Mr. Murray argues in Human Accomplishment that Eastern religions, Islam, and early Christianity didn't combine purpose and individuality in a way that pushed creative accomplishment. Not until Aquinas in the 13th century and then the Protestant Reformation did a worldview that emphasized the role of human intelligence come to the forefront. The Murray thesis that Christianity underlies much of human accomplishment instead of stifling it is about as politically incorrect as anything is these days.

But there's more: Mr. Murray says it is harder for an agnostic or an atheist than a Christian to find purpose, because "devotion to a human cause, whether social justice, the environment, the search for truth, or an abstract humanism, is by its nature less compelling than devotion to God. Here, Christianity has its most potent advantage. The incentives of forgiveness of sin and eternal life are just about as powerful as incentives get. The nonbeliever has to make do with comparatively tepid alternatives." Sounds like Mr. Murray is a Christian, yes? No. He calls himself an agnostic, even though he agrees that if there is not a grand purpose knit into creation by God, all the other things to which we devote our lives are just ways of passing time and trying to find significance.

WORLD: Your ideas have been controversial for a long time, but some of the reaction seems out of proportion to what you've written. Why does your work arouse such ire?

CM: In the case of Losing Ground, I think much of the fury was provoked by the tone of the book. It was obvious (I think) that I cared as much about the plight of the poor as any liberal, and was presenting myself as their advocate. This broke the rule that liberals are supposed to be the compassionate people and conservatives are supposed to be people worried about welfare cheats. How dare I be both a conservative (libertarian, actually, but the left seldom recognizes the difference) and worried about poor people? Parenthetically, the Reagan administration wasn't comfortable with Losing Ground's position either-President Reagan (whom I greatly admire, by the way) was in fact against the welfare cheats, not against the welfare system per se.

Since Losing Ground, I seem to have become a be_te noire of the left for reasons I don't entirely understand. My writing is not at all strident, I assume the good faith of people who disagree with me until proven otherwise, and my conclusions are laced with all sorts of caveats and acknowledgments of complexity. I just seem to get under the skin of people on the left. I don't try; it just works out that way.

WORLD: How did the negative reaction that followed publication of The Bell Curve affect your life? How about your family? Prior to writing The Bell Curve, if you could have foreseen the reaction to it, would you have chosen another topic? Would you have changed anything you wrote?

CM: I was pretty depressed for several months after the book came out. Part of it was caused directly by the reaction to the book, but that interacted with my grief about the death of my co-author, Dick Herrnstein, to whom I had become very close. I kept thinking how much different it would have been if he had still been alive. The reaction to the book would have been the same, but I could have called him on the phone and said, "Did you see what that idiotic so-and-so wrote?" My family was magnificent-especially my wife. She is a completely nonconfrontational person and hates the kind of nastiness that the book aroused, but she was a tiger. I cannot adequately express how much her support meant.

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