One of them expresses a weirdly postmodern view: We cannot know the nature of the Gods, but a good person knows in his gut the difference between right and wrong, and good people should venerate the religious rites and beliefs of their ancestors and fellows.
The problem with this assertion is that I suspect the issue here is that a particular sort of evangelical Christianity is not about the custom and tradition of the ancestors. It isn’t about silent respect for the forbears, it is a vocal and somewhat garish (to the minds of many) espousal of public faith. Some evangelicals even deny that they are “religious,” rather, they emphasize the dyadic relationship with Christ absolutely extracted from culture and society. The pietistic nature of evangelical Christianity in the United States means that it is about experience. In 2000 George W. Bush stated:
Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.
Yes, hard to explain. I disagree with Thomistic thinkers on many details. But, I can point to premises, or, I can quibble with a chain of inferences. Calvinist thinkers take systematic theology seriously. I can engage, reject or dispute the nature of presuppositionalist arguments. But the pietism that is dominant in evangelical discourse is about experience, witness and emotion. Fundamentally it can turn a mass political event into a religious revival laced with “sensory pageantry.” Since the 1970s conservatism has made its peace, its alliance, with pietistic Protestantism. And yet this alliance is fundamentally one with an inherent tension, just as that between social consevatives and libertarians has been. Radical Protestantism is radical and revolutionary. Historically it has been disruptive, from the Munster rebellion to the execution of Charles I, to the milder “Awakenings,” radical Protestants have been no friends of cautious and prudent custom.
Unbelievers may fall silent when believers in their midst pray, but it is a far cry from convential reverence for tradition and custom to have to sit through a recitation of proof text as one is witnessed and analogized to a someone who is “drowning” and in danger of being a tool of Satan. Atheists are often accused of bad manners when they moot their beliefs, but evangelical enthusiasm and demonstrativeness seems to be at least as significant an affront to propriety.
A week ago I posted about prominent conservative intellectual, Heather Mac Donald, and her secularism in the midst of an increasingly religious “movemet.” Her piece in The American Conservative, was basically a full on attack on the fundamental and central role that religion plays in American conservatism today. Well, National Review responded, sort of, in The Corner. Heather got involved in a major back & forth with Ramesh Ponnuru . You might think this was a battle of all against one, but not necessarily, as Andrew Stuttaford had her back (he’s an agnostic), while I sense that Derb was tacitly giving Heather ammunition here and there (though Derb is a believer himself, I think he is not so excited by the hyper-religiosity which characterizes the modern American Right). Below is my attempt to reconstruct the exchange (The Corner has a really shitty interface).
Stuttaford starts it off by pointing to Heather’s piece in The American Conservative and highlighting the importance of skepticism in a conservative worldview.
Stuttaford focuses on same-sex marriage (I think he’s empirically wrong here by the way).
Ponnuru continues the same-sex tangent.
Heather leaps into the fray. She concludes that “reason and a commitment to evidence provide ample grounds for leading a moral, responsible life.” Though unbelievers of a non-conservative bent might disagee with Heather on most issues, I think they can agree with her methodology. In contrast, some progressive Christians might disagree in regards to methodology (i.e., they look to scripture and introspective faith), but agree with non-conservative unbelievers. One might make an analogy between libertarians and liberals, who in many ways aim for the same goal (individual choice and freedom), but disagree upon the optimal path to realizing their aims.
Stuttaford brings back to what is lost in ideology (small government conservatism) as opposed to demographics (the small number of secular conservatives).
Ponnuru asks where’s the empirical beef about Heather’s contention that religiosity is turning off some conservatives.
Pod says nothing.
Jonah presents a really dumb definition for agnostic & atheist (more on this later).
Jonah posts stupid email.
Michael Novak rambles.
Ponnuru posts emails from believers.
Ponnuru makes good points about the trend of conservatism.
Derb offers that Paul Johnson has stated that unbelievers may not be conservative.
Heather makes explicit her axioms.
Jonah posts an email that highlights the purge of aggressive atheists from the Right in the 1950s.
Heather makes a plea for extending the universal acid of skepticism to religion.
Jonah (yes, Jonah) tries to see the big picture.
OK, that’s it. Mac Donald clearly believes that reason and skepticism, in concert with a healthy dose of empiricism, can serve as the grounding for a conservative & traditionalist worldview. I tend to agree, and, as an empirical fact I have met many individuals who lack a belief in God but are generally conservative. Where Heather stands apart has been her recent vocality in attacking the symbiotic relationship between American conservatism and religion over the last generation. I think Ponnuru is correct that the Republican party isn’t going to lose atheist & agnostic votes over their religiosity, we’re probably less than 5% of the population (most people with “No religion” are theists of some sort). Additionally, last I checked The Almanac of American Politics unbelievers only gave 20-30% of their votes for Republicans anyhow. Republicans worrying about losing the Jewish vote is a good analogy, Jews cast about 3 out of 4 votes in a given election for Democrats, and they are fewer than 1 out of 20 voters. But, there was a reason in the 1950s William F. Buckley expelled the anti-Semities from the conservative movement. In fact, there were two reasons:
1) The conservative movement included many Jews from the beginning. Frank Meyer, the father of fusionism being a prominent early example (Kristol and Podhoretz came on board in the 70s). Even if Jews are a trivial proportion of the “base,” they are numerous in the “braintrust.”
2) Jews are not the only group that rejects anti-Semitism, many American Christians are not particularly tolerant of this attitude. Though Jews did not form much of the base, those who would be turned off by anti-Semitism do (this was before the influx of philo-Semitic evangelicals, the conservative movement in the 1950s was a coalition of Jews, secularists and “High Church” Christians).
In relation to Heather’s points the analogy is clear, though very few atheists and agnostics vote Republican, a disproportionate number of conservative intellectuals are nonetheless secular in their outlook. But there is another upshot to this: some individuals maybe dissuaded from joining the conservative movement precisely because of its religiosity. Ramesh Ponnuru and the gang at First Things might believe that they can get along without the secular intellectuals, but I suspect that they will find themselves walled into a Thomistic ghetto out of step with the commanding heights of the world of American letters and philosophy. Just as it is worrying that the vast majority of the officer corps is now Republican, so the overwhelming Democratic orientation of the intellgensia is not necessarily healthy either.
Second, many Americans are turned off in general by the strident religiosity and sectarianism of the modern Republican party. They may believe in God, but they may also find the thrusting of Him into the public square unseemly and discomforting. Yes, the Republican party is now solid in some parts of the country, but there is been much erosion of moderates in the Northeast and the Far West. The number of evangelicals might be increasing, but the proportion of those who avowed “No religion” nearly doubled in the decade of the 1990s (source: American Religious Identification Survey).
But this group is important in another way. I want to address Jonah’s point that many who avow belief live like atheists and agnostics. Jonah makes the fallacious assumption that human minds are integrated and unitary wholes, they are not. I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it: one disproof used by atheists is that any religious individual who fears a gun to his head is by definition not religious, because if they “really believed” they would not fear. I do not believe this disproof any longer because I accept that the human mind exhibits operational modularity, so even if the reflective portion of the mind does remain committed to a belief in the afterlife, reflexive “fear, flight and fight” systems might still induce an emotional reaction that seems dissonant with what one would expect.
And this moves me to Heather’s point that she rejects the Jewish and Christian grounding for morality, but rather holds that it is but a reflection of our innate moral sense. More or less I would agree with this. The reality is that all cultures tend to have a set of religious mythologies and motifs which suffuse their assumptions about the world around them. There is no atheist culture, even avowedly atheist states like North Korea or China tend to settle into a form of cultic god-king autocracy (the Kims or Mao). An absolute rejection of supernatural agents in every shape, way or form is very rare. And, even among those of us who claim to reject any belief in such things, there are often reflexive moments where we behave as if they are ghosts in the night. Yes, I myself do this, though I do often make it a point to walk through a cemetary when possible to reaffirm my lack of belief in magical godlings. But, I believe most humans have a deep seated propensity to believe in supernatural agents, religious belief of some sort is nearly universal. Institutional religious take that innate belief, and channels it into precise coda and formulae which reinforce ingroup-outgroup tendencies. Religions, as we understand them in the modern world, are not really basal or core religiosity on a psychological level, but rather, are memeplexes which take the religious impulse and reshape it in concert with other psychological tendencies (e.g., sensory arousal, group conformism, etc.). I say this all to assert that morality is also one of those tendencies and beliefs absorbed by the institutional religions. While Jewish and Christian thinkers asserts that morality and ethics comes down from El on High, I would assert (and I think Heather as well) that they emerge from the synthesis of our intuitive moral sense (shaped by our evolutionary background) and rational and social faculties which develop from cultural preconditions.1 But all this leads to two conclusions. First, any conception Heather might have that religion can be marginalized from the conservative movement is probably false (I doubt she really believes this, and suspect her recent stridency is more tactical than anything else), insofar as the vast majority of humans have a powerful propensity toward religiosity. Second, Heather is correct in contending that fundamentally there is nothing in conservatism, or a good moral life, which necessitates a particular religion, or any religon at all.
But some of you are probably asking, “conservatives and non-religion, say what?” The two don’t mix, do they? And yet one has to realize that the United States is a bit extreme in the Western world. In the UK Thatcherite Norman Tebbit was a prominent atheist on the Right. In the mid-90s a prominent anthology of Right-leaning thinkers, Conservatism : an anthology of social and political thought from David Hume to the present, begins with that infidel, David Hume. Thomas Hobbes was in many ways a conservative, though the term might seem a bit anachronistic. Today many Americans associate Christianity, and in particular evangelical Christianity, with conservatism. But the ancient pagan historian Zosimus was a conservative who had nothing but contempt for the degraded and declining Christian empire that he saw around him in the year 500. This goes to the fact that conservatism is always a moving target, shifting and changing in relation to its antipodes. In the more recent past William Jennings Bryan, now famous for his role in the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” was both a powerful populist and progressive and a committed Christian (Bryan’s opposition to evolution was in part motivated by its connection to the eugenics movement). His great foe, H.L. Mencken, one of the most prominent atheists of the early 20th century in the United States, was a man of the Right, and opponent of the New Deal. We might perceive Heather’s preoccupations as a sideshow because “of course” secularism and liberalism go together, or Christianity and conservatism are joined at the hip, but we need to keep in mind issues of historical contingency.2
1 – Heather points out that Biblical interpretation has been used to justify almost any moral position.
2 – The “American Infidel” Robert Ingersoll opposed socialism. This seems to make some of his biographers uncomfortable as socialism is “of course” a natural inference of “freethought” (at least in their minds).