Gene Expression

Update: Heather offers a follow up. Mario Loyola offers an interesting response. Here is what I find worth noting:

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.

End Update

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.

Ponnuru contends that the irreligious are irrelevant.

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.

Ramesh reiterates that the irreligious are trivialities.

Stuttaford brings back to what is lost in ideology (small government conservatism) as opposed to demographics (the small number of secular conservatives).

Heather reiterates that one can come to conservatism without the Bible.

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 unbeliever conservatives.

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).

Comments

  1. #1 gc
    August 18, 2006

    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.

    That is really one of two key points.

    And it’s related to how Jpod, as usual, shows his complete lack of analytical acumen.

    Two key points are:

    1) numerically small groups with high IQs can punch well above their weight politically. Jews and atheists/agnostics are two such groups (w/ highly nontrivial overlap)

    2) intentional/calculated/inadvertent alienation of such groups tends to alienate others as well in the squishy middle. this btw is one of the weaknesses with an “overt” Sailer strategy — while it’s true that appealing to Hispanics as the Republicans are doing now is suicidal, it would likewise be suicidal for the Repubs to do a 180 and declare that they *were* trying to primarily appeal to whites.

  2. #2 Darth Quixote
    August 18, 2006

    numerically small groups with high IQs can punch well above their weight politically

    “Can” is a key word. Although some sectors of Asian America are now heavyweights in terms of education and income, they are still punching at their old weight class politically. Note the abysmal failure of East Asians to do anything about affirmative action, even though it is plain to everyone with eyes in that they are the group most dramatically harmed by it. Is it even conceivable that Jews would tolerate discrimination of this blatancy? Political apathy extends to all ages. Young Koreans who vote Republican because their church leaders have told them that the Republicans are the Party of God (or young Asians in general who vote Democratic because their professors have told them that the Democrats are the Party of Enlightenment) don’t really have their hearts in it. And those few East Asians who are vocal about politics don’t act in their ethnic interest at all, as they are almost always radical. (Actually, the thought has just occurred to me: the white devils’ demasculinization of East Asian males for the sake of stealing their women–a frequent topic of hilarious emoting in Asian political rags–may be to some extent responsible for this.)

    An interesting question is whether political views with respect to potential advances in biotechnology (and possibly artificial intelligence) will completely tear apart the current ideological landscape or be shackled to its current contours.

  3. #3 Darth Quixote
    August 18, 2006

    to potential advances in biotechnology (and possibly artificial intelligence)

    I say this because this front may develop much more rapidly than the currents that moulded previous realignments of political leanings and intellectual attitudes.

  4. #4 razib
    August 18, 2006

    Note the abysmal failure of East Asians to do anything about affirmative action, even though it is plain to everyone with eyes in that they are the group most dramatically harmed by it.

    my understanding is that east asians in california, at least the older ones, are invested in minority preferences for contract bids on government projects, from which they benefit.

    Is it even conceivable that Jews would tolerate discrimination of this blatancy?

    not today, but they did for many decades. note that asian american “activists” seem disproportionately drawn from long established chinese (cantonese) and japanese ethnic communities which are heavily americanized.

  5. #5 NuSapiens
    August 18, 2006

    Religious trappings are merely a convenient costume for the American “Right,” whose real objects of worship are money and power – including military power.

    If their acts and attitudes have a semblance to any part of the Bible, then it isn’t to anything that Jesus said (about love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek to enemies, judge not lest you be judged, etc.) If anything, these “Christians” go by the chauvanism, legalism, and militarism of some of the uglier and unenlightened parts of the Old Testament.

    Religion is convenient for corporate-military political movements because it is linked the social power of “the Establishment.”

  6. #6 albatross
    August 18, 2006

    Darth: Perhaps one difference is in the profile of intellectual abilities? East Asians do much better at spacial than verbal stuff, and political arguments (both making them and finding them interesting and moving) is all about verbal reasoning.

  7. #7 Arcane
    August 18, 2006

    Religious trappings are merely a convenient costume for the American “Right,” whose real objects of worship are money and power – including military power.

    This is a pretty incredible assertion… can’t the same be said of the Religious Left and the welfare statists?

    If their acts and attitudes have a semblance to any part of the Bible, then it isn’t to anything that Jesus said (about love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek to enemies, judge not lest you be judged, etc.) If anything, these “Christians” go by the chauvanism, legalism, and militarism of some of the uglier and unenlightened parts of the Old Testament.

    Well, as Thomas Jackson said, “Live by the New Testament, fight by the Old…”

    Religion is convenient for corporate-military political movements because it is linked the social power of “the Establishment.”

    Corporate-military movements? I think you will find that most on the Christian Right as a skeptical of mega-corporations as they are of the government.

  8. #8 Agnostic
    August 18, 2006

    The two big differences between the “model minorities” (Ashkenazim & NE Asians): 1) as albatross said, smarts due to verbal vs spatial scores; and 2) personality traits. I don’t see verbal smarts playing much of a role, since most ethnic activism isn’t an attempt at impeccable ratiocination, but shouting and intimidating some group into giving in to your demands, often justified (rightly or wrongly, as the case may be) by the conviction that the group just doesn’t “get it” like you do, so argument & debate are useless. The poli sci article last year on religious values per se vs the personality trait they called “zeal” is a good example: zeal matters a lot in pushing some cause, and you have to rely on your audience getting easily worked up over the outrage.

    There’s some reality show on TLC (I think) where people compete to see who’s the best motivational speaker / fundraiser for various downtrodden groups, each week a different group. I just saw 5 minutes or so, but watch it if you’ve never seen Black preachers on basic cable — they and their audience are much more passionate about whatever cause it is. Getting back to the thread, it’s often noted that Jews run the gamut of ideologies, usually in the “braintrust” as Razib said — the only common denominator is intense zeal, not any particular value set per se. NE Asians aren’t absent, but the only big gun I can think of is Mao.

    Maybe “zeal” is a combination of personality primitives measured by the Big Five, or maybe it’s something else. Point is: populations vary in more psychological ways than cognitive ability. If smarts doesn’t account for the discrepancy, then it’s probably personality traits.

  9. #9 Steve Burton
    August 18, 2006

    Hope you don’t mind that I’ve linked from RightReason.

    Copying & pasting:

    I find myself in a somewhat anomalous position in this debate, since I tend to share Ms. Mac Donald’s religious skepticism, and for the same reasons (i.e., mostly the “problem of evil”) – but, on the other hand, I think her view that the “golden rule” can be adequately grounded in “empathy and self-interest” is optimistic. Perhaps it is even infamously optimistic.

    Razib gives the same view a somewhat more technical, but equally optimistic spin: “While Jewish and Christian thinkers asserts that morality and ethics comes down from El on High, I would assert…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.”

    In other words, ideals of impartiality (like the “golden rule”) emerge out of the very nature of man, as shaped by evolutionary forces.

    Trouble is, that doesn’t seem to be what history – the rarely relieved horror and misery of history – tells us.

    Ms. Mac Donald is one of my favorite writers, and I hate to disagree with her, but I think she is making a mistake here that is all too common among modern intellectuals. They say to themselves: “I’m a religious skeptic, but I’m moral. So morality must have nothing to do with religious belief.”

    Well, yes. Fair enough. But she, like me, is a skeptic whose sensibilities were thoroughly shaped by growing up in a community that was itself thoroughly shaped by a hard-fought and hard-won Christian consensus. Take away that consensus, and…well…who can say, for sure?

    But we can speculate.

    Personally, the more I study those periods of human history (i.e., almost all of them) in which that consensus played no role, the less sign I see of the afore-mentioned ideals of impartiality. On the contrary: every sort of partiality (race, class, sex – you name it) seems to run rampant, without let or hindrance, and without anybody feeling even the least bit guilty about it.

    So why should we believe that such ideals would long survive the collapse of the particular faith traditions that brought them to the fore?

  10. #10 razib
    August 18, 2006

    So why should we believe that such ideals would long survive the collapse of the particular faith traditions that brought them to the fore?

    my contention is that they weren’t brought to the fore that much by a faith tradition. the golden rule is not purely christian. elucidating moral axioms does not mean that you generated them de novo from a vacuum.

  11. #11 Steve Burton
    August 19, 2006

    Within families, and, to a lesser extent, within more extended “in-groups,” altruism/reciprocity – i.e., the sort of policy formulated in the “golden rule” – is assiduously advertised, and (somewhat less assiduously) acted upon.

    So, yes – I agree: the “golden rule is not purely christian.”

    What seems to me to be rare, apart from the Christian “faith tradition,” is the extension of such altruism/reciprocity (even if only in theory) to those *outside* the family and/or in-group.

    *That* is both rare and strange. And it’s something that I haven’t yet found – as a moving force of history – anywhere else.

    Most *certainly* not in either Judaism or Islam, with their magnificent, conquering, in-group heroes, Moses and Mohammed.

    + + + + +

    Hardly surprising, come to think of it, since (A) there is no obvious selective advantage to be gained from extending moral consideration to those who are in no position to do you any harm, and (B) all attempts to ground the “golden rule” in reason alone have ended in abject failure.

  12. #12 razib
    August 19, 2006

    What seems to me to be rare, apart from the Christian “faith tradition,” is the extension of such altruism/reciprocity (even if only in theory) to those *outside* the family and/or in-group.

    elaborate on christian altruism. i.e., be specific so that i know of what you speak.

  13. #13 Steve Burton
    August 19, 2006

    …”elaborate on christian altruism…”

    Uh…are you looking for scriptural justifications? Or historical examples? Or what?

  14. #14 razib
    August 19, 2006

    Uh…are you looking for scriptural justifications? Or historical examples? Or what?

    latter.

  15. #15 Steve Burton
    August 20, 2006

    Well, a bit of both.

  16. #16 Peter Frost
    August 21, 2006

    I touched on this point in my book “Fair Women, Dark Men: The Forgotten Roots of Color Prejudice” (p. 26):

    This elevation of the spiritual over the physical bordered on another tradition that deemed differences of nationality, class, and sex to be superficial. In Christ, asserted Paul, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female. This theme was expanded on by Augustine:

    “Yet whoever is born anywhere as a human being, that is, as a rational mortal creature, however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form or color or motion or utterance, or in any faculty, part or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from the one man who was first created.”

    Galatians 3:28.
    AUGUSTINE. De civitate Dei 16: 8. transl. E.M. Sanford and W.M. Green, The City of God, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965, pp. 43-45.

  17. #17 dobeln
    August 22, 2006

    (razib wrote) –”my contention is that they weren’t brought to the fore that much by a faith tradition. the golden rule is not purely christian. elucidating moral axioms does not mean that you generated them de novo from a vacuum.”–

    True. What christianity (and many other religions) provides, however, is a nifty internal enforcement mechanism, which provides a ‘selfish’ rationale for following the Golden Rule to a larger degree. (I.e. you go to Hell / Purgatory / Miss out on heaven, etc. if you cross God)

  18. #18 razib
    August 22, 2006

    True. What christianity (and many other religions) provides, however, is a nifty internal enforcement mechanism, which provides a ‘selfish’ rationale for following the Golden Rule to a larger degree. (I.e. you go to Hell / Purgatory / Miss out on heaven, etc. if you cross God)

    that would imply that christians are more golden rulesque, all variables controlled. are they?

    (some interpretations of protestantism undermine the “rules & checks” by the way, but most christians are too unreflective to realize this)

  19. #19 Mike S.
    August 22, 2006

    Second, many Americans are turned off in general by the strident religiosity and sectarianism of the modern Republican party.

    Well, many Americans are turned off in general by the strident anti-religiosity (and libertinism, and overt pacifism, etc.) and sectarianism of the modern Democratic party. The latter is as much a cause of the former as anything. And, so far as the numbers go, they favor the Republicans over the last 20+ years. Which was Ponnuru’s point.

    They may believe in God, but they may also find the thrusting of Him into the public square unseemly and discomforting.

    Please. Whatever “thrusting” of God into the public square has been solely a pushback against the radical secularists of the ACLU et al. God has always been in the public square in America – it’s the strident secularists who have been trying to remove Him from the public square for the past 30+ years (actually, they’re only trying to remove particular versions of him – mocking Jesus in an art exhibit is OK. So is soliciting votes at a black Baptist church). What, exactly, should you expect? I mean, for crying out loud, the ACLU sued to remove the tiny cross on the seal of the city of Los Angeles. How over-zealous can you get?

  20. #20 mjb
    August 22, 2006

    On the subject of why Asians don’t do anything about affirmative action: My Asian friends and relatives resent affirmative action, but generally seem to feel more threatened by potential white bigotry. In other words, the present cost of affirmative action may be higher, but the potential danger of hostile racism by whites seems to be a greater risk. This may be hard for someone to understand who hasn’t felt vulnerable as a minority. Its an emotional response, but one that nature has given people for a reason. Also many Asians have more of a socialist mindset than many conservative Americans. So they ally themselves with socialist and minority friendly political forces, which also happen to be pro-affirmative action.

  21. #21 Michael Stills
    August 22, 2006

    “But, I believe most humans have a deep seated propensity to believe in supernatural agents, religious belief of some sort is nearly universal.”

    The work of Joesph Campbell and Carl Jung on Universal Mythologies and Archetypes would support this statement. Humans are constructed to believe in the supernatural. Culture, the environment and “progress” have pushed us towards creation of religion.

  22. #22 sully
    August 22, 2006

    Does the golden rule stem from observation of favorable long term results attending to a reputation for fair dealing, or do the better long term results of some cultures attend to more widespread adherence to some variant of the golden rule. This feels like a game theory type question that the pointy heads here might have the tools to elucidate.

  23. #23 mjb
    August 22, 2006

    On the subject of the Golden Rule: If the Golden Rule is good on no other basis outside of Christian theology, then we needn’t fear that losing faith will cost us the Golden Rule, because if it did, we wouldn’t miss it. But if it is good on some other basis, then an atheist can uphold it on that basis.

    I agree that as a practical matter, Christian faith may be very helpful for many people, and may possibly even have been essential for the development of our civilization. (Or not, but certainly it can’t be easily ruled out.) But in any case, if Christian theology appears largely false to a particular atheist, then recognizing the value of Christianity doesn’t necessarily change this.

    Natural selection gives us friendly social instincts, and causes us to want to be happy. The Golden Rule tends to benefit the community, and contributes towards happiness. Notwithstanding the various natural forces arrayed against th Golden Rule also, these are reasons enough to uphold it.

    Many things rest significantly on science and reason these days that in other times depended more on faith or instinct. Not that faith and instinct are now unimportant of course. Natural selection can be viewed as a kind of reasoning process, producing instinct, and its more proven than most philosophies. Theology might fall somewhere between the two: it is selected for over a longer time scale than a modern individual’s thoughts, but shorter than instinct.

  24. #24 boris
    August 22, 2006

    Religion seems to be an dual expression of natural selection. A population prone to religious belief has a survival advantage over one that does not. A culture with a good religion has a survival advantage over an inferior one (good conveniently defined as providing said advantage).

    Religion is as much a part of human nature as language or marriage. The existence of an actual deity is somewhat irrelevant to the effect that fact has on society. It is pointless to suggest that perhaps humans would be better off without religion just as it would be pointless to suggest, based on faulty linear thinking, that humans would be better off without marriage. It is not going to stop the practice. The ancestors who have living descendents today were more likely than their descendent-less contemporaries to practice traditional marriage and traditional religion. An obvious reason for lack of public support for gay marriage is simply that would-be ancestors who supported and practiced non-traditional mating customs lack descendents to advocate and vote in favor of that POV.

  25. #25 mjb
    August 22, 2006

    “Does the golden rule stem from observation of favorable long term results attending to a reputation for fair dealing, or do the better long term results of some cultures attend to more widespread adherence to some variant of the golden rule.”

    I think this is a good point, and that both dynamics are important, and both occur on different scales. (Groups also benefit from reputations for fairness, and a sense of fairness has benefits even within the thought processes of a single individual).

    Of course, a sense of fairness,punctuated by occasional treachery (when it matters most or when it can go undetected) is also a fairly successful strategy. Personally I hope this becomes less true in the future.

  26. #26 malwords
    August 22, 2006

    “An obvious reason for lack of public support for gay marriage is simply that would-be ancestors who supported and practiced non-traditional mating customs lack descendents to advocate and vote in favor of that POV.”

    Fascinating discussion. I would like to address the point above even if it’s a little far away from the conservative/religion discussion.

    Would abortion fit into this line of reasoning? By definition, there are fewer descendents to advocate the pro choice point of view.

    Me: I’d like to think so, but I don’t– for either abortion or gay marriage (although it worked more effectively in pre-industrial cultures who were closely affected by the society’s traditions).

    Today, the public’s acceptance of civil unions, and to a lesser extent gay marriage, slowly increases even though there isn’t a “built in” demographic to support it. And, in general, our public still believes abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” even after 30 million abortions.

    A lot of these debates (gay marriage, abortion, immigration, religion in our society, etc.)are not won or lost by the logic of your argument, or the historical facts on which it may be built. They are won with p.r. To many who advocate these positions, you’re arguing against “freedom” if you do not accept gay marriage/civil unions and/or abortion. Or, you’re not tolerant. These are shortsighted and foolish arguments. But they are powerful.

  27. #27 razib
    August 22, 2006

    Would abortion fit into this line of reasoning? By definition, there are fewer descendents to advocate the pro choice point of view.

    no. those who have abortions might leave fewer descendents (though if they have more pregnancies, than that doesn’t hold). black americans have more abortions than white dutch, but are more pro-life avowedly.

  28. #28 RLA schaefer
    August 22, 2006

    What do you call the blood vessel that is best for testing DNA?
    The Gene Artery.
    It’s hewed of the red-nosed vein, dear.
    RLA Schaefer

  29. #29 David
    August 23, 2006

    Razib,

    I don’t think that the post containing the Buckley quotation is evidence of a “purge” of aggressive atheists from NR. Buckley himself in the piece quoted (Notes towards an empirical definition of conservatism) was quite unhappy with Max Eastman’s departure (his choice, not Buckley’s).

    Buckley said

    “I continue to feel that you [Eastman] would be at a total loss what to criticize in the society the editors of National Review, would, had they the influence, establish in America.”

    and

    “The pro-religious conservative can welcome the atheist as a full-fledged member of the conservative community even while feeling that at the very bottom the roots do not interlace, so that the sustenance that gives a special bloom to Christian conservatism fails to reach the purely secular conservatism.”

    That doesn’t sound like a “purge” to me.

  30. #30 Old Dad
    August 23, 2006

    Has there ever been a national political figure who coherently married politics and religion? I’d argue that the calculus is primarily political. There’s huge voting block who self identify as religious and conservative, and who don’t really care about NR’s editorial stance, or about the intellectual history of Conservatism.

    The pereception of a sincerely held religious belief is attractive, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be Christianity. Witness the popularity of Joe Lieberman with many in the center and center right. More important is how this belief is perceived to translate into policy, say opposition to abortion and gay marriage. And national security concerns may trump all. That’s why Rudy has a fighting chance despite some problems with standard Evangelical politics. Religion and politics can be a potent brew–as Ronald Reagan knew.

  31. #31 boris
    August 23, 2006

    abortions than white dutch, but are more pro-life

    Simplistic ancestor arguments may not apply as strongly going forward. The ancestors of todays population differed from their non ancestor contemporaries in some rather obvious ways and it makes a valid and strong case for traits, attitudes, and preferences that can reasonably be expected to be influenced by breeding. Assume that without the breeding advantage hetrosexuals have over homosexuals, they would have roughly equal numbers. Apply the advantage and homosexuality diminishes (over time) but does not disappear. The difference in numbers indicates the influence inherited preference has on the trait, which is also influenced toward diversity. Remove the advantage and the numbers (over time) would revert to rough equality.

    Many culture trends are removing advantages of traditional behaviors, quite deliberately, and the long term consequences are likely to be unintended and unexpected.

  32. #32 fouad
    August 23, 2006

    It’s probably the case that if you were to talk to 15 Christians, you would get 15 perspectives as to how to negotiate the “church-state” terrain. My opinion, being mine, is, of course, the most subtle, nuanced, complex and insightful of any such perspectives (Ponnuru, Neuhaus, Novak, Robert George – mere amateurs).

    To a great extent, I understand McDonald’s frustrations. She is a person whose educational and social settings probably did not include religious vocabulary and phrasing in the course of discussion concerning public events or issues. As a manner of communication, such vocabulary probably made sense in a time in our history when the vernacular of the Bible may have been familiar to the populace on the whole, regardless of their particular beliefs (this is not an argument about the U.S. being a “Christian” nation or about how many times George Washington went to church). Today and for the past several decades, this approach, on the whole, adopts the language and understanding of a subculture and attempts to employ it in communication to society on the whole. In so doing, not only is there a failure to communicate, but, as in McDonald’s case, a resentment is fostered.

    In some respects, I think this is poor theology. We share a common human nature and inhabit the same reality. Our primary method of interaction is through a shared language. Therefore, in discussing goings on within this shared reality, I should be able to speak in a manner that is accessible to its fellow inhabitants. From a theological standpoint, this is the realm of creation, which is common to all and subject to investigation through experience and reason. There are truths concerning the creation that are or should be evident to those who don’t acknowledge the One who brought it into existence.

    None of this is to say that God’s existence is not evident through creation, or is simply a matter of “belief,” in opposition to reason. As those who are not self-created, self-existent, self-sustaining beings, we are the products of a reality that precedes us. We, who are dependent and derivative, are personal, moral beings necessarily derived from a personal and moral reality, namely God.

    At the same time, statements concerning God in general, such as those some consider “safe” in our public discourse, are merely religious sentiment. A general God is opaque and impenetrable. Christian proclamation states that he did not remain unreachable and distant, but that he came down. In speaking of the God who creates and commands, we are also referring to the God whose devotion to his creation extended to his coming down to become a human being.

    Yet, this also does not mean that I consider beliefs concerning Jesus Christ to be merely private. From the beginning, Christians proclaimed the events concerning Jesus as public events subject to investigation. Furthermore, the Christian confession is “Jesus is Lord,” meaning he is the one who reigns over all reality, which is subject to him. At the same time, the church proclaims that Jesus is the one who gave up all power and died in order to rescue and transform this fallen and broken world and we, its fallen and broken occupants. Thus, those who claim and confess that Jesus is Lord and profess his salvation and renewal of our world ought only to advance these claims in the same manner Jesus brought about his salvation, without any force or manipulation, and certainly not by recourse to the coercive power of the state.

    In general, I think the tensions that exist in the views I advance are best worked out in a setting where the state’s capacity and functions are limited, and are not a vehicle or proxy for my vision for a moral or good society. Of course, I realize that any law will reflect a moral judgment.

  33. #33 Anarchus
    August 23, 2006

    razib and boris:

    Great stuff!

    Considering religion purely from a functional competitive standpoint, I doubt that any culture or society of self-aware homo sapiens is likely to prosper for very long without belief in some form of afterlife. The competitive advantages of religiosity in sustaining bravery in war, encouraging reproduction and denying narcissistic gratification end up relegating competing phisophies to minority status.

    razib may be right that there are no purely atheist countries, but don’t you think that the rapid secularization of many of the Western European nations is a sharp turn in that direction? Some observers have noted that Western Europe is committing demographic suicide, the first time that’s happened in recorded history. As the rapid fall in fertility rates has coincided with secularization and the rise of the “nanny state”, it’s tempting if not statistically valid to wonder if there isn’t more going on there than mere correlation.

  34. #34 Seerak
    August 29, 2006

    >>”The pro-religious conservative can welcome the atheist as a full-fledged member of the conservative community even while feeling that at the very bottom the roots do not interlace, so that the sustenance that gives a special bloom to Christian conservatism fails to reach the purely secular conservatism.”

    That doesn’t sound like a “purge” to me.

    Dosn’t matter; the inexorable logic of conservatism’s root premise will eventually necessitate the parting of ways between secular “conservatives” and the theocons.

    It is not so much that conservatism requires faith a priori, so much as a rejection of reason, in particular as a source or basis of morality, which is axiomatic to the movement. Check all the conservative thinkers: Kirk, Buckley, Oakeshott…. they vary in their concept of the scope of this deficiency of reason, but in its existence, there is no debate.

    And if they are right — if reason is inherently unable to answer certain moral questions (as distinguished from not having yet answered them) — those questions can only be resolved by resort to faith and/or feelings, as Buckely does. (And I have to wonder then, what exactly is it that separates conservatism from the Left, again, but I digress.)

    As much as I’d prefer Heather Macdonald’s outlook to the theocons, the truth is that for her to remain a conservative in the long run, either she must concede the necessity of faith/feelings to deal with the moral questions that reason allegedly can’t touch — or conservatism must become something other than what it is: a revolt against the Enlightenment.

    I think this execrable quote from John Derbyshire just about sums it up:

    “Does it not occur to you…that by purging all sacred images, references, and words from our public life, you are leaving us with nothing but a cold temple presided over by the Goddess of Reason — that counterfeit deity who, as history has proved time and time and time again, inspires no affection, retains no loyalties, soothes no grief, justifies no sacrifice, gives no comfort, extends no charity, displays no pity, and offers no hope, except to the tiny cliques of fanatical ideologues who tend her cold blue flame?”

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