Thursday, December 02, 2004
Are there any conservative atheists?
Talking about the influence of Nietzsche on conservatives, Andrew Sullivan asks rhetorically whether there are any atheists over at National Review or the Weekly Standard. National Review's Andrew Stuttaford highlights Sullivan's question in a Corner posting entitled "I never expected the Spanish Inquisition."
Don't sweat it, Mr. Stuttaford. No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.
As for Sully's question, I don't know about NR or the Weekly Standard, but if he'd like to chat with a conservative atheist, Sully can always shoot me an email. I'll be the first to admit that my philosophical and theological knowledge is vastly inferior to that of Mr Sullivan-- hell, to just about anyone; you wouldn't believe what I drank in college-- yet I feel somewhat comfortable in defending conservatism without invoking religion, or requiring the presence of a higher power.
A common assault by members of the religious right on people they refer to as "secular humanists" is the charge that, without a religious foundation for morality, there's no reason why humanity couldn't just rewrite any law of morality at a whim. Make murder moral, make thievery moral, etc.
I think such sentiment is ridiculous. The social contract does not require the presence of a supernatural force. Neither does the "golden rule." To argue that the only reason people don't kill each other is because God commands them not to do so is like arguing that people don't run red lights because the police enforce traffic laws.
Running a red light can have a more immediate consequence than a traffic ticket, like gridlock, an accident, or even death. Running red lights on a whim would break down the progress of traffic for everyone; thus, drivers have a natural interest in adhering to traffic rules, even without the intervention of a higher power.
Likewise, something like murder-- an extreme but informative example-- can't be tolerated in a society that seeks to function for the greatest good of the greatest number of people.
Oh, those particularly religious would say such a formulation removes the moral component from the decision to commit murder, and reduces it to a strictly utilitarian equation.
Well. . .yeah.
For an atheist like me, human morality is largely a utilitarian equation. That does not mean it does not exist, or can be ignored. If the foundation of society changed entirely-- say, we entered a post-apocalyptic Road Warrior wasteland-- that equation might need to change. For instance, murder might be a bit more acceptable in such a society.
However, there's still a segment of human morality that exists a priori from society: human nature. Christians may refer to it as Original Sin; I call it a few million years of evolution. Society is the counterweight built in response to the state of nature that existed before The Fall. Society allows humanity to overcome this nature, to pursue the greatest good at the least risk, with the least effort.
Modern morality, whether justified by religion or by utilitarian thought, works. As a conservative, I'm reluctant to throw it out just because I happen to disagree with the roots of this morality. We may have spent the past five thousand years living the way we do because of the fear of God, or biology, or little green men, but the fact remains that all that experience is the foundation for our society today, for one reason or another.
And, I guess, that's why I'm not as afraid of Christians as the Left appears to be. If some people want to believe in a mythical magical man in the sky, go right ahead; it doesn't affect me much at all. Where we differ, we differ, and we'll debate. And trust me, I disagree with a lot of religionists on a number of issues.
But if we take different roads to reach the same conclusions, we're still both at the same destination, right? Do I have to launch into some anti-Christian pogrom just because I don't share their beliefs? Do conservatives need to be reduced to Menshevik vs. Bolshevik in order to purify the philosophy? Can't we agree to disagree on certain elements, and move forward on what unites us?
I think we can. I wonder what Mr. Sullivan would think.
It would be a great mistake to suppose that religious belief provides the only antidote to this ideology. Whatever the state of their religious convictions, people are consciously aware that the customs of society embody more wisdom than can emerge in a single generation. The decencies and hesitations that once surrounded sex, for instance, are not the arbitrary injunctions of a departed ruling class. They are the voice of the collective dead, alerting us to a duty' that we could never hope to understand through our own experience alone.
Those who hope to safeguard "natural piety" through a return to religious faith jeopardize the thing they treasure. For they make piety as irrational as the beliefs to which they attach it. But piety is not irrational at all. It is the voice that tells its that the goods of society are inherited and could never be rediscovered by the generation that foolishly rejects them.
Oh, maybe I'm just leaning a little libertarian