Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/14

27

Atheists, CPAC and Conservatism

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hugh trevor roperCross-posted on Ricochet:

Writing in response to the uninviting of American Atheists to CPAC, Charlie Cooke has a very fine article over on NRO on the topic of whether atheism and conservatism are compatible. As an atheist and a conservative he thinks, not unsurprisingly, that they are, and, as someone who is agnostic and on the right, I can only say, well, amen.

Charlie’s piece is eloquent and carefully reasoned and well worth reading in full, but FWIW I wrote a far shorter article on (more or less) this topic for Politix late last year. Perhaps it is worth excerpting this:

[T]he idea that it is essential philosophically for conservatives to be religious believers is nonsense. Dig around a bit, and you will discover quite a few here in America who have declared that they are not (although none of them – how odd – hold significant elective office). Look across the Atlantic (I am British-born) and you will find many, many more.

It is no coincidence that Charlie also hails from Blighty. The notion that it is impossible for a conservative—and I mean a ‘proper’ Conservative in the Thatcher or Reagan sense rather than a Cameron-style whatever he is—to be an atheist would be thought over there to be very strange indeed.

I went on to write this:

Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious [Charlie makes a similar point]. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.

That means facing the fact that gods will, one way or another, always be with us.

And facing that fact includes contemplating the reality that some gods are considerably less benign than others, a point that those pushing for a very expansive view of ‘religious freedom’ would do very well to ponder.

Being a philosophical sort, Charlie mulls the philosophical implications of his atheism, where do rights come from and all that. Well, I’m not a philosophical sort…

A few years back, Jonathan Rée wrote a review of a collection of writings by the British (yes, them again) historian, the undeniably conservative, undeniably non-believing Hugh Trevor-Roper:

I wrote a bit about it here at the time. In the context of the current discussion, this section from Rée’s article is worth repeating:

He was not interested in the rather threadbare notion (doted on by some humanists) that the lights of truth were suddenly switched on in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century, revealing that the demons which people had spooked themselves with in the past were mere figments of their superstitious imaginations. The Enlightenment that Trevor-Roper celebrates is historical rather than philosophical: it is marked by Gibbon’s creation of a new kind of history, dedicated not to pointless facts or edifying examples but to “sociological content” – in other words, to the revolutionary notion that “human societies have an internal dynamism, dependent on their social structure and articulation.” By bringing history “down to earth”, Gibbon and the other Enlightenment historians had contributed more to the discombobulation of know-nothing theologians than any number of philosophers would ever be able to do.

Gibbon mocked religion, but he never underestimated it. He recognised that religious experience involved, as Trevor-Roper put it, “a set of values related to social structure and political form”, and he could therefore understand why people cared about it so much they were prepared to kill one another or die for its sake. And he railed against his old ally Voltaire for allowing his rage at clerical infamy to turn him into a mirror image of his enemy – a “bigot, an intolerable bigot”, as Gibbon put it. Gibbon made his case beautifully, as Trevor-Roper did too: and if sceptical secularism is to get a new lease of life, perhaps it needs a little more history and a little less philosophy, more explanation and less indignation.

Well yes.

Anyway, please read Charlie’s piece. It’s terrific.

The American Atheists, not so much.

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2 comments

  • LiveFreeOrDie · February 27, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    It is a good article, but I am a little more hesitant for giving religious people (nowadays) credit for not persecuting atheists. I seems likely to me that the only reason they do not is that they do not have the power. When they did, they did!

  • Mark English · March 10, 2014 at 2:22 am

    Andrew Stuttaford is right to back away from Cooke’s claims about natural law and human rights. The claim that “the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership” is utterly vacuous.

    It may be awkward for atheists (whether conservative or progressive) but I think they should accept that natural law- or human rights-based approaches to moral and political questions grew out of explicitly or vaguely religious notions and can’t really be sustained in their absence.

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