This blog began in the fall of 2008 somewhat on a lark. This was during a period when the American Right was beholden in many ways to the Religious Right. By “many ways,” I mean more in symbolics and rhetoric than reality. The reality is that conservatism in the 2000s was a “three legged stool” where the Religious Right was fed rhetorical “red meat,” while the neocons were ascendant and the economic conservatives achieved some gains (and losses).
But the power of religion in conservatism was such that genuflection to Christian values and identity was normative, even among the mostly secular Washington and New York conservative intelligentsia. Of course, there were always libertarians, but the libertarian position within the Right has always been one of tactics rather than strategy. It was not controversial being a libertarian and an atheist. What was more atypical was a non-libertarian conservative admitting their atheism. In 2008 George F. Will declared he was an agnostic. By 2014 he was admitting to be an atheist. Will’s transformation from bashful to agnostic on the Colbert Report in 2008 to sanguine atheist in 2014 illustrates a change in American culture: secularization entered a new phase in the 2000s, and a much larger proportion of Americans are no longer Christian in belief. In the United States over the past generation the number of Americans who have “no religion” has gone from one out of ten to one out of four.
As if to portend these trends in Barack Obama and Donald J Trump you will have two presidents who are cultural Christians at best. Though many assert that Obama is an atheist at heart, I suspect that despite his lack of belief in most of the supernatural elements of the religion he does have some rationalization for why he is a Christian. Trump’s position is different, as he is from a Protestant background by heritage, and it seems likely that that heritage is what he would lean on to assert his Christian bona fides. But Trump is arguably as religiously disinterested in the confessional aspects of Christianity as Obama, as adduced by his public comments, as well as his sanguine attitude toward the conversion of his daughter Ivanka to Orthodox Judaism (Eric Trump was married under a chuppah, as his wife is Jewish, while Donald Trump Jr.’s wife has a Jewish father, though she does not seem religiously Jewish as evidenced by her wearing a cross at her wedding).
Trump’s attitude toward religion is not the aspect that it is notable. Many Republican politicians are not particularly religious in private. What is notable is that he made no attempt to not be transparent in his lack of strong religiosity when appealing to religious voters. Trump’s appeal to religious voters in the Republican party was that he would defend their rights and interests, not that he was truly one of them. The Religious Right then has become part of the interest group constellation of the Republican Party, but it is not calling the shots on the optics and symbolic rhetoric in the same manner as before.
What is the future then? I don’t think anyone knows. The election was a close one, and trends don’t help. Social-cultural systems are sensitive, and nonlinear. Expect chaos before we settle into a new system and stationary state.
Comments off · Posted by David Hume in Religion
Since then, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears to have reached an accommodation with Hefajat. The Islamist group has confined itself to the madrassa premises and the government has put five bloggers in jail for allegedly hurting the religious feelings of Muslims.
The government now appears to be walking a tightrope.
There is little doubt the prime minister wants to pursue a secular future for Bangladesh. But she appears to have little time for atheists who are on a collision course with Islamists.
The bloggers don’t just want protection from killers and justice for those murdered – they also want to enjoy the freedom of speech that is enshrined in the constitution. The government does not seem to think that freedom should stretch to the criticism of religion.
And Islamist extremists want to strike terror into the hearts of such writers and bloggers through targeted killings.
Why is the government walking a tightrope? Because, as Omar Ali observes the majority of Bangladeshis are Muslims, and many of these individuals are wary of standing up for the rights of those who verbally attack their religion. Many “moderate Muslims” may enjoin peace, but won’t fight for it on behalf of others.
Overall, compared to a sectarian hell like Pakistan Bangladesh is doing well. But if it wants to continue to be an exemplar of liberal economic practices grinding away poverty one percentage point at a time it needs to also stand by principles of liberal social tolerance. It is difficult to have one without the other in the long term.
Jamila Bey is a mom, a business owner, a Pittsburgh native—and a board member of the group American Atheists. She also, apparently, identifies as conservative. After introducing herself to the crowd, Bey used her three-minute spot to invite audience members to drop by the American Atheist table in the exhibition hall and learn more.
Jamila Bey’s Twitter.
RCR: Do you believe in God?
GW: No. I’m an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I’m pretty sure. I see no evidence of God. The basic question in life is not, “Is there a God,” but “Why does anything exist?” St. Thomas Aquinas said that there must be a first cause for everything, and we call the first cause God. Fine, but it just has no hold on me.
RCR: Were you raised with any religion?
GW: My father was the son of a Lutheran minster, and therefore he was an atheist. What I mean by that is — he went to so many church services, his father preached in many churches up near Antetum, eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania — my father had had his full of religion. He used to sit outside his father’s study and listen to him wrestle with members of the church over reconciling grace and free will. I think that’s where my father got his interest in philosophy.
I majored in religion in college. I was very interested, but I just came to a different conclusion. I’m married to a fierce Presbyterian and she raised our kids fierce Presbyterians.
I’m an amiable, low-voltage atheist.
RCR: Does that present a problem for you as a conservative?
GW: No. The Republican Party’s base is largely religious. It would be impossible for me to run for high office as a Republican. Since I have no desire to run for office, it’s a minor inconvenience! I think William F. Buckley put it well when he said that a conservative need not be religious, but he cannot despise religion. Russell Kirk never quite fathomed this, which is one of the reasons why I’m not a big fan of The Conservative Mind. For him, conservatism without religion is meaningless.
RCR: Your friend Charles Krauthammer likes to say he’s an agnostic.
GW: I think he’s an atheist. He flinches from saying it. I saw what he said: “I don’t believe in God, but I fear him greatly.” Oh, please!
This clip by S. E. Cupp is making the rounds. I often find Cupp to be glib, so it’s no surprise that I disagree with many of the details of what she is saying. In particular it struck me as strange to listen to her talk about how conservatives respect atheists. Atheists are held in low esteem by the American public as a whole, let alone by conservatives. The general social survey has a question, SPKATH, which states:
There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people. For instance, somebody who is against churches and religion… a. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your (city/town/community) against churches and religion, should he be allowed to speak, or not?
Here are fractions who would allow this person to speak or not not in 1972-1990:
Here are fractions who would allow this person to speak or not not in 2000-2012:
Liberals tend to be more accepting of atheists making a speech than conservatives. Interestingly even in the 2000s ~20 percent of self-identified extreme liberals would still not allow an atheist speak. As opposed to ~40 percent of self-identified extreme conservatives.
Addendum: To be clear about the intent behind this post, I’m all about keeping it real. I think it is acceptable to be an atheist on the Right. A substantial proportion of libertarians are atheists. Even among non-libertarian conservatives it’s an acceptable position. But this is really mostly relevant at the elite levels pundits and policy professionals. Atheists just aren’t popular at the grass roots. There aren’t that many conservative atheists or atheist conservatives.
That leads me to what atheists have to offer to this agenda. One of the problems with citing a religious foundation for freedom and Americanism is that these arguments tend not to appeal to those who don’t share your faith. People will naturally assume that, in order to agree with you, they have to believe in the same particular religious creed you have adopted. And given the vast range of religious belief, that’s a lot to ask for.
I’ve made this argument before. Modern American conservatism has become so culturally captured by the Religious Right that there’s a lot of talk about “Biblically based values” without much reflection that it might turn some people off who don’t share the basis of those values. I do think it is notable that conservatives with broad cultural influence such as George F. Will and David Brooks tend to have a secular affect (Will is personally an agnostic).
Trancinski goes on to talk about the relationship between conservatism and science at some length. I can speak here personally, as I am a scientist and a conservative. One issue is while most liberals may not be scientists, most scientists are liberals. Those who are not are invariably libertarians. I would cop to being conservative, albeit with a strong libertarian streak. And that makes me exceptional. The culture of scientists and culture of religious conservatives are so opposed to each other that a Christian evangelical friend who is an evolutionary biologist once told me he was asked literally every day how he could be a scientist and a Christian. I have been in the room several times where scientists talk about how they can outreach to the broader public, like conservatives, assuming of course that there were no conservatives in the room.
I don’t think this correlation is a logical necessity. It’s just an empirical sociological fact. And we have to deal with it in our political and policy culture. Most scientists exhibit strong domain specific in their cognitive competence, so there’s no reason to think that someone who has a strong command of molecular genetic mechanisms can therefore think cogently about global trade. But many scientists mislead themselves, assuming their powers of ratiocination are generally robust in all areas to which they put their minds. Scientists often are in fact ideally situated to be what F. A. Hayek would term Constructivists.
A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that 24 percent of the French population and 21 percent of the German population harbor some anti-Semitic attitudes. A recent study of anti-Semitic letters received by Germany’s main Jewish organization found that 60 percent of the hate mail came from well-educated Germans. So this isn’t just a problem with young, disaffected Muslim men.
After all, the two worst recent incidents of violence against Jews in Europe—the killing of three children and a teacher in a 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse and the shooting of three people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May—took place during times when there wasn’t much news coming out of Israel. Continentwide statistics on anti-Semitic incidents leading up to the most recent uptick don’t show much of an overall trend—in Britain, anti-Semitic violence is becoming less common while online abuse is becoming more frequent—or a correlation with events in Israel and Palestine.
The perpetrators of the two incidents in question? 29 year old Mehdi Nemmouche and 24 year old Mohammed Merah. That’s what I call chutzpah. Or, the author of the piece is flying under the radar of the implicit red-lines of what is permissible in Slate by inserting those links which actually support the idea that anti-Semitism is a problem of disaffected young Muslim men. Mind you, I grant that anti-Semitism has broad, but shallow, roots across much of Europe. The key is whether mild antipathy flips into politicized violence. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict people of a Muslim background often have casually anti-Semitic views above and beyond what you might expect. Some individuals take the political dimensions very seriously, and the drum beat of vociferous coverage of the actions of the Israeli state bleeds into perceptions about Jews as a whole.*
Though the American media seems to be taking an antiseptic attidue toward the demographic composition of anti-Israeli rallies which have become anti-Semitic in a cartoonish sense, they haven’t censored the photographs. It’s rather obvious that young men of Middle Eastern heritage are prominent at these rallies. They aren’t a representative slice of the populations of France and Germany, to name two countries.
* To be even-handed, some Jews elide and erase the distinction between being Jewish and being Israeli.
Trigger warnings exist in order to warn readers about sensitive subjects, like sexual violence or war, that could be traumatic to individuals who have had past experiences related to such topics, not to remove these subjects from academic discussion. They do not “glorify victimhood”; instead, they validate the life experiences of certain members of our community and allow individuals to make informed decisions.
Who defines what a “sensitive subject” is? The headline tells you who, “Staff Seeks Balance Between Free Speech and Community Standards in Online Comment Moderation.” The Oberlin community is not the same as the community of an Iraqi village, and its standards of different. The emphasis on sensitivity and emotional reaction and perception is a common one on the liberal-Left, but I wonder if they stop to reflect that this sort of standard has traditionally been used to defend standard religious orthodoxies from vigorous, even blasphemous, critique. I doubt that anyone at Oberlin would wish to censor a thorough thrashing of conservative Christianity, because it seems unlikey that there are many conservative Christians at the university. But the same logic could be used by a different demographic.
Ross Douthat nails it in his most recent column, Diversity and Dishonesty:
It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.
As I have stated before, to a great extent neutrality in matters of ideology is a transparent fiction, at least at its root. Consider this recollection by a transgender individual, Fear and Loathing in Public Bathrooms, or How I Learned to Hold My Pee:
Every time I bring up or write about the hassles trans and genderqueer people receive in public washrooms or change rooms, the first thing out of many women’s mouths is that they have a right to feel safe in a public washroom, and that, no offense, but if they saw someone who “looks like me” in there, well, they would feel afraid, too. I hear this from other queer women. Other feminists. This should sting less than it does, but I can’t help it. What is always implied here is that I am other, somehow, that I don’t also need to feel safe. That somehow their safety trumps mine.
I happen to agree with the women on this. But I also think that there’s probably an aspect of hypocrisy here, which the author implies. The same feminists who wish to reorder social norms to their convenience balk when the tables are turned, and they’re the ones who are in the position of defending a conservative normative status quo. The radicalism of many ends when their own comfort zone is impinged. Change is for others.