George F. Will, American atheist

Several years ago George Will declared that he was an agnostic on the Colbert Report. Last week he pulled no punches:

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!

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7 Responses to George F. Will, American atheist

  1. djf says:

    If your point is that an atheist can be a conservative (which of course is true), I would point out that it can be reasonably questioned whether Will is a conservative any longer. Increasingly, he seems to be tending toward economistic free-market liberalism, plain and simple, without any “conservative” admixture. See, for example, his extreme views on immigration, which he seems to think should be virtually unlimited.

  2. Twelvis says:

    Dear djf: so you’re the guy who gets to define ‘conservative’? I thought that was Rush Limbaugh. You and I may disagree with Will on the border issue (if he indeed does hold the extreme view you claim, which I’m surprised by) but I kind of like the term ‘liberal’ — in the classic sense — and lament its corruption in the mouths of ‘progressives’ (what a haughty arrogation that term is!) as well as conservatives who should know better and explain the distinction. My point here is that conservatives may be liberal in that sense, whether or not they’re also religious.
    And my big thanks to David Hume for bringing this George Will update to our attention !

  3. Geoffrey Mason says:

    I honestly thought that George Will held a deep and abiding monotheistic belief that he himself was GOD.

  4. djf says:

    Twelvis: I agree that American conservatives can and should be “liberals” (in the European/19th century sense) as well. And I also despise the Left’s stealing of the word “liberal,” in which misappropriation most non-leftists acquiesce for some reason I don’t understand. But the point remains that, if a person is nothing but a “liberal,” even in the true sense, without any concern for preserving any part of the pre-liberal order, he’s not really a conservative. Logically, you’re not a conservative if there’s no underlying culture you’re trying to conserve. I’m not trying to dictate how people use words (I don’t have that power, anyway), I’m just trying to make sense of the words people use. It seems to me that calling Will a “conservative,” at this stage of his thought, eliminates any distinction between being a “conservative” and a “liberal.” One can be both, but the words are not (or should not be) synonyms. Sorry if that offends you.

    Incidentally, Will was a conservative 30 years ago (see his book Statecraft is Soulcraft). But, as he has explained himself, he has moved in a decidedly libertarian direction since then.

    Also, most serious libertarians vehemently reject the “conservative” label, as Hayek did back in the 50s.

  5. Twelvis says:

    Dear DJF,
    Thanks for the clarification.
    I didn’t take offense at your claim, though I can see how it might have come across that way.
    Your point about ‘liberal’ (in the true, good sense) and conservative being distinct though not mutually exclusive attributes is valid, so I humbly retract my objection.
    It’s also interesting about how Hayek was careful to associate himself only with the most clearly defined and guarded descriptions. ‘Conservative’ was one he rejected, but another interesting example concerns his use of the terms agnostic and atheist. He identified himself as ‘agnostic’, but in a way that actually goes beyond atheism rather than stopping short of it. To him, the concept of god did not even make coherent sense, so it was not something he could make a useful judgment on. It’s like saying that belief in god isn’t even wrong. Michael Shermer also prefers ‘agnostic’ for this hair-splitting reason, but doesn’t mind ‘atheist’.

  6. djf says:

    Twelvis, thanks for your response. I think we’re on the same wavelength.

    Incidentally, whether or not Will can be called a conservative, I see no reason, in principle, that an atheist or agnostic cannot be a conservative – although in a traditionally theistic culture, there is a tension between conservatism (as distinguished from classical liberalism) and nonbelief. But of course there’s no tension at all between atheism/agnosticism and pure classical liberalism or libertarianism. Which is why I don’t find Will’s atheism terribly interesting or surprising.

  7. Twelvis says:

    Dear DJF,
    I find the topic of conservative vis a vis libertarian vis a vis religious affiliation or non-affiliation very interesting and important. If you would like to continue this conversation via e-mail, I am damon at tulane dot edu.
    Best Regards,

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