Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Social conservatism & religious conservatism

The New York Times profiled this website today. Dan Riehl responds:

This article is a lot of hogwash and it causes me to wonder if these specific views of Heather Mac Donald and Razib Khan aren’t driven more by a reactionary response to organized religion, or a God concept, than by a clear understanding of conservatism.

As a child, Razib Khan spent several weeks studying in a Bangladeshi madrasa. Heather Mac Donald once studied literary deconstructionism and clerked for a left-wing judge. In neither case did the education take. They are atheist conservatives — Mr. Khan an apostate to his family’s Islamic faith, Ms. Mac Donald to her left-wing education.

“A lot of religious conservatives say, ‘You can’t be conservative because you don’t believe in God,’ ” said Mr. Khan, 34, who was raised in New York and Oregon but whose grandfather was an imam in Bangladesh. “They say I am logically impossible, and I say, ‘Well I am possible because I am.’ “They assert your nonexistence, and you have to assert your existence.”

Saying one has to be a social conservative to be conservative is not the same thing as saying one must believe in God. Social conservatism is an appreciation of what will happen to the civil society in the face of a collapse of traditional institutions and values. Invariably, the society declines. We see it in single-mothers, otherwise broken families, crime and individuals unwilling to take responsibility for themselves and elsewhere.”

Dan Riehl just assumes that religious conservatism and social conservatism are identical. I said religious conservative for a reason. As I told the reporter for The New York Times, the reason that Secular Right exists in part is because too often right-wingers who are not religious are assumed to be libertarian. We are not necessarily libertarian. I have broad sympathy with many aspects of social conservatism personally, and daresay some of us here at Secular Right are more vigorous in our skepticism of diversity, multiculturalism, and mass immigration than  many religious conservatives.

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  • Lorenzo from Oz · February 19, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Looking through Riehl’s post, and the supporting comments, after having enjoyed yours and Heather MacDonald’s writings over the years, I can confidently state that your position represents historical and intellectual literacy and theirs does not.

    The sheer ignorance of Classical Roman and Athenian history, and of Japanese history, just for starters, is striking in the presumption that everything falls apart without Christianity.

  • dangph · February 19, 2011 at 8:08 am

    I’m trying to understand what “non-libertarian” entails when it comes to non-religious, non-libertarian, right-wing people.

    Does it mean people who are okay with using state power to enforce values, or does it mean people who simply hold conservative values?

    If it’s the latter, why can’t libertarians hold conservative values?

    Or do you mean something else? I’m just trying to work out what your part of the Venn diagram looks like.

  • CONSVLTVS · February 19, 2011 at 11:59 am

    As you know, the distinction you make I make as well. As a matter of logic, religion is not necessary for social conservatism. As a matter of fact, though, they often go together. It is hard work explaining to atheists on the Left or Christians on the Right why I see value in traditional institutions like marriage.

    Partly this is political tribalism (you’re either wearing our jersey or the other).

    Mostly the Left has experienced religious and social traditions as oppressive. I am atheistic regarding Christianity and agnostic regarding an unknown higher power. Why would I want to accept or sponsor oppressive traditional constraints?

    Tradition captures the experience of a people, and at least sometimes it represents a store of valuable insight about human nature. Of course existing institutions are not inevitably worthwhile, but some institutions are necessary. Attempting to re-make society along “rational” grounds, as if the tabula rasa theories were true, yields failure. People are not blank slates, and you have to be blind not to see that. For instance, it takes Leftist orthodoxy to miss the connection between crime and the breakdown of the family.

    In any event, it is extremely important for the writers of this site to continue articulating their virtually unique position.

  • Bootlegger · February 19, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    “For instance, it takes Leftist orthodoxy to miss the connection between crime and the breakdown of the family.”

    Or a Conservative’s distaste for data to know that this is a spurious relationship and both have the same causal factors.

  • Susan · February 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Here are two things you can’t do:

    1. Convince a fundamentalist Christian rightwinger that it’s possible to be an atheist/agnostic AND any kind of conservative at all.

    2. Convince a leftwinger (atheist or not) that there are sound fiscal reasons for social conservatism.

  • Tom Wilen · February 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    First all Atheists have to come out of the closet and then we will see that not so many Conservatives are really that religious after all. Have a look at Tom

  • J. · February 19, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Secular conservative per the SR gang seems to mean something like “is ok with mormons,” plus the usual Ayn Rand glibertarian politics. Or somethin’ like that. “Atheists/agnostics for Romney” doesn’t quite seem copacetic to some…

  • Author comment by mightyfrijoles · February 19, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    While I peruse the Internet, it appears that atheistic/agnostic/deistic conservatism is on the rise. I am a Ph.D. scientist. Science and religion are not well suited together. It can be done, but requires severe gyrations that I am not willing to do. I have no problems with justifying personal freedom and liberty and economic freedom outside a belief in God.

    I’ve been in hot water more than once saying that 🙂

  • Susan · February 19, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    For the religious right today social conservatism has two prongs: opposition to abortion for any reason and opposition to what they call “the homosexual agenda.” Heterosexual sex outside marriage seems to be okay, as long as the woman keeps the baby if she’s impregnated, which I suppose is why Bristol Palin has become the new avatar of Christian morality for the religious right.

    But the larger point, for the religious right, is that if you don’t agree with them on abortion and homosexuality, you’re not any kind of conservative at all–not a fiscal conservative, not a foreign policy conservative, nothing. Nada. Zip. My eyebrows went up today when I read, at NRO, a comment by Maggie Gallagher in which she stated flatly that if you supported abortion rights or gay rights, you were “a hardcore liberal Democrat” no matter what your position on defense, free markets, etc. might be.

  • RandyB · February 19, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    I was first attracted to this site from Ms. Mac Donald’s writing on City Journal disputing liberals’ faith-based policies on urban pathological behaviors, and Mr. Derbyshire’s refutations of faith-based love of “diversity.”

    I’m not THAT much of a conservative, though. I basically think that there are only two really important causes of poverty in America: single parenthood and illegal immigration. And I’m pretty much for anything that helps reduce them, including abortion and birth control for minors.

    I also don’t think anyone knows half as much about economics as some people think they do. Both Presidents Reagan and Clinton pushed through economic recovery packages based on completely opposite principles — and began decades of uninterrupted growth. What do you make of THAT?

    My basic political philosophy, is that I’m tired of having to choose between the party that transfers wealth to the idle rich and the one that transfers it to the idle poor.

  • Clark · February 20, 2011 at 5:19 am

    A certain strain of conservatism is skepticism towards simple solutions to complex problems that disrupt the status quo. I think that sense of skepticism or “have more than ideology behind change” is a pretty strong sense of conservatism. I don’t think it means we have to accept the populist jingoism that some conservatives have latched onto. (Which often is simply replacing liberal overly simplistic answers with their own overly simplistic answers – as several comments here demonstrate I think)

    I’m not sure what this strain of conservatism ought be called. However it certainly does seem to be at odds with the current populist movements, however sympathetic it might be to actual positions. (Say the fiscal conservatism sometimes present among the tea party – one can’t help but be glad someone else is for fiscal responsibility but question their odd perceptions of the facts by many of that movement)

  • BruceM · February 20, 2011 at 5:36 am

    Can we please stop using the word “multiculturalism” as a euphemism for “tolerating islam”? I’m so damn sick of that.

    We shouldn’t tolerate any religion, but especially islam (toleration of islam is the pinnacle of tolerating intolerance). Show me a tolerant muslim and I’ll show you an atheist playing a practical joke.

  • cynthia curran · February 20, 2011 at 6:43 am

    Well, the Republcian party is sold to teh belief that social conservatisim always equals fiscal conservatism. This happen because the party was once popular in states like Veromnt and somewhat in Ca in 1970 was switch to the south and Texas known for high poverty rates among blacks and in the case fo Texas hispanics. A non-religious conservative like Heather McDonald can seen the disadvatages by basing the Republican Party in the poorer south-particualary MS and LA that religious conservatives are unable to see. MS had the highest usage of foodstamps according to the Wall Street Journal which is embrassing for Conservatives at 20 percent and Minnesota at 8 percent. A sligthly blue state is far less on the dole than a red state.

  • Linda · February 20, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    The “Christian Conservatives” would have everyone believe that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written virtually side-by-side; in fact they are frequently published this way. The question is why would they want to ignore the 11-year gap? The answer is that the Constitution is a secular document. But, if we can be convinced that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written side-by-side, then an argument can be made to declare the United States of America a “Christian nation”, which opens the door for a biblical lens to view the Constitution through; even though the separation of church and state is an undeniable concept that is spelled out in the Constitution, and further explained by Thomas Jefferson in his letters to two separate Baptist organizations (see here and here).

    Christians will argue that the intent of the founders was to create a Christian nation because Christianity was (and still is) the major religion present in the United States. But, if that was their intent, why not spell it out? Why would the founders specifically state that there will be “no religious test for office” (Article 6, paragraph 3 of the Constitution), or that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” (1st Amendment)? The answer is obvious: the founders wanted to create a secular government. Not only did they not state that there was a federal religion, they specifically banned it! In fact they went even further than that, and banned congress from making any law that RESPECTED the establishment of a religion, meaning that not only would the government not create a religion, or declare a national religion, but that the government would not even formally recognize religions.

    Of course, the secular argument has a few problems: for instance, it is traditional for congress to open with a prayer, which would seem to contradict the Constitution itself, and honestly, it does. So, how can this be explained? Hypocrisy, plain and simple. If there is one constant in the history of this nation, then hypocrisy is it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both outspoken critics of slavery, yet both owned dozens of slaves. No one today will argue in favor of slavery, even though several of the founders owned them. Yet, there are many who would argue for legislation based upon the bible or other religious texts rather than the Constitution simply because most of our founders identified themselves as Christians.

    In the Declaration of Independence, there are three mentions of a higher power, they are: “Nature’s God”, “Creator”, and “Divine Providence”. None of these three terms are innately Christian, and the use of the terms is as an authority to separate from Great Britain. The United States of America is mentioned at the end of the document, but as I stated earlier, this was an idea; the United States of America was not formally established until the Articles of Confederation were ratified. Independence from Great Britain, and thus international recognition as a nation was not achieved until the end of the Revolutionary War by the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3rd, 1783.

    In the Articles of Confederation, there are three references to a deity. Two of those references are “in the Year of Our Lord”, which was the common language for stating a date, not a reference to any divine inspiration for the government being created. The third reference is found in Article 13, the first sentence of the second paragraph states: “And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union.” “Great Governor of the World” is an obvious allusion to a higher power, but not specifically to a Christian deity.

    Nonetheless, the “Great Governor of the World” is the authority that is used to create the government under the Articles of Confederation. So if the United States of America were still governed by the Articles of Confederation, the Christians would have some proof that we were founded as a “Christian Nation”. But as The Articles of Confederation created a very weak and very flawed government which soon failed, it can be stated that the government formed as a direct result of the Declaration of Independence was a failure. The founders of our current government knew that several changes needed to be made.

    Within the Constitution, there is only one reference to any higher power, and that reference is in the date, which as stated above, was the common way of declaring a date “in the Year of Our Lord”. That reference is at the end of the Constitution, just before the signatures. There are several very important differences between the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation.

    The first, and largest difference, is that the Constitution does not claim any authority from a higher power, whereas both the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation did. Instead, the Constitution boldly proclaims “We the People” as the authority to create the government and all that comes with it. This runs in direct contradiction to the “Christian Conservative” claim that our rights are not given to us by the government, but by the Christian God (which was not specifically mentioned in any founding document). This puts a large hole in the “Christian Conservative” argument, but the Constitution does not stop there.

    Within the Constitution, there are three specific bans on the co-mingling of religion and government. These bans are found in Article 6, paragraph 3, and in the 1st Amendment. The Constitution clearly states that there shall be “no religious test for office”, at either the federal or state levels, and that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This suggests very strongly that one of the many lessons that the founders learned from the Articles of Confederation was that the mixing of religion and government does not work.

    So while in principle I agree with “restoring America” as the Tea Partiers and Glenn Beck advocate, I say let’s restore it to a government run by the laws set forth by the Constitution. While we’re at it, let’s restore the Pledge of Allegiance to how it was before 1954, when the words “under God” were added. We can also take the words “In God We Trust” off of our currency. Those words were added first to coinage in 1864, on the two-cent coin, long after the founders died. Paper money wasn’t tainted with those words until 1957. Our national motto “In God We Trust” wasn’t adopted until 1956. All of the laws ordering these changes are unconstitutional because they all respect the establishment of religion. Let us abide by the Constitution, and restore the secular nation that the Founders intended.


  • cynthia curran · February 20, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Also, the us census shows Texas growing in the poor south which is the heavy hispanic region which even has shantytowns. Maybe, the Republicans show not push growth for gtowth sake. New Jeresey grows slow but it still has a lower poverty rate than Texas except for Newark and Camden. Granted, the cost of housing and living is higher and its cold. But the Southern approach is leaving to greater poverty in the US period-a mass increase in international immirgation and some jobs going overseas or labor being imported. Maybe, low taxes are not just the solution as Republicans want if you have alot of poor minorities or underclass whites.

  • Altered States · February 21, 2011 at 2:05 am

    There is one commonality among all people of religion. And, that is, they all assume to know what God is thinking on any given subject, and will sometimes kill you if you disagree. I can’t think of any other concept (the God concept) that elicits such profound arrogance and self-righteous rage. This sort of behavior is nothing more than wishful thinking and at the same time comes from an inner “knowing” that the God that created us has abandoned us here on planet Earth and left us here to figure things out for ourselves – which is an impossibility. Hence the self-righteous rage and mass delusion.

  • Tyler · February 21, 2011 at 4:47 am

    One could argue that a relgiious conservative is not necessarily a conservative at all, as many (but not all) wish to impose their faith-driven morals on society; this simply does not coincide with notions of libertarianism – it doesn’t even coincide with Constitution of the United States.

  • Altered States · February 21, 2011 at 9:54 am

    To Linda;

    Thank you for clarifying the difference between our secular documents that created this great nation and the faux form of Christianity we have today that is being espoused by the most un-Godly, twisted, perverts we have in politics. The people who state that we need to get back to “That Old Time Religion” that made this nation great couldn’t be very much further removed from the teachings of the man we call Jesus the Christ. I’ll bet that most of them haven’t read that Book (the Bible) in years – if ever. But, to hear them speak, you would swear that they were the supreme authority on Christianity.

    As far as who the Founding Fathers were and what they believed, most would be surprised to learn that they were Free Masons or, at best Deists, and decidedly NOT Christians. In fact Thomas Paine said the following about religion:
    “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”. Thomas Paine also said: “It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man”. Again, Paine: “There is scarcely any part of science, or anything in nature, which those impostors and blasphemers of science, called priests, as well Christians as Jews, have not, at some time or other, perverted, or sought to pervert to the purpose of superstition and falsehood”. I could go on and on but, I think you get my point.

    For further study I refer you to this link to help clarify the true intent of our Founding Fathers in regard to their God consciousness.

    What we do as a nation in foreign affairs, by supporting all these dictators around the world, is anything but Christian. So, if this nation wants the title Christian, it better start acting the part. But, now that I think of it, I can’t remember any nation in history that was truly Christian. So, maybe that’s our excuse for not acting Christ like. We don’t have anything to draw on as an example to live by. And, please, don’t tell me the Vatican qualifies as a Christian nation. If you do, you will force me to dredge up all the filth and slime that the Roman Catholic church has bequeathed to the world.

  • Tim · February 22, 2011 at 5:04 am

    There always have been, and probably always will be, religious cranks allied with conservative policies. But in the last 30 years the Republican Party (which is the de facto conservative party in our two party system) has embraced, and been transformed by, the religious right. This may have solidified the party’s grip on certain sectors of the populace, but it has also made it impossible for a secular conservative to get a hearing inside the tent. In fact, it has become increasingly embarrassing to be associated with the Republican Party, not only because of the in-your-face religious aspect of it, but because the party now panders to a whole range of ignorant views: birthers, creationists, deniers of scientific evidence, etc. What will it take to reclaim conservatism from the know-nothings? Do we need a third party?

  • Stephen · February 22, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    From Altered States:
    “As far as who the Founding Fathers were and what they believed, most would be surprised to learn that they were Free Masons or, at best Deists, and decidedly NOT Christians”

    In contradiction to this, I point to:
    How Christian Were the Founders?

    From bottom of the third page:
    “There is, however, one slightly awkward issue for hard-core secularists who would combat what they see as a Christian whitewashing of American history: the Christian activists have a certain amount of history on their side. ”

    From the bottom of the fifth page:
    “A third expert, Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor of justice, law and society at American University who has written extensively on First Amendment issues, stressed, in his recommendations to the guideline writers about how to frame the revolutionary period for students, that the founders were overwhelmingly Christian; that the deistic tendencies of a few — like Jefferson — were an anomaly;”

    And at the bottom of page 6 (on Christian activists):
    ‘Or, as Brookhiser rather succinctly summarizes the point: “The founders were not as Christian as those people would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”’

    I think the separation of Church and State had more to do with the example of the English Reformation than the Founders’ religious beliefs.

  • Susan · February 23, 2011 at 3:38 am

    The religious right appears to be trying to retrofit the Founders as hoot-‘n’-holler fundamentalists. At least that’s the impression I get.

  • J. · February 24, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Linda @ 2- 20/ 10:04.

    Well stated. That said, it’s not overly difficult to criticize protestants and catholics and to point out how they are out of step with the secular principles of the USA. However, secularists (conservative or not) seem rather hesitant in terms of taking on orthodox jews, muslims, or …mormons for that matter. Maher goes on ad nauseum about hick baptists (not without some reason), or catholics. But I’ve yet to hear him poking fun at the ancient superstitions of the Old Testament, or mormon cult, or criticizing Ramadan excesses. Secularism must be equal opportunity, or it’s mostly meaningless.

  • Clark · March 1, 2011 at 6:49 am

    You’ve never heard Maher going on about Mormons? He does this all the time.

    I certainly haven’t seen any hesitation by many secularists especially New Atheists to taking on Mormons. Mormons seem to be the ideal target since they get it from both sides: secularists and fundamentalist Christians.



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