TAG | conservatism
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.
Anyway, please read Charlie’s piece. It’s terrific.
The American Atheists, not so much.
I was always one skeptical of the “Arab spring.” My skepticism is modulated and qualified. I think Tunisia has the prospects of becoming a normal nation-state to a far greater extent than Libya, for example. But I was of the opinion that these “revolutions” were mostly elite-driven, and, that they didn’t address the reality that there’s a major structural problem with any possible economic growth in these autarkic economies. Whenever I brought up the example of Iraq as an example of what mass democracy in a Middle Eastern nation can do to religious minorities I would have people (often Western liberals) complain that this was too pessimistic, jumping the gun, while Egyptian commenters would accuse me of being delusional and not representing the reality.
My most pessimistic concerns have no arisen, thank god (though I think Syria is probably the “best” candidate for a major social meltdown in the wake of revolution because of its pluralism). But it has not been calm after the storm. The New York Times reviews the situation and hints at the tensions in Tunisia and Egypt, what is crystallizing in Libya, and the fears of minorities in Syria.
Societies are complex, contingent, and organic things. Just as human nature is not a “blank slate,” so a culture can not be reconstructed on totally different foundations de novo after a revolution. Even the most extreme attempts, such as that of Mao and Pol Pot, have failed in the long term. It is one part of human nature to be optimistic, and long too the upside of things. But another part is to be caution, worry, and yell “stop!” I’m not going to cease playing my part.
So argues Kevin Gutzman in There is No Authentic American Right – and a Good Thing, Too. In What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 there is some coverage given to the attempt by some early Federalists to create what might be termed a Tory party. They failed. In many ways both the pro-business and development Whigs and populist Democrats who crystallized during this period were liberal parties. Though it must be added my understanding is that most liberal parties in the world are generally clustered on the Right more than the Left in the public imagination (e.g., German Free Democratic Party).
Larry Arnhart is surely the best proponent of Darwinian Conservatism, and not just because he has a blog with the same name. In his view, an evolutionary biological account of nature properly captures our intellectual and moral capacities, the emergence of consciousness itself, and grounds a political and cultural conservatism by demonstrating our natural limits as political and social beings. Does this count as a species of postmodern conservatism? It might fail as appropriately conservative since nature is made all too dynamic–if our current human condition is nothing other than the latest stage in a train of evolutionary developments then on what basis can we privilage this one as the final one? Does Darwinian conservatism require an End of History, some kind of final eschatology? Also, does evolutionary biology do justice to the real human person as we experience ourselves or is there something about our characteristic resistance to nature and eros for transcendence that eludes Darwinian categories of explanation? If the heart of postmodern conservatism is an experiential realism that rescues the real human person from modern abstraction, Darwinian conservatism might fail by identifying human nature too closely with our bodily selves, with nature as such. So is Darwinian Conservatism insufficiently postmodern and insufficiently conservative?
Nature is dynamic, but very fast evolution works on the order of tens of generations. I perceive political orders as the possibilities of the present. What is conservative in one age varies from what is conservative in another age. Why demand of Darwinian Conservatism what one does not demand of conservatism writ large? Darwinian Conservatism does not do justice to the human individual, but it is much more serviceable in addressing human populations, what we might term societies. The true interlocutor which Ivan is looking for is “Psychological” or “Cognitive” Conservatism, which might focus on individuals as natural phenomenon which develop over a lifetime.