Do We Exist?

Mr. Hume:  Concerning your correspondent:

Modern rationalistic secularism is clearly a product of the left. (Think of the origin of the terms left and right.)

That is only half true. How many of the French revolutionaries were unbelievers? Robespierre was not; Danton I don’t know; … someone should do a tally. Their religious commonality was a hatred of the arrogance, power, and corruption of the established church. That left plenty of room for other religious opinions.  And the Right they were opposing was not, to put it mildly, congruent with American conservatism.  Your correspondent may, of course, be a clerico-monarchist; but if so, he is in even more of a minority among American conservatives than we are!  (And would have been in an even smaller minority among our nation’s Founders.) 

Contrariwise, leftists have often been driven by religious impulses:  I wrote an essay about one such here, and there is a partial list of prominent Christian Socialists here. The Labour Party in England was founded by Nonconformists, not atheists, and drew great strength over many decades from the chapel-goers of Wales and the English North. Your correspondent has an extraordinarily simple-mimded conception of the relationship between religion and politics.

I really don’t think this is a disputable contention.

He’s saying this to a chap traveling under the pen-name “David Hume”?

I think someone can be a person of the right and have a secularist tic.

Tic, schmic.  What your correspondent thinks fails the reality check. There are many people like us:  people who cherish limited government, fiscal restraint, personal liberty, free enterprise, self-support, patriotic defense of the homeland and its borders, love of the Constitution, respect for established ways of doing things, pride in Western Civilization, etc., and yet who cannot swallow stories about the Sky Father and the Afterlife, miraculous births and revivifications.  What does the one set of things have to do with the other?  We are secular conservatives. What else are we? Figments of our own imaginations?

I don’t deny that Derbyshire is generally a man of the right.

Jolly decent of him.

But there can not be a secular right in mass,

What does that mean? I doubt anyone on this site imagines that the American right will swing secular next month, next year, or in the next decade. I certainly don’t. There are lots of us though, and that’s a mass.

… because the right opposes secularism almost by definition.

I think this means:  “Most Americans who think of themselves as on the right are hostile to secularism.” That is true, but there is a great deal more to be said. Here is David Frum saying some of it in Dead Right:

[T]he conservative movement is secular to its toes. Even those conservatives, like [Irving] Kristol and Pat Buchanan, who believe that excessive secularism is a genuine problem, believe it for secular reasons. They expect that a more devout America would be a better-behaved America … But … American churchgoers will almost certainly disappoint the intellectuals who trust in them … Fundamentalists will go on giving conservative Republicans their votes, but it is not from them that the conservative movement of the future will draw its ideas.

Conservative movers and shakers, David implies — correctly, I believe — are in the position of the magistrate in Gibbon’s famous quip about the various modes of worship in ancient Rome, which “were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” To say this does not preclude individual cases of the magistrate himself being religious, as (for example) Pat Buchanan certainly is.

There can not be a secularist right (or secular conservatism) in mass in America because America is a particularisticly Christian country …

See above. I have already agreed that secular conservatives are not going to take over American conservatism any time soon. We just want to play in the band.

I’d add another point. America’s “particularly Christian character” is a thing of the moment. In my lifetime (which hasn’t been that long) I have seen two deeply Christian nations lose their religion. I mentioned one of them up above: Wales, whose chapels were packed every Sunday in my childhood, and were centers for communal life in a way few American churches are. Those chapels are now derelict. In 2001 they were closing at the rate of one per week.

Ireland, too. Forty years ago there was hardly a more religious nation in the world. The 1951 census showed only 64 atheists in the entire Republic of Ireland. Nowadays the single-digit stats for Irish religion concern vocations:  just nine priests were ordained in 2007 (when 160 retired or died).

I have no idea whether this de-religioning will happen here. Neither does your correspondent, though. I see no strong reason to think it couldn’t happen here. Modernity is a force not to be underestimated; and religious particularism is a shaky foundation on which to build an enduring political philosophy.

… conservatives, if they are actually conservatives …

Here we go with the litmus test.  What next, public self-criticism sessions?  I smell ideology.  Where’s my garlic?

… should seek to conserve that particularity.

Well, religious conservatives perhaps should, but I don’t see what’s in it for the rest of us.

Secularism is virtually the opposite of Christian particularity.

Hard to argue with that. But wouldn’t, say, Judaism, also be “virtually the opposite of Christian particularity”? How about Hinduism? Back to the Founders:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.  (Jefferson, Notes on Virginia)

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